By Mike Mooneyham
April 16, 2006
I was chatting with Jesse Ventura at a charity event a couple years ago in North Carolina when another gentleman caught the former Minnesota governor’s attention.
“Billy Graham sends his regards,” the chap relayed to Ventura.
“Is that the Reverend, or the Superstar? Ventura asked with his best deadpan expression.
Being that we were in Asheville, not far from the Montreat home of the world’s most famous evangelist, chances were better than average the greeting was from the Reverend. And although Ventura knows them both, he has close connections with the world-renowned wrestler Superstar Billy Graham, whose act he admittedly stole and parlayed into, well, bigger things than the wrestling business.
Ventura, who as a young fan in the ’70s was attracted by Graham’s outrageous tie-died ring attire, feathered boa and Muhammad Ali-inspired promos, bleached his hair blond back then and decided he wanted to be a pro wrestler. And after meeting his future wife at a biker bar and discovering that she was a wrestling fan, he told her he was Billy Graham’s brother, just to impress her.Ventura, though, wasn’t the only one who stole Superstar’s act. A lanky Florida youngster named Terry Bollea so idolized the Superstar that he broke into the business, patterned his style after the wrestler (including a prolific consumption of steroids along with the enormous 22-inch “pythons” poured straight out of a vial of Dianabol) and as Hulk Hogan rode his success to the pinnacle of the sports entertainment field. The list of would-be Superstars goes on and on.
But the shining star that was Superstar Billy Graham would fade long before its time. The story of one of pro wrestling’s most influential figures is superbly told in his autobiography, “Tangled Ropes,” and a companion DVD dubbed “20 Years Too Soon.” Both titles aptly describe Graham’s remarkable journey through the wrestling business.
As for the ring name Superstar Billy Graham, the real-life Wayne Coleman came by it rather honestly. Prior to becoming a pro wrestler, he found religion at a revival meeting, was ordained by a local Assembly of God church, and left home at an early age to bend steel, rip phone books in half and preach the Gospel on the back roads of America.
It was all part of a circuitous route to the wrestling business for Graham – from speaking in tongues and healing the sick on the evangelism circuit to bouncing at New York City strip clubs and competing as a pro boxer for one match at the old Madison Square Garden in 1966. There also were failed stints in the CFL and NFL, run-ins with the law and three marriages, mixed in with an assortment of jobs that included repo man and digging ditches for underground sprinklers (the latter less than a year after being WWWF champion).
His real passion, though, was pro wrestling, and Graham was one of the best practitioners of this athletic art form. Trained by the late Stu Hart at the infamous “Dungeon” in Calgary, Canada, the man then known as Wayne Coleman would later meet up with the notorious Dr. Jerry Graham (whom he was tossing out of a bar in Phoenix where he was working as a bouncer), bleach his hair blond and change his name to Graham. He took the name Billy because of his admiration for the famous preacher and christened himself Superstar after seeing the early ’70s rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The flamboyant Graham had an incredible, chiseled physique and was one of the world’s top bench-pressers during the late ’60s, training with Arnold Schwarzenneger, with whom he remains close friends today. Those muscles – dubbed the “most muscular arms in America” – would combine with a unique gift of gab to form one of the most colorful personalities in the history of the wrestling business.
The 341-page book is open and honest – brutally honest to the extent that Graham, now 62, may come across to many readers as a real-life heel who just couldn’t help himself. His portrayal, however, is more than offset by his better half, Valerie, who has stood by her husband’s side for more than 25 years and emerges in the story as nothing short of a saint.
To Graham’s credit, he doesn’t pull punches in the book, pointing out where he made mistake after mistake and not really complaining when the proverbial receipt eventually came due. He also is very candid about his addictive use of drugs, particularly steroids, that contributed to the dramatic collapse of his health over a 15-year period.
The man with the massive muscles and bulging biceps even sold his furniture at one point to subsidize his training and his supply of steroids after deciding to enter the World’s Strongest Man competition. Graham returned to his fix after checking into a Phoenix rehab center. “I was sitting in a chair, relaxing, when my hand suddenly reached for the phone. Automatically, I dialed the doctor I knew in Philadelphia and placed an order, like a dog returning to its own vomit,” Graham writes.
One theme resonates throughout the book, co-written by Keith Elliot Greenberg, and the DVD. Graham was, indeed, before his time. He was a sign of things to come. He could have – and probably would have – been in Hogan’s spot during the wrestling boom of the mid-’80s had his health not deteriorated and had Vince McMahon Sr. turned him babyface during his final World Wide Wrestling Federation title run in 1978. McMahon, however, opted for the talented but uncharismatic Bob Backlund despite the fact that fans were drawn to Graham.
Five years later McMahon’s son, Vince, pulled the trigger and replaced Backlund with Hogan, a larger-than-life character clearly modeled after Graham, who just happened to be the younger McMahon’s favorite wrestler.
What could have been is a constant theme throughout the book. Graham, whose body had been synthetically driven for more than two decades, met roadblock after roadblock. He eventually became a prisoner of a world he created through mood-altering chemicals and performance-enhancing steroids. While the results always proved disastrous, Graham seemed hell-bent on repeating the same mistakes yet expecting different results.
Graham was around long enough to solidify his place in wrestling’s hall of fame. He is credited with a record 19 straight sellouts at the storied Madison Square Garden. He was colorful, controversial, exciting and innovative. Always a lightning rod of controversy, he created a character that served as a prototype for a number of future stars.
Valerie, 15 years younger than Graham, has been her husband’s rock through his battles with depression, drug overdoses and a litany of serious health issues. Her love for her husband and her unwavering Christian faith sustained her through their times of trials and tribulation. She was only 19 when she met Graham while he was working in Florida and says she “was doomed to love him.”
As fate would have it, though, she would deal with her own health issues after shouldering those of her husband. Her hope of one day bearing children of her own was shattered last year when a checkup revealed a mass in her left ovary that doctors suspected to be cancerous. Her entire reproductive system was removed, but she was declared free of a disease that already had claimed her left breast.
“Valerie is still struggling with the harsh reality that she will never know what it is to be pregnant and give birth,” laments Graham. “She’s sometimes said that she’d rather have had a baby at 20 and died at 40 rather than live a long life without knowing the experience of carrying a child and giving birth. She feels a tremendous sense of loss and mourns for our children who never will be born.”
It comes as no surprise that Graham dedicates the book to his long-suffering wife.
“She is my soul mate and true companion, my covenant woman,” he writes. Not only do I dedicate this book to her, but my life as well. It was destiny that brought us together.”
The book is an emotional roller coaster with its highs and lows that takes readers through a gamut of emotions and leaves them both exhilarated and exhausted at the end. Steroid abuse wrecked Graham’s body, and hepatitis C damaged his liver. The good news is that Graham lived to tell about it.
Graham received a life-saving liver transplant, harvested from a 26-year-old accident victim, in 2002, and is now doing better physically and mentally than he has in years. Relationships with those in the wrestling business that had been strained and severed have been restored. WWE handled the DVD and book projects for Graham, and has welcomed him back, according him the legendary status he so richly deserves, and inducting him into its Hall of Fame in 2004.
Graham notes at the conclusion of his book that he has landed on solid ground. While he used to look at his life in terms of squandered probabilities, he now sees boundless opportunities.
“My story shows the power of the human spirit to triumph and rise like the Phoenix bird, out of the ashes and above the obstacles of life. The towering peaks and the hellish troughs of my life are proof that whatever a man sows, he will also reap.”
It truly is a story of the rise and fall and finally the rise again of a man who overcame insurmountable odds. It’s the stuff legends are made of.