The Tragic Tale of Wrestler Dr. Jerry Graham

In 1969, the mother of wrestler Dr. Jerry Graham Graham was admitted to the hospital. He phoned her doctor and pledged that harm would befall him should she expire under his care. She died later that day, resulting in one of the most tragic stories outside the ring.

Wrestler Dr. Jerry Graham.
Wrestler Dr. Jerry Graham.

The Tragedy That Befell Dr. Jerry Graham: Vince McMahon’s Favorite Wrestler

There was no telling what Dr. Jerry Graham would do. In the ring, he was a phenomenal talent. Outside of it, he was a true hell-raiser, blowing through money, drinking to excess, and chasing women.

Graham was a tremendous draw during his heyday, selling out Madison Square Garden multiple times with his kayfabe brother, Eddie Graham, in the 1950s as the Golden Grahams. But struggles with mental health and addiction continuously sunk his career, bringing him from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.

"…there was something inside the Good Doctor — maybe even a genetic malformation — that continuously forced him to sabotage himself. Sooner or later, you sensed, he was going to self-destruct," Superstar Billy Graham wrote in his 2010 memoir, Tangled Ropes.

The Superstar had a unique view of what made Dr. Jerry Graham tick.

Born Wayne Coleman, the Superstar was inducted as a kayfabe member of the Graham family when he was just starting in the business.

The two worked together in Arizona and in Mike LeBell’s Los Angeles-based promotion.

Their employment in L.A. was dependent upon the Superstar keeping "the Good Doctor" in line since he’d once run afoul of Freddie Blassie, who — in addition to being the territory’s top draw — was also a powerful figure behind the scenes.

"… Fred hated drunks," wrote Jeff Walton, who handled publicity for Mike LeBell and promoted spot shows in the southern California territory.

"He looked at Jerry Graham as someone who was really talented but wasting his life. Fred couldn’t stand guys like that. It just turned him off. Fred never drank at all. He chased women."

Jerry Graham did a fair amount of that, too. Wrestlers of that era have recalled Graham more than once entering a bar, approaching a table where a good-looking woman was seated, and walking away with her — even if she was there with a date.

During his heyday, Dr. Jerry Graham was also Vincent K. McMahon’s favorite wrestler.

A young Vince McMahon.
A young Vince McMahon.

McMahon, a teenager in the late 1950s, dyed his hair blond to emulate Graham and even dressed like him. The two would ride around Washington, D.C., in Graham’s convertible.

"Oh, boy. It’s 1959, and I’m looking up at Jerry Graham, and he’s lighting cigars with $100 bills," McMahon told Playboy in 2001.

"He wore red shoes and rode around Washington in a blood-red 1959 Cadillac, smoking a cigar. He’d run red lights, blowing the horn, and people would scatter. If they didn’t get out of his way, he’d cut a promo."

Citing the larger-than-life wrestler’s drinking and carousing, McMahon said his father "wouldn’t let me spend an enormous amount of time with him, but I’d sneak away when I could and go riding with the good doctor."

Eddie (left) and Dr. Jerry Graham in their heyday with blond hair wearing sequined jackets and title belts
Eddie Graham and Dr. Jerry Graham in their heyday for Vincent J. McMahon’s Capitol Sports Corporation, the forerunner of the WWE.

Dr. Jerry Graham and the New York Riot

Dr. Jerry Graham had a well-deserved reputation as a wild man. In November of 1957, Graham teamed with Dick the Bruiser to take on Argentina Rocca and Edouard Carpentier in the main event at MSG.

After Graham’s team took the loss, he attacked Rocca. The attack was so vicious that the fans rioted.

They threw chairs and stormed the ring, while Dick the Bruiser and Graham held them at bay, tossing fans bodily from the ring.

The scene was so bad that eight police officers were injured, hundreds of arena seats were destroyed, and someone even stole Graham’s ornate ring robe.

The New York State Athletic Commission fined all four men, and Dick the Bruiser was barred from wrestling in New York for life.

MSG instituted a rule that no one under 14 years old could attend wrestling events at the arena, a ban that stood for 20 years.

The riot was a big enough deal that the Associated Press covered it:

"The New York State Athletic Commission threw the book at four wrestlers and a promoter today as the result of a riot after a tag-team match last Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden," a report from November 22, 1957 states.

"Antonio Rocca of Argentina and Dr. Jerry Graham of Hollywood, Calif., each were fined $1,000.

“Dick Afflis of Chicago was assessed a $500 fine, and Edouard Carpentier of France $100.

In addition, Chairman Julius Helfand of the Commission canceled a wrestling show booked for November 30 at the Garden by promoter Walter Smallshaw.

"This was part of the general fine, for the promoter was held partly responsible for the conduct of the wrestlers.

"Approximately 500 of the 12,987 fans rioted soon after Rocca and Carpentier, the heroes, gained a two-of-three falls verdict over the villains, Graham and Afflis.

"Graham and Rocca tussled on the ring apron after the bout was ended, and two policemen were hurt when the crowd closed in, and the fracas began. One officer was hit on the head by a bottle. Extra police were summoned to quell the disturbance."

Dr. Jerry Graham
Dr. Jerry Graham

The New York Times’s Michael Strauss followed up with this report a day later:

"One of the most entertaining wrestling shows of the season took place before only a few dozen spectators yesterday.

"Directly involved were four wrestlers and a referee. No, this was no tag match. The session was conducted by members of the New York State Athletic Commission," Strauss wrote.

"The commission, headed by Julius Helfand, was eager to determine the cause of the riot at the conclusion of last Tuesday night’s mat show at Madison Square Garden.

"One thing was certain. No one was prepared to accept the blame. Even Antonio Rocca and Dr. Jerry Graham, who emerged from the extracurricular fracas with bloodied faces, couldn’t throw much light on the subject.

"The truth was that Graham bladed himself and Rocca after the match was over. They were on the ring apron, and when the mob saw the blood, a riot ensued.

“When the hearing in the commission’s offices was over, all four grapplers had taken the count — a financial one.

"Rocca and Graham were fined $1,000 each. Dick Afflis of Chicago, who had paired with Graham in the team match, was hit for $500.

“Edouard Carpentier of France, who had paired with Rocca, was penalized only $100."

Graham continued to wrestle in New York, drawing huge numbers.

MSG was again sold-out when he challenged Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF title a few years later. More than 10,000 fans were turned away at the door to see the Good Doctor off against the Italian strongman.

Dr. Jerry Graham and His Tragic Standoff with the Police

But the craziest story in the insane, alcohol-fueled, wild life of Dr. Jerry Graham happened long after he was out of New York’s spotlight.

In 1969, his mother, Mary, passed away at a hospital in Phoenix.

"… Shortly after she was admitted to the hospital, Graham phoned her doctor and pledged that harm would befall him should she expire under his care," Superstar Billy Graham wrote.

"When she died later that day, Graham showed up at the hospital with his twelve-year-old son.

"Wielding a hunting knife and sawed-off shotgun, a tearful Graham shoved down a nurse and tossed a security guard across a hallway, hoisting his dead mother’s body off a gurney and draping it over his shoulder.

"Another security guard rushed forward, and Graham knocked him down and dragged him across the floor while still holding the corpse with his other arm.

Superstar Billy Graham continued, "My brother, Vance [a police officer in Phoenix at the time.] vividly recalled how squad cars were called to the hospital, surrounding it, and blocking off the streets nearby.

"Eventually, cops stormed the hospital and arrested Graham, who screamed incoherently and pounded on the patrol car doors as he was taken into custody."

The Good Doctor was not officially charged for his actions, as he sought treatment at the Arizona State Mental Hospital.

"Graham was destitute at the time and dismayed to discover that after all that effort, his mother had left her entire life savings — $500,000 — to the Baptist church," Superstar Graham wrote.

"For years, Jerry had sent his mother money from the road, and she stashed it in the bank, along with proceeds the family earned when oil was found on their property.

“Now it was all in the church coffers, leaving Jerry with a lifelong hatred of religion and a feeling of betrayal by the person he loved most."

Dr. Jerry Graham died on January 24th, 1997 at the age of 68, due to complications from a stroke six weeks before.

He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame’s Legacy Wing in 2017.

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Bobby Mathews is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories as well as a veteran journalist whose byline has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Birmingham News, The Denver Post, as well as other newspapers around the country. He's won multiple awards for reporting and opinion writing, and his sports journalism has garnered several Associated Press Managing Editors Awards. He has covered Division I college athletics and professional sports including MLB and NFL games. He has won awards from press associations in several states, including a General Excellence award from the Georgia Press Association while sports editor at The Statesboro Herald. He currently lives in suburban Birmingham, Alabama and can be reached on Twitter @bamawriter.