“I lift weight plates. I eat T-bone steaks. I’m sweeter than a German chocolate cake. How much more of me can you take?”
When talking about the exaggerated numbers in pro wrestling history, “superstar” Billy Graham has to do it to be in a conversation. He was supposed to be a despised rule-breaker, but after hearing him talk, fans never really vilified him. At the peak of his popularity in the 1970s, Graham sold out 19 shows at Madison Square Garden, the original mecca of pro wrestling.
If you’re a current pro wrestling fan and haven’t heard of Graham, then you actually have and just aren’t aware. Possibly the greatest wrestling star of all time, Hulk Hogan took many of his personalities from Graham. The blond goatee. Go to the ring in a feather boa. The focus is on the physique. He used the word “brother” liberally in his interviews. If you closed your eyes and heard Prime Graham and Prime Hogan, you could hardly tell them apart.
“What will you do when the superstar jumps on you?” -Superstar Billy Graham
“What are you going to do when Hulkamania goes wild on you?” – Hulk Hogan
Graham’s influence can be seen on the all-time greats – Hogan, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes and Jesse Ventura – as well as countless others who never reached superstardom.
“Billy was the most influential wrestler of the 1970s,” said wrestling journalist and historian Dave Meltzer, author of the book Wrestling Observer Newsletter, called. “Of course he was the prototype of the Hulk Hogan character, the Jesse Ventura character, but so many others like Dusty Rhodes copied his interview style and colorful attire and they were the guys who carried the business.” Even Chael Sonnen in MMA copied his interviews directly.”
Graham died Wednesday at the age of 79. WWE called.
He achieved his greatest fame with what was then the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), now known as WWE. Briefly struggling for promotion in 1975, Graham returned in April 1977, defeating heavyweight champion Bruno Sammartino. He traveled the world as a champion, fighting the likes of Jack Brisco, Pedro Morales, Rhodes and Mil Mascaras.
“He was a prototype of what Vince McMahon saw as a future top wrestling attraction,” Meltzer said. “Billy wasn’t the first wrestler to use steroids, nor was he the biggest abuser of them, but he was just as connected to them as he was [much as] almost everyone and later became a vocal speaker against their use, and at times this vacillated as he progressed through different stages of life.”
Graham spoke openly about steroid use among wrestling’s biggest stars in a 1992 article published by The Times, catapulting it into mainstream media for the first time.
“It was sad for someone who turned so many people into fans in the first place to see his life after wrestling, with his health issues, financial issues and mood swings,” Meltzer said. “So many people owe a large part of their success to him.”
Graham held the title until February 1978, losing to Bob Backlund. Graham was an offshoot, but fans responded positively to him, so much so that Graham asked WWWF owner Vincent J. McMahon, his son Vince’s predecessor, to make him a good guy. McMahon, looking at Graham in his tie-dye outfits, feather boas and goatee, refused, unable to see him as anything but a villain.
Disappointed, Graham left the WWWF and fought for other organizations such as the AWA and NWA before returning to what was then the WWF in 1982. He fought for the promotion until 1983 and came back again in 1986 and knees were shot. WWF had him attacked ringside by a wrestler to explain his absence, and even showed graphic images of his hip surgery on TV in hopes he might come back as an inspirational babyface or good guy. By this point, however, his body was a total mess, which Graham later attributed to steroids. His wrestling career was over, but it lives on thanks to his countless imitators.
But maybe we should let Eldridge Wayne Coleman, born June 7, 1943 and forever known as superstar Billy Graham, have the last word even in death.
“I am the pet of women, the regret of men. what you see is what you get And what you can’t see is even better.”