By Mike Mooneyham
July 27, 2003
Less than a year ago Superstar Billy Graham stared death in the face. Plagued by various health problems for the better part of two decades, his most serious bout with the deadly hepatitis C virus had led to cirrhosis and threatened to take the wrestling legend’s life.
Once considered one of the world’s strongest men, Graham was fading fast. In recent years he had lost four inches from his 6-foot-4 frame because of a collapsing lower spine. His liver was rapidly deteriorating, and doctors bluntly told him that he had a matter of months to live. His only hope was a transplant, but chances seemed slim since a list of friends and family members had been disqualified as potential living donors. All he could do was pray for a miracle.
That miracle came in the form of a message last Oct. 18 when Graham, who only a week earlier had been placed atop a liver transplant list, received news that an organ had become available from a 26-year-old woman who had died in an automobile accident in Tucson, Ariz.That was nine months ago. Today Graham has a new lease on life. He trains in the gym daily and feels better than he has in many years. His comeback has been nothing short of miraculous.
“I was a goner for sure,” says the 60-year-old Graham, the once-flamboyant “man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour,” who served as the prototype for such performers as Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Hulk Hogan. “There’s no doubt about that. It’s incredible. Thank God, I’m a new man now.”
Graham, whose real name is Wayne Coleman, will accomplish the second part of his amazing comeback when he makes an appearance at WWE’s Summer Slam pay-per-view Aug. 24 in his hometown of Phoenix. More significantly, the event will mark the first meeting between Graham and Vince McMahon in more than a decade. WWE Confidential cameras will be rolling backstage to capture what surely will be an emotional reunion between McMahon and the man he idolized for many years.
“The last time I saw Vince was on the Phil Donahue show under bad circumstances,” Graham recalls. “This meeting will go over a lot better. It’s been a complete turnaround, which is a miracle in itself.”
Graham, who retired in 1988 from a profession that left his body ravaged after two decades of steroid abuse, made new headlines in the early 90s as one of the main figures involved in an investigation into the then-World Wrestling Federation. While a number of current and former wrestlers alleged the WWF hierarchy indirectly encouraged its performers to take steroids, it was Graham who came to the forefront and charged that McMahon openly pushed the illegal muscle-enhancing drug.
McMahon was eventually acquitted in a much-publicized trial. Graham would later renounce the charges, admitting that he made the claims as a result of bitterness over being released by McMahon several years earlier.
The severed relationship took a dramatic turn when the WWE owner called Graham a year and a half ago during the company’s stop in Phoenix. The exchange was a cordial one, and McMahon invited Graham to come down to the show at the America West Arena. Graham, whose health had become progressively worse, thanked McMahon for the offer, but told him that he just wasn’t feeling well enough to make the trip.
“Yeah, if you came down here, I’d have to put you in the main event,” McMahon joked to Graham, who held the World Wide Wrestling Federation title during the late 70s while working for Vince’s father, the late Vincent J. McMahon.
The call helped pave the way for a restored relationship between the two men. “It’s really a miracle how it’s turned around,” says Graham.
Not only will McMahon introduce Graham to a whole new generation of fans who have only heard about his legendary exploits, McMahon also has agreed to publish Graham’s autobiography due out in September 2004, which will provide a huge boost to the book.
“It’s a huge blessing for me. It’ll let the young folks know who I am.” says Graham. “Vince didn’t have to forgive me and publish my book. No way. But he did, and I’m grateful.”
WWE Confidential will take its cameras to Phoenix on Aug. 22 to shoot a special segment on Graham that will air on a future edition of the Saturday night show. The surgeon who conducted Graham’s liver transplant will take the crew to the operating room of the Mayo Clinic and display pictures of Graham’s old liver and provide an insight into the procedure. The show also will plug Graham’s book.
Graham, who once bench-pressed 600 pounds and trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger during the heyday of Gold’s Gym in Santa Monica, Calif., says he’s looking forward to renewing ties with former mat colleagues, and meeting a number of new admirers that include Triple H, Scott Steiner, Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar.
“Even though Scott Steiner has been around for a long time, I’ve never met him. Vince told me Triple H is a big fan of mine. It’s going to be a real fun day there meeting the guys and getting introduced to a new generation of fans.”
Graham also is looking forward to seeing old friends such as Ric Flair, with whom he hasn’t crossed paths since a wrestling fans convention in 1992. He says he’s not surprised by Flair’s longevity and his ability to stay on top.
“Ric’s a phenomenon. He’s got the real magic.”
The two first met shortly after the Nature Boy’s pro debut in 1972 in Minnesota.
“Ric used to ride with me and Ivan Koloff to many of the towns,” recalls Graham. “A lot of times I would stay over in a town and let Ric drive my car back to Minneapolis. He would pick me up at the airport the next morning in my car. He gave me all of my weights for my apartment so I could train a little bit when I first got there. He also introduced me to a friend of his who made home gym equipment, so when I got my house we went over and had the guy make a ton of equipment for my home gym. Ric and I were real close from the very beginning.”
Graham admits it’s not out of the question that he may be included in next year’s 20th anniversary of Wrestlemania, to be held at Madison Square Garden, the site of the original event. It’s also where Graham holds a record that likely will never be duplicated – selling out the Garden 19 out of 20 times.
Graham’s last WWE appearance was at the Garden in 1988. Two years earlier, while visiting with McMahon in his office in Stamford, Conn., he vividly remembers the WWE czar looking straight into his eyes and telling him, “Superstar, the only problem you had in pro wrestling was that you were ahead of your time.”
Seventeen years later, Graham will take another bow.
“It’s about restoration – restoration of friendships that were severed, restoration of health, the deliverance from drugs,” says Graham. “It’s a miracle that’s taking place. Whatever doors are opened, I’ll walk through … I have a real good take on it now because I’ve been through a life and death scenario. I’ve put everything into perspective.”
– The Undertaker (Mark Calaway) missed Smackdown tapings last week due to the death of his father, Frank Calaway, Tuesday at the age of 76.
– George’s Sports Bar and Grill, 1300 Savannah Highway, will air the Vengeance pay-per-view tonight beginning at 8 p.m. Cover charge is $5.
Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected] He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation,” published by Crown. For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at 937-6000, ext. 3090.