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From the Back of My Closet-20 Years Too Soon: The Superstar Billy Graham Story DVD Review

January 30, 2006 | Posted by Leonard Hayhurst
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From the Back of My Closet-20 Years Too Soon: The Superstar Billy Graham Story DVD Review  

MAIN FEATURE

We start with a dramatization of December 2001 where Superstar Billy Graham needed a new liver immediately or he would surely die. From that we go to the opening credits where a voiceover previews what we’re going to see.

Graham grew up in Phoenix with two sisters and a brother. His father had MS, but was very abusive to him. He didn’t start walking until he was over two years old. In the fifth grade his brother started working out at a local gym and Graham worked out with him. When he left for the army Graham didn’t have the money to continue at the gym on his own and built his own homemade equipment with cement and coffee cans. Once in high school he was able to use their gym and joined the track and field team. There was a possibility he would go to the 1964 Olympics, but he started hanging with the wrong crowd and quit school.

One morning while driving his father to work Graham saw people erecting a tent with a sign out front that said “You Must be Born Again.” He had no religious background whatsoever and was curious as to what was going on. He eventually went to the revival meeting where he was saved and born again. He felt a call to preach and went into the ministry. He used his strength to impress the kids and convince them that a Christian could be strong of body and spirit. He was encouraged to get married by church elders. It was pretty much an arranged marriage and they divorced. Graham thought this offended God. One day a visiting evangelist who had never met Graham before met his eyes while delivering a sermon and announced that his divorce was forgiven by God because the marriage was not officially ordained by him.

In 1968 Graham moved to Santa Monica and trained at the original Gold’s Gym. He met Arnold Schwarznegger shortly after he moved to America and they became friends. Graham tried out for a few NFL franchises, but eventually caught on with Montreal in the CFL. He knew football wasn’t for him and returned to Phoenix. A friend there took him back to Canada in 1970 to train with Stu Hart in the dungeon for professional wrestling. Hart’s gimmick for him was to go to several small towns around Calgary and arm wrestle all comers. While this worked to get him over, he still didn’t know what he was doing in the ring. He then returned to Phoenix and became a bouncer. He met Dr. Jerry Graham at his bar one night. They talked and Jerry convinced him to go on a wrestling tour of Indian reservations. They then went to Los Angeles. He started tagging with Jerry and changed his name to Billy Graham. He bleached his hair and got really tanned. He picked up the nickname Superstar from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. He started arm wrestling guys there. He was challenged by Freddie Blassie. Blassie beat him, but was then immediately jumped by two masked heels and the angle didn’t go anywhere.

Billy Graham then went to San Francisco and tagged with Pat Patterson. Patterson along with Ray Stevens, Peter Maivia and Rocky Johnson began to really teach him how to work a match. Stevens left for the AWA and invited Graham along. AWA was built on technical wrestlers and Graham broke that mold. Bobby Heenan and Dusty Rhodes talk about meeting Graham at this time. He and Rhodes tagged.

Graham was in Florida wrestling and went to an IHOP. He noticed a beautiful woman in a near booth and began talking to her and her sister. The sister was a hairdresser and Graham got her to bleach his hair. The woman, Valerie, went along and saw that Graham was a man of the lord and the two knew they were made for each other. Shortly after Graham got a call from Vince McMahon, Sr. to go to the then WWWF. Jim Ross says that Bruno Sammartino was the steak and Graham was the sizzle. In 1977 Graham beat Sammartino to claim the WWWF title. Several people talk about how Graham winning the title changed the industry forever. He had a sculpted look and a raw charisma that wouldn’t become the norm in wrestling for another decade. Hulk Hogan speaks on the influence Graham had on him. They show clips of Jesse Ventura doing a similar gimmick. Graham takes this as a compliment, but he wouldn’t mind some royalty checks. His tie dyed ring attire is hightlighted. Bruce Pritchard says it looks like Walt Disney threw up on him. John Cena calls him the original Dr. of Thugganomics. Graham admits to taking a lot from Muhammad Ali with his rhyming and jive talking. Dusty Rhodes confesses that Graham was so far ahead of him as a talker and he took his promo style from him.

Graham had a successful run as World Champion and became a national figure. Graham says one of his proudest feats is that he sold out Madison Garden 19 out of 20 times in the main event. The feud between Rhodes and Graham is reviewed. Heenan says that listening to the two of them cutting promos on each other was like being on Soul Train or at a rodeo. Rhodes and Graham had a Texas Death Match at the Garden. Graham says it’s one of his all time favorites. They followed that up with a Texas bull rope match.

Several people talk about how the tradition of the business at the time meant that the face chased the heel and then won in the end. So the heel could only be chased so long. Graham was also starting to get some face pops and that wasn’t kosher for the time either. Vince, Sr. wanted an All-American boy as his standard bearer and turned to Bob Backlund. Graham felt devastated by losing the belt at the cusp of what he felt was a new plateau for him. Graham took some time off and became detached from reality. Jim Ross believes Graham made a mistake in not staying and chasing Backlund for the belt. Graham returned to Phoenix and abused drugs. He wound up on skid row. Valerie talks about him being on downers and sleeping a lot.

In 1981 Graham asked to return to WWE. He thought the old Billy Graham was dead and returned shaved bald, wearing black karate pants and having lost A LOT of muscle mass. He looked about 90 years old, skin was just hanging off of him. Everyone says the martial arts gimmick just didn’t work for him. Graham admits that the fans gave him a pass in that persona, but he still sold out the Gardan three times against Backlund. He was in drugs again and only by the grace of God and his wife he survived. They pretty much skip his time in Florida as part of Kevin Sullivan’s devil worshippers and go to him working for Mid-Atlantic back in the original Superstar gimmick. He called Vince, Jr. and went back to WWE. He threw his hip out in a match with Big John Studd. McMahon told Graham that he would pay for the hip replacement and then he could wrestle for him to pay him back. Vignettes were filmed detailing Graham’s rehab and recovery. He eventually returned to the ring in a match against Steve Lombardi. Lombardi talks about wrestling him. Superstar went to Vince and said he was just in too much pain to wrestle. He was made the manager of Don Muraco. He also worked as a commentator. Lombardi puts over the team of Gorilla Monsoon and Graham. Bruce Pritchard didn’t think he was very good.

Graham’s ankle swelled up and needed fused. He couldn’t travel anymore. Vince had to let him go. Valerie got a job to support them both. He had no energy and took amphetamines. He would mutilate himself with forks and car keys. Valerie said that Graham told her he contemplated ways to kill himself that wouldn’t be gory when she came home and found him. He filed a lawsuit against WWE and Vince McMahon accusing him of causing his injuries because Vince encouraged him to take steroids. This led to the famed steroid trials. Vince refutes that he never told Graham to take steroids or that taking steroids would have caused his injuries. Graham is a self admitted steroid user. He was on them from 1965 to 1990. Valerie tried to get him off steroids, mainly because it caused him to be infertile. Shockingly Graham says that he would do it all again because the reward was so heavy, despite the fact his abuse almost killed him. He had both hips and ankles replaced, he lost four inches on his height due to a collapsed spine, he never had children. Graham went to his lawyers and said he wanted to end the lawsuit, because he had lied. He then got back into the ministry. He worked with a midget evangelist named Brad Baker. I only mention he’s a midget…well, because he’s a midget and it caught my eye. Graham and Vince eventually reconciled. Vince tells a story that Graham gave Stu Hart three color televisions upon leaving Calgary. Two weeks later the police came to get them, because they were stolen from the Holiday Inn.

In the late nineties Graham was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. His esophagus ruptured from the bad liver and he lost a lot of blood. Graham looked like he was going to die, but the bleeding stopped. He still needed a new liver. Originally he was told he had five years to live, but his health took a turn in about seven months. Graham was vaulted to the top of the donor list because he had the worst liver in the state of Arizona. Put that on a T-shirt. They found a donor liver. The last man Graham talked to before the surgery was Vince McMahon. He wanted Billy to know that the thoughts and prayers of WWE were with him. The donor was a 26-year-old woman who was killed in a car wreck. He was born again on the operating table. He was filled with new energy. He started training again. He became a spokesman for organ donations. In August 2003 Billy Graham visited WWE workers at a show in Phoenix. Vince and Billy are shown reuniting in an honestly touching moment. He was then inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame at Wrestlemania XX. Triple H did the induction. Everyone puts Graham over to end.

EASTER EGGS

Go to Chapters and highlight Growing Up. Press left on your DVD remote twice. Graham tells a story of how he was playing with a friend as a child and stuck a miner’s pick in his back. And you wonder why they outlawed lawn darts. The kid was ok.

Highlight AWA and press right twice. Graham confesses to being responsible for Ric Flair’s first bleach blonde dye job before he left Minnesota for Charlotte. Flair then puts Graham over as a friend.

EXTRAS

In the Ring

Vs. Armando Rodriguez from AWA All Star Wrestling on 8/25/1973: Ivan Koloff is Graham’s manager. Rodriguez is fat and bald. He cuts a pre-match promo. He says he wore yellow because he received fan mail asking for him to lay some yellow on the masses. He has a butterfly chain around his neck that cost $3,000. Lock up to start. Graham pushes Armando into the ropes and hammers on the back of his head. He works a chokehold. Cross corner whip leads to a back elbow and some knees on the canvas. Graham boots him through the ropes to the apron. He whips him to the ropes and catches him coming off with a back elbow. It’s 1973, so that’s a devastating finisher. A very bland and slow paced squash. Dud.

Vs. Angel Rivera from AWA All Star Wrestling on 10/6/1973: Before the match they have an arm wrestling contest. I love that the studio has wood paneling. Graham continues to talk while arm wrestling. He tells Angel to use both arms on his one and Billy still beats him. Great gimmick. Graham slugs him down and knees him in the side of the head. He runs Rivera’s head into the turnbuckles. Knee lifts in the corner. Body slam gets the win. A lot more energetic than the first match, but still horrible. Dud.

For the WWWF Heavyweight Championship vs. Bruno Sammartino from Baltimore, Maryland on 4/30/1977: The footage here is very grainy and shot like an old style boxing match. Vince McMahon, Jr. is on commentary. Graham throws Sammartino into the corner out of a lock up and poses. They tie up and Graham throws him into the corner again. Third lock up. This time Sammartino throws Graham to the corner. He bounces out and Sammartino arm drags him. He works an armbar on the mat. He transfers to a wristlock and then goes to a reverse armbar. Billy powers up, but gets dragged back down. Graham gets his foot on the ropes to break the move and takes a powder. He reenters and begs off. Graham wants a test of strength. In a smart spot Sammartino wipes his sweaty hands on the top rope so he can get a better grip. Graham gets the upper hand, but Bruno fights back. Superstar finally gets him down all the way to the mat. He gets several near falls off of the test of strength. Sammartino finally powers up and then gets Graham down for a pin fall try. Graham gets his foot on the ropes again and bails. Back in they fight over an overhand wristlock. Bruno gets him down and works an armbar. Graham gets to his knees and grabs the tights to hurl Sammartino into the ropes. He catches him coming off with a knee to the gut. Graham stomps him. Sammartino stands, but takes a chop to the throat. Graham works him over. He chokes him out on the ropes.
Graham misses a running knee to the corner on Sammartino. He stumbles across the ring and gets tied up in the ropes. Sammartino stomps him and he falls to the floor. Graham is busted open and Bruno works the cut with punches. Superstar reverses a whip and scores a bearhug to slow the match down. Bruno collapses to his knees, but then stands and punches out. Graham tries to charge Sammartino, but catches a kick to the stomach. Graham collapses after taking the turnbuckles in the back off of a whip. Sammartino works the back over. He gets his own bearhug. Graham makes the ropes. Sammartino hammers him in the corner. When the referee tries to pull him off, Graham gets a single leg take down and rolls up Sammartino with his feet on the top rope for leverage. Graham wins the title. The finish was out of nowhere. A good, standard power match for the time period that comes off as a bit slow and dull today. ** ¼

For the WWWF Heavyweight Title vs. Ivan Putski from Madison Square Garden on 8/29/1977: Graham cuts a pre match promo on the apron with Vince McMahon. Graham says he’s still the champion after months and months because he’s in shape. He works out five months everyday and swims the Atlantic Ocean. He says he’ll go anywhere in the world to defend his title including “the United States and California.” Howard Finkle is the ring announcer and he has hair. Putski is sporting some serious bacne. He’s billed as the “Super Pol.” Putski pummels Graham before the bell and the crowd goes nuts. Putski just beats the crap out of him. Graham falls through the ropes to the apron. He bails to the floor and takes his shirt off. He tries to come in and Putski steps on his throat while using the ropes for leverage. Graham bails again. Elbow and collar tie up. Graham takes the advantage with a modified headlock. He takes Putski to the mat with it. He powers up and reverses the hold. Graham goes down, powers up and breaks with an eye rake. He hits a shoulder block off the ropes, but Putski doesn’t go down and taunts him. A second one has no effect. They both go to the ropes and Putski gets a double axehandle to the chest, the Polish Hammer, which knocks Graham ass over end into the ropes. He pounds him down. Graham scores a full nelson to slow Putski down. Nice cut to two little old ladies grimacing at ringside. Putski wrenches his arm to break the hold. Graham can’t believe it. Putski gets his own full nelson. They go to the mat. Graham makes the ropes to break.

Putski kicks Graham, but leans too close and has his eyes raked. Graham kicks and chops away on the Polish Power. Graham whips Putski to the ropes and catches him coming off with a bearhug. Ivan gets his hand under the chin and pushes Graham’s head back. Putski runs Graham back first to the corner to break. Cross corner whip. Graham bounces out of the corner and right into a bearhug. He pounds on Ivan to break. Putski gets a shoulder block off the ropes. A second try sees him backdropped over the ropes to the floor. Graham wins by count out. I don’t care for that finish to an otherwise solid match. *** Well paced and built match with good storytelling and psychology. I liked all the move symmetry and how they worked the rest holds as heat segments and part of the in match storytelling.

For the WWWF Heavyweight Championship vs. Dusty Rhodes in a Texas Death Match from Madison Square Garden on 10/24/1977: Dusty Rhodes cuts a pre match promo with Vince McMahon. He’s the hit maker and the record breaker. He’ll make your back crack and your liver quiver. You’re in the back laughing and joking, but he’s in the ring cooking and smoking. That was a blatant rip off of a Graham promo. While the Grand Wizard makes a great show of taking Graham’s shirt off, Rhodes attacks. He jaws at the Wizard and Graham pearl harbors Rhodes with a double axe handle. He stomps him. Rhodes fights back with bionic elbows. Graham begs off. Rhodes drops to his knees to match Graham and punches on him. He pulls him up into an Irish whip to the corner, then struts. Billy bails to the floor. Rhodes chases him out. They run back into the ring. Bionic elbow to Graham. He hits the floor and looks to walk off. He eventually goes back. The lock up. Graham punches Rhodes to the floor out of the lock up and follows. He goes for a bulldog on the outside, but Rhodes shoves Graham out of it so he slides under the ropes into the ring. Rhodes follows and pounds Superstar on the mat. Graham lands a punch to the belly-welly, as Rhodes would say, and tosses him. Graham follows to run Rhodes headfirst into the ring post. He slams his head on the guardrail. Believe it or not, but Dusty blades.

Graham goes under the apron to pull out a long piece of thin rope. He ties the rope around Dusty’s neck and chokes him out. Graham uses the rope to help on a bearhug. Rhodes breaks with bionic elbows. Rhodes gets the rope and chokes Graham out with it. He throws him over the cords and hangs him. Graham assumes the crucifix position like he talks about in the main feature. Rhodes lets go. Graham slides to the floor and Rhodes slams his head through the announcer’s table. It doesn’t break, just falls over. Graham is bleeding now. Rhodes drags Graham back in and works him over. Snap mare leads to a fist drop. Rhodes does it again. Dusty then hits a falling splash into a cover. Graham makes the ropes to break. Rhodes hits a bionic elbow and makes a cover. He puts his feet on the ropes, the referee sees it and calls the cover off. Rhodes thinks he won. Since this is a Texas Death Match with no holds barred, you would think that wouldn’t matter. Graham hits a running shoulder block and both men are down. Graham throws a limp arm over Rhodes and scores the win. They keep brawling post match. Rhodes drops a couple elbows and demands a count. Graham is knocked to the floor on a back elbow and runs for the locker room. **** Some of the best chemistry I’ve ever seen between two men in the ring. Rhodes expertly worked the crowd and Graham did some great selling to put Rhodes over. Not a great technical match, but exciting with good storytelling. Good creative use of the rope that would help build to their next match. I honestly thought they could have gone longer.

For the WWWF Heavyweight Championship vs. Bob Backlund from Madison Square Garden on 11/21/1982: He’s in karate mode here. A backstage promo is shown. He is as subdued as you will ever see him. He does seem a little drugged up. We go live to find that Backlund had charged the ring and attacked Graham. They brawl. Gorilla Monsoon on commentary with Vince McMahon fills in some background. Graham previously attacked Backlund and destroyed his title belt to be DQ’ed in their last match. Graham scores a low blow. He nails some knees to the back. Backlund hulks up, but just looks kind of constipated. He fights back with a kick and a head butt. Graham takes a back elbow off the ropes. Backlund gets a stalling atomic drop well played up. Graham bounces off the canvas and to the floor. Danny Davis is the referee by the way. Graham comes back in and is whipped to the far corner. Backlund charges to eat a foot. Graham hammers on the back. I’m waiting for a karate move. Bearhug by Graham. Backlund head butts to break. Back to the bearhug. Backlund slugs on the back, but is pretty much a rag doll. The head butt this time doesn’t work, so Backlund uses a thumb to the eye. Superstar lands a karate chop to the throat and Backlund sails to the floor. I guess I’ll take that as a martial arts move.

Graham uses his wrist tape to choke Backlund. Davis doesn’t notice it until Graham hangs Backlund out to dry on the ring ropes. Backlund gets his head and arm knotted in the ropes and Graham pounds on him. He falls to the mat and Graham chokes him out with a knee to the throat. Davis is being very lenient. Graham throws Backlund into the corner and pounds on him. Davis tries to break it up and Billy tosses him across the ring. He even lets that go. Graham goes to a wristlock with Backlund on his knees. Backlund slugs back. Graham tries to bail, but Bob grabs the foot. Graham fights him off and hits the floor. Backlund tries to stop him, but Graham grabs his legs and pulls him out. Davis is bumped as Backlund reels back trying to stay in the ring. Graham wails on him. Backlund fights back. They go up the aisle and through the curtain to the back. It’s a double disqualification draw. ** I didn’t care for this much. The two didn’t have much chemistry. Backlund didn’t time his comebacks well. He didn’t communicate his rage and anger at Graham well enough to justify his cheating. Graham was like a 75 being played at 45 rpm. He seemed totally disconnected. The officiating also stunk, as Davis was noticeable by his poor handling of Graham. He could have legitimately disqualified him even by today’s standards several times. It ruined the suspension of disbelief.

On the Mic

“I am the Wrestling Champion of the Universe” from All Star Wrestling on 10/6/1973: Graham declares himself the arm wrestling champion of the universe and says if there is life on Mars, he could beat them. He then hypes his upcoming match with Billy Robinson at the Taj Mahal in Mitchell, South Dakota.

“These Hands Can Crush Coconuts” from the AWA with no date given: You can see paint chips on the wall behind Graham and Marty O’Neil. Graham says that his hands can crush coconuts and straighten horseshoes. Violence is American professional wrestling and he’s going to introduce violence to Ivan Putski. He’s going to make Putski eat a fist sandwich. O’Neil then says “Potluck” Ivan Putski or “Pollock” Ivan Putski, I can’t make it out and I’m not sure which is worse.

“I Don’t Want You to Ask Me Any Questions” from All Star Wrestling on 8/27/1975: Vince McMahon interviews The Grand Wizard and Billy Graham. The Wizard puts Graham over as a physical specimen while Billy poses. The Wizard tells McMahon that out of the kindness of his large heart Graham has decided to lower himself to speak to McMahon directly. Graham tells Vince not to ask him any questions. His question to Vince is how does it feel to speak directly to him for the first time. Graham runs down the fans then talks trash on Bruno Sammartino. He says Sammartino has paid off the promoters on the east coast to keep him away and Sammartino was too scared to come out west to face him. A great promo and the perfect example of Graham’s trailblazing mic work.

“This is the Beauty of a Champion” from Madison Square Garden on 6/27/1977: Vince McMahon is in the ring with the Wizard and Graham. Billy is the World Champion. He says there are 27,000 people in the Garden and 27,000 more out on the street who couldn’t get in who wanted to see him. He then flexes and poses.

“I am the Most Colorful Man in Wrestling” from World Wide Wrestling on 9/3/1985: David Crockett interviews Graham back in his original character. It’s a standard Graham promo where he hits all his rhymes and catch phrases. He has more moves that a bowl of jello. He is so colorful that if you have a black and white TV set he will make it turn color. He’s the man of the hour. The man with the power. To sweet to be sour. He eats T-bone steaks. He lifts barbell plates. He’s sweeter than a German chocolate cake. The women’s pet. The men’s regret. What you see is what you get and what you don’t see is better yet.

“The People Want the Real Thing” from Mid-Atlantic Wrestling on 9/10/1985: Graham is interviewed by Bob Caudle. Graham says people all over the world have tried to impersonate him, but he’s like Coca Cola. People want the real thing and Graham is the real thing. He buries his previous martial arts gimmick. He went to the Belgian Congo to find a 900 pound gorilla and arm wrestle him. He said he reminded him of Abdullah the Butcher. The gorilla told Graham that he was bad to the bone. That’s right, Billy Graham found Gorilla Grodd.

The Comeback from Wrestling Challenge on 11/29/1986: Graham is in the desert with spiders crawling all over him. He talks trash on King Kong Bundy. One of the spiders falls off his arm and Graham beautifully covers by saying it jumped off because he was afraid that Graham was going to eat him.

Director’s Cut

Overdose: These are just some blurbs that didn’t make it into the main feature. The first one has Graham talking about his drug addiction. He said he didn’t recognize himself in the mirror. Valerie had to pound on his chest and pull food out of his mouth to keep from choking and dying. He would pass out on the toilet. He couldn’t urinate for days. He was going to the hospital every week. And yet he was still wrestling on television. The night before his last WWE match in the karate gimmick he overdosed on a big handful of various pills. As they hit him he grabbed the bathroom door in his hotel room, pulled it toward him and wound up slicing his chest open with the door. Luckily a hotel maid was right outside, heard the noise and got help. He was rushed to the hospital and saved. The doctor accused him of trying to commit suicide due to all the various pills in his body. They tried to hold him. He refused to stay. He ripped the IV’s out of his arms and neck. Orderlies were called to help. They took one look at him and said let this guy go.

Apache Reservation: Graham talks about wrestling on an Apache reservation. Jerry Graham didn’t want to ‘smarten’ up the Native Americans so the heel wrestlers couldn’t help him put the ring up and Jerry was too lazy. Graham tried to do it himself, but couldn’t and got the referee to help. During their main event tag match the ring collapsed and that was the only pop they got. Billy went to the chief to get their money. The chief said they were under the impression that it was a benefit show for the Apache nation. So basically they got stiffed and Billy thought it was a little payback on the white man.

Jimmy Hart Story: Hart was managing Graham down in Memphis. Graham was supposed to run in and save him from a beat down. He grabbed a chair at ringside, but grabbed a padded one. He hit Joe Le Duc with the padded part, but he sold with a huge bump. Jerry Jarrett thought that would just kill everything. Graham guaranteed the house would be twice as big the next week and it was. Hart says it’s not what he did, but how he did it and the emotion involved.

Bruce Pritchard Imitation: Bruce Pritchard does a rambling bad imitation of Graham that isn’t as funny as he thinks it is.

The 411: It’s comparable to other recent WWE releases. The match portion is a bit skimpy and undercuts the disc. Some significant matches from the AWA, his Mid-Atlantic period and his WWE return in the mid eighties would have filled things out. The story of Graham matches that of Jake Roberts in some respects, but this disc seems to lack a certain spark and emotional introspection. There are some flashes of why Graham was so great and the potential he had, but there are a couple pieces missing out of the puzzle that a better choice of material might have helped.
 
Final Score:  6.0   [ Average ]  legend

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Leonard Hayhurst
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