Legendary wrestler 'Superstar' Billy Graham dies at 79
One of pro wrestling’s most influential figures is gone.
Wayne Coleman, better known as “Superstar” Billy Graham, has died at the age of 79, his wife Valerie announced on Facebook on Wednesday night.
Coleman was known for his impressive physique, platinum blond hair, colourful ring attire and memorable promos. The “Superstar” character served as inspiration for the likes of Hulk Hogan, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, and Scott Steiner.
Coleman had been in deteriorating health for the past several months and had been hospitalized since January.
Inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004, Coleman was an active competitor from 1970 to 1988. After a brief Canadian Football League career, Coleman trained under Stu Hart at the Hart Dungeon in Calgary. Coleman adopted the Billy Graham name after the famous televangelist.
Following two years working in the National Wrestling Alliance’s San Francisco territory, Coleman joined Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association in 1972 where the “Superstar” gimmick was born. In his time with the Minnesota-based promotion, Coleman worked with the likes of Gagne, Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher.
Coleman would go on to bounce around the NWA and Vince McMahon Sr.’s Worldwide Wrestling Federation before returning to the WWWF in 1977. That April, he would defeat the promotion’s top draw and babyface Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World Championship at Madison Square Garden.
As champion, Coleman defended his title at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens on a number of occasions against Stan Stasiak, Dusty Rhodes and Bob Backlund among others.
Despite being presented as a clear heel, Coleman began receiving support from the crowd as champion, but that didn’t deter McMahon from going ahead with his plans to use Coleman as a transitional champion with Backlund, a clean-cut babyface, defeating him for the title at MSG in February of 1978 to end a nine-month reign. He would leave the promotion not long after dropping the title.
He would return to the now-WWF in 1982 with a brand-new look and gimmick. Considerably leaned out, Coleman had shaved his head and grown a black moustache and began to wear karate pants as part of a new martial artist character, effectively abandoning the “Superstar” gimmick. Upon his return, he would once again feud with Backlund, but it would be short-lived with Coleman exiting the promotion in 1983.
Coleman made a final return to the promotion in 1986, once again as “Superstar” Billy Graham, but this time as a babyface. By this point, his time in the ring had begun to take a physical toll, with Graham undergoing a hip transplant and dealing with chronic ankle issues. He would wrestle his final match in November of 1987 against “The Natural” Butch Reed. As he transitioned into retirement, Graham began to work as a television announcer, but he would once again leave the company in 1989.
Outspoken about his steroid use over his career, Coleman sued the WWF and disgraced physician Dr. George Zahorian in 1992, claiming that he was forced to use steroids to keep his spot in the company. His lawsuit was unsuccessful, largely due to the admission that he had been regularly using steroids prior to joining the company.
Though inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004 as part of a class that also included Ventura, Harley Race and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan after a brief reconciliation with the company following a 2002 liver transplant, Coleman’s relationship with the promotion and the McMahon family remained acrimonious until his death. In 2010, Coleman publicly spoke out against Linda McMahon’s ultimately unsuccessful Senate campaign in which she lost to her Democratic rival, former Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal.
Coleman is survived by his wife, Valerie, whom he married in 1978, and two children from a previous marriage.