Superstar Billy Graham Made It Big in Wrestling -- Now the Steroids That Got Him There May Be Killing Him
Billy Graham is sitting in the lower lobby of the airport Hilton in Los Angeles, near a harem of female wrestlers selling glossies and ring-worn outfits and a merchandise stand set up by a wrestling memorabilia website. The Insane Clown Posse, ex-Playboy model Torrie Wilson, and the last remnants of the National Wrestling Alliance have tables here, just across from Mando and Chavo Guerrero. Bret Hart and Roddy Piper are scheduled to sign autographs tomorrow, as are Mexican legends Mil Mascaras and Dos Caras. Dozens of other wrestlers expect a major payday over the weekend, as fans from all across the country descend on the hotel for the Wrestle Reunion fan convention.
Graham, 67, is big, bald, and round in such a way that he resembles a balloon that has lost half its air. He sits in front of a stack of action figures, old photos, and tie-dyed bandannas, all images of himself from a past life. His body then was a collection of muscles, the result of thousands of steroid injections 100 times greater than the recommended doses. This physique impressed a newly immigrated Arnold Schwarzenegger in the '60s and wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Sr. in the '70s before it collapsed on Graham in the '80s, leaving him physically and financially destitute.
"Superstar," as Graham continues to call himself, has made the drive from Phoenix with his best friend, Big Bill Anderson, a fellow Valley of the Sun ex-wrestler who is one of the few people in wrestling to stay in contact with Graham. The appearance is billed as the "Last Stop Tour" by Graham's agent, Scott Epstein, and Graham is adamant in a press release that this will be his final public appearance.
"If you want my autograph and a chance to meet me," he says, "you will only get it in L.A. at the wrestling reunion event, unless you knock on my door in Phoenix."
The draw for fans is that he will soon die from hepatitis, or so he says. In the same release hyping his appearance, Graham makes the dire announcement that he has bought a grave beside Eddie Guerrero's at Green Acres Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Scottsdale and will not be attending the Legends of the Ring fan convention in New Jersey this May. He says his liver doctor told him it would be too dangerous to fly and that he is afraid of bleeding to death at 35,000 feet. For the skeptical fan, he insists the claim is "not a work please; I don't work the real possibility of death."
Graham claims he caught hepatitis C in the 1970s, from rolling around the ring in other wrestlers' blood. He downplays any possibility that he could have caught it from his steroid injections or from a promiscuous lifestyle.
In 2002, he was on his deathbed, awaiting a liver transplant, when 26-year-old Katie Gilroy died in a car crash. Graham received her liver from the donation list. The donation allowed Graham a second chance at life after a decade of alienating everyone he had ever loved or worked for.
World Wrestling Entertainment welcomed its former heavyweight champion backstage in 2003 for the first time in more than a decade when Summerslam came to Phoenix that August. The company inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2004. Before a standing-room crowd in New York City the night before Wrestlemania 20, Graham was ebullient about his renewed life and relationship with WWE.
"This family, the McMahon family, are people with dignity. People with character. People with class," he boomed in a perfect preacher's cadence. "Some years ago I wrote Vince a personal letter and apologized, asked for forgiveness for some things I had done. I was trying to clean up my life. You can't live in bitterness. You can't live in envy. You can't live in jealousy. The man who lives in bitterness might as well be dwelling in Hell.
"With all my drug problems, envy, bitterness, I've put them all behind me and finally become a man," he promised, to great applause.
"I love the McMahons," he added, pointing into the crowd at Vince, his wife, Linda, and their grown children, Shane and Stephanie. "I love you guys!"
But the rhetoric and good feelings would not last, and his second act in life has not been that different from the first.
Eldridge Wayne Coleman is a Phoenix native and the youngest of four children. By the time he was born, his father, Eldridge John, was ruined by multiple sclerosis. Prone to bouts of anger and despair over his condition, John's insecurity was so severe that he would beat Wayne for stumbling while learning to walk.
When Wayne was in fifth grade, his older brother, Vance, invited him to the gym. Vance was preparing to enlist in the Army and wanted his kid brother to learn how to lift weights. The muscled physiques at the gym captured Wayne's imagination, and lifting became his favorite activity. The Colemans were so poor that Wayne had to pour cement into Folger's coffee cans and stick a pipe between them to create weight plates once his brother left for Korea, although John did eventually buy his teenage son a gym membership in exchange for daily foot rubs.
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.
He partnered with Pat Patterson, a Canadian who would become one of Vince McMahon's top agents. Patterson took Billy Graham under his wing, lending him three grand to buy a car when Graham was broke.
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.
Graham attempted another comeback in 1986. But he hurt his hip before returning to WWF. Instead of letting the company know, he planned to keep his injury hidden until he was popular again, then ask the company to pay for an operation. That plan dissolved when he blew out his hip as he executed a simple bear hug in his first match back.
WWF decided to keep him on the payroll, paying for his surgery while easing him into non-wrestling roles. Graham's role within the company dwindled, however, and in 1989, WWF released him.
Hulk Hogan was a household name at this point, which infuriated Graham, who was broke and in substantial pain; his hip was falling apart because of avascular necrosis brought on by his steroid abuse.
In 1990, Pennsylvania physician George Zahorian was indicted for illegally distributing steroids to wrestlers. His trial brought much negative publicity to World Wrestling Federation and eventually led to steroid-distribution charges against McMahon Jr. in federal court, where he was acquitted. While the feds were investigating the wrestling industry, Graham offered his services to the government, making phone calls to wrestlers in search of information he could flip to the feds. And Graham was just getting started.
He filed a lawsuit against Dr. Zahorian and WWF, alleging that they made him sick by forcing him to take steroids to maintain his position. Graham lost the suit, partly because he had been abusing steroids for a decade before entering WWF.
These events coincided with what was called the "ring boys" scandal, in which former WWF employees alleged that they had been sexually harassed by company officials. Tom Cole accused WWF ring announcer Mel Phillips of hiring him and other children from broken homes into the company so he could prey on them, then claimed that ex-wrestler Terry Garvin and Pat Patterson had harassed him, too. Phil Donahue invited Vince McMahon Jr. and several wrestling journalists onto his show to discuss the crisis. Graham heard about the program and invited himself onto the broadcast.
"I saw, on one occasion, in I believe New Haven, Connecticut, Pat Patterson actually grab one of these children in the crotch while putting up the ring," Graham charged on the show, to an incredulous look from McMahon. "I came to the arena, came a little bit early, and walking by the ring to the locker room, I saw Pat Patterson with his left arm on the kid's shoulder and his right hand in his crotch."
McMahon said the incident did not happen, that Graham had never brought such an incident to his attention. Graham has since admitted making up the story in an attempt to extort hush money from WWF.
All that his imagination earned him was a long exile from the only business that ever supported him. Graham wrote McMahon apologizing for his lies in the late 1990s, messages that went unanswered until Vince called Graham in the hospital just before his liver transplant.
Vince McMahon inducted Billy Graham into what was by then the World Wrestling Entertainment (the company went from WWF to WWE in 2002) Hall of Fame in March 2004, at Wrestlemania 20 in New York City. Graham attended Wrestlemania 21 with his two children in L.A., but by the time Wrestlemania 26 came to Phoenix in March 2010, Graham was no longer welcome.
In 2008, Graham got into a dispute with WWE over royalties from his autobiography, published by the company. Feeling shortchanged by the McMahons over the book, Graham sold his Hall of Fame ring on eBay in 2009 for $12,000, something he says "really pissed [McMahon] off."
"I needed some money," Graham says.
WWE ended its relationship with Graham in spring 2009. At this time, Linda McMahon was running for U.S. Senate as a Connecticut Republican. That summer, Graham limped into a Starbucks on Long Island and told a Hartford Courant reporter, "I am disgruntled. I am bitter. I am mad at Vince McMahon for not having healthcare. Absolutely print that. Absolutely, I'm bitter to the core."
Graham told the Courant that the McMahons' hands were "bloody" and claimed that he would make a T-shirt depicting Vince's wife with a razor blade taped to her finger and the slogan "Linda McMahon is a scam and is made out of spam."
He attacked WWE for shifting its television rating to TV-PG, which he claimed was designed to make Linda McMahon a more appealing candidate, or at least a less embarrassing one.
"I've never done this before," Graham told the newspaper. "There's passion in this one. There's a real issue of hypocrisy."
The truth, from WWE's perspective, was that Graham had a history of lying.
The Courant quoted a WWE representative saying Graham had a history of making false statements about the company while off the payroll and released records showing that Graham had just been removed from the payroll after a five-year stint. WWE attorney Jerry McDevitt said the company had "kept him on the payroll when he wasn't really doing anything to earn [his money]."
Months after the Courant article was published, Graham, incredibly, reached out to WWE to offer his services as a McMahon campaign spokesman. He offered privately to go out to schools and "be a representative of Linda in a professional way and as a beloved person in the wrestling community." He claimed he had changed his mind about Linda's being a "scam" once he found out the "seriousness" of his liver condition.
"I said, I need to make amends here because I might not make it," Graham says now. "I needed to get everything out in the open, lay it out there. I told Vince McMahon [in an e-mail to an intermediary] that WWE had done nothing but good for me. Nothing but good for me. I wish Linda all the success in the world."
McMahon, Graham says, never responded.
Billy Graham's liver is in bad shape. According to his doctor, Hector Rodriguez-Luna, Graham is suffering from advanced fibrosis that may, in fact, be early cirrhosis.
"On paper, his liver functions well. He is not confused, he eats, he exercises, and he paints," says Rodriguez-Luna, who plans to start Graham on a drug called Interferon, to slow the hepatitis.
But he does not think Graham is in any real danger now. "He probably has a couple of years [to live], to be honest. But we just don't know."
Graham's recent health woes have exacerbated his financial problems, and he has filed a couple of lawsuits in recent years.
In 2007, Graham went to the Phoenix Art Museum with his wife. It became a "defining moment" in his life, or so he wrote in a press release exhorting wrestling fans to complain to the museum.
This is the story he tells in court documents and press releases: He had a "wheel chair" for his hip when he entered the building. A greeter asked him, "Where do you think you are going with that chair?" Graham told her that it was his wheelchair, prescribed by a doctor and that he was going to see the exhibit. Security offered him a choice between two museum wheelchairs. When he refused their accommodation, he was sent on his way, but not before he informed them of his intent to sue for discrimination.
The museum does not deny turning him away that afternoon. Its problem with Graham's "wheel chair," according to museum director James Ballinger, was that it was as high as a barstool and lacked brakes.
"Our policy is that a vehicle needs to be deemed safe," Ballinger recalls. "We explained that and then offered him two chairs. He declined both. However, there's something you should know."
Ballinger pauses on the telephone.
"Two weeks prior, he had come to see the same exhibition and walked through it. He came back two weeks later in his wheelchair."
Graham does not mention this prior visit in his press release, nor does he mention that his "wheel chair" was not, in fact, a wheelchair, but an art chair with casters. He admits coming to the museum earlier but says standing caused him too much pain and says he cannot use a normal wheelchair because it is "too low." The lawsuit, for unspecified damages, was dismissed.
Last March, Graham filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Phoenix Fire Department, which he later amended to $25 million. On February 18, 2010, he woke up ill and called for an ambulance. Paramedics wanted to take him to the nearest hospital, but Graham insisted on going to the Mayo Clinic; paramedics refused to take him there. His wife had to drive him to Mayo during a monsoon, Graham claims, which could have led to both of their deaths. He attached pictures of his liver, pre-transplant, to the lawsuit filing and suggested that he would show them to a jury so they could see his deteriorating condition. Finally, he claimed, Linda McMahon contacted "an attorney friend of hers in Phoenix" to help him with his case.
McMahon denies this in a statement to New Times: "I haven't spoken to Billy Graham in a few years. I have no knowledge of any case in Phoenix, and I have not made any overtures on his behalf."
This lawsuit also was dismissed.
Billy Graham is holding a black-and-white figure of himself that he sells for $25. A crowd of fans surrounds him as he preaches with biblical conviction.
"There are only 20 of these left in the free world," he says. "Maybe there are 12 of them in Yugoslavia or Bulgaria, but there are only 20 left in . . . the United States, brother."
He notices a fan taking a special look at the figures. "That, by the way, happens to be my favorite because it was made eee-lee-guh-lee in Canada. Bootleg. And WWE did not make this action figure. Some smart man in Montreal, Canada, contacted Billy Graham and said, 'We're gonna put you in gray, brother.' This has outsold every action figure WWE has made. This is the truth, brother!"
The figure has a sticker on its front declaring it one of 3,000.
He shows another fan his fingers, which are bent like spider legs, saying they were injured while wrestling Andre the Giant more than 500 times. He says, "I was his favorite opponent."
His book, Tangled Ropes, is on sale. "This is the best wrestling book cover" ever made, Graham says. The reason is that he designed it. He is talking with Christy Hemme, a former WWE diva, about his loss to Bob Backlund in the late '70s: "The title didn't belong on a child. It belonged on a man."
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.
Greg Price runs NWA Fanfest, a convention held in North Carolina each August. In 2008, Graham had a dispute with Price over money and refused to attend, sending an e-mail to the promoter calling him "a mark whore for wrestling" and saying he wants to watch Price's intestines spill out as he dies.
Without getting into Graham's bravado, Price confirmed to New Times that Graham is no longer welcome at his conventions: "He's canceled out on us twice. He won't get the opportunity a third time."
Billy Graham says his wife, Valerie, "was doomed to love me."
They have been married for 33 years, and in that time, she has been the primary breadwinner, working odd jobs to support them both. Today she is a manager at a Valley outlet of a thrift-store chain.
Valerie separated from Billy in August 2009 but moved into an extended-stay hotel near his to help him with doctor visits and grocery shopping.
She is in her early 50s, of Greek extraction, with sharp cheekbones and black hair.
"Have you seen The Wrestler?" she asks.
She says she refuses to see the movie starring Mickey Rourke as an over-the-hill, small-time wrestler with health problems and an estranged family. There are similarities between the character and Billy.
Valerie and Billy met when she was 19, in January 1977. They have no children. Billy was made sterile by steroids. Valerie says he would intimidate her into injecting him early in their relationship. She says she would stab him with the needle, fuming that he cared more about his body than starting a family.
Graham's children are from a previous marriage. He claims his ex-wife turned the kids against him, especially his oldest son.
"He had his name changed from my legal name of Coleman to her maiden name. Legally changed. That's heavy," he says, getting animated. "It bothers me that now that he's an adult, he can't bury it, like my daughter Capella, the adult. She buried the fact that her father was on the road. She grew up."
Graham's son came to Phoenix in 2010 to visit him. "He heard I was broke and that my liver was real bad. So I invited him to bring the kids to [L.A. in January]. They only live 80 miles from the [fan convention]. I said, come over to the Hilton [so I could] meet the grandkids, man. One of them has seen some pictures of me, their grandfather. He's 9 years old, or something.
"He was 80 miles away. Eighty miles! Eighty miles in L.A. is nothing, brother."
The son and grandson did not show.
Asked why Valerie left him, Graham explains that she was stressed about his health problems, then adds that she hates it when he is around female wrestlers.
"She says all they are is strippers. I agree that's all they are. That element of the divas always being around . . . really bugs her."
Valerie laughs when told this. "That's just so funny: 'She hates the divas!'"
No, she says, she did not leave him because of any of that. "It had nothing to do with his health." If it did, she says, "I wouldn't still take care of him."
She adds, "If I talk about the reasons for the separation, it would be a derogatory thing. I don't want to hurt him."
It hurts them both, they say, when she drops him off at his place after taking him to the doctor. It hurts that she will not hug him, for fear of giving him false hope that they will get back together.
Valerie says he has changed, that he used to be much happier. "I think he's angry at himself for all the mistakes he has made," she says. He used to enjoy sports, she says, but now he rails about how overpaid athletes are.
"He literally is one of the best people I know, in his heart," she says. "He wants to be good. He isn't very good at it. But he wants to be good."
The day after she spoke with New Times, Billy Graham sent an e-mail to the newspaper announcing that the interview had inspired Valerie to take him back, which she confirms.
"We have a lot to work through, but I think we need to try," she writes. "[We have] lots of years invested."
Graham adds later, "It's called sacrifice. Everybody gives a little, and it works."
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