The Book or The Movie
By The Phantom of the Ring
(This article orignally appeared in Wrestling Perspective, Volume XVII, Number 114, Copyright © 2006)
Superstar Billy Graham with Keith Eliot Greenberg
WWE Books, 2006
352 Pages, $26.00
Order It At Amazon.com
20 Years Too Soon: The Superstar Billy Graham Story
WWE Home Video, 2006
180 Minutes, TV14 (L-V-D)
Order It At Amazon.com
A true phenomenon in the world of wrestling, Superstar Billy Graham was a bizarre amalgam that represented the bridge from what Gorgeous George began to what Hulk Hogan personified. Take one part Gorgeous George, one part Buddy Rogers, and one part Gene "Mr. America" Stanlee. Now add liberal doses of Freddie Blassie and Muhammad Ali. Shake well, update with a Sixties persona, and that's Superstar Billy Graham.
He was no world-beater as a wrestler, and he knew it. But he also knew that he could draw crowds by using his gift of gab. Superstar Graham was a master on the mic, having honed that skill in Christian revival tents, able to emote in a fashion that seemed to consume his very being. Not only was he someone wrestling fans had never seen before, he was someone wrestling fans had never heard before.
In order to take full advantage of Graham’s legacy, WWE has issued his life story in both book and DVD formats. The DVD contains a 90-minute exposition on his life plus a few of his matches and interviews. The thread that connects book to DVD is Graham's incessant mea culpas to seemingly everyone in his life, but especially to Vince McMahon, Jr. Graham's apologies differ from others before him (Ted DiBiase, Bill Watts, etc.) in that he mentions McMahon with the same frequency as God. Honestly, it’s difficult to keep the two separate as the book progresses. Graham is so busy seeking absolution for his past actions I was expecting everybody in World Wrestling Entertainment to receive a personalized apology from the Superstar.
Given that, and given the fact most fans don't want to lay out the money to purchase two items that are essentially the same, the question arises of which to buy: the book or the DVD. Me, I'm a fan of the printed word. I've always felt that much more can be communicated in a book than in a 90-minute videotaped interview. My friend, Bill "Potshot" Kunkel, would disagree here, saying that, for what you're shelling out, you're getting more in a DVD than a book. In this case, Potshot is entirely correct.
Tangled Ropes had great potential. In a sport of characters, Graham was a real character. His travails in the game proved unusual by even pro wrestling standards: He trained with Stu Hart, tagged with the fabled Dr. Jerry Graham, christened himself “Superstar Billy Graham,” and took the wrestling world by storm with the sheer audacity of his gimmick and a steroid enhanced bodybuilder-like physique when few looked that part. He was put over as World Wide Wrestling Federation Champion, lost the belt 11 months later, and entered a downside of his career that matched the earlier success in duration. He dropped out of sight and was believed dead by many, only to return to the World Wrestling Federation as a completely different character, one who managed to squander the charisma his earlier character so carefully built up. Steroid abuse wrecked his body; Hepatitis C destroyed his liver and almost took his life, until he was fortunate enough to obtain the transplant that saved his life.
It’s a story worthy of E!’s True Hollywood Story, but while Graham covers these events in the book, he does so at arm’s length. When I read Fred Blassie’s Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks! I could hear Fred’s voice coming through loud and clear. It was as if we were sitting down at a wrestling fans’ function. I never got that feeling with Graham. As both books were co-authored by Keith Elliot Greenberg, clearly the fault lies with Graham
The DVD gives Graham more chance to expound without being subject to “translation.” Graham is a larger than life character to start with, so a video forum is more conducive to his persona. Assuming it's not a total work, a video with a person such as Graham allows the viewer to capture both him and his subject in context, gaining more insight than from a book, where the subject is naturally held at a distance.
That’s not a surprise as Graham has always been a compelling interview. He honed his orating skills as a preacher on the tent circuit. (This is an anomaly, as most wrestlers get religion on the downside of their career or after retirement, whereas Graham had the bug before he ever entered the squared circle.) In those tents, one either won the crowd over or bombed miserably. It wasn't enough to emote; one had to have a topic over which to emote, a topic one placed total belief in and over which he seemed willing to sacrifice his total being. As a preacher, one also used bytes and select phrases, the simpler the better to unearth the crowd’s raw emotions.
Graham employed the techniques he learned on the revival circuit in his promos, dramatizing his stories and using sound bytes to get himself over like few had before. It worked, as a wrestling crowd is not too different from a revivalist meeting. Both come in carrying an expectation that has to be met or exceeded. If that does not happen, next week’s crowd will be greatly diminished.
Personal and artistic differences got between Graham and God, so Graham cut and ran from the revival tour, a habit he would bring into his career as a pro wrestler.
Graham’s professional story begins with a failed stint in the Canadian Football League. He downplays the fact that he couldn’t cut the proverbial mustard, but, while looking for something more lucrative than being a bouncer, he heeded a former CFL teammate's invitation to train with Stu Hart for a wrestling career. The pitch that made Graham come to Calgary was that "wrestling was easy money." That was the overstatement of the year: the money was neither easy nor was there much of it up north. Graham’s recollection of his life with the Harts is a little too sanguine and all too short. In the book and on the DVD, it's as if he’s afraid to hurt someone’s feelings. His recollection in a January 1992 interview in Wrestling Perspective (Issue 22) was much more forthcoming, and a lot funnier too. If you want to get a better look at the Harts try Martha Hart’s Broken Harts or the Dynamite Kid’s Pure Dynamite.
Graham debuted under Stu Hart as Wayne Coleman. Superstar Billy Graham was to come later on, though his gimmick as a strong man was established right at the start, given his build. Inexperience, however, stopped him from getting over with the fans, and Graham returned to Arizona, where he met his destiny in the persona of one Dr. Jerry Graham.
Along with “brother” Eddie, Dr. Jerry Graham made his mark in the business, becoming a legitimate drawing card as a wowser in the Fifties and Sixties. Unfortunately for the Good Doctor, his road to everlasting success was blocked by his personal demons, of which he had plenty. The demons, the result of mental illness (he was institutionalized at least two times that I know of) could be released through the imbibing of alcohol, and considering the Good Doctor’s thirst, often ruled the night at whatever bar stool he parked his carcass. Graham was a veritable Jekyll and Hyde; talk to him when sober and he was an entertaining storyteller with a great sense of humor. But when plastered, he sank into a funk of maudlin resentment, striking out at real, exaggerated, and imagined injuries at the hands of promoters, co-workers and family.
A personal note here: if not for the naiveté of Mike Bellew, I might have had to deal with Graham head on. When I was writing for the Wrestling Eye, Tom Burke called the office. Seems Jerry Graham was in town and was looking for someone to stay with for a week. I love Tom; he’s always been a good friend, but I could see right through this one. For instance, why didn’t Tom take him in? He had room. I also knew of Dr. Jerry’s personality, and so I demurred. But Mike, eager to learn the business from one who knows, graciously and eagerly accepted the offer. Poor Mike. He didn’t know about Jerry’s alcohol consumption and made the mistake of offering the Good Doctor a drink. Jerry spent the week with Mike in a state of inebriation, having discovered where Mike’s parents kept the liquor. As was the case with Jerry when drunk, when he had to go to the bathroom, anywhere he was would do just fine. Jerry ended up deficating all over the Bellew’s living room carpet, their hallway carpet, the kitchen floor, and anywhere else he happened to be. Mike never forgave Tom for unloading Jerry on him, or me for not taking in the Doctor. He also swore off having any wrestler stay at his home again.
But for Wayne Coleman, there was no downside to Jerry Graham, not at first, anyway. They worked together as a tag team on various Indian reservations and managed, through Wayne’s powers of persuasion, to sell themselves as an act in Mike LaBell’s Los Angeles promotion. Wayne became the latest Graham brother, named Billy (the “Superstar” would be added later). Dressed in matching fringed rawhide vests and moccasin boots, they were an instant hit. But, there was a caveat: They were employed as long as Wayne kept Jerry under control. That proved impossible and so Jerry was given his notice. Billy Graham stayed on, eventually working his way into Roy Shire’s San Francisco promotion.
Shire introduced him to Ray Stevens and Pat Patterson, who gave Graham a post-graduate course in every aspect of professional wrestling, especially raising heat from the fans. Combined with Graham’s natural charisma, interview ability, and steroid enhanced bodybuilder physique – something unusual in the Seventies – this training helped Graham become a solid drawing card. Next it was the American Wrestling Association, where he claims he was approached by a young red-headed fan after the bouts. The fan wanted to know how to get into professional wrestling, to which Graham suggested Verne Gagne’s school. The kid, of course, was Bob Backlund, as if you didn’t know. The story is just too good to pass the smell test here. Think of the irony: Graham is approached by a kid seeking to get into pro wrestling. He sends the kid to Gagne, where the kid develops into Backlund, who eventually dethrones Graham for the WWWF belt. I’m not buying it.
Speaking of the WWWF, that was Graham’s next stop. Along the way his garb became even more outrageous, as he added tie-died tights, a feathered boa to his act, and a new moniker: “Superstar” Billy Graham. To be honest, WWWF fans had never seen anyone quite like Graham. Heels tended to be somewhat dowdy, preferring black tights. So here comes Graham and he stands out like a red maple on a Christmas tree farm. To complete the illusion, Vince McMahon Sr. was smart enough to assign the Grand Wizard as Graham’s manager. The Wiz’s idea of sartorial splendor was even more outré than Graham’s so they made a perfect couple in that way, and again, this is where the DVD is superior to the book. One can see both and immediately make the connection without having had to see them together in their prime.
More important for Graham, though, was the Wizard’s style as manager. He knew when to talk and when to let his protégé do the talking. This is what really got Graham over in the WWWF, for, unlike a lot of heels, Graham was completely comfortable on the mic, able to do a spiel without repeating himself.
Graham worked an extremely successful program with Bruno Sammartino, going to the three-match limit in every major city. After the run, Graham left for Florida, which was contrary to the usual pattern of the heel sticking around to job for the other top babyfaces and headlining tank towns. His Florida stint was a short one as he returned to the WWWF a few months later thanks to a deal he worked out with McMahon Sr. in Florida. Billy would beat Bruno for the belt in Baltimore on April 30, 1977 (shown as an extra on the DVD), and then drop it to Backlund in New York on Feb. 20, 1978 (also shown on the DVD as an extra). It was all figured out in advance. Bruno was at the end of his championship run. He was battered and worn out from years of defending his crown and was looking to ease his schedule. Bruno could never give anything less than his all in every match, and when injuries caught up to him and made that impossible, he decided to drop the belt rather than disappoint his fans. To Graham’s relief, Bruno didn’t mind dropping the strap to him. Graham was one of the few heels with whom Bruno had great chemistry and there was no lack of admiration on either side. Graham applauds Bruno in his book and on the DVD, quite a rarity in WWE-themed media.
Things went smoothly until Graham had to drop the strap. He mentions in the book that he wore plain white tights that night, which was true because I saw the match and knew right away Graham was going to drop the belt. To his credit, Graham went through with it, but he claims that doing it sent him on a downward spiral. He claims no animosity toward Backlund, but goes on to knock him and his ring style. At one point, Graham writes that Backlund was paranoid that the Superstar would double-cross him and take back the belt. I found this rather funny because there was no way Graham would do this unless it was officially sanctioned. Even if he were to somehow pull it off as a wildcat stunt, he would eventually have to face Backlund again, and if Backlund shot on Graham, the Superstar wouldn’t have stood a chance against the former amateur standout. Graham also attacks Backlund’s lack of personality, but that personality, combined with extraordinary wrestling ability, kept Backlund on top for almost six years.
Should Graham have been given a longer reign? My opinion is a definite yes. In the book and on the DVD Vince Jr. states that he would have turned Graham babyface. This would have been a definite mistake. Graham’s appeal was in his arrogant independence. He would have been successful defending against heels and babyfaces alike. The WWWF always had difficulty with the whole babyface versus heel thing, adhering to a strict division between the two to the ultimate determent of the fan. Sam Muchnick and Paul Boesch promoted in a different manner, with a heel champion facing a heel and a babyface facing a babyface. Each had financial success and moreover, legitimized the game by taking it out of the morality-play mentality. If Graham had another year as champion, the transition to Backlund could’ve been a lot smoother.
Graham disappeared a few months later. We saw him on the World’s Strongest Man competition, but then . . . nothing. Rumors soon began to sprout that he was dead. Graham comments on them in the book, even running a copy of Gorilla Monsoon’s column for the PhiladelphiaDaily News stating that the Superstar was, indeed, dead. It was a rumor that quickly caught fire, for it was in the days of almost total kayfabe and no one seemingly had the means to check it. One person did, however. Tom Burke told me he didn’t believe the whole thing because there was no obit in The ArizonaRepublic, Graham’s newspaper of record. It was a simple premise that was proven right when Graham resurfaced. Tom broke the story in his Global Wrestling newsletter and taught yours truly a most valuable lesson: Don’t believe everything you hear in wrestling, no matter how believable it is, how many repeat it, or how often it is repeated.
Yes, Graham was alive and returned to the WWF, but with a whole new gimmick. Instead of the flashy Superstar, there was now a bald martial arts fighter who destroyed Bob Backlund’s championship belt. On the DVD we see the look and get the full flavor of how it differed from his previous persona. The gimmick went over like the proverbial lead balloon, but may have been adopted out of necessity. Graham’s body was breaking down from years of steroid abuse and he was losing mobility at a rapid rate. After this run was finished, he would be seen in Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic promotion, and would have a final WWF comeback during the Hulk Hogan era. This comeback was destroyed by the need for hip surgery, the graphic video of which was broadcast on WWF television, and was likely the direct result of years of steroid abuse. With virtually no mobility left, Graham’s comeback was eventually aborted. He tried managing and announcing, both of which were failures. It seems that Graham couldn’t transfer his charisma into putting someone else over. He was let go by the WWF and fled into a life of bitter seclusion. His body was falling apart, leg operations revealed loss of bone from the steroids, and his ankle would be fused together making it difficult for him to walk. Worse yet, he had contracted Hepatitis C and was in dire need of a liver transplant.
When the WWF steroid scandal broke, Graham was at the forefront of critics attacking McMahon, criticizing him in several media outlets and wrestling newsletters including Wrestling Perspective. In the book and on the DVD he says that was a mistake caused by bitterness over being fired. Perhaps, but any time a wrestler shifts gears, strict attention must be paid. While Graham’s words in the early-Nineties carried some bitterness, they also carried a lot of truth. Today, Graham once again is in business with McMahon, and is seemingly no longer bitter.
The rest of the book covers his transplant and the young woman who donated her liver via an organ donor card. Again, this is where the DVD is superior in that we see the operation, see his doctors interviewed and more fully appreciate just what he went through. Graham also blathers many mea culpas to the McMahons and the rest of the WWE family. It all sounds hollow coming from someone dependent on the McMahons for royalties (i.e., this book and DVD). Jack Brisco’s praise of McMahon in his autobiography has a more authentic ring because Brisco is financially independent and his book was not published by the WWE publicity machine.
As I mentioned before, the DVD contains extras in the form of interviews and matches. The matches are a good trip down memory lane. We see the Baltimore match where Graham took the belt from Bruno. (The match was originally on film because there were no televised matches from Baltimore on local cable.) We also see title defenses against Ivan Putski, Dusty Rhodes, and the passing of the belt to Backlund. There are also a couple of squash matches from his AWA days.
The interviews are disappointing in that there aren't enough of them. Graham truly hit his stride during his WWWF days and there should have been more of those included, especially those concerning Putski and Rhodes, each of which would have made a great introduction to the accompanying matches. Even the interviews for the inevitable rematches against Bruno would have made a great addition. I remember one where Graham claimed Bruno was so nervous that every morning his wife had to check out his house to make sure the Superstar wasn't there so that Bruno could come down and eat his Cheerios. Or Graham's great shoot interview before a match against Haystacks Calhoun where he noted that Calhoun woke up one night to go to the bathroom, stumbled and fell, crushing his Chihuahua. Graham even broke himself up during this interview. Even so, however, the DVD is clearly the superior choice for the money and is a keeper for those who remember wrestling as it once was.
Just keep in mind that when all is said and done, keep a vat of salt handy.
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