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.