Pioneering. Legendary. Controversial. I think that if I were asked for three words to describe Superstar Billy Graham, those would be the three. He was ahead of his time decades ago when chiseled physiques were not the norm in pro wrestling. He was sizzle over steak and made it work. While men like Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura took this style and ran with it, they always credited The Superstar. Had he come along a decade later it quite possibly would’ve been Graham to be the face of the national wrestling expansion. We’ll never know. But what we got is something that we’ll never forget.
Something that Graham isn’t often credited for, but possibly should be, is his ability to change with the times. Ok, so “Kung Fu” Billy Graham didn’t set the world on fire, but he did extend his career a few years with the gimmick. It’s very possible that the ‘80s, bald Superstar would’ve taken off well, too, had injuries not plagued him due to his years of abuse. Nonetheless, like Chris Jericho is celebrated for today, Graham did indeed know the art of reinvention. I’ve actually always preferred the ‘80s Superstar look despite the run not going as planned. It’s the first version of Graham that I remember and it definitely modernized the character into the ‘80s.
The camera loved Graham as did magazine photographers Bill Apter and George Napolitano. The Superstar was featured in the classic magazines from cover to cover. As the years went on he was also a big part of the late Scott Epstein’s Wrestling Training Illustrated, a magazine that was designed as a cross between wrestling and weightlifting. And while WWE may deny it in an issue well covered here on this blog, we can’t forget that Graham was the cover boy of the debut issue of the very first in-house WWWF/WWF Magazine, Wrestling Action.
Graham seemed like a natural for an LJN figure during his late ‘80s WWF comeback. I’m sure that he was in the planning stages at some point given the ballyhoo around his return. He did get a shirt, posters and is on the official promo photo for Hulk Hogan’s 1987 Survivor Series team where he was eventually replaced by Don Muraco. It wasn’t until around 2006, when we lived through what I consider to be the “resurgence” of Superstar Graham, that modern merchandise really began to kick in for him. He’d had an entry into the beloved Figures Toy Company Legends of Professional Wrestling figure line, but thanks to his return to WWE he now had Classic Superstars figures in several looks as well as a book and DVD. It was in fact at a book signing where I first met Graham. He was great to all who showed up.
I’ve never believed in sugarcoating things after people pass away, at least not fully. Graham had erratic behavior towards promoters, fans and even WWE for many years. It’s well documented and in today’s information era it won’t ever fully go away. After reading about so much of it, it isn’t something that’s able to be ignored fully. Instead, like many wrestlers and celebrities, I try to focus more on their body of work. Superstar Billy Graham was revolutionary in that respect and on many levels. I choose to remember the battles with Dusty Rhodes and Bob Backlund, the endless triumphant returns and the style and showmanship that was largely unheard of before his arrival.