#49 Superstar Billy Graham
A majority of the wrestlers that are going to make up the list of "50 Greatest Wrestlers of the last 50 years" are going to be guys who spent years and years and years on top of the wrestling industry. Superstar Billy Graham is one of the few exceptions on the list that does not fall into that category. There are plenty of wrestlers on this list who had world title reigns that were longer than Graham's entire run on the top of the industry. While Graham may not have had the longest career in professional wrestling, he had a greater impact on the industry then many of the "lifetime" wrestlers.
Graham got his start in professional wrestling after competing as a professional bodybuilder in Califronia. Pro wrestler Bob Lueck suggested that Graham get involved in pro wrestling, and Graham began training under the legendary Stu Hart in Calgary. After working briefly in Calgary, in 1970 he traveled to Florida and worked in the NWA with the Graham family, mainly Dr. Jerry Graham and the promoter, Eddie Graham, which began the start of his career.
It was California however, where Graham began to develop his persona. The brash, arrogance that would become his trademark began while working for promoter Roy Shire in San Francisco, when he would challenge fans in the crowd to arm wrestling matches. In 1972 Graham moved to work for Verne Gagne in the AWA, where he really upped his gimmick.
Everything that makes Billy Graham so notable can be traced back to the attitudes of the late 1960s and 70s. The Billy Graham moniker, came from the popular televangelist Billy Graham, a charismatic figure from the South who served as the spiritual adviser for several United States presidents. He added "Superstar" to the front of his name because of the 1970 musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" that was popular on Broadway. The tie-dyed shirt, the over-muscled physique, the colorful promos, Billy Graham was the perfect character for this time period.
In 1975 Graham made his debut in the WWWF, wrestling against WWWF World Champion at the time Bruno Sammartino and his long-time tag team partner Dominic De Nucci. He also teamed up with his long-time tag team partner, Ivan Koloff, who he would work with for most of his career. Graham would leave this territory soon after, but it introduced him and his character to the fans in the Northeast.
Graham would have his greatest success in the territories outside of New York in the Florida territory, working with Dusty Rhodes and Harley Race, which really established Graham as a top wrestler throughout the country. In April of 1977, Graham returned to New York and defeated Sammartino for the WWWF World Championship.
Graham as the WWWF World Champion was a watershed moment for the WWWF. He was the first heel to hold the championship for a long period of time. The previous heel champions were transitional title holders, as Buddy Rogers, Ivan Koloff and Stan Stasiak held the championship for a combined 52 days. Graham was also one of the few world champions at the time who was not the typical worker. The champions of the 1970s besides Graham and until Dusty Rhodes (who held the championship briefly in 1979) were all mostly the same guys, excellent mat technicians that could handle themselves in the ring. Harley Race, Nick Bockwinkel, Bruno Sammartino, Jack Brisco. All of those guys were great and we will see them later on the list, but it was they also were all somewhat similar workers. Graham stood out completely compared to the rest of the champions of the 70s, which is what made him such a notable wrestler in the annals of wrestling history.
Compared to the previous long-term WWWF World Champions, Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales, Graham wasn't just a different type of worker, he was from another planet. While Sammartino and Morales were largely ethnic heroes, who drew large swaths of immigrants to Madison Square Garden. Graham was not that type of wrestler, he drew fans not because of his ethnicity or his physical toughness, but because of his image and persona. This was a guy that grabbed the mic before matches and soulfully spoke to the crowd. Even as a heel fans understood that Graham was magical.
Officially Graham is the sixth man to be WWWF World Heavyweight Champion. However, in reality he is really only the third since the aforementioned trio of heels that preceded him had blink-and-you-missed-it title reigns. The previous two champions where the classic ethnic babyfaces (Sammartino and Pedro Morales) who fought from underneath. Graham was the opposite of those guys, a brash and cocky heel who could care less about the diversity of the New York metropolitan area. In a lot of ways, Graham was the first WWWF wrestler to be less of a wrestler and more of a sports-entertainer. While Vince McMahon Jr. is often credited with creating the concept of sports-entertainment, and launching the brand with Hulk Hogan, Graham was really the first WWWF main eventer who was heavy on the entertainment side.
So how did Graham succeed when he broke the mold for every successful champion in New York previously? Graham's differences made him extremely identifiable with fans. He was one of the first heels to really connect with the audience in a way a babyface would, by cutting great promos and always being entertaining. The WWWF offices never had that much faith in him to be a top babyface, which they were then proven wrong when they pushed Hogan to great success using largely the same character, but Graham was one of the first true tweeners in wrestling, especially on the national stage.
His title reign isn't as notable as it probably should be, probably because he held the championship for only 296 days, which was a hiccup when you consider the reigns Sammartino (1,237 days) and Bob Backlund (2,135 days) that bookended his. However, Graham had an extremely notable run as champion. His opponents during his title reign include, Sammartino, Brisco, Rhodes, Morales and Mil Mascaras. In addition, at the time Vince McMahon Sr. had a close working relationship with Antonio Inoki, and Graham defended his championship in Japan against top stars like Strong Kobayashi and Riki Choshu. He had two high profile sell-outs of Madison Square Garden against Rhodes and he had a very notable one-hour draw against NWA Champion Harley Race at the Orange Bowl in Miami. According to Dave Meltzer, Graham was the top wrestling draw in the world in both 1977 and 1978.
In the end, Graham dropped the championship to Bob Backlund who replaced the brash Graham with a generic, wholesome All-American gimmick. Despite having the second longest title reign in the history of the company, Backlund faced a lot of criticism as a top drawing champion, as many considered his gimmick bland and boring after witnessing Graham. In fact, when Vince McMahon Jr. bought the company from his father, his first order of business was to replace Backlund with a more charismatic champion, Hogan, who have course was influenced heavily by Graham.
After his run as champion, Graham didn't have a memorable career. Injuries and health issues that came along with years of steroid abuse and beating up his body for a living. He came back to the WWWF in 1982 with a bizarre new karate gimmick, even though it was obvious he hadn't spent a day inside a legit karate dojo. Frustrated with Vince McMahon's Sr. reluctance to push him as a babyface, he retired the "Superstar" character, which ultimately probably cost both men a lot of money. Graham spent some more time in the AWA and NWA, and actually did return as the "Superstar" in the WWF in 1986, but he clearly wasn't the star he was in the past and he wrestled his final match in 1987.
Since retirement Graham has been all over the place. For a while he has been the most outspoken critic of the Vince McMahon Jr. and the WWE's reliance on steroid abuse, and has often been critical of the more modern product. In November of 2015 he signed a legend's deal with WWE, so it will be interesting to see what his role in wrestling will be going forward.
One of the big focuses I had in considering wrestlers for this list was the ability for a wrestler to be a big star for a long period of time. That would ensure that a wrestler was able to reinvent himself over time and work with different opponents and promoters. Graham doesn't fall into that category. What Graham is however, is a transcendent star that paved the way for future generations of wrestlers. Maybe he didn't have the longest run on top, but isn't his success somewhat responsible for the success of later stars, particularly Hulk Hogan who became the biggest wrestling star of the 1980s? Graham might not have had the decades of big matches that most of the other wrestlers did, but he did have a huge impact on the industry and the progression of wrestling in North America, and when you have that on your resume, you are going to be considered one of the all-time greats.
Next week #48 will be revealed, a controversial star who struck out on his own and formed his own promotion and wrestled his own style.