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.