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Growing up, Wayne would skip classes to sneak onto strangers' pool decks to get a tan. He squandered the possibility of a college scholarship in discus by dropping out of high school in his junior year. He stole TVs from hotel rooms and took out car loans he had no intention of repaying. In his mid-20s, he grew tired of life in the Valley and left for Santa Monica, California, where he began training at the original Gold's Gym. There, he ran into Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the two became friends.
Wayne drove with Schwarzenegger to Santa Monica Community College to help Schwarzenegger sign up for business-management courses in the late '60s. Schwarzenegger invited Wayne to join him at college, but the future "Superstar Billy Graham" was not interested. Schwarzenegger would invite Wayne to invest in Gold's Gym a decade later, but Wayne instead took his money and commissioned a painting of himself holding a tiger by its leash in outer space, with a Star Wars-esque "Superstar" spelled out in the foreground. He took out an ad in Starlog magazine for posters of the painting, which did not sell and were repossessed when he could not afford the warehousing fees.
A friend of Coleman's, Bob Lueck, suggested he try out for the Oakland Raiders in 1968, which he did, but he did not make the team. Coleman tried out for the Houston Oilers, too, but did not make that squad, either. Lueck next suggested he go to Calgary to play for the Stampeders in the Canadian Football League. Wayne tried out but was cut in preseason and signed by the Montreal Alouettes, who played him in five games at defensive end before letting him go.
"I don't think I had the heart for it," Wayne says today, laughing. "I didn't mind the contact. I didn't mind hitting people. I didn't like getting hit back."
After Coleman's release, he returned home, where Lueck, who had moonlit as a wrestler in Calgary during off-seasons with the Stampeders, recommended he get into the "easy money" world of professional wrestling. The wrestler says he responded, "Easy money? I could always use easy money," and he headed back to Calgary "on a whim."
He had been a wrestling fan as a child, watching it on the DuMont network in the 1950s and admiring a wrestler named Sky High Lee, who ate light bulbs.
"I was mesmerized by him," he remembers. But he was not, as many wrestlers are at the beginning of their careers, a starry-eyed kid looking to fulfill a childhood fantasy. He wanted to get paid.
Stu Hart owned Stampede Wrestling in Calgary and a mansion where he ran a wrestling school in the basement. The small filthy room was known as "The Dungeon," because howls of pain pierced through its walls at all hours. Hart was known for "stretching" anyone who came to train with him, locking them into legitimate submission holds until they screamed. The future Superstar Billy Graham was no exception, as Hart "maimed" and "abused" him "without mercy."
The experience almost caused the Arizona kid to quit before he got started.
"I had my doubts in the dungeon. 'What is this about? Man, this guy Stu Hart is working me over pretty good,'" he recalls. "But once I got to the arena and saw the actual matches, felt the aura of the fans and the reaction of the fans to the wrestlers, it was like magic to me. Man, this is cool! This is really cool! And, then, I said, 'This is it. I got it; it's entertainment.'"
After two weeks in the Dungeon, he was introduced to the fans in Calgary, who laughed at his abysmal wrestling skills. He did not know the difference between a wristlock and a wristwatch, as wrestling commentator Gorilla Monsoon would say. To cover his inadequacies as an in-ring performer, Stampede ran an angle where Coleman would challenge people in the crowd to arm-wrestling matches, beat them, and then flex his muscles. It got the crowd to react and gave him his first measure of success.
But he hated Calgary and returned to Phoenix. Back home, he met his first mentor — an ex-wrestler turned promoter called "Dr. Jerry Graham," who had, at that point, been excommunicated from the wrestling business for erratic and drunken behavior that had landed him in an insane asylum.
Dr. Graham was the patriarch of a famous fictitious wrestling family called the Golden Grahams. He decided to revive the gimmick and invited Wayne Coleman to be his long-lost brother, Billy, a name Wayne chose out of respect for televangelist Billy Graham.
They began promoting shows at Indian reservations in Arizona, the idea being that Native American crowds were easy money, uninterested in fancy technical matches or elaborate morality tales.
"The Indians don't need much," Dr. Graham advised Billy. "[But the Indians] like color," so the wrestlers would slice each other's foreheads with razor blades and call it a match. Graham remembers making $500 for 25 minutes of work at the Navajo Nation.
Dealing with the Indians wasn't always easy. After a chief on the Apache reservation refused to pay the troupe, they decided to head for Mike LeBell's Los Angeles promotion to find work. Billy Graham would perform the same arm-wrestling gimmick there that he had in Calgary, since he was still too green to do much wrestling. Dr. Graham eventually was fired by LeBell for tearing apart a few bars in Los Angeles, leaving Billy without a mentor. Frustrated with low payoffs, Billy decided to leave for San Francisco to work for Roy Shire. There, he says, is where he learned to be a star performer.