By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
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He walks around the lobby, standing with another vendor for 20 minutes and signing autographs. He cuts a promo with the Iron Sheik, the Persian wrestler whose claim to fame was that he was chosen to beat Backlund for the title and lose it a month later to Hulk Hogan. Graham, the Iron Sheik boasts, was "the first man with 22-inch pythons [biceps]."
Jimmy "The Mouth of the South" Hart comes by Graham's table and says "Superstar" often has been imitated "but never ever, ever, ever duplicated." Graham says he would advise any wrestler to imitate Hart's promos, word for word, "like Jesse Ventura did with me."
Graham treats his fans as he does his action figures. Each woman who approaches Graham becomes the most beautiful woman in Los Angeles. He is joined through the weekend by Jessica Coleman (no relation), whose husband works with Graham's agent. Coleman looks like a librarian and might be the only woman in the room without breast implants. Graham introduces her to anyone within earshot as his new wife, though she is there only to give fans prices on merchandise and collect money.
There is a fan at the convention who has flown to Los Angeles from the Netherlands to see Billy Graham, who revels in the attention. Bobby Klein tells New Times in a 1,000-word essay that he decided to come over from Europe when he learned Graham was dying.
The last day of the convention is slow. Graham is holding court with some fans when a female wrestler known as Old Dirty Bitch walks by. Graham flags her down and asks for a hug. He remains seated as she approaches, his face level with what wrestling fans like to chant are her "super-titties" as she leans into him. The whole of his head turns red.
Suddenly, Graham sees his agent, Scott Epstein, and calls him over. Mexican superstar Mil Mascaras was at the convention the day before, and Graham managed to get a picture taken with his onetime rival.
"You've gotta get that picture up of me and Mascaras immediately. Eee-me-dee-id-lee! There's money there."
Superstar Billy Graham lives alone in an extended-stay motel in North Phoenix, in a room that is only slightly larger than a wrestling ring. Graham spends much of his day sitting at a tiny table in the kitchen, his laptop and paint supplies in front of him, Bob Dylan playing in the background. There is a small bathroom to his left and a refrigerator behind him. His bed is just inside the room.
"This place is perfect for me," he says.
There is a large photo on the wall of him wrestling Mil Mascaras at Madison Square Garden, a scene he plans to depict in paint. "It will be my Mona Lisa. I bet some wrestling fan will want to buy it." Painting has become his life, and one of his few sources of income.
"I'm on disability. I get disability checks. And I sell my artwork. My art sales are starting to pick up." (Check out Graham's paintings at www.wix.com/xtreemathletics/superstarbillygraham.)
To pass the time, Graham paints and corresponds with fans.
"Who remembers or cares about the universities that had Einstein and Freud on their payrolls?" waxes one e-mail from an Australian he has befriended. "Who knows the names of the rich men who funded the research of Edison or Marconi? Who can remember the patrons of Michelangelo and da Vinci, who were forever bossing them around and annoying them? Posterity never remembers the 'business' or the patron, only the artist and what he produced."
It will be the same, he writes, with Billy.
Graham controls his life from his laptop, e-mailing his agent to ask if he could sue a writer at an online boxing website who is using "Superstar Billy Graham" as a byline.
He is sitting at his laptop when he says he will attend the fan convention in New Jersey in May, after all. He says he wants to go to Florida and do color commentary at an event for Total Nonstop Action wrestling. That deal, he says, will be his "last ever public appearance" on the East Coast.
Turns out, he says, the L.A. convention was his last public appearance on the West Coast.
A couple of weeks ago, Epstein, Graham's agent, sent out a press release denying "rumors" that Graham would be at the fan convention in New Jersey. Epstein claimed to have spoken with Graham's doctor, who "does not like or approve of Graham's flying across the United States, due to a real possibility of what he termed as 'bleeding esophageal varice.'"
Dr. Rodriguez-Luna tells New Times he never advised Graham not to fly. He denies ever having a conversation with Epstein about whether Graham should fly.
If indeed the fan convention in L.A. turns out to have been his last, it might not be by choice — as Graham slowly is alienating the organizers of other conventions.
Graham says he plans to sue the organizers of the L.A. convention because, he says, they excluded him from the "VIP portion" of the festivities.