Superstar Billy Graham Made It Big in Wrestling -- Now the Steroids That Got Him There May Be Killing Him

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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.

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Gregory Pratt
Contact: Gregory Pratt