Around the Loop: Superstar Billy Graham (1943-2023)

After suffering a combination of maladies, legendary professional wrestler Superstar Billy Graham has passed away at the age of 79.

Known for his intimidating physique, Graham was a well-known body builder who counted Arnold Schwarzenegger as a training partner. He wasn’t one of those workers that was ring fit but looked like a schlub. That man had muscles upon muscles. Graham stared into the camera, flexed his biceps and sneered. You knew the Superstar could kick your ass. He knew it, too.

During the 1970s, Graham feuded with some of the greats. Verne Gagne. Ken Patera. Wahoo McDaniel. Graham challenged his opponents to arm wrestling contests and weightlifting competitions. As a heel, he sought to not only beat his competitors but humiliate them.

Like all wrestling stars of the time, Graham wound up in the WWWF working for Vince McMahon, Sr. In 1977, Graham defeated Bruno Sammartino for the World Heavyweight Championship, a title he held for nearly a year before dropping it to fan favorite crazy guy Bob Backlund. After stints in other promotions, notably the NWA where he engaged in a feud with Dusty Rhodes, Graham would spent a majority of his career working for the McMahon family.

In the early 1990s, Graham sued the WWF claiming the company had forced him to either take anabolic steroids or be fired. He lost the lawsuit because he had taken a lot of steroids before joining the company. Graham also claimed that WWF officials had engaged in the sexual exploitation of children. He later retracted the allegations, saying the false claims were part of an attempt to extort money from the company. Graham also used his platform to speak out about the dangers of using steroids.

Repeated injuries and surgeries took their toll on Graham’s health. Decades of steroid abuse didn’t help, leading to Graham receiving a liver transplant in 2002. Despite his legal tangling with the WWE/F, Graham was part of the 2004 Hall of Fame. His body was failing, though, and Graham wound up selling his Hall of Fame ring to fund recovery from his liver transplant.

Before his death, Graham reportedly suffered from infections in his his ears and sinuses that had rendered him completely deaf. He also had kidney issues, diabetes, problems with his heart and his lungs, bedsores, depression and long COVID which prevented his wife, Valerie, from visiting him in his room.

Graham was the epitome of the big bald wrestler, the tweener both loved and hated by the crowd. He called people “brother” and called his arms “pythons” before Hulk Hogan came on the scene. A powerful combination of strength and charisma, Graham was the prototype of a generation of wrestlers that dominated television programming. He influenced the look and attitudes of workers like Magnum T.A. and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Scott “Big Poppa Pump” Steiner aped Graham’s facial hair styling. Graham’s wild promo style had an effect on characters from Waylon Mercy to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Ric Flair was one of Graham’s proteges. Flair absorbed Graham’s character and took it to a different and arguably higher level. Graham was the standard that those who followed could only hope to emulate.

Wrestling would have continued despite Superstar Billy Graham’s influence, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining. Ring that bell ten times, brother. The Superstar has dropped the belt for the final time.

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