Superstar Billy Graham: Wrestling’s Charismatic Icon
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?
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 ten of his best matches witnessed live.
1- Superstar Billy Graham vs WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden, February 2nd, 1976
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.
2- WWWF Champion Superstar Billy Graham vs Bruno Sammartino with Guest Referee Gorilla Monsoon at Madison Square Garden, August 1st, 1977
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
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.
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 Champion Bruno Sammartino and WWWF Tag Team Champion Tony Parisi vs Superstar Billy Graham and Ivan Koloff at Madison Square Garden, March 29th, 1976
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
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
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- Superstar Billy Graham vs Mil Mascaras Madison Square Garden on December 19, 1977
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 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.
9- Superstar Billy Graham vs Andre the Giant at Nassau Coliseum, November 17th, 1978
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.
Andre, who was being pushed as "undefeated" by Vince Sr., defeated the Superstar via count-out at 13:47.
Superstar Billy Graham vs High Chief Peter Maivia at Madison Square Garden, November 21, 1977
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.
Superstar Billy Graham in the 1980s
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 substance abuse 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
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.
Superstar Billy Graham: “I’m afraid to say I would do it again”
The above quote comes from Superstar Billy Graham in the must-watch 350 Days Documentary.
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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