The SmarK Rant for 20 Years Too Soon – The Superstar Billy Graham Story
Released on DVD January 2006, although I’m watching the WWE Network version.
In our cold open, we learn that Billy Graham needed a new liver in 2001 and probably wasn’t going to live out the year. Well that’s quite a teaser.
We start in Phoenix Arizona, as Billy shows his family photos and talks about getting unmercifully whipped by his father, who was sick with MS. So in the fifth grade, his brother invited him to trying working out for the first time, and he decided that he wanted to be a bodybuilder. So being dirt poor, he made his own weights in the backyard and lifted cement blocks to build muscle. Then he got into track and field and seemed to be on the path to the Olympics, but “fell in with the wrong crowd” and threw it all away. Well that feels like it needed more embellishment, but we move on.
Onto Billy finding religion, as he took his father to a revivalist tent show and got born again via a hellfire and brimstone preacher, turning himself into a travelling preacher in the process. And being single was considered to be open to temptation, so he got married at a young age and he was miserable. He got divorced and was worried about burning in hell for that, but he visited another church and got forgiven. Whew.
In 1968, Billy moved to Santa Monica and met Arnold Schwarzenegger on the beach, and quickly became good friends with him. Then he decided to try football and ended up in the CFL in Montreal and didn’t really like it. By 1970 he got hooked up with Stu Hart in Calgary, and Stu maimed and abused him in the Dungeon to break him into the business. And then Billy went city to city on the Stampede loop doing arm-wrestling with ringers, but he admittedly was terrible in the ring.
Back to Phoenix, Billy is working as a bouncer, and Dr. Jerry Graham walks into the bar one day and introduces himself to Billy. So they became tag team partners and Superstar Billy Graham was born. So they worked Los Angeles for a bit, and met Freddie Blassie. Freddie beat him in an arm-wrestling match on TV and that was the only time they worked together.
Roy Shire discovered him and put him into a tag team with Pat Patterson in San Francisco, and that’s where Billy finally learned to work. And Ray Stevens left soon after, bringing Billy to the AWA with him. You had to be a skilled technical wrestler at that point to succeed in the AWA, but Graham didn’t care and just did what he wanted. We get some clips from the AWA in 1973 and you can see the future influence on Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan at the same time.
Billy moved down to Florida and drew money with Dusty Rhodes for a while, and that’s where he met his future wife. They bonded over THE LORD and Billy notes that she was doomed to fall in love with him. And that’s when he met Vince McMahon Sr. And on April 30 1977, he beat Bruno for the WWF title in Baltimore and the talking heads declare that the business changed overnight. We get some Billy “rapping” as Vince says, as he talks about working out for 5 hours every morning and swimming across the Atlantic Ocean every day. And then one day Hulk Hogan was sitting in the second row and decided to he wanted to be Billy Graham. Billy talks about how he was complimented by Hogan and Ventura stealing all his stuff. But he would like a royalty payment from Hulk.
Speaking of which, Hulk talks about how Billy came along at a time when wrestlers all had pot bellies and smoked cigars and no one was tanned. And I’m sure they all had matches in smoky bars as well. Bruce Pritchard notes that Billy wore gear that looked like “Walt Disney threw up all over it”. Billy talks about all the stuff he stole from Muhammad Ali and we get some clips of Graham doing his Ali routine and the talking heads put him over as one of the greatest at the time. Dusty notes that the ladies love the outlaws and came to MSG to boo him but deep down wanted him to keep winning because he was so entertaining. And he sold out 19 out of 20 MSG main events during his reign. Which again is CRAZY that Vince Sr. wouldn’t pivot and delay the Backlund switch.
We talk about the Texas Death match from 10/24/77 in MSG and get clips of that in glorious black & white to hide the blood, with Graham falling on top of Dusty to retain the title. Billy calls it one of his all time favorite matches. And Dusty was his favorite opponent. And then they had a rematch in a Texas Bullrope match, which I don’t think is on the Network. Also they portray it like another title match but Billy had already lost the title to Backlund.
Moving onto February 78, as Vince Jr talks about how his father wanted “All American Boy” Backlund to be the champion, so that’s what happened. Graham thought he should have stayed champion for longer and turned babyface to fully ride the momentum he had. Vince agrees that he was probably right, but that’s not how they went with it. So Billy went into a depression and essentially took his ball and went home, according to JR, and he went back to Phoenix and overdosed on drugs a few times. So one day he woke up on skid row, and then he spent all of 1979 and 1980 in a pill induced coma of drug haze. And then he called Vince and asked for another run with Backlund. But this time…he knew KARATE.
So we get a look at the “martial arts expert” era of Billy Graham, and everyone buries that whole deal. Including his wife, who hated the whole thing because it was so depressing. And with the fans giving him a pass, he falls back into drugs again before pulling himself out of it and ending up in JCP working for Dusty. Then he got sick of the “satanic Karate gimmick” and decided to repackage himself into the tie dye stuff again. Holy crap what a sad period that was, with Kung Fu Grip Billy wrapped up in rainbow colors and trying to pretend like it was 1975 again.
So we jump ahead to 1986, with Billy back in the WWF in the modern era, but he immediately blows out his hip doing a squash and he needs it replaced. Apparently he lied about his hip before getting hired, and essentially tried to get himself on TV to con Vince into paying for the operation by pretending that he suffered the injury during a match. Vince generously offered to pay for the surgery, but then took it out of Billy’s pay to recover the money. But then Billy wasn’t able to continue wrestling and got transitioned to managing Don Muraco instead. They talk about transitioning Billy into being a commentator and how much he loved doing that. Everyone puts him over in that role but COME ON. He was terrible. Next up, he had to have his ankle fused and he was a wreck and couldn’t travel, so Vince fired him.
His poor wife had to get a job and support him, which bothered him, but not enough for him to actually try to go out and find another job. Ouch. Back onto the pills for Billy! And then he got into contemplations of suicide and self-mutilation as he spiraled down again. So he decided to sue the WWF for encouraging him to take steroids in order to hopefully make some money. Hulk calls it a one man crusade to take him down, and we get kind of mixed up with the various steroid scandals at this point. Vince denies everything and would probably even deny knowing steroids are if asked. Billy shoots down his own case here by admitting that he took huge amounts of steroids for a decade before he ever got to the WWF. He would make his poor wife inject him with the roids, so she’d stab him like a dart as hard as she could. Billy talks about how all his major injuries stemmed from the steroids literally destroying his bones. But much like Dynamite Kid, he’d do it all again because the rewards were worth the immense pain. His wife runs down the score: Spine collapsed 4 inches, both ankles fused, new hip, and completely sterile. Plus she refused to lie on the stand for him and told him that she’d contradict his stories if called by the court.
So Superstar repented again and got back into Jesus, writing letters to Vince apologizing for his bitterness and anger while living in poverty. Vince admits that he probably didn’t have to be forgiving given what an asshole Billy had turned into. Vince tells this amazing story about how Billy gave Stu Hart 3 brand new color TVs on his way out of Calgary, and then 2 days later the police showed up and repossessed them on behalf of the hotel that they were stolen from. “That’s gratitude” notes Vince, totally deadpan. Sadly we only get a couple of people noting in passing that Billy was a complete conman in the 90s and then move on without discussing it more. They swept a TON of crazy shit under the rug with that one! Like holy crap, he nearly died multiple times and basically alienated everyone in the business before hitting rock bottom, and they summed it up as “Yeah he was kind of a con artist, LOL”.
Moving on like a TV broadcast running short on time, Billy’s liver explodes one day and they do the whole story about Billy getting his new liver to save his life, and he was born again, again, on the operating table. And then it kind of drags to an end with Superstar meeting up with the current stars backstage and getting inducted into the Hall of Fame by HHH in 2004.
And everyone wraps it up and talks about how happy they all are now.
I thought most of the documentary was one of the better ones they’ve done and was pretty frank about Graham destroying his own life, but it kind of went off the rails a bit after his retirement in 87 because they have to continue the narrative that Vince was completely innocent in the whole steroid deal. And then they wrapped it really fast with a tacked-on happy ending and didn’t even talk about how he actually got out of the death spiral of drugs and pills in the 90s. So it’s a mixed bag, but even with the flaws I thought it was a pretty fascinating story and I think it’s worth a watch.