“The times they are a-changin’…” – Bob Dylan
It was a Friday night in early 1980, and the whole family was excited as we sat in our seats in the World Famous Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. This would be another memorable night of entertainment for me, as all opportunities to see wrestling live at the Olympic were. And to add to the excitement, we were seated only 5 or 6 rows from the ring, thus we had a better vantage point of the action than we normally did. And my Stepfather never let us forget it.
For while The Olympic Auditorium had Jeff Walton for a publicist, my Stepfather was his very own. “Man, look at these great seats! We have better seats than almost everyone! The other kids’ Dads didn’t get them seats like this!”
The only thing that night that made him feel more impressed with himself took place during the intermission. Sitting in front of us were two other Latinos who were about 16 years old, and at one point they both turned around, and one of them asked my Stepfather, “Who are you?” Apparently, they thought he was a wrestler who had decided to get a closer look at the matches. “Him?!” I thought incredulously. While my Stepfather was a little bigger than lots of Latinos at that time, I hardly thought that he looked like a professional wrestler. But then again, he did have a Carlos Mata type of body, and the wrestlers’ bodies at that time would look very different from what many wrestlers would look like in years to come.
And as I sat there waiting for the intermission to be over and the program to resume, the thought of wrestler’s physiques and Carlos Mata made me flash back to about a year and half earlier, when I first caught a glimpse of what was undoubtedly the greatest wrestling physique at that time.
It was 1978, and I was at home watching Wrestling from the Olympic on the UHF channel and they were broadcasting matches that had been recently taped on Weds. August 30th. And it was Carlos Mata himself waiting for his opponent to arrive and enter the ring. And soon would enter a man, who compared to Carlos Mata looked like a Giant of a man, and who had the most impressive physique I had ever seen on a wrestler! The guy looked more like Lou Ferrigno, the bodybuilder/actor who played the Incredible Hulk on Television than he did any wrestler I had ever seen! And what made him even more impressive to me, even before he performed a single move in the ring, was ring announcer Jimmy Lennon proclaiming that the man was a former WWWF World Champion. I knew from the wrestling magazines that Bruno Sammartino had been the previous champion, and after having seen a profile of Bruno on the “Greatest Sports Legends” Television program, I knew that if this “Superstar Billy Graham” had beaten Bruno, he was a man to be reckoned with. And while he would at times manhandle Carlos Mata during the match, it would still be a few years before I would begin to grasp what a tremendous impact Superstar Billy Graham would make in professional wrestling.
His stay at that time turned out to be brief, and in actuality, this wasn’t the Superstar’s first trip through L.A. In fact, after a brief time wrestling for Stu Hart in Calgary, Los Angeles would be the place where a young Wayne Coleman would begin his evolution to becoming Superstar Billy Graham, a legend in Professional Wrestling, and a charismatic innovator and forerunner in Sports Entertainment.
But in the summer of 1970 it was still “Wrestling” so when bodybuilder turned wrestler Billy Graham showed up alongside the infamous Jerry Graham in promoter Mike LeBelle’s office, LeBelle along with Booker Charlie Moto and assistant Freddie Blassie, had their doubts about the duo. Fortunately, publicist Jeff Walton saw promise in the massive bodybuilder and the Graham brothers were given a shot. While Billy’s stay was only a few months, the opportunity gave him much needed experience and exposure, and he enjoyed the local bodybuilding scene and the sunshine. And shopping in L.A. also gave him the opportunity to begin crafting the part of his “look” that involved his wrestling attire.
For the “Superstar Billy Graham experience” would eventually become a multi-faceted one, a multi-layered one, with so much to offer. With the feathered boas, the tie-dyed attire, the jewelry, the entertaining promos, the bumps and selling in the ring, the chiseled physique, and his amazingly charismatic presence, it was like having a multi-course meal at a fine restaurant. Sure he wasn’t exactly a ring technician, and he’d be the first to admit that, but he excelled so much in presentation, the lack of a vast wrestling repertoire was easy to overlook. After all, most meals in fine restaurants are presented so beautifully, are made to appear so appetizing, that you quickly forget just how small the portions are.
And Billy completely understood that and it was an important part of the psychology of his wrestling. And it was during his time in Roy Shire’s San Francisco promotion in 1971 that he would learn some of the most important lessons of ring psychology. Initially, he was paired up with Legendary Pat Patterson and that was the best thing that could happen to Graham at that point is his career. “Patterson was my mentor, “ Graham would go on to say, and when it came to ring psychology, Graham could hardly have a better one. Under the tutelage of Patterson, as well as Ray “The Crippler” Stevens, and working with the likes of Rocky Johnson and Peter Maivia, Billy would receive an education in what he described in his autobiography as “Mark manipulation”.
And it’s perfectly normal for people to bristle at the thought that they’re being manipulated (and for some, to be referred to as a “mark”), for it makes them feel as if they’re being taken advantage of, made to appear foolish. But in this case, I wouldn’t look at it as a “dirty” word. Because for anyone whoever had exposure to the Superstar Billy Graham experience, they wanted to be manipulated. That’s because unlike most situations where the manipulator is the sole beneficiary of the end result, here, everyone wins.
Because Billy gave us what we asked for, what we wanted to see. We wanted to hear what he had to say, even if it made us angry at times, even if he belittled his opponent, even if that opponent was our hero. And we were gluttons for the punishment. What he said on the mic made us want to see him in the ring. He put asses in seats and viewers in front of television sets, and that was his job. And no one ever got dragged kicking and screaming to those seats. It’s where we wanted to be. His promos were the entrée that whetted our appetite, made us look forward with eager anticipation to what was to come. If we admired his opponent before Graham took the mic, we absolutely adored him afterward. It made us root for him all the more so that he would topple the big man with the big mouth. And not only did we hope that our hero would do it, but we also knew that quite possibly, he might. Because even though he belittled his opponent, Graham was clever enough to also acknowledge his prowess. After all, who would want to pay or tune in to see him beat a “nobody”? And yet, not everyone wanted to see the brash, arrogant Graham fall from grace. His charisma, magnetic personality, and unique look and presentation certainly earned him a share of supporters. Most wanted to see him soundly defeated, some wanted to see him victorious, but all wanted to see him.
And he wouldn’t disappoint. Whether you were rooting for him or against him, when he was in the prime of his career, you always felt as if watching Graham was both time and money well spent. And that’s a kind of manipulation that anyone can live with. Billy was an artist, not only in his personal life, but in his professional one as well. Some artists paint a picture with paints, writers do it with words, but all invite the viewer or reader to participate to a degree, to bring their own perspective, emotions, and interpretation to the experience. And Billy did that as well, responding to the crowds, leading them where he wanted them to go, getting them emotionally involved, immersing them in the experience. It was both theater and art at its finest.
And in order to do that, Billy would check his ego at the door. He was a true professional, because for him, it was all about telling a compelling story, what would make the fans fell like they got their monies worth, and would make them be willing to come back for more. One great example of this was the match where he defended the WWWF title against Mil Mascaras on December 19, 1977 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. While Billy has mentioned that he felt Mil wasn’t willing to sell enough, having watched countless Mil Mascaras matches, I know that Mil actually did a little more selling than he typically does. Regardless, the pairing still resulted in an exciting match, in large part due to Billy’s consummate professionalism, as he was undaunted by the minimal amount of time that Mascaras spent selling Graham’s holds and moves.
Once the bell rang, the initial action was fast and furious, with Billy taking large bumps, begging off from Mil’s assault, seeming bewildered, overwhelmed, and consulting with his manager the Grand Wizard, as if to say, “What do I do with this guy?!!!” And when Billy had the advantage, he was ever the arrogant, cocky, crowing bully, only to beg off again, take big bumps, and flop around on the mat like a fish out of water when his opponent turned the tide. This was a formula that Graham often employed as part of his ring psychology, and as usual, the crowd ate it all up, and in a way that you just don’t see anymore.
Graham always made people want to see him “get his”, receive his “come uppings”, but it never really seemed to happen. It’s interesting to note that many of his matches ended by count out or disqualification, but I don’t think that mattered much. That’s not really part of his legacy. Because even when he lost, he had delayed our satisfaction, increased our tension, made us have to come back for more. And even when our relief would finally come, it would only be after he would draw things out. And we enjoyed it more because he made us work for it, and during the time that we did, there was always an element of uncertainty as to what the end result would be. It’s like comparing an easily won love interest to the one we had to work for. And if selling out Madison Garden 19 times out of the 20 that he headlined the card, if the fact that fans and wrestlers alike are still talking about the great memories they had of Superstar’s career are any indication, then no one’s complaining about the results. While Superstar Billy Graham’s career at the top of the Professional Wrestling game and his reign as WWWF World Champion were brief, his legacy is immortal. - RR