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The pro wrestling and bodybuilding world is mourning the loss of one of its most influential “Superstars” with the news that Eldridge Wayne Coleman, known to millions around the world as “Superstar” Billy Graham, has passed away at 79 years of age. From his colorful ring attire to his larger-than-life work behind a microphone, Graham was a close friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and influenced countless future wrestling stars including Hulk Hogan.
Born in 1943, in Phoenix, AZ, Graham will be missed by fans and peers alike. M&F takes a look at the legacy of a legend.
“Before Billy Graham, those who worked in the WWWF/WWF/WWE were known as professional wrestlers,” said promoter and manager, Paul Heyman in a Twitter post on hearing the news of Graham’s death. “After Billy Graham left his mark, Vincent Kennedy McMahon declared everyone would be a WWE Superstar.” It’s the kind of mark on an entire industry that very few athletes can hope to achieve. In bodybuilding, he was a superstar too.
In 1961, a decade before adopting his famous ring name, Coleman won the West Coast division of the Mr. Teenage America bodybuilding competition. This led to media interest, and he soon found himself on the cover of Bob Hoffman’s Strength and Fitness magazine. The young gym goer became a regular patron of the original Gold’s Gym in Santa Monica, where worked out with, and befriended bodybuilding giants like Dave Draper, Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also appeared in Muscle & Fitness magazine, in a shoot alongside Arnie. In Keith Elliot Greenberg’s 2017 book; “Superstar Billy Graham: Tangled Ropes,” Graham said of his friendship with the Austrian Oak: “We became workout partners, and Arnold motivated me to push myself harder in the gym than ever before. He was there, along with Franco Colombu, spotting me when I bench-pressed 605 pounds. The world record at the time was 616, held by my friend Pat Casey.”
Two amazing physical specimens and good friends:Arnold Schwarzenegger and Superstar Billy Graham pic.twitter.com/i5BN4CnnEZ
— Rasslin' History 101 (@WrestlingIsKing) January 16, 2020
In 1975, by then five years into his professional wrestling career, Graham entered the 1975 Pro Mr. America competition promoted by the Bodybuilding Guild. He won in the “Best Developed Arms” division, with 22-inch biceps.
‘Superstar’ Billy Graham set the blueprint for professional wrestlers
After training in the Hart Dungeon of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Coleman made his pro wrestling debut in 1970 for Stampede Wrestling under his real name. Later, he changed his name to “Superstar” Billy Graham as a tribute to the well-known evangelist. A fast learner in pro wrestling, Graham adopted a loud, preaching style, blended with Muhammad Ali’s self-confidence, delivering his verbal promos with great charisma in order to captivate his enthralled wrestling fans. He also became iconic for his colorful wardrobe, and frequently used tie-die to stand out in comparison to the muted tones that pro wrestler’s tended to where at the time.
In Keith Elliot Greenberg’s 2017 book; “Superstar Billy Graham: Tangled Ropes,” the former pro wrestler and current WWE chief, Triple H explained the impact that the man who called himself “the women’s pet and the men’s regret” had on the business. “If I had to pick a wrestler and say, ‘This is the most copied guy in the business,’ I’d pick Superstar Billy Graham,” he told Greenberg. “He was the guy who broke the wall in terms of where you could go with entertainment. He paved the road for Hulkamania. He paved the road for all of us.”
While Graham would have an on-off relationship with WWE in later life, due to his criticism of storylines and his displeasure at seeing those with a lacking physique get airtime, among other gripes, he did accept his invite into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, and although he later asked to be removed from WWE’s HOF, his is still very much a member and had signed a new five-year legends contract with the WWE in 2021.
Graham retired from the ring in 1988, laying claim to a storied career that made him a three-time world heavyweight champion, including the WWWF title, which he held from 1977-78. However, after suffering with addiction and substance abuse through much of his professional career, Graham would need a liver transplant in 2022, and while it was a successful operation, he faced further health issues. In 2012, he was diagnosed with third-stage liver disease and cirrhosis and was hospitalized several times in recent years, finally passing away on May. 17, just three weeks before his 80th birthday.
There will never be another like the self-proclaimed “Man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour!” Rest in peace, Superstar.