Superstar Billy Graham, a professional wrestler whose extravagant presence — 22-inch biceps, dyed blond hair, feather boas, tie-dyed tights and an outrageous gift of gab — influenced the style of future stars like Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura, died on Wednesday in Phoenix. He was 79.
The cause was sepsis and multiple organ failure, said Keith Elliot Greenberg, who collaborated with Graham on his autobiography. Graham’s longtime use of steroids had weakened his bones, requiring at least six hip replacements, and made him sterile. He also received a liver transplant in 2002 after contracting hepatitis C.
“If you look at those that came after him, more people have patterned themselves after Superstar Billy Graham and become a success in this business than probably anybody,” Triple H, the superstar wrestler whose birth name is Paul Levesque, said at Graham’s induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. “And when it comes to bodies, there was nobody, and I mean nobody, that could touch the Superstar.”
Graham, who was born Eldridge Wayne Coleman, had been an evangelist, a bodybuilder who bench pressed as much as 605 pounds, a defensive end in the Canadian Football League, a debt collector and a bouncer before turning to wrestling in 1970.
He conceived his outlandish ring character with the help of a former wrestling villain, Dr. Jerry Graham, who suggested that he dye his hair blond with a bottle of Clairol.
“Dr. Jerry said it was part of the deal,” Graham told The Daily News of New York in 1998. “He said if I was going to make it in wrestling, it would be as a blond.”
Coleman also adopted his mentor’s surname (which was, of course, also that of the Rev. Billy Graham, whom he admired). And for extra panache he added “Superstar,” which he took from the Broadway musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
His sculpted 6-foot-4, 275-pound physique was the centerpiece of a package that also included the blond hair and goatee, the tights and earrings, the leather fringes and boots, as well as significant wrestling skills and a boastful style that he borrowed from Muhammad Ali, who himself had lifted it from an earlier braggadocious and flamboyant wrestling star, Gorgeous George.
“I took some old stuff and made it new,” Graham told The Daily News. “I wasn’t some old wrestler. I was the first guy to look and pose like a bodybuilder, dropping to one knee, and do a bicep shot, showing off those 22-inch pythons.”
Graham found early success. He won the National Wrestling Alliance’s tag-team championship with Pat Patterson in 1971 by defeating Ray Stevens and Peter Maivia, whose grandson is the wrestler and actor Dwayne Johnson. Graham and Patterson held the title for eight months, losing to a duo that included Rocky Johnson, Dwayne’s father.
Graham wrestled for a few organizations over his career but earned his greatest renown with the World Wide Wrestling Federation, now the WWE. In 1977, he defeated the W.W.W.F.’ s popular champion, Bruno Sammartino, for the heavyweight title.
“Using cunning gleaned from years of ring experience, not to mention a dirty trick or two,” The Baltimore Sun reported, “Graham pinned Sammartino when the referee did not notice he was using a ring rope for leverage while atop the champ.”
In the scripted world of professional wrestling, Keith Greenberg said, Vincent J. McMahon, who ran the W.W.W.F. (and whose son, Vincent K. McMahon, is the WWE’s executive chairman), told Graham which day he would wrest the title from Sammartino and which day he would lose it, about a year later, to Bob Backlund.
Graham, whose drawing power swelled as he defended his title, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the elder McMahon to let him extend his reign.
“Billy, my mind’s set on Backlund,” he told Graham, according to his autobiography, “Superstar Billy Graham: Tangled Ropes” (2006). “I’m committed.”
Graham retired in 1987, at age 44, after his first hip replacement — an indication of the physical toll steroids had begun to take on him.
Eldridge Wayne Coleman was born on June 7, 1943, in Phoenix. His father, also named Eldridge, worked for a local power company but shifted to a desk job because he had multiple sclerosis. His mother, Juanita (Bingaman) Coleman, was a homemaker.
Graham recalled being beaten by his father, even as his father’s body weakened and his grew stronger.
“If I hesitated or stumbled, he beat me down,” Graham wrote in his autobiography. “So I stayed down.”
He became enamored of weight lifting as a youngster, and in 1961 he won the West Coast division of the Mr. Teenage America bodybuilding contest. At about the same time, he became a born-again Christian and began to speak at small churches and tent revivals, reciting the Sinner’s Prayer, speaking in tongues and laying on hands. The patter of his sermons later became familiar to wrestling fans when he was interviewed.
But his ministry didn’t pay well, and he gravitated to football. In 1968, he played briefly for the Montreal Alouettes of the C.F.L. After being released, he worked as a debt collector for Las Vegas casinos but was considering an offer to wrestle.
“I guess they asked me because I’m strong and tough and fast and have the showmanship,” he told The Canadian Press. “And I’m handsome. It makes sense.”
His wrestling odyssey began in 1970 under the tutelage of Stu Hart, a Canadian promoter and trainer. When Hart first glanced at Graham, he stared at his biceps. His reaction, Graham wrote, was “God … um … uh … those are the biggest arms I’ve … uh … ever seen.”
“The man was just salivating,” Graham recalled. “How could I not love this guy?”
For the next 17 years, until his retirement, those arms, and the rest of his body, attracted enormous attention, inspiring Hogan, Ventura and others to carry his example to greater heights.
“There wouldn’t be a Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura without the in-ring success and trailblazing showmanship of Superstar Billy Graham,” Ventura, who was elected governor of Minnesota in 1999, said on Twitter after Graham’s death.
Graham, who lived in Phoenix, is survived by his wife, Valerie (Belkas) Coleman; his daughter, Capella Flaherty; his son, Joe Miluso; and four grandchildren. His marriages to Shirley Potts and Madelyn Miluso ended in divorce.
After his retirement, Graham became a critic of the steroid use that first made and then destroyed his spectacular physique. In 1991, he testified in the trial of George Zahorian III, an osteopath and surgeon, who would be convicted of selling illegal anabolic steroids to wrestlers. Hobbling to the witness stand, Graham testified that he had purchased large quantities of steroids from Zahorian in the 1970s and ’80s.
“They’ve ruined my life,” he testified. “They’ve ruined my wrestling career.” He added: “I was addicted to it. When you go off steroids, you get a tremendous depression. Steroids make you feel so good, so confident, make you feel like you can conquer the world. It’s almost a plague in wrestling today.”