January 11, 2006
Many lessons in Superstar Graham's book
By GREG OLIVER - Producer, SLAM! Wrestling
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.