By Mike Mooneyham

Feb. 29, 2004

It’s been a long journey, but Superstar Billy Graham’s going to Wrestlemania.

The 60-year-old Graham, prototype for such stars as Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan, is being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame at pro wrestling’s biggest event of the year. Graham, who held the company’s world heavyweight title during the late ’70s, will be tapped along with Ventura, Bobby Heenan, Bob Backlund, Sgt. Slaughter, Greg Valentine and Tito Santana.

The venue will be Madison Square Garden, site of the inaugural Wrestlemania in 1985, and also where Graham sold out 19 out of 20 times, a record that likely will never be duplicated.

It just proves miracles still happen, says Graham, who was literally knocking on death’s door less than two years ago. Doctors then listed his condition as “end-stage liver disease” and gave him just months to live. Graham, however, received a liver transplant that gave the Phoenix resident a new lease on life.

Billy Graham

Billy Graham

Graham (real name Wayne Coleman), one of pro wrestling’s biggest stars during the ’70s and once considered one of the strongest men in the world, was plagued by health problems for nearly two decades. But he’s relied on his faith and a steel-grit determination to survive and persevere.

The Superstar’s comeback has been nothing short of miraculous. In addition to overcoming tremendous odds physically, he and WWE owner Vince McMahon mended a decade-long rift in 2002.

“It truly is a phenomenal thing for it to turn around like it has,” Graham said last week. “It (the reconciliation) was totally unexpected. It’s really nice to have all the issues resolved because it’s getting late in life to be holding on to stuff. I know Vince feels the same way about that. He’s got nothing to gain by resolving all these issues with different people, with the exception being his own peace of mind. That part of it is very interesting: Why would Vince, with all of his success and his financial status in this world, even bother with people like myself? I caused him a ton of headaches.”

Graham may very well have caused McMahon headaches, but he also was one of the top draws for Vince’s dad, the late Vincent James McMahon. And there’s no better way to tie up a loose end of history than by honoring one of the most revered figures in company history. To many, Superstar Billy Graham paved the way for Hulkamania and the national expansion of the then-World Wrestling Federation.

“It was a very important chapter,” says Graham. “The ’70s were a hard act to follow. The business we did with Dusty (Rhodes) and Bruno (Sammartino) and everybody in the late ’70s was just phenomenal. The only one that didn’t sell out was Peter Maivia (The Rock’s grandfather), and that drew almost 18,000. That wasn’t a bad night. Vince McMahon Sr. told me it wasn’t going to sell out with Peter because the people simply weren’t going to buy a Samoan chief being the new WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation) champion. But we came close to it. I worked very hard on those interviews to get Peter over because of everything he had done for me in San Francisco, along with (Pat) Patterson and (Ray) Stevens and Rocky (Johnson). Those guys just set me through that whole year, so I was very indebted to Peter. He was a classy guy.”

Officially it will be Graham’s second appearance at a Wrestlemania event. He managed Don “The Magnificent” Muraco at Wrestlemania IV in 1988 at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, although his body was failing him at that point. “I was sliding down the health scale pretty fast,” he recalls. It was the same year he made his last appearance at Madison Square Garden. Two years earlier, while visiting McMahon at his office in Stamford, Conn., Graham vividly remembers the WWE czar looking straight into his eyes and telling him, “Superstar, the only problem you had in pro wrestling was that you were ahead of your time.”

Graham and his wife, Valerie, are excited about his latest honor. The two will attend a formal induction ceremony the night before Wrestlemania in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton. The $200 tickets at the dinner sold out immediately. Graham and his colleagues will take another bow the following evening at the Garden.

“Vince personally gave me a call and asked me if I were up for an airplane ride. I told him I sure was – as long as it was first class,” Graham jokes. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to being at Wrestlemania XX. I’m excited just getting back in that building.”

The ultimate survivor, Graham is coming off another close call in which he spent two weeks in the hospital fighting a bowel obstruction. At one point doctors feared that an operation would be necessary due to the twisting of his intestine. “Fortunately the bowel untwisted by itself,” Graham said last week. “Everything is better than normal. That health issue is totally resolved.”

Graham says he also has been heartened by recent developments in WWE, including Eddy Guerrero’s upset victory over Brock Lesnar for the WWE title. Graham personally called Guerrero three days later to let him know that he was proud of him.

“I congratulated him for such a great match. A lot of his drug problems paralleled mine, and he’s overcome a lot of stuff. I’m very proud of him. He’s quite a humble guy.”

Graham is among a growing number who believe that Guerrero could be a key player in the company’s appeal to the influential Hispanic market.

“I think they would be wise to keep that belt on him for some time,” says Graham . “The Hispanic market is skyrocketing, and they need to tap into that market. He could be an icon in the Latino-Hispanic market. He’s always been such a skilled performer, and his promos are legit when he talks about wrestling with and overcoming his demons. Those aren’t made-up promos. They’re from the heart. It’s really incredible timing. I’m just glad to see it happen.”

The tremendous ovation Guerrero received after dethroning Lesnar may pale in comparison to the pop The Superstar gets when he’s introduced to the sold-out Garden throng on March 14.

“I don’t know about that, brother, it’s been a while,” laughs the performer once known as “the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour.” “Maybe I’ll take a bump and do a blade job.”

– Johnny Weaver making the save, putting the sleeper hold on the heel, whipping the Saturday night crowd at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium into a frenzy. Ricky Steamboat tossing his antagonist into the ropes, dropping to one knee and leveling him with a well-placed karate thrust on the rebound. The Rock ‘N Roll Express using their patented double dropkick on an opponent, with Tommy Young sliding in to make the three count.

Those may sound like scenes from vintage Mid-Atlantic Wrestling circa 1983. But they all happened last weekend on a show billed as “The Night of Legends.”

Steamboat, who hasn’t wrestled in 10 years due to a career-ending back injury, was one of a number of Mid-Atlantic legends on hand for the event. Now 51, with his once-jet black hair turned mostly gray, Steamboat told the fans that the Spartanburg-Greenville area was one of his favorite places to wrestle. George South, one of the most respected hands in the business, interrupted the babyface spiel, chiding Steamboat that Paul Jones carried him when they were a team. South attacked Steamboat as he was leaving the ring, but quickly bailed after taking a bump for Steamboat, who posed – for old time’s sake – for the approving audience as popping flashbulbs lit up the arena.

Weaver, one of the most popular performers to ever appear in the Carolinas, brought the crowd to its feet in the main event pitting The Rock ‘N Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson) against South and The Masked Superstar (Bill Eadie). Weaver emerged from the back and slapped his sleeper on South when the bad guys cornered Miss South Carolina, Jessica Eddins, who had gotten into the act to protest the tactics of The Superstar and South. Young, one of the top striped shirts during the heyday of Mid-Atlantic wrestling, made the count for the winning pinfall when Morton and Gibson dropped South, the ever-present foil, with their double dropkick.

Among the other legends on hand for the evening of nostalgia, sponsored by the Miss South Carolina Organization, were Ole Anderson, Ivan Koloff, Jimmy Valiant, The Barbarian, Don and Rocky Kernodle, and Bill White. A reported crowd of more than one thousand turned out to watch their childhood heroes. All the legends received awards after the show. David Flair was on hand to accept an award on behalf of famous father Ric.

“It was a magical evening,” said longtime fan Wayne Castevens of Laurel Hill, N.C. Castevens, who has followed the business for 35 years, said it took him back to a bygone era when many of those same performers were headlining shows at that very same building, the longtime home of Tuesday night television tapings for Jim Crockett Promotions. “It was colossus. It was the bomb. I’m throwing in all those adjectives, but it was great.”

Many fans recalled how the event conjured up memories of wrestling at the old building, where the sound would be so loud that it would reverberate off the walls and cut its way through the thick smoke that permeated the auditorium. “It really was breathtaking,” says Castevens. “It was magic from the past. Memories on top of memories … a dream come true.”

Organizers plan to make the show an annual event. Spartanburg is just the latest city in the old Mid-Atlantic territory to run a legends reunion. A major event was held in Charleston in 1998 at the old County Hall. Charlotte hosted a legends reunion that attracted nearly 1,500 fans several weeks ago. There has been talk of a similar event in Greensboro later this year on Thanksgiving weekend.

– Coach John Heath, a staple on the Florida Championship Wrestling circuit during the ’60s and ’70s, passed away Feb. 13 at the age of 80 after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Heath coached Cardinal Mooney High School to the city of Sarasota’s only state football title in 1972. Heath’s teams outscored opponents 342-6 during the 1972 campaign. The night after the Cougars won the ’72 title, Heath was booked for a match in Fort Lauderdale against The Great Malenko (Larry Simon).

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Heath played football and wrestled at Temple University before transferring to East Stroudsburg (Pa.) State Teachers College. He moved to Sarasota in 1956 and began teaching and coaching at St. Martha’s grade school.

As a wrestler, he once reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Olympic Trials. Heath introduced this new sport to his St. Martha’s students. Over the years, Heath’s wrestlers won 38 individual AAU state championships. Heath began his own professional wrestling career in 1958 and retired 18 years later.

– Bill Goldberg is not scheduled to appear on WWE television prior to his Wrestlemania XX match with Brock Lesnar. Sources say chances of the former WWE champ and the company coming to terms on a contract renewal appear slim, with Goldberg’s likely asking price too high and his schedule demands not consistent with what WWE has in mind.

– The Boston Globe covered Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s first day on the job teaching class at Harvard as a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

The former mat star and Minnesota governor offered his observations on a number of subjects.

Same-sex marriage: “Could someone please tell me how this will affect me? Come on, this is Harvard, folks. I came all the way out here to learn this.”

The California recall election (won by his pal Arnold Schwarzenegger): “A joke.”

Teaching at Harvard: “Some felt I’m not academically qualified, and they’re right.”

Vince McMahon is slated to be a guest speaker for the bombastic Ventura’s class. The two are scheduled to discuss how pro wrestling ideally prepares one for a career in politics.

– Jake “The Snake” Roberts appeared in a British court last week to face charges of animal cruelty and neglect stemming from the death of a Burmese python in his care. Roberts is accused of causing “unnecessary suffering” to the animal by starving it between August and September last year.

Roberts, 48, and his partner, Valerie Burnham, appeared at St Albans Magistrates’ Court. Both were released on bail and ordered to return March 11. Authorities had removed the python from Roberts’ home with the snake expiring several days later.

Roberts has been living and wrestling in Great Britain for some time. – The Rock will appear on Raw tonight to set up the Rock-Mick Foley match with Randy Orton and Batista at Wrestlemania XX.

– Edge (Adam Copeland) suffered a badly sprained ankle while preparing to return to WWE from his neck surgery in early 2003. Edge, who was scheduled to start his rehab at Ohio Valley Wrestling, is wearing a boot as a preventive measure.

– The controversial Teddy Hart was involved in an altercation with CM Punk Wednesday afternoon in Nashville. The incident occurred at the White Trash Cafe, an eatery frequented by NWA-TNA workers prior to their Wednesday night shows at the Nashville Fairgrounds.

Sources say Hart instigated the skirmish, which was broken up by Sabu (Terry Brunk), who was appearing that night on the NWA-TNA card. TNA management later told the wrestlers than another outburst would be grounds for termination.

Hart, the nephew of Bret “Hit Man” Hart, has developed the reputation of a troublemaker during his short time in the business. He was banished from the Ring of Honor locker room last November for a post-match display that put his opponents at risk and was seen as disrespectful to the ROH crew.

– Chris Jericho wasn’t at Raw last week because his band, Fozzy, was appearing that same night in Omaha at the Ranch Bowl before a crowd of around 250. Bubba Ray Dudley was at the show and sang a stone on stage. Steve Austin, Randy Orton and Mark Jindrak joined the group later, although Austin refused to sing.