If Superstar Billy Graham is the man most responsible for bringing steroids into pro wrestling, then hopefully his new autobiography, Tangled Ropes, is the wake-up call that the industry needs to rid itself of the freakish physiques.
Superstar was indeed "the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour" in the 1970s, with his incredible, chiseled physique that put most of his fellow grapplers to shame. His look paved the way for the likes of Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura, Kerry Von Erich and Triple H in the years to come, while his entertaining rap on the microphone would be followed by Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair and countless others.
During his run as WWWF World champion in 1977-78 (beating Bruno Sammartino, losing to Bob Backlund), Graham (born Eldridge Wayne Coleman) was a hugely popular heel, the precursor of anti-heroes like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
But his success -- largely based on his Atlas-like physique -- came at a cost. Graham injected huge amounts of steroids, an activity that was legal at the time. Knowing what we know today about their effects, his tale is truly terrifying.
As a reader, you will go "yikes" again and again as the Superstar details his steroid use, his drug use, and his many near-death experiences.
- Having been injured while training for a bodybuilding competition in 1975, Graham sought a doctor's prescription for steroids. "The normal dose for my condition should have been something like one or two Dianabol a day. I took about thirty-including tripling up on my injectables. The combination gave me enough retention to go ahead with the contest."
- While heavily using steroids before his wrestling career, Graham said he had no side effects. "As my relationship with God faltered, my compulsion for anabolic steroids took over. Some of the drug manufacturers-in an attempt to cover themselves in the event of future lawsuits, I guess-included labeling alleging that their products did not enhance physical ability. But people were becoming huge from steroids, and setting world records. The drug companies were lying-the same way they'd lie about the consequences of steroid abuse once people like me began losing our health."
- After deciding to enter the World's Strongest Man competition, Graham sold his furniture to subsidize his training -- and his steroids. "A dairy man I knew would meet me at a preselected spot every morning and fill up three one-gallon bottles-or 'protein containers,' as I called them-of raw milk. In total, I'd drink those three gallons of raw milk each day, and eat all the food that I could consume."
- Just after entering a Phoenix rehab center, Graham returned to his fix. "I was sitting in a chair, relaxing, when my hand suddenly reached for the phone. Automatically, I dialed the doctor I knew in Philadelphia and placed an order, like a dog returning to its own vomit."
- After his in-ring career finally ended in 1989, his body continued to fall apart. "My right ankle was completely disfigured, a swollen collection of soft tissues and bone pressing against my skin. On February 19, 1990, doctors fused the ankle, using undamaged bone from my right hip area and shin, along with a titanium rod and seven titanium screws to hold everything in place. The surgeon, Dr. Luigi Gentile, told me that he had nightmares about the procedure. The only time that he'd seen ankles mangled so badly was during World War II, when he operated on soldiers who'd stepped on landmines."
Teamed with co-author Keith Elliot Greenberg, Graham has delivered much more than a treatise against steroids. A lot more. The book is a true inspirational and emotional read, showing how one man can triumph over incredible odds; how faith can come and go in one's life; how a drive to succeed can regrettably leave family in the dust.
And it's full of surprises, and a few laughs.
Did you know that Coleman was a preacher at age 20, giving some legitimacy to adopting the name of the famed Reverend Billy Graham?
Did you know that Graham and Ivan Koloff tried to set up competition to Mike LeBell's NWA promotion in Los Angeles, only to fail miserably?
Did you know that less than a year after being WWWF champion, Graham was digging underground sprinklers in Phoenix?
He covers everything you expect in an autobiography, taking us through his troubled youth into the world of bodybuilding, then to Stu Hart's Dungeon on a whim to learn pro wrestling. Graham leaves little out from his career, inviting the reader along as he meets and comes under the (drunken) wing of Dr. Jerry Graham and they head to Los Angeles together. After splitting up from the Good Doctor, we travel with Superstar to San Francisco, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Florida, Houston, and many stops in between.
His WWWF days are covered in depth, and his experiences with the likes of The Grand Wizard, Ivan Putski and Dusty Rhodes bring back many memories.
Graham isn't one to pull punches, either. He's critical towards a few select grapplers, which is refreshing in the world of WWE autobiographies. Superstar still doesn't see the appeal in Bob Backlund as WWWF champion, for example, and had his difficulties with Mad Dog Vachon.
But as is often the case, the harshest critic of Superstar Billy Graham is Superstar Billy Graham. He takes himself to task for many mistakes in the past, from his steroids, to his failed relationship with his two kids in his multiple marriages.
It's the steroid trial of Dr. George Zahorian and subsequent federal case against Vince McMahon for distribution where the truth is truly laid out. Graham explains his motives for helping the prosecution against his old employer, and is deeply sorry for some of the lies he spouted in the heat of the moment, especially in regards to Pat Patterson. (It's especially cool to actually hear from WWE legal whiz Jerry McDevitt for the first time that this writer knows of; now his book would be a whopper!)
Despite all the fun tales from the road, it's the brushes with death and the strength of his relationship with his wife Valerie that will stick with you at the end. His liver transplant, harvested from a 26-year-old accident victim, is harrowing and will make you teary-eyed when he expresses his appreciation to the family of the deceased organ donor.
The emotion is very real, making this very unlike any other WWE release, or for that matter, their TV programs. In short, Superstar Billy Graham is lucky to be alive. And we're lucky to be able to read his book.
July 4, 2000 interview: Superstar Billy Graham: Ring legend
Review: Graham DVD a deep look at Superstar
Visit the SLAM! Wrestling store!
Order the book - Superstar Billy Graham: Tangled Ropes
Order the DVD - 20 Years Too Soon - The Billy Graham Story DVD
See Superstar honored - WWE 2004 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Double DVD
He's the man of the hour - Superstar Billy Graham Figure
He's too sweet to be sour - Superstar Billy Graham Bloody Figure
Greg Oliver founded SLAM! Wrestling with John Powell way back in
1996, and has been writing about pro wrestling since 1985. His recently-published book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams (with Steven Johnson) is the second in a series, following The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians. Order them both from the SLAM! Wrestling Store. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.