WWE Hall of Famer ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham Dies at 79

Wayne Coleman, a professional bodybuilder-turned-wrestler whose bleached-blonde hair and loud-mouthed personality “Superstar” Billy Graham helped define the flamboyant, muscular, fight-picking role model for later ring stars including Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura, died Wednesday. He was 79 years old.

WWE reported his death but did not list a cause. Mr Coleman underwent a liver transplant in 2002 after contracting Hepatitis C and suffered multiple hip replacements and other health problems resulting, he said, from “massive doses” of steroids that he used a large part of his career.

At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, with a 56-inch chest and In 22-inch biceps he dubbed “pythons,” tie-dye tights, feather boas and trash-talking interviews, Mr. Coleman headlined blood-soaked fights at New York’s Madison Square Garden. York in the 1970s. A former teenage evangelist who toured nationally, he said he chose a name that paid homage to Southern Baptist speaker Billy Graham and the hit rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar “.

In wrestling promos and interviews, Mr. Coleman liked to call people “brother,” an endearing term often used at gospel revival meetings, but in the ring he played the bad guy and liked to taunt his competitors the way the Muhammad Ali boxer. and previous wrestler Gorgeous George.

“I took old stuff and made new stuff,” Mr. Coleman told the New York Daily News. “I was not a big old wrestler. I was the first guy to look and pose like a bodybuilder, drop to one knee and do a bicep kick, showing off those 22 inch pythons.

Describing himself as a born exhibitionist, he said he had done whatever was necessary to help attract the public and make the matches fun for ticket buyers. The result was media attention, with invitations to appear on late-night television talk shows.

Mr. Coleman found his greatest notoriety in what was then the World Wide Wrestling Federation, where he was pitted against grapplers such as Dusty Rhodes and Harley Race. In 1977, he says, he was “named” to beat Bruno Sammartino for the federation world championship title, part of the narrative decided in advance.

Along the way, Mr. Coleman said, he met and mentored two rookie wrestlers, James Janos and Terry Bollea, who would go on to become major stars as Ventura and Hogan, respectively, as the wrestling federation – now known as the name of World Wrestling Entertainment – ​​became a national federation. Essential television in the 1980s.

Both Ventura and Hogan studied Mr. Coleman’s flamboyance in and out of the ring, with Hogan also calling the contestants “brother” and referring to his muscles as “pythons”.

“(Former Federation owner) Vince McMahon said superstar Billy Graham was 20 years ahead of his time,” Paul Levesque, better known as wrestler Triple H, said at the award ceremony. Mr. Coleman’s induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004. “If you look at those who followed him, more people were inspired by superstar Billy Graham and became a success in that industry than probably no ‘anyone.”

Eldridge Wayne Coleman was born in Phoenix on June 7, 1943. His father drove telephone poles into the ground for the local power company, but developed multiple sclerosis and was reassigned to light office work. His mother became his father’s guardian.

His father, reputedly jealous of his son’s size and dynamic athleticism, beat him for minor infractions, until one day Wayne was able to rip the leather bracelet off his father’s fingers. His mother also hit Wayne, using a brick against his head, she once said, “because he was too big to hit with anything else”.

To escape the misfortune of his home life, he poured his energy into bodybuilding and first made a set of weights from spare parts.

He also became a standout shot putter and discus in high school but, inattentive in class, dropped out during his freshman year. He idolized muscleman Steve Reeves and became involved in competitive weightlifting. In 1961, he won the West Coast division of the Mr. Teenage America bodybuilding contest.

His photo in the newspaper caught the attention of a couple who were having a Christian revival tent meeting in Phoenix, and they invited Mr. Coleman to speak. “At the end of the sermon,” he later said of the minister, “he asked those who wanted to be born again to come forward and kneel down.”

Mr Coleman said he became a ‘born-again Christian’ after attending a Christian revival tent meeting and then joining a group that lectured in small churches across the country – introducing himself like a pious voice of modern youth who also had a mountainous physique that was hard to ignore.

“I didn’t know what charisma meant,” he told the New York Daily News. “People were attracted to me because of my sincerity. When a really strong Christian minister speaks, we say he is anointed by God. The true minister has an exceptional bond with the faithful.

But the ministry did not pay well. Additionally, Mr. Coleman said his growing vanity was slowly driving him away from religion, as he found himself sleeping with a lot of women. He competed in powerlifting, arm wrestling and strongest man competitions, at one point linking up with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Mr. Coleman boxed briefly and, in the late 1960s, played in the Canadian Football League – while working as a debt collector in the offseason. When Mr. Coleman tore his Achilles tendon, his grilling career was over. A friend encouraged him to consider wrestling and he soon joined a Canadian team led by wrestling coach Stu Hart before becoming a star in the World Wide Wrestling Federation.

Although Mr. Coleman was widely praised by his colleagues, he never had the same visibility – or the same paychecks – as those who followed him. His in-ring career was largely over by the mid-1980s, his body hampered by decades of injury and steroid abuse.

Mr Coleman said he tried to extort money from McMahon by claiming on Phil Donahue’s talk show in 1992 that he had seen WWE officials abuse children. He later retracted the allegation and noted in his 2006 autobiography, “Tangled Ropes” (written with Keith Elliot Greenberg), that it was “my most shameful moment, not only in the wrestling profession, but in my life”.

Mr Coleman told Christianity Today he considered taking his own life before rededicating his life to Jesus in 1994. He became active in ministry work and was outspoken about the dangers of steroids, drugs and the alcohol. (He was among the prominent wrestlers who testified in the 1991 trial of George Zahorian III, an osteopath and surgeon who was convicted of selling illegal anabolic steroids to federation wrestlers.)

Mr. Coleman’s first two marriages, to Shirley Potts and Madelyn Miluso, ended in divorce. In 1978, he married Valérie Belkas. He had two children from his second marriage, but a full list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.

After his religious conversion, Mr Coleman said he stopped watching wrestling because of the vulgar language and demeaning attitude towards women. But he remained proud of his work in the ring.

“I’m the original 22-inch pythons, bro,” Mr. Coleman told the Orlando Sentinel. “They say imitation is the best form of flattery. A lot of these guys wouldn’t be where they are today without superstar Billy Graham.

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