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After a while, he decided to leave for Minnesota, following another wrestler named Ray Stevens, to work for Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association. While there, he connected with WWF and the National Wrestling Alliance, an old collection of promoters who shared talent. In 1977, he began working for WWF full time.
But before he reached the top, Graham returned to Los Angeles to become a promoter. In 1976, he tried to "take Southern California" from Mike LeBell with $25,000 in the bank. His promotion failed right from the beginning.
Although he spent much of his career learning the ropes in a variety of different wrestling territories, Billy Graham never developed into a particularly good wrestler.
His career was built entirely on his size (6-foot-4, 275 pounds) and his look (bleached blond, with chiseled features).
Graham was a showman, turning his biceps to the camera and declaring himself "The man of the hour / Too sweet to be sour / The women's pet / The men's regret / What you see is what you get / And what you don't see . . . / Is better yet! / I am the Superstar, Billy Graham."
He would wear a T-shirt with Marilyn Monroe on it and brag that she looked best "sitting on the Superstar's chest." He would hold out his massive hands to the camera and boast, "These hands can crush coconuts!"
The biggest break of his career came in 1977, when Graham took a call from Vince McMahon Sr., who invited him to join the World Wrestling Federation. Bruno Sammartino had been the face and champion of WWF for seven years, from 1963 to 1971, before reclaiming the belt in 1973 and holding it until 1977.
"When I came along," Graham recalls, "Bruno had peaked out. You could not get any higher or more famous than Bruno Sammartino."
McMahon planned to crown a young redheaded amateur wrestler named Bob Backlund his baby-face champion. But he needed a villain to transition between Sammartino and Backlund. Graham met with McMahon and was told he would win the heavyweight championship belt on April 30, 1977, and lose it February 20, 1978, to Backlund, who would be counted on to lead the company through the '80s.
Graham's championship reign marked an enormous shift in the wrestling business, which wrestling commentator Jim Ross has called the transition from "steak to sizzle." Bruno Sammartino was an old-school Italian with a hairy chest and understated charisma. His family had lived through World War II in Italy, hiding from the Nazis in the mountains. Sammartino carried himself with the quiet grace of an immigrant and was popular with ethnic Northeastern crowds. Graham, by contrast, was a larger-than-life freak in tie-dye and was extroverted and thoughtless, which made him the perfect foil for Bruno.
Graham won the title in April 1977. Fans packed arenas across the Northeast for the next 10 months hoping to watch Graham lose the belt, and he was making thousands of dollars a night. He spent most of it on steroids, prescription drugs, taxes, and child support.
All in all, Graham was a successful champion, selling out Madison Square Garden 19 times out of 20. As his reign unfolded, however, a segment of wrestling fans started to favor him, cheering his over-the-top personality. Graham came to believe that he could be the champion McMahon was looking for.
Unfortunately for Graham, McMahon disagreed and took the belt off him that February. In the weeks leading up to his match against Backlund, Graham conspired to "hurt" his knee so that he would have an excuse for putting on a mediocre match. He wore a plain white outfit to the ring in the Garden the night he lost the title, a clue to fans that it was actually someone else in the ring losing.
McMahon Sr. rejected Graham as the champion because he did not believe a balding steroid freak could become a fan favorite, something McMahon's son would prove wrong when he bought WWF in 1982 and made Hulk Hogan his champion. If he had owned the company sooner, McMahon Jr. has said, Graham "would have been Hogan."
This single calculation by McMahon Sr. cost Graham millions of dollars, plus fame. It was a disappointment deepened by Hogan's saying he was "personally inspired" to get into the wrestling business by watching the brash Superstar Billy Graham.
Losing to Backlund sent Graham into an angry depression he could not work through. A few weeks after he lost the title, Graham went home to Phoenix.
Superstar Billy Graham's wrestling career all but ended when he dropped the belt. His wife, Valerie, says he lost 1979-80 to drugs.
"Four months into our marriage, he quit his job," she says. "We have not had one easy moment."
When Graham got over his depression and returned to World Wrestling Federation in 1982, it was not in his old persona but as a kung fu master, despite his never having taken a martial arts class. This gimmick went nowhere, prompting him to leave again in 1983. Two years later, he hawked his and his wife's wedding rings for cash.