He was the men’s regret and the ladies’ pet. The man of the hour, the one with the power and too sweet to be sour. With a striking bodybuilder physique, Superstar Billy Graham was one of the first to marry bodybuilding with wrestling. He accomplished the unthinkable in the ring and caused quite the stir outside of it, creating a snowball effect that almost landed Vince McMahon in prison.
"This is a story of life and death and health; it’s not so much a pro wrestling story. This goes way beyond wrestling, football or any other sport," Graham would once say. He couldn’t have been closer to the truth.
Superstar Billy Graham Changed Everything
Superstar Billy Graham was a wrestling icon whose superhero physique and oratory prowess made him a popular draw in the mid-to-late ’70s. You had accomplished technical wrestlers and brawny brutes before him, but nobody with the style and flair of Superstar Billy Graham.
His herculean bodybuilder frame was unlike anything fans had seen before. He impressed onlookers wherever he appeared with a body that seemingly implored camera closeups while drawing jeers from envious fans. His Bob Dylan and Dusty Rhodes inspired promos had a poetic quality to them yet were delivered in a heelish, arrogant tone. When he spoke, fans listened intently.
Despite being a bad guy despised by most of the fans who adored Bruno Sammartino — a man he dethroned for the WWWF Championship after a 1,237-day second reign as champion — people paid good money hoping to see the comeuppance at the hands of the mighty Italian. Similar to Muhammed Ali, everyone wanted to see Graham, whether you loved or hated him.
Brian Last (host of the 6:05 Superpodcast, co-host of The Jim Cornette Experience and Drive-Thru, and now John Arezzi’s Pro Wrestling Spotlight Then & Now) punctuates the impressiveness of Graham quite well. "If you weren’t a fan who grew up in that era or haven’t gone back to watch the footage, it’s probably not easy to understand how unique Billy Graham was."
John Arezzi agrees with his statement, adding, "There was nothing like him before. The chiseled body, the charisma, the promo ability. It wasn’t like anything anybody had seen before."
"If I had to pick a wrestler and say, ‘This is the most copied guy in the business,’ I’d pick Superstar Billy Graham. He was the guy who broke the wall in terms of where you could go with entertainment. He paved the road for Hulkamania. He paved the road for all of us."
Watch Superstar Billy Graham: "Hulk Hogan Copied My Gimmick"
"I lift barbell plates. I eat T-bone steaks. I’m sweeter than a German chocolate cake. How much more of me can you take?"
– Superstar Billy Graham
Jesse "The Body" Ventura is among many who followed in the footsteps of Superstar Billy Graham after seeing him wrestle.
"I’ll never forget that Billy was wearing a fishnet top, and he was ultra tan. Graham got down on one knee and did that pose. It was at that point that I thought, ‘This is something I want to do. I want to be Billy Graham.’"
Ric Flair mirrored the thoughts of Ventura. "I was mesmerized by Superstar Billy Graham’s charisma," admits Flair. "Like Ray Stevens, he was one of the guys I looked up to when I first started. Even though he was a star and I was a young guy, he treated me like a million bucks."
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Billy Graham’s former training partner, would also once say, "Billy was huge. Yet, he had the ability of a gymnast performing flips and other physical feats around the ring. The way he knew how to work an audience was fantastic."
Although Superstar Billy Graham was achieving great success in wrestling, he was already addicted to various substances, as Graham admitted in an interview with John Arezzi on his Pro Wrestling Spotlight radio show in 1990. He conceded that he began consuming anabolic steroids in the mid-’60s — years before entering wrestling.
Graham acknowledged that he was already a heavy steroid user when he got into wrestling and thought it would enhance his wrestling career. He started taking them for bodybuilding and powerlifting purposes and regrets being one of the early forerunners of steroid abusers in wrestling, beginning as early as 1970 while in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling.
At the time, steroids were legal and obtained through a doctor’s prescription. No one had taken them long enough, so side effects weren’t noticeable or yet known. At the time, he says that he had no fear of the drugs.
Falling Off The Mountain
All started to go downhill when, at the insistence of Vince McMahon Sr., Superstar Billy Graham was told to drop the title to Bob Backlund on February 20th, 1978, after holding the belt for nine and a half months. Graham was at the top of his career at this point.
Superstar had proven that he was a top draw even as a heel champion and couldn’t understand why they couldn’t trust him with a longer title run. In rematches, the crowds seemed conflicted about whether to root for Superstar Billy Graham or Bob Backlund. This was something that never happened when Sammartino was champion.
Did you know? WWWF World Champion Superstar Billy Graham faced NWA World Champion Harley Race at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida, on January 25th, 1978, in a champion versus champion match. The event was called the Super Bowl of Wrestling, and it was the second year held. Graham and Race would have a 60-minute time limit draw after the third fall.
Watch: Superstar Billy Graham vs. Harley Race, Champion versus Champion at the Super Bowl of Wrestling
When speaking about dropping the belt, Graham confessed, "I was so despondent after the loss to Backlund that I nearly gave Vince my two weeks’ notice. I thought better of it, though, when I considered the amount of money I’d make in rematches."
"I think what got to Billy is that Backlund didn’t look the part," offers wrestling photographer and longtime friend George Napolitano.
"Billy’s whole demeanor changed to downcast. He felt invincible on the way up. Even when he lost on the way up, he felt invincible. I’d tell Billy, ‘Look at you. When you walk down the street, people don’t say, ‘There’s the guy who lost.’ They say, ‘There’s Superstar Billy Graham.’ They love you.
"‘It’s different now,’ he’d say."
Watch: Superstar Billy Graham Drops the WWWF Title to Bob Backlund
A Career Downfall for Superstar Billy Graham
Vince McMahon Jr. intended to give Superstar Billy Graham a big push within the WWF once Superstar returned in 1982. He also saw a big contrast between Graham and "The All American Boy" Bob Backlund.
"Backlund would have been black-and-white movies with no sound, and Superstar would be like the movies we see today, with Dolby sound and wraparound screens," McMahon would say.
Graham added, "Backlund’s promos were monotone, and while he spoke about admirable values on his interviews, I know he wasn’t delivering what the fans wanted to hear."
When Superstar left the WWWF, he practically vanished, and rumors of his death were not uncommon.
"He vanished into thin air," recalls George Napolitano. "Wrestlers might leave a territory, but they never disappear."
"I didn’t want to return to the wrestling business," admits Superstar Graham. "I was too bitter, and my heart was somewhere else. But when I was desperate for money, I’d surface and work for a show somewhere but quickly took myself out of circulation again."
He added, "I had returned to Phoenix with my deposit [for the championship belt] and not much else. Between hotels, steroids, amphetamines, barbiturates, and my contentious divorce, I’d exhausted my championship purse. Less than a year after selling out MSG, I was digging underground sprinklers in Phoenix."
On November 1st, 1981, Gorilla Monsoon exhibited why he was in the wrestling business and not an investigative journalist by reporting "the death" of Superstar Graham in his weekly column in the Philadelphia Journal. He stated that Graham had died of cancer in his hometown of Paradise Valley in Arizona."
Graham became destitute, depressed, and unable to afford any of the drugs that now had a hold on him. Going through withdrawals, Superstar was now in hell.
"Gorilla might as well have been telling the truth," recalls Graham.
He was living in a dingy hotel with his wife, had to sell his car, and if not hocking everything he owned, he’d try selling them at a local flea market to survive, to procure money to buy sedatives the painkillers his body and brain screamed for.
Return of The Superstar, or Not?
In April of 1982, Vince Mcmahon Jr., now in full control of the promotion, asked Superstar Graham to work for him because he believed they could still make money with Graham.
"As soon as Vince Jr. gave me the green light to return, I started loading up on steroids, tanning, and weaning myself off the downers and substituting speed."
But instead of the Superstar Billy Graham with bleached blonde hair and tie-dye like Vince Jr. expected, Graham arrived with a shaved head, like a mystical monk, adopted a karate gimmick, and wore a black gi.
"I had never taken a martial arts class. Mentally, I remained a wreck. Since I’d probably never win back the title, I wanted to wear the color of mourning."
"This faux karate gimmick was hard to believe. It seems that, psychologically, Graham had broken down," Vince McMahon Jr. would say.
Paul Heyman was shocked just like everybody else at the dramatic change the man who used to call himself "The sensation of the nation, the number-one creation" had gone through.
"Nobody believed that this was Billy Graham. Everybody thought, ‘Billy Graham died, and this guy replaced him.’"
In 1983. he left the WWF and worked in Florida for CWF, later for Jim Crockett, and finally one more time for the WWF in 1985. He would then require a hip replacement after his doctor explained that the steroids Superstar Graham abused had eroded his joints. Even pumping it full of cortisone and other pain-numbing medications didn’t prevent his hip from popping out during a TV taping against enhancement talent, Bob Bradley.
Vince McMahon and the WWF generously paid for the surgery and brought Superstar Billy Graham back one more time, but he would end up blowing a rotator cuff and had a severely injured ankle. Graham’s mobility was so limited in his last match against "The Natural" Butch Reed, where they battled in a steel cage at MSG, that his in-ring career was effectively over.
For a short while, he became Don Muraco’s manager and then had a brief stint as part of their commentating team. But despite the gift of gab, he never got the hang of it and was let go on January 3rd, 1990.
Superstar Billy Graham Speaks Out Against Anabolic Steroids
"It was time to come out and speak out about the evils of anabolic steroids."
– Superstar Billy Graham in 1990.
While long retired from wrestling, and now in precariously delicate health with potential surgeries looming in the future, Superstar Billy Graham is active on social media. From time to time, he goes out of his way to make disparaging remarks. These online rants have often backfired, and some say even tarnished his legacy. It is now at the point where younger fans not familiar with Graham’s body of work merely dismiss him as a disgruntled and psychotic washed-up has-been seeking the spotlight that has long abandoned him.
Before he began to take on Vince McMahon, the WWE, and the world in 1990, his heart seemed to have been in the right place. He pushed for positive change and tried educating people to halt the proliferation of steroids.
Billy Graham left wrestling at 46-years-old, and resurfaced on March 25th, 1990, on John Arezzi’s Pro Wrestling Spotlight radio show. This was two weeks after Superstar Graham and Bruno Sammartino appeared on Entertainment Tonight, expounding the dangers of anabolic steroids.
In a sincere sounding interview that doesn’t seem to be a work, a seemingly lucid Graham explained the hazards of becoming addicted to anabolic steroids. The same drugs mostly responsible for launching him into wrestling superstardom and his former Mr. Olympia build. Graham, who seemed so full of life and oozed unmatched confidence in the ring, was now "almost disabled" according to the previous week’s commercials promoting the interview.
"This is a story of life and death and health. It’s not so much a pro wrestling story," explained Graham to Arezzi, setting up the seriousness of the subject on hand. "This goes way beyond wrestling, football, or any other sport. I debated, looked at myself, and realized what was happening to me, and realized that it’s now or never. The impact I could make on my peers and especially high school and college kids around this country by coming clean on the subject of anabolic steroids."
Thirty years ago, information on steroids wasn’t as prevalent, and Graham would explain to the best of his abilities and without any medical training, what steroids were.
"Anabolic steroids are synthetic male hormones. Their original purpose was for people in the hospital who had a traumatic operation and are having trouble bouncing back in a post-operative situation. They’re low in body weight, low in strength, and need help getting back on their feet. We got our hands on steroids and found out they were a wonder drug and just disregarded the side effects. The kids today who are taking them are dealing with poison."
Superstar Billy Graham Health Problems
After going into the common side effects of steroids, Superstar Billy Graham mentions that he is suffering from degenerative joint disease. He says doctors didn’t know it as a side effect of steroids until recently.
"What it amounts to is that steroids are one of the most deceptive drugs today because they’ll make you look good on the outside, but on the inside, it’s destroying you and tearing your body apart."
By early 1990, when this interview took place, Graham dropped a bombshell that would later put organizations like the then-WWF in the storm’s eye with the Feds.
"Even though it’s harder now to get them, at least 90% of pro wrestlers are taking steroids."
When listening to the interview, Brian Last made an interesting observation.
"Hulk Hogan was a fan in Florida that saw Billy Graham. So in a lot of ways, Graham is patient zero," says Last. "Billy Graham’s look, although he may have had bigger arms, that look would become commonplace in professional wrestling by the time we got to the late-1980s. And here we were (in March 1990) on the cusp of Hulk Hogan versus the Ultimate Warrior. Dave Meltzer used to call Warrior the ‘Anabolic Warrior.’ Billy Graham isn’t sensationalizing this. He is mentioning this as a matter-of-factly."
"I don’t doubt it," replied John Arezzi. "It just exploded and started in earnest in the early ’80s and leading up to the Hulkamania era where it was like everybody was juiced. This story of Billy Graham and steroids was something many people didn’t want out there, and in a lot of ways, it was the turning point in professional wrestling."
Billy Graham would continue, "Anabolic steroids are so psychologically addicting, that the wrestlers will never get off them themselves. I’ve talked to people out here in California, and they say that once you take them, you’re on them for life unless you have a life-threatening situation like myself."
He strongly urged wrestling organizations to test for anabolic steroids randomly, as they had previously done for cocaine and HIV.
"They’ll have to quit them if they want to keep their jobs," he said.
"Wrestling is a cold business, and the bottom line is to draw money. Unfortunately, the health and welfare of wrestlers are not their concern. However, it should be because if they cleaned this up, they’d have healthier wrestlers who’d wrestle for them longer. Right now, you’ve got people walking around wrestling who are timebombs. I would still be wrestling right now if it wasn’t for anabolic steroids. The very drugs I took to enhance my career ended it"
Superstar Billy Graham was confident that he would able to instill change through his revelation.
"With the publicity, my story has been generating, and if we can keep the ball rolling, we might have an impact," said Graham. "MSG was selling out before Superstar Billy Graham came on the scene and steroids. So pro wrestling won’t suffer. They’ll still draw because the average fan doesn’t know the difference between a 60-inch chest and a 52-inch chest or a 23-inch arm and a 20-inch arm. That’s the bottom line."
John Arezzi claims, "The WWF performers were encouraged to take the steroids to keep their bodies big, and this became a problem in the entire industry. I wanted wrestling to go back to the way it used to be when Bruno Sammartino was champion, and Pedro Morales was there. And then when the steroid monsters came about, it kind of destroyed it for me."
Bryan Last added that the topic of steroids would become more prevalent in all sports as the decade closed and into the 2000s, but the case that brought mainstream attention to the problem was the death of ex-football player Lyle Alzado in May of 1992. So Graham was speaking two years before Alzado’s death. All this was a precursor to Dr. George Zahorian and Vince McMahon’s trials.
"One of the grudges of all pro wrestlers today is that there is no health insurance. There is no retirement fund. There are no benefits that you’d think would be associated with a corporation of the magnitude of Titan Sports," says Graham pointedly.
"We have employees up there in Stamford working on typewriters, doing clerical work, running Titan Sports, and everyone has health insurance, benefits, retirement covered to the max. And here is the wrestler, putting his life on the line on an airplane every day, in cars driving to towns, blizzards, and everything else, putting his body on the line every night in the ring, and we cannot get any health insurance or benefits."
Graham would continue, "That’s a travesty, sickening and disgusting. But it’s time for a change because it’s just not right; it’s not even close to fair. We should be insurable. Unions never happened because they don’t want to take a chance and lose their jobs. Most wrestlers are easily replaceable."
Crazy Old Man or Something Else?
Superstar Billy Graham would later assail the WWE and Vince McMahon on numerous fronts with vehement calumnious statements. Some say that Graham lost all of his credibility when pushing Adam Cole and Kofi Kingston to use (not abuse) steroids when he voiced his displeasure with their small bodies representing the WWE World Title. But on March 25th, 1990, perhaps he meant well and was only trying to push for positive change in all sports. Perhaps Superstar Billy Graham had good intentions and wasn’t out for vengeance.
Regardless of his aim 30 years ago and his questionable judgment in his online rants, it still doesn’t excuse that the misuse of illegal/controlled substances is still endemic in professional wrestling. As independent contractors, wrestlers still have no health insurance, benefits, or retirement plans, and they still haven’t unionized. How is this acceptable? Why has nobody stepped up after 30 years?
Superstar Graham’s fall from the top is a sad story and a lesson for all, but maybe the hobbled old veteran is right about many things, and we’ve chosen to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the truth because it’s easier than demanding change. What do you think?
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss the following articles on our site:
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- Eddie and Mike Graham – Years after Their Deaths, We Still Ask: Why?
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