Eldridge Wayne Coleman (June 7, 1943) is an American fine artist and retired professional wrestler. An iconic figure in professional wrestling, he worked under the ring name "Superstar" Billy Graham and gained renown for his tenure as the World Wide / World Wrestling Federation champion in 1977-78. As an award-winning bodybuilder he was also a training partner of former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is godfather to Graham's daughter). Graham is best remembered for revolutionizing the interview and physique aspects of the pro wrestling business as well as for his highly charismatic performance style. Some of his proteges have included wrestling megastar Hulk Hogan, former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and the "Nature Boy" Ric Flair.
Wayne Coleman was born into a working-class family in Phoenix, Arizona on June 7, 1943. His father, of English descent, was from Mississippi, and his mother, of mixed German and Cherokee ancestry, was from Arkansas. As a schoolboy Wayne showed talent at drawing and design and developed a lifelong interest in fine art. A naturally athletic child, he was attracted to weight lifting and visited his first gym at age 10. At age 11 he was making his own training weights from pipes and coffee cans filled with cement. As a teenager he was an avid reader of bodybuilding magazines, his idols being Steve Reeves and John Grimek. He also became a devout Christian and was a successful Assemblies of God preacher in early adulthood. His habit of incorporating feats of strength into his sermons made him very popular with youth congregations.
Coleman was a shot put champion in high school and dabbled in amateur and professional boxing, participating in the 1959 Golden Gloves, before getting into football. He played professional football for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes suiting up for 5 games in 1968. In between football engagements he worked as a bouncer in various nightclubs in Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles.
In 1961 Wayne was the winner of the West Coast division of the Mr. Teenage America bodybuilding contest (Frank Zane winning in the East Coast division), and his photo appeared soon after in Bob Hoffman's Strength and Fitness magazine. Coleman began to train intensively in 1968 at Gold's Gym in Santa Monica, where he worked out with Dave Draper, Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger. At this time he was able to bench press 605 lbs (the current world record, held by his friend Pat Casey, was 616 lbs). One of Coleman's photo shoots with Schwarzenegger featured that year in Joe Weider's Muscle Fitness magazine.
When Wayne Coleman decided to become a professional wrestler two years later, he had the revolutionary inspiration of marrying wrestling to the bodybuilding art he had perfected, thus becoming the ultimate style setter in the business and the prototype of today's bulked-up stars. As a wrestler he weight-trained continuously, and in 1975 prepared for the WBBG (World Body Building Guild) Pro. Mr. America contest in New York, where his enormous 22 inch biceps (which as a wrestling gimmick he dubbed his "pythons" and "guns") won first place in the Best Developed Arms division. At the peak of his wrestling career in 1977, Coleman (now "Superstar Billy Graham") weighed 275 lbs. From 1978 he gained more weight and in 1980, at an impressive 325 lbs, he took part in the World's Strongest Man competition in Great Gorge, New Jersey. Graham finished fifth in this contest (won by future pro wrestler Bill Kazmaier) in spite of injuring himself in one of the events. On December 6 of the same year as Wayne Coleman he hosted the U.S. Invitational Powerlifting Championship in Phoenix, Arizona, attracting Dave Draper to the event
Debut and National Wrestling Alliance territories (1970–1972)
While being scouted by the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders, Wayne Coleman was encouraged by professional wrestler Bob Lueck to train with Stu Hart for the latter's Stampede Wrestling promotion. Abandoning his football ambitions, Coleman trained under Hart in Calgary before debuting on January 16, 1970 in a match with Dan Kroffat. After wrestling briefly under his real name, Coleman traveled back to the United States in May, wrestling for a few months with Dr. Jerry Graham, Brick Darrow, Rick Cahill and Ron Pritchard in Arizona before he and Jerry Graham joined the National Wrestling Alliance's Los Angeles promotion (run by Mike LeBell) as a tag team the following August. He changed his ring name to Billy Graham, as a tribute to the famous evangelist of the same name. Later, while wrestling in Championship Wrestling from Florida, the name would serve both as his ring name and to make him the (kayfabe) youngest brother of Jerry and the other Graham Brothers (Eddie and Luke).
In late December 1970 Graham went north to join Roy Shire's NWA San Francisco promotion, working with Pat Patterson (his tag-team partner) and Ray Stevens, both of whom he would later acknowledge as his models and mentors in the business, as well as with Cyclone Negro and Peter Maivia. The popularity of the big rookie with the hippie gimmick was such that his photograph made the front cover of the January 1971 issue of The Wrestler magazine, with the caption "Billy Graham: He talks peace but raises hell!" Graham's nearly two-year run in central California included a stint wrestling in Hawaii in February and March 1972. It was during his Californian period that Graham developed his pre-match arm wrestling angle, encouraging public challenges to his title of "Arm Wrestling Champion of the World".
American Wrestling Association (1972–1975)
On October 2, 1972, Billy Graham premiered in Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association (AWA) based in Minneapolis, and it was here that he took on the moniker "Superstar". As he toured the north-central states and adjacent areas of Canada, Graham's popularity rose significantly during his feuds with Gagne and such grappling greats as The Crusher, The Bruiser, Wahoo McDaniel, Billy Robinson, Ken Patera and Ivan Koloff, the latter becoming his tag-team partner. Another of Graham's opponents during this time frame was Ric Drasin, a bodybuilder and wrestler who was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's weight training partners. By this time, Graham was integrating into his performances not only arm wrestling contests but also weightlifting challenges (mainly involving ex-Olympian Ken Patera) and provocative posing routines. Superstar Billy Graham featured with other AWA performers in the 1973 movie The Wrestler, starring Ed Asner.
Superstar Billy Graham became an overnight sensation in the AWA because of his long bleached-blond hair, the flamboyant, colorful ring attire, his witty braggadocio and improvised rhymes (partly inspired by Muhammad Ali) but above all for his remarkable build, the likes of which had not yet been seen in professional wrestling. The fabled "Superstar" physique was a paradox, counterbalancing a massive musculature with height and leanness, resulting in the imposing spectacle of brute strength and sheer power combined with lightness, grace and speed. Because of his unusually strong cranial features he was also arguably the most spectacular "bleeder" in pro wrestling, as can be seen from photos and footage of him wearing the "crimson mask", with blood also streaming down his heavily muscled torso after "blading" (self-cutting on the forehead) at the climax of a major bout. This charismatic formula of mass, speed, emotion and even blood created unprecedented "heat" (high drama) in the wrestling matches of the time, filled large auditoriums and stadiums night after night and made "Mr. Technicolor" (as he called himself) one of the most popular performers ever to step into the ring.
In September and October 1974 Graham took leave from the AWA to join the IWA's "Super Wide Series" tour of Japan, where he fought such local stars as Mighty Inoue, Animal Hamaguchi and Rusher Kimura. Following his return from Japan, Superstar Graham formed a tag team with Dusty Rhodes. He left the AWA and returned to the NWA in May, 1975, signing up with Red Bastien's Dallas-based promotion for five months and taking the local "Brass Knucks" title from Mad Dog Vachon on August 8. For most of October that year, Graham worked for the Mid Atlantic promotion in North Carolina, standing in for Ric Flair, who had just been injured in a plane crash.
World Wide Wrestling Federation and NWA (1975–1976)
Graham debuted in the World Wide Wrestling Federation on October 25, 1975, in a tag-team match at the Boston Garden in which he and Spiros Arion defeated WWWF champion Bruno Sammartino and Dominic De Nucci. At this time The Grand Wizard became the Superstar's manager and the pair became wildly popular through their eccentric and vitriolic pre-match interviews, many of which were televised. This first stint with the promotion continued until June 1976 and included several spectacular and highly publicized battles with Sammartino in Madison Square Garden. The February 2 match drew a crowd of 27,000 spectators. Another major feud at this time was with Polish muscleman Ivan Putski.
A brief contract with the NWA in Houston, Texas followed from June to August, 1976, after which Superstar Billy Graham, now at the peak of his muscularity, went on his second tour of Japan, this time accompanied by Ivan Koloff. His confrontations with Antonio Inoki were the highlights of this Japanese run. After returning to America, Graham and Koloff made an unsuccessful attempt to launch their own wrestling promotion in Southern California. In November 1976, on the invitation of Dusty Rhodes, Graham joined the NWA promotion in Florida, beating Rhodes for the Florida heavyweight title on November 22 at the West Palm Beach Auditorium. His work in this period included occasional visits to St Louis, Missouri, where he took on NWA champion Harley Race.
Return to the WWWF (1977–1978)
April 1977 saw Superstar Billy Graham back in the WWWF after an agreement with promoter Vincent J. McMahon. Graham defeated Bruno Sammartino for the World Heavyweight Championship on April 30, 1977, in Baltimore, Maryland. The title win set a precedent, as previous heels who had won the WWWF title would almost immediately lose it, serving as a conduit (or "transitional champion") between the reigns of fan favorites. Graham would go on to hold the title for nine and a half months; to this day, Graham's 296-day reign is the longest single world title reign of any heel in WWE history, with Yokozuna's second championship run and JBL's only championship run in a tie for second place (although CM Punk has held the title longer than all three, he began his title reign as a babyface. Punk was a face for 246 days and a heel for 188 days). Both before and during his championship, photos and articles about Superstar Billy Graham appeared frequently in The Wrestler, Wrestling Review, Inside Wrestling and other popular American wrestling magazines distributed all over the world.
During his reign, the new champion wrestled across America and even in Japan (February, 1978), facing well-known challengers such as former champion Bruno Sammartino, Jack Brisco, Dusty Rhodes, Pedro Morales, Don Muraco, Mil Mascaras, Strong Kobayashi and Riki Chōshū. One of Graham's most celebrated matches took place in 1977 in Miami, Florida at the famed Orange Bowl football stadium against then-NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race in a WWWF Championship vs. NWA World Heavyweight Championship unification match which ended in a bloody one hour time-limit draw. Although a defeat by Bob Backlund, who was to embody the virtuous junior "all-American" wrestler, had been written into Graham's current contract with the WWWF, Graham suggested another outcome to Vincent J. McMahon: that Ivan Koloff should turn on him, thus starting a feud that would make Graham a fan favorite. McMahon refused because of the handshake deal to make Bob Backlund the new fan favorite champion and he did not want to go back on his word. It was also unheard of for a counter-cultural character like Graham to be a fan favorite, because McMahon and many old promoters saw Graham as a confirmed heel and therefore a negative role model. Graham eventually "lost" the title to Bob Backlund on February 20, 1978.
One of Graham's most renowned feuds as champion was with Dusty Rhodes, which culminated in a Texas Bullrope match, and his confrontations with Rhodes continued after Graham had been forced to drop the belt to Backlund. These sensational battles displayed better than any others Graham's other major contribution to the evolution of American pro wrestling: the radical way he changed the narrative or story line of the spectacle. In the "pre-Superstar" period, the soap opera that televised exhibition wrestling had become was all about the forces of good pitted against the legions of evil: good guys or "babyfaces" combating bad guys or "heels". With the aesthetic priorities he had already imported from art and bodybuilding, Graham instituted a new kind of battle: physical perfection and unbridled daring challenging ordinary brawn and cautious fair play. In this new scenario the paradoxical "heel champion" required the charismatic quality of beauty as well as extraordinary strength and courage, hence the need to look his best and to cultivate a lawless style of fighting. It was in his epic and bloody duels with the happy-go-lucky unchiselled heavyweight Dusty Rhodes, the humble plumber's son alias "The American Dream", that Superstar's classical persona was at its most spectacular. Rhodes himself, a long-time friend of Graham's, would recall these bloodbath matches with the Superstar in 1978 as among the most exciting and memorable of his career.
As times were changing, wrestling fans were also making Graham a popular figure on their own — even Roberta Morgan's 1979 kayfabe book Main Event had to admit that, "Although he is a rule bender, [Graham] has managed to stay very popular with the fans, probably because of his skill, strength, and colorful personality" — but the era of explicit and intentional "cool heels" did not come until the 1990s with the likes of the New World Order (nWo), D-Generation X, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and The Rock. As a headliner in Madison Square Garden, which was the WWWF's primary arena throughout his heyday, Graham sold out 19 of 20 shows. Though other wrestlers such as Sammartino and Backlund had more career sellouts at Madison Square Garden, Graham's 95% percentage is easily the highest in company history. Graham has been cited – particularly by McMahon's son and heir Vincent K. McMahon – as a pioneer far ahead of his time. WWE sanctioned literature such as Graham's biography has frequently cited the elder McMahon's decision to press ahead with Backlund's planned title reign, as a conservative move. According to wrestling lore, not only would this delay the expansion and transformation of the WWF until the mid-1980s "Hulkamania" era, but it would also have negative personal consequences for the man who had raked in such momentous earnings for the WWWF.
Back to the NWA territories (1979-1982)
The unforgettable post-championship battles with Rhodes were a virtual swan song for the "Superstar". Disillusioned by the premature loss of his belt, Graham left the WWWF in December 1978 and accepted an offer to join Paul Boesch's promotion in Houston, Texas, lending himself out for other NWA events in California and Florida as well. In April 1979 he embarked on his third IWA tour of Japan, where he wrestled the same men he had worked with in 1974. His following NWA engagements in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Texas became fewer and rarer until he stopped wrestling in April 1980. Graham wrestled only two matches (one in Canada and one in Los Angeles) in the whole of 1981. There was a temporary revival of activity in January 1982 with his fourth tour of Japan. By this time the former champion had an emaciated look, having lost a lot of weight and suffering the negative side-effects of his former steroid use.
Comeback in the World Wrestling Federation (1982-1983)
Graham returned to the now renamed World Wrestling Federation in September 1982. He debuted in the promotion with entirely new look: lean, with a bald head and mustache, and sporting black karate pants. This gimmick was not considered successful, and Graham later stated that he wanted to retire the "Superstar" character out of frustration with Vince McMahon Sr. for not letting him turn babyface.
He soon challenged Backlund for the WWF Championship, but was unable to win the title. In his scripted response, he destroyed Backlund's championship belt by literally tearing it half. He left the promotion in May 1983.
American Wrestling Association and the National Wrestling Alliance (1983–1986)
Graham signed up with the AWA again in October 1983, wrestling mainly in the Mid West. By the following year he had regained his earlier body weight and in April 1984 he began his NWA run with Championship Wrestling from Florida, first as a member of Kevin Sullivan's Army of Darkness and later as the group's opponent after he tired of Sullivan's abuse of his valet Fallen Angel and stopped Sullivan from beating her at ringside. From November 1984 Graham joined Jim Crockett Promotions (Mid-Atlantic Wrestling) in New Carolina, working for Paul Jones in his feud against Jimmy Valiant. It was during this stint, in the summer of 1985, that that Graham bulked up further, and returned to his tie-dyed look, growing a full goatee and dyeing the mustache blond. Hulk Hogan paid homage to elements of this look, with his villainous "Hollywood Hogan" character in World Championship Wrestling in the 1990s (as did Scott Steiner with his "Big Poppa Pump" character around the same period).
Return to the WWF (1986–1988)
Graham returned to the WWF one more time in June 1986, now as a fan favorite. After a few appearances, it was diagnosed in August that he required a hip replacement. The footage of Graham's hip replacement surgery was shown on WWF TV on September 27 as a means of promoting his comeback. He returned in mid-1987 and worked a heavy schedule from mid July to late October, notably feuding with Harley Race and Butch Reed. However, the strain on his hip as well as his ankles also deteriorating proved to be too much. In Syracuse NY on October 27 (Thanksgiving Day) One Man Gang supposedly retired him from active competition permanently with a running splash on the concrete floor after Graham's win over Reed. In this incident, aired on the November 14, 1987 episode of Superstars, Don Muraco came to Graham's aid, and Graham subsequently became Muraco's manager. Superstar Billy Graham's very last wrestling match, also against Butch Reed and at 44 years of age, actually took place on November 7, 1987, in St Louis, MO. The WWF announced that Graham was scheduled to wrestle in the main event in the first-ever Survivor Series, but Muraco took his place since Graham had now retired. Over the next year, in between bouts of surgery, Graham worked for the WWF as a commentator.
- Wrestlers managed
- "The Real American"
- "The True Spirit of America"
- "Billy Graham"
- "Superstar" Billy Graham
Championships and accomplishments
- Championship Wrestling from Florida
- Continental Wrestling Association
- NWA Big Time Wrestling
- NWA Brass Knuckles Championship (Texas version) (3 times)1st title win was April 4, 1975 Houston, TX 2nd title win was on two dates. Texas had 3 promotions working together. Fritz Von Erich had the title change on August 5, 1975 Dallas, TX Paul Boesch also wanted the title change on his card. August 8, 1975 Houston, TX 3rd title win was January 18, 1980 Houston, TX
- NWA San Francisco
- NWA World Tag Team Championship (San Francisco version) (2 times) – with Pat Patterson1st win on January 7, 1971 Sacramento, CA TV Tapings 2nd win on February 13, 1971 San francisco, CA
- Pro Wrestling Illustrated
- World Wide Wrestling Federation / World Wrestling Entertainment
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards