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“Superstar” Billy Graham


Acrylic and spray on 24″ x 24″ wood

When the general populace thinks of what a wrestler should look like, they’re thinking of the appearance and interview style created by “Superstar” Billy Graham. Born Eldridge Wayne Coleman in 1943 Phoenix, Arizona, he showed an aptitude at a young age for both art and athletics, especially in the world of bodybuilding. He also became a devout Christian, becoming a preacher in his early adulthood where he would incorporate feats of strength into his sermons. In the early 1960’s he began professionally competing as a bodybuilder, winning the 1961 West Coast division of the Mr. Teenage America contest, and also became a training partner to Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is godfather to Coleman’s daughter). Even into his wrestling career he continued competing as a bodybuilder, taking first place in the World Body Building Guild Pro Mr America contest for his 22 inch biceps, which he had dubbed his “pythons” and his “guns” (something that numerous other wrestlers would begin to call their own biceps, and the “guns” moniker made it into the general population).

In 1970 he began training as a professional wrestler, learning under the legendary Stu Hart. After wrestling for Stampede Wrestling under his real name, he returned to the states and began working in Mike LeBell’s Los Angeles territory for the National Wrestling Alliance. It was there that he took on the name of Billy Graham, as an homage to the famous evangelist. Then going to Florida, he was able to use the name to become one of the storyline brothers to the Graham brothers Jerry, Eddie and Luke. In 1972 he joined Verne Gagne‘s American Wrestling Association and added the “Superstar” to his name. His massive physique, coupled with his tie-dyed ring gear, long blonde hair and unique rhyming promo style made him an instant hit. He was also a treat to watch in the ring, doing moves that men of his size should not be able to and delivering a wide range of emotions through his eyes while doing so. He had notable feuds there with Gagne, Ken Patera, Ivan Koloff and others. In 1974 he left the AWA, toured Japan, and then briefly worked for Red Bastien’s Dallas-based NWA territory, feuding with Mad Dog Vachon.

In 1975 he had his first run with the World Wide Wrestling Federation, feuding with champion Bruno Sammartino and Ivan Putski. In 1976 he again toured Japan, feuding with Antonio Inoki, then back in the NWA facing off against Dusty Rhodes and Harley Race. In 1977 he returned to the WWWF and defeated Sammartino for the title, going on to have the longest single run solely as a heel champion for a record 296 days. He headlined 20 times at Madison Square Garden and sold out 19 of those events. As champion, he had notable feuds with Sammartino, Jack Brisco, Dusty Rhodes, Pedro Morales, Don Muraco, Mil Mascaras and anyone else foolish enough to step into the ring with him. His most notable feud during that time was against Rhodes, which would end up seeing the two facing each other in a notoriously bloody Texas Bullrope match. In 1978 Graham lost the title to Bob Backlund. Graham had pitched the idea to Vince McMahon Sr of him becoming a fan-favorite heel facing other heels, effectively starting the Attitude Era 20 years earlier. The idea was rejected and Graham soon left the company.

From 1979 to 1982 Graham did not wrestle much, only making sporadic appearances. He came back to the now-WWF in 1982 for a rather unmemorable run beyond the striking visual of Graham tearing Backlund’s championship belt in half. From 1983-1986 he made appearances for the AWA and NWA, having a feud with Jimmy Valiant. Also during this time he bulked up further and grew a full goatee while dying only his mustache black, a look that was copied by Hulk Hogan during his NWO days and Scott Steiner‘s Big Poppa Pump persona. In 1986 he had his final in-ring run with WWF, feuding against Butch Reed and Harley Race, before years of in-ring and steroid abuse caused career-ending injuries.

Since his retirement, the Superstar has become an outspoken opponent of steroid usage, talking with young athletes about the dangers of the drugs. He has also rekindled his love of painting, becoming a successful artist of varied styles. His legacy in the ring will live on for generations to come, if not forever. His style influenced the likes of Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura, Ric Flair, and Dusty Rhodes (and how many people have THOSE guys influenced?) and he was one of the primary inspirations for Triple H to become a wrestler.

About the piece: This was one where I knew exactly what I was going to do and it executed how I had planned. I first spray painted the background using neon colors, to bring across his notable tie-dyed look. I then laid down the blacks using house paint and a sponge brush, spritzed a little more spray paint on the black areas, then painted in the whites with acrylics. The Superstar was such a visually compelling figure that I didn’t need to do much!

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