Bad Boys

       New criticism has emerged within the pro wrestling camp. Two ex-wrestlers, both now Christians and active in sports ministry, have gone public with complaints about their former profession.

       Heavy steroid use helped enhance the physique of "Superstar Billy Graham" en route to body building titles and then the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) championship in 1977. A 56-inch chest and 23-inch arms helped Graham, whose given name is Wayne Coleman, as he rode a flamboyant and arrogant persona to become one of the most despised "heels" in the business. (A heel is a wrestler who assumes a hateful personality in the ring.)

       But steroids took a toll, including the need for both hips to be replaced and Graham losing three inches from his 6-foot-4 frame because of degenerated disks in his back. Graham now refuses to watch WWF or its competitor, World Championship Wrestling (WCW).

        "I stopped watching professional wrestling because they pushed the envelope too far," says Graham, now 56. "The shows are very degrading to women, there's foul language and gestures, and there's real strong sexual overtones. I decided I didn't want this stuff coming into my house, my eyes, or my mind. It made me physically ill to my stomach."

       By the time he retired in 1989, Graham had lost his wealth, health, and zest for life. He contemplated suicide before rededicating his life to Christ in 1994, through the help of Christian friends. Today, Graham is active at Phoenix First Assembly of God's Athletes International Ministries, an outreach to pro and college athletes and coaches.

       Ted DiBiase, another former wrestler, first shared his testimony in 1996 at an Athletes International conference. In his autobiography Every Man Has His Price: The True Story of Wrestling's Million-Dollar Man (Multnomah, 1997) DiBiase, 46, recounts how his ring identity as a heel affected his personal life. In 1992, with his marriage on the rocks, he cried out to God in desperation and repented. He now heads Heart of David Ministries in Clinton, Mississippi, and speaks to church youth groups, men's meetings, and prisoners about machismo and materialism.

       DiBiase, who earlier managed "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, bemoans Austin's standard performances of guzzling beer, bellowing profanity, and flashing obscene gestures upon entering the ring. Austin also initiated "the gospel of Austin 3:16" after defeating a Christian wrestler who spoke of his faith in the Bible. "Austin 3:16 is a blasphemy any way you look at it," says DiBiase, who notes that 6 million Austin 3:16 T-shirts have been sold in this country.

       In talks at church, DiBiase asks youths how many watch pro wrestling on TV. Dozens of hands go up. Cheers rise when he mentions that he managed Austin. But DiBiase sets them straight. "I'm not proud of wrestling," says DiBiase, who refuses to allow his sons to watch WWF shows. "It has taken the low road. There are no more heroes."