Witnessing History: Superstar Billy Graham’s Best Matches

At 6’4″ and 275 pounds, with 22-inch biceps and a flamboyant, larger-than-life personality, there was nobody quite like Superstar Billy Graham. The self-professed "man of the hour, too sweet to be sour" had infectious charisma, and his rap-like promos had audiences on the edge of their seats. But how did he stack up in his matches?

From Bruno Sammartino, Dusty Rhodes, and beyond, here are ten of the best Superstar Billy Graham matches we saw live before, during, and after his run as WWWF World Heavyweight Champion.
From Bruno Sammartino, Dusty Rhodes, and beyond, here are ten of the best Superstar Billy Graham matches we saw live before, during, and after his run as WWWF World Heavyweight Champion.

The Very Best Matches of Superstar Billy Graham

We pay tribute to the legendary Superstar Billy Graham, who passed away on May 17th, 2023, at 79, by sharing his best matches witnessed live

1. Superstar Billy Graham vs. Bruno Sammartino (WWWF Champion) at Madison Square Garden, February 2nd, 1976

It was always a thrilling encounter when Superstar Billy Graham met Bruno Sammartino in the ring.
It was always a thrilling encounter when Superstar Billy Graham met Bruno Sammartino in the ring.

When the ring announcer must warn the fans not to throw garbage into the ring, or they "will be arrested," that’s some major heat!

And with 25,600 in attendance, including 3,100 in the Felt Forum on the coldest night of the year watching on closed-circuit, the two archrivals were certainly raising the temperature in the "mecca of pro wrestling."

Many younger fans of today can’t even grasp what made this so epic; they merely see a meat and potatoes trading of bear hugs, punches, kicks, and tests of strengths.

But Bruno Sammartino was our godlike hero, and Superstar Billy Graham was seen as a legitimate threat to him which would be proven true a year later when he wrested the coveted gold.

The building shook, and when Superstar got busted open badly, he tossed the ref aside, and they continued to go at it as a primeval roar rocked the hallowed hall.

The bout was ultimately stopped on blood at 17:55, Graham grabbed the mike to declare he didn’t quit, but no immediate rematch was booked to save Graham’s heat.

However, the pair would meet many times again at Madison Square Garden, and like Superman and Lex Luthor, Batman and The Joker, it was always a thrilling encounter.

2. Superstar Billy Graham (WWWF Champion) vs. Bruno Sammartino with Guest Referee Gorilla Monsoon at Madison Square Garden, August 1st, 1977

Bruno Sammartino challenges Superstar Billy Graham for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship with Gorilla Monsoon as Special Referee at Madison Square Garden on August 1st, 1977. Bruno Sammartino challenges Superstar Billy Graham for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship with Gorilla Monsoon as Special Referee at Madison Square Garden on August 1st, 1977.
Bruno Sammartino challenges Superstar Billy Graham for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship with Gorilla Monsoon as Special Referee at Madison Square Garden on August 1st, 1977. [Original photographer: George Napolitano]
Role reversal time as the recently crowned heel champion took on our beloved Bruno Sammartino in an unforgettable contest.

And with special guest referee "enforcer," the 400-pound Gorilla Monsoon, there wouldn’t be any shenanigans as they used to say.

After a pounding from the Italian strongman, Graham fled the ring and waved his hand in disgust as if to say, "I quit!"

Heading backstage, Monsoon chased after him, the crowd assuming the wild brawl was over.

Suddenly, Monsoon magically reappeared, carrying Graham over his shoulder and tossing him into the ring, where Bruno pounced on him like a wild beast. The match was stopped at 13:05 due to "excessive blood."

The pop that Monsoon got when he brought Graham back still rings in our ears nearly a half-century later. It was like a gladiator was about to be vanquished at the Roman Coliseum.

It was beautiful.

3. Superstar Billy Graham vs. Tony Garea at Nassau Coliseum, September 12th, 1977

Superstar Billy Graham faces off against Tony Garea.
Superstar Billy Graham faces off against Tony Garea.

Before the Internet, and a zillion shoot interviews, sheets, and wrestling books "smartened up" the masses, many of the blue-collar 1970s fans were more than capable of getting so lost in a great match that they felt the impossible could happen and an underdog challenger could wrest the title in a shocking upset.

The late, great Brad Armstrong could pull that off against NWA kingpin Ric Flair, and perennial tag champ from New Zealand Tony Garea did it on this night against Billy Graham.

A clean-cut, handsome, well-built, soft-spoken baby face Garea was the perfect foil for the boastful, arrogant title holder, and their match kept us fans on the edge of our seats.

But alas, like a balloon deflating, it was Graham for the win in a hell of a battle among his very best defenses.

4. WWWF World Champion Champion Bruno Sammartino and WWWF Tag Champion Tony Parisi vs. Superstar Billy Graham and Ivan Koloff at Madison Square Garden, March 29th, 1976

Ivan Koloff, the man who beat Bruno Sammartino for the belt, and Superstar Billy Graham, who would eventually do the same, were taking on Sammartino and his "cousin," Tag Champion Tony Parisi.

An excellent two out of-three fall affair going 26:57, the Italian duo won by count-out in the third fall.

Particularly of note was dissension in the ranks between the heels, even resulting in some pushing and shoving.

The fans erupted for Graham, who got a total babyface reaction. Evil Russian characters were not beloved during the Cold War.

Graham versus Koloff would have blown the roof off back then. But unfortunately, money was left on the table.

5. Superstar Billy Graham vs. Dusty Rhodes at Madison Square Garden, September 26th, 1977

It was always a special affair when Superstar Billy Graham and Dusty Rhodes stepped into the ring together.
It was always a special affair when Superstar Billy Graham and Dusty Rhodes stepped into the ring together. [Photo: Fandom.com]
Superstar Billy Graham has stated that when he faced "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, there was almost too much charisma for one ring to hold.

And that may very well have been an understatement.

One could feel the anticipation in the air, and when Rhodes went on the offensive, the fans just erupted.

Despite Graham being the far superior physical specimen, his selling made Rhodes look like Superman.

Dusty won via count-out at 15:55 after backdropping Graham over the top ropes and even celebrated with the title bout around his waist in the ultimate photo-op.

They’d repeatedly meet in WWWF rings, but this first Garden bout felt special, as proven by the sellout crowd and closed-circuit TV needed in the adjacent Felt Forum.

6. Superstar Billy Graham vs. Gorilla Monsoon at Nassau Coliseum, December 26th, 1977

WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Superstar Billy Graham gets a powerful grip around the girth of Gorilla Monsoon back in 1977.
WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Superstar Billy Graham gets a powerful grip around the girth of Gorilla Monsoon back in 1977. [Photo: @WrestlingIsKing on Twitter]
Gorilla Monsoon is front and center again, winning a Battle Royal that included such all-time greats as Mr. Fuji, Professor Tanaka, High Chief Peter Maivia, Chief Jay Strongbow, former champion Stan Stasiak, and Butcher Paul Vachon.

With the stipulation that the winner gets a title shot, the fans were the winners that night, as this was a classic brawl.

Highlights included Monsoon and Graham dramatically on their knees, with Gorilla chopping his opponent to bits. And with Billy selling like his life depended on it and doing his classic stagger, the mostly mark crowd "smelled a title change."

It didn’t happen, of course, but it is now etched among our fondest memories.

7. Dec. 19, 1977, Superstar Billy Graham vs. Mil Máscaras Madison Square Garden

Superstar Billy Graham vs. "The Man of a Thousand Masks," Mil Máscaras. [Photo: Reddit]
Superstar Billy Graham has always said he should have turned babyface and would have had a Hulkamania-like run years before Hulk Hogan made his mark in the area.

With Debbie Harry of Blondie and Andy Kaufman in attendance, it seemed that even in the pre-MTV era, celebs loved the glamorous Superstar and pro wrestling.

Televised on both HBO and the MSG Networks, there was undoubtedly mainstream interest as well.

And the sizeable Hispanic fan base idolized "The Man of a Thousand Masks," Mil Máscaras, who won via referee’s decision at 16:24 when the ref stopped the bout on blood.

On his climb to the top, Bob Backlund appeared with Máscaras, and the landscape would change a mere two months later with "The All-American Boy" beating Graham in that fateful February 20th, 1978, title-change match.

8. Superstar Billy Graham vs. Ivan Putski at Madison Square Garden, August 29th, 1977

The crowd went nuts when Superstar Billy Graham faced off against "The Polish Hammer" Ivan Putski.
The crowd went nuts when Superstar Billy Graham faced off against “The Polish Hammer” Ivan Putski. [Photo: Reddit]
Except for a rare loss to a red-hot Stan Hansen after he broke Bruno Sammartino’s neck, Ivan Putski was a virtually unbeatable babyface and a legit challenger to Superstar Billy Graham.

The Polish strongman was no slouch in the muscle department either, and their dramatic tests of strengths garnered more of a fan reaction than a zillion dangerous highspots would today.

Graham defeated Putski via count-out at 18:01 after Ivan was backdropped to the floor.

They’d meet again up and down the old WWWF East Coast circuit to the delight of the fans who couldn’t get enough of the two powerhouses.

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9. Superstar Billy Graham vs. Andre the Giant at Nassau Coliseum, November 17th, 1978

Superstar Billy Graham raises a chair to attack Andre the Giant during an earlier match of theirs from 1975.
Superstar Billy Graham raises a chair to attack Andre the Giant during a match of theirs three years before in 1975. [Photo: midatlanticwrestling.net]
Even after his WWWF World Heavyweight Championship loss, Superstar Graham was still headlining many of the WWWF arenas, and this one proved memorable.

And bigger was better when Andre the Giant took on the man with the 22-inch arms.

It was a battle of two all-time legends, and the fans popped for everything they did; a younger, quicker, thinner 1970s version of Andre impressed.

Andre, who was being pushed as "undefeated" by Vince Sr., defeated the Superstar via count-out at 13:47.

10. Superstar Billy Graham vs. High Chief Peter Maivia at Madison Square Garden, November 21, 1977

Peter Maivia vs. Superstar Billy Graham.
Peter Maivia vs. Superstar Billy Graham. [Photo: vergemagazine.co.uk / Pro Wrestling Illustrated]
Equally great face or heel, High Chief Peter Maivia challenged both Superstar Billy Graham and later Bob Backlund for the WWWF title headlining Madison Square Garden.

Although this proved to be a one-shot, the Chief was so beloved then that the TV angle with Graham breaking his ukelele over his head was fresh enough in our minds to incense the MSG crowd.

Every blow to the champ was met with a roar of delight.

The father-in-law of Rocky Johnson and grandfather of “The Rock” Dwayne Johnson, Maivia notably fought Sean Connery in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice.

Sadly, Maivia passed away at the age of 45 from cancer.

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Superstar Billy Graham in the 1980s

No longer a bleached blond wearing tie-dye, Superstar Billy Graham surprised everyone when becoming a "karate expert" in the ring.
No longer a bleached blond wearing tie-dye, Superstar Billy Graham surprised everyone when becoming a “karate expert” in the ring. [Photo: skolanlar.nu]
As you’ll note, the matches here are all from the Superstar’s prime WWWF years.

When he returned to WWF in 1982 for a trio of MSG main events versus then-champion Bob Backlund, he was still an all-time great talker and draw, but the bleached blond hair was gone, as was his colorful garb and champion bodybuilder physique.

He had somehow devolved into an ill-advised Karate gimmick. And his well-documented drug and other issues hampered his performance. Simply put, it just didn’t feel like Superstar Billy Graham.

He had far better runs in Florida as part of Kevin Sullivan’s outrageous army, and an injury-riddled decade too late was finally turned face for one last WWF push feuding with Butch Reed, including a cage match at MSG.

Sadly, he had pleaded with Vince McMahon Sr. for a face turn during his prime, but McMahon had committed to Backlund.

It is considered one of wrestling’s greatest "What ifs."

The Death and Legacy of Superstar Billy Graham

Superstar Billy Graham is seen here in the hospital in 2023. In recent years, he has been dealing with various life-threatening health issues.
Superstar Billy Graham is seen here in the hospital in 2023. In recent years, he has been dealing with various life-threatening health issues.

We were saddened to learn that WWE Hall of Famer Superstar Billy Graham passed away at 79 on May 17th, 2023. The news was announced on Ric Flair’s Twitter account.

Graham has been open about his various health issues, and things progressively got worse over the past decade. His wife Valerie noted on Facebook that he had lost weight in recent months, and ultimately the decision was made to take him off life support.

Wrestling journalist Scott Wilson owns an extensive collection of Superstar Graham memorabilia and has this to say about his wrestling hero:

"He was so influential and copied by many, including Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura, and Scott Steiner. He knew how to be and was a great champion. Billy inspired me in my bodybuilding and exercise. Also, he’s a nice, caring man; he wrote me a wonderful letter after my father died. He’s always meant so much to me."

With many health issues over the last years of his life, there was a true disconnect between the deathly ill 79-year-old who lost 75 pounds and the magnificent warrior of yore.

And, yes, a pioneer and champion should have a pension, 401K, and health benefits from the billion-dollar corporation built on his once mighty shoulders.

A legend’s supposed golden years shouldn’t have necessitated a GoFundMe.

But what will always remain are the magical memories.


“I’m afraid to say I would do it again.”

–Superstar Billy Graham, 350 Days Documentary 

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As skinny, scrawny kids, we gawked at Graham with awe and wonder. Simply put, we wanted to be him. A "cool heel" before the term was even coined, his stream-of-consciousness riffs enthralled us.

“I lift barbell plates. I eat T-bone steaks. I’m sweeter than a German chocolate cake. How much more of me can you take?”

No, never again will there ever be anyone quite like Superstar Billy Graham.

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Evan Ginzburg is the Senior Editor for Pro Wrestling Stories and a contributing writer since 2017. He's a published author and was an Associate Producer on the Oscar-nominated movie "The Wrestler" and acclaimed wrestling documentary "350 Days." He is a 30-plus-year film, radio, and TV veteran and a voice-over actor on the radio drama Kings of the Ring.