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, in the 1950s as the Golden Grahams. But struggles with his mental health and alcohol 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 into 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 out 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. 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.”
Dr. Jerry Graham and the New York Riot
Graham’s reputation as a wild man was well-earned. 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. All four men were fined by the New York State Athletic Commission, 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 Nov. 22, 1957 sates. “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 Nov. 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.”
The New York Times’ 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 Kidnaps His Mother’s Corpse
But the craziest story in the insane, alcohol-fueled, wildlife 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 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. My brother, Vance [Editor’s note: Vance Bingaman, was 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. It was almost like a terrorist situation. 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 24, 1997, at the age of 75. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame’s Legacy Wing in 2017.