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Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair Reflect on the Life of Wrestling Legend ’Superstar’ Billy Graham

‘He was decades ahead of his time.’

“Superstar” Billy Graham set the blueprint for a professional wrestling stardom.

Graham—whose birth name was Eldridge Wayne Coleman—died Wednesday of organ failure and infections. His spirit will live on in pro wrestling, where he will forever remain a trailblazer.

An innovative approach helped Graham lay the foundation for the modern-day industry. His success was attained through chiseled looks and an abundance of charisma. He was among the first six men to win the WWE—then WWWF—championship. Though the inaugural champ, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, was captivating, no one before Graham possessed the rare mix of larger-than-life features that made him so distinguishable. He played the role of a villain, but he spoke in sound clips and memorable catchphrases, both of which have become beloved trademarks of pro wrestling.

“His clothes were considered outlandish back then,” says wrestling legend Ric Flair. “He had the earring. He gave those incredible interviews. He had that body that was second to none. ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham influenced a whole generation of wrestlers, myself included.”

While Graham also starred for the AWA and NWA, his enduring memory  took place in WWE. A stark juxtaposition of superstardom was on display when Graham defeated the legendary Bruno Sammartino for the title in April 1977, then again when he lost it to new company babyface Bob Backlund in ’78. Though Backlund effectively held the belt until ’83, a flashy, quick-witted and muscular template was set. It took some time for it to develop and expand, but the wrestling business took immeasurable strides forward when massively popular babyface Hulk Hogan—who followed the model set by Graham—became champion in ’84.

“He was decades ahead of his time,” says Hogan. “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.”

After Graham dropped the belt, he feuded with the late, great Dusty Rhodes, a battle between two of wrestling’s most charismatic figures of all time. His work left a lasting influence on the next generation of stars. Hogan, Flair, Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Scott Steiner are all part of that long and distinguished list, yet it represents only a fraction of those affected by Graham’s work. His style, color and personality inspired countless pro wrestlers, many of whom became massive stars and captured that timeless essence in their work.

“The first thing that connected with me about ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham was the physical aspect,” says Hogan. “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.”

Before becoming the industry’s most revolutionary star, Hogan would spend his Tuesday nights nervously seeking a moment with his favorite wrestlers.

“I wasn’t even in the wrestling business yet, but I’d look for the wrestlers at the Imperial Room on Armenia Avenue,” says Hogan. “Every Tuesday night after the matches, all the wrestlers would go there because it was the best country Western bar in Tampa. Billy Graham would sit on one side with all the bad guys, and Dusty Rhodes, Mike Graham and Steve Keirn would be on the other side. I finally got the nerve one night to talk to Billy Graham. It lasted only a moment, but I can still remember my excitement.

“When I got into the wrestling business, I was there the night he had the bench-press contest against Jos LeDuc. I rode to the Bayfront Center, which was a venue in St. Petersburg, and I was in the car with Sir Oliver Humperdinck and Billy Graham. I was shaking like a leaf the whole time. Years later we became friends. We became close, though our friendship had its share of twists and turns over the years. We made peace after we both found God. He was a marvelous person, and I’m grateful I had the chance to know him.”

Like most pro wrestlers from that era, Graham had constant battles with Vincent K. McMahon. The younger, bolder McMahon operated his business far differently than his father, and, while he has been criticized for a multitude of offenses over the years, his vision has altered the entire industry. Graham and McMahon shared an on-again, off-again relationship, which was reflective of the times.

Graham operated in a different era. His bulked-up look was the result of steroid use, which he would brag about in promos. That clearly affected the look of pro wrestling, especially into the 1980s, when steroids ran rampant. An impressive physique remains an integral part of the industry in the modern era, and that—as Paul “Triple H” Levesque articulated during Graham’s 2004 induction into the WWE Hall of Fame—was ushered into pro wrestling by “Superstar.”

“Look at the reaction following his death and the outpouring of love, that’s because of the impact he had on people,” says Flair. “He certainly had that impact on me. For me, I thought he was the greatest thing going. Him and Dusty Rhodes were my two favorites.

“His look changed the whole perspective of the business. ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham—often imitated, never duplicated.”

Yet that does not mean duplication wasn’t attempted. Flair’s imitation was the sincerest form of flattery. Many others tried, too. But they learned that Graham simply could not be copied.

“I tried to be just like Billy, but there’s only one Billy,” says Flair. “I have so many fond memories. I was his chauffeur, driving him around in that white El Dorado with red interior. I loved that. His wife was the first woman to ever bleach my hair. He and Dusty were the two biggest influences on me, ever, in this business. They were so damn charismatic. It was a gift.”

Unlike life, pro wrestling lives on. Fortunately for fans of “Superstar,” there is no expiration date for his enduring influence on the industry.

“He left a lasting footprint,” says Hogan. “The rest of us, we’re putting our footprint after his. He’ll live on forever in wrestling.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.