On May 17th, 2023, Eldridge Wayne Coleman Jr passed away. While his given name won’t strike a chord with wrestling fans the name ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham would.
Graham’s passing also signified the passing of a generational talent. But in order to understand who Graham became was, it’s important to reflect on his humble beginnings and know that he was a victim of domestic abuse. He was born into a working-class family and was able to use his strength to put phone poles into the ground while working for a power company.
Before that, he began to show passion for weightlifting began as early as the age of 8. From there, that passion for weightlifting led to a following in bodybuilding. But for aesthetically how much Coleman was developing it was his faith that was also a part of who he was. He became a Christian during his teen years and would combine his growing strength during his sermons. Coleman was beaten by both of his parents – his father because of jealousy for how his body looked, and his mother because she could.
“He was decades ahead of his time. When I saw him, he was a bad guy, yet he drew you to him like a magnet. He looked like a superhero, but when the good guy put his fist up and acted like he was going to punch him in the face, Billy Graham would drop to his knees and start begging and pleading.”
“I modeled ‘Hollywood’ Hogan after that. Watch Hogan-Sting from WCW, and you’ll see a lot of the way Billy Graham carried himself in the ring. Even as a babyface, I did that, too. He was really something special.” – Hulk Hogan on Superstar Billy Graham’s place in wrestling history
Despite the challenges that followed him in his home life, Coleman was an athlete. Whether it be track and field, boxing or even professional football, it seemed like Coleman’s athletic skills were where he excelled. He even played in the Canadian Football League at one point playing for the Calgary Stampeders and Montreal Alouettes. Coleman would even work as a bouncer at nightclubs as well.
In the early 1960s, Coleman won bodybuilding competitions and even trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He would train at the famed Gold’s Gym (easily one of the most popular gymnasiums of the last century). A couple of years after being successful in bodybuilding, Coleman decided to pursue professional wrestling. When he did make that decision, it would be merging professional wrestling with his love of bodybuilding that would become the anthesis of the ‘Superstar’.
He would train under Stu Hart in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. But it wasn’t until he began to team up with Dr. Jerry Graham that Coleman would go from wrestling under his name to taking on the ‘Graham’ last name as well. But he didn’t do it as a tribute to Jerry, but rather out of respect to televangelist Rev. Billy Graham.
Jerry would then encourage him to dye his hair blonde, and when they were all in Championship Wrestling of Florida, Billy Graham would be booked as the brother of Jerry, Eddy, and Luke. But part of what made Billy Graham so hated were his arm wrestling challenges that would draw heat time and time again. His brash and arrogant nature rubbed fans the wrong way because he could back up everything he said.
Graham would travel from competing for the NWA San Francisco to Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association to Mid-Atlantic Wrestling. But it wasn’t until he joined the World Wide Wrestling Federation that Superstar Billy Graham was on display to a much larger audience. With famed manager The Grand Wizard by his side, Graham battled the likes of Domenic DeNucci and Bruno Sammartino.
It doesn’t even end there. He stood across the ring from Antonio Inoki and joined the NWA because of the ‘American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes. Graham defeated Rhodes for the Florida Championship and even battle Harley Race for the NWA World Heavyweight Title. He seemed to do it all and be it all.
It wasn’t until 1977 when Billy Graham became more of a household name. He did the unthinkable and defeated Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF Championship.
While he didn’t do so cleanly, it perfectly fight his character as Graham was absolutely despised by the fans in attendance. Graham’s reign saw him face challengers that stand alone to create a Hall of Fame just by themselves. The list of names included Sammartino, who challenged him unsuccessfully for the title, Jack Brisco, Dusty Rhodes, Pedro Morales, Don Muraco, and Mil Mascaras.
Graham would leave the WWWF in December of 1978. Part of that reset came to him adding to his skillset and keeping a relatively low profile despite competing sporadically over the next few years.
When he returned to the WWWF it had been rebranded the WWF, and instead of answering to Vince Sr. it would be Vince Jr. that he would have calling the shots. But this time the look that long had been synonymous with how Graham was would be replaced with a martial arts attire and a heel turn as he destroyed then champion Bob Backlund’s World Title in the process. He did have a title match against Backlund but was unsuccessful in his attempt to win the championship.
“The first thing that connected with me about ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham was the physical aspect. I was eight or nine when my father started taking me to wrestling in Tampa. Years later, when I started playing in a rock-’n’-roll band and my dad had retired from working construction, I remember telling him, ‘You took me to the wrestling matches. Now I want to take you.’”
“We were so excited to see the matches in Tampa, which were in the [Fort Homer Hesterly] Armory. I still remember ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham standing on the second turnbuckle and doing the double bicep. That was the moment for me. I told my dad, ‘I want to be just like that guy.’ I was already a huge Dusty Rhodes fan, but ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham took it to a whole new level.” – Hulk Hogan on first seeing ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham
When he departed the WWF in 1983, Graham’s next part of his career is one that I personally found the most intriguing as a departure from the Superstar character. He rejoined the AWA and then the NWA as part of Championship Wrestling from Florida. Graham became the first member of Kevin Sullivan’s Army of Darkness. Consequently, he later became their rival as he didn’t like the treatment of their valet, The Lock. Graham would then join Mid-Atlantic Wrestling and battled other notable names as well.
But it was when he rejoined the WWF in 1986 that fans were reminded of the look that made him a household name. Tie-dye and two-tone goatee was reminiscent of men such as Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan that replicated it afterward. The Superstar was indeed back! But the problem was while the will was strong, sadly, Graham’s body was weaker. That weakness was tied to needing hip replacement surgery which was worked into his return. So while he did make a brief return, he took on a managerial role. He would support Don ‘The Rock’ Muraco, and after being on commentary, Graham would leave in 1989.
Billy Graham faced the best wrestling had to offer and beat the best wrestling had to offer. In doing so, fans came to both loathe him and love him. His passing leaves a void that will never be filled. For fans that often forget wrestlers that made their stars who they are today, we forget those that meant so much to so many. He looked the part, walked the part, and talked the part. There will never be another Superstar Billy Graham, and you can believe that, brother.