An Article by Mike Mooneyham
(Published Feb. 9, 1997)
Many called him a legend. Others remembered him as one of the most colorful characters to ever step inside a wrestling ring. But Dr. Jerry Graham, who recently died of complications from a stroke at the age of 68, was in life a tortured soul who battled his own demons and struggled with his excesses.
Graham’s personal life, as well as his professional career, were marked by turmoil and controversy. His drinking binges and unpredictable behavior eventually brought him from the heights of stardom to an existence in which alcoholism and depression were constant companions.
“The Doc,” as he was known to his friends in the business, died Jan. 24 at a convalescent home in Glendale, Calif. He had suffered an apparent stroke six weeks earlier that had left him in a semi-comatose state in a Glendale hospital. Attempts to locate family members, including two surviving sons, had proved futile and he was moved back to the nursing center one day before his death.
Dr. Jerry Graham’s many escapades inside, and especially outside, the ring became legend. During the heyday of his career in the late ’50s and ’60s, he was a Madison Square Garden headliner and one of the sport’s top heels. A favorite of the late Vince McMahon Sr., from whom Graham received many lucrative paydays, he eventually fell out of favor with the majority of promoters because of his erratic nature and weakness for his addictions.
The Golden Grahams
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Graham began wrestling in his hometown of Phoenix at the age of 14 and appeared in his last match almost 50 years later. Most of the years in between, however, were spent out of the spotlight and were punctuated by drunken binges that often landed Graham in jail and made him a household name on the local police blotter. He eventually moved to southern California where he spent the remaining years of his life, occasionally making appearances on small independent wrestling shows, but hardly a semblance of the man who once sold out major buildings and entertained thousands of fans across the world.
Dr. Jerry Graham will also be remembered for many achievements inside the ring. Most notably, he was the founder of the legendary Graham wrestling family, of which he was the only real Graham. With Eddie Graham (Eddie Gossett), he formed the “Golden Grahams” and sold out Madison Square Garden on numerous occasions during the late ’50s and early ’60s against such teams as Argentina Rocca and Miguel Perez, Mark Lewin and Don Curtis, The Bastien Brothers (Red Bastien and Lou Klein) and The Fabulous Kangaroos (Al Costello and Roy Heffernan). Dr. Jerry later brought Crazy Luke Graham (James Grady Johnson) and Superstar Billy Graham (Wayne Coleman) into the Graham family act.
Early in his career, though, were signs of things to come for Jerry Graham. One of the most notorious matches in the history of the sport involved Graham teaming with Dick “The Bruiser” Afflis against Argentina Rocca and Edouard Carpentier on Nov. 19, 1957, at Madison Square Garden. A major riot saw scores of fans arrested, eight police officers injured, and chairs sailing from the top balcony – a site that would probably make many current-day hard-core ECW fans proud. Graham and Bruiser were almost killed trying to escape. The melee nearly resulted in the ban of wrestling in the state of New York by the athletic commission. As a compromise, children under 14 were barred from attending live shows, a ruling that stood for nearly 20 years. All four wrestlers were fined, and Bruiser was banned for life from wrestling in that state.
Graham drew some of the era’s biggest crowds during a celebrated feud with Buddy Rogers in 1956. More than 10,000 fans were turned away at Madison Square Garden when Graham challenged Bruno Sammartino for his WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation) title.
There was nothing ordinary or average about Jerry Graham. He exhibited a devil-may-care attitude toward people and things.
Graham, who falsified his age to serve in World War II, started wrestling after coming out of the service, where he was with the 82nd Airborne Division Paratroopers. His first match was in Ely, Ariz., where he did a 10,000-foot delayed parachute jump as a promotional stunt. He attended Phoenix College and Arizona State, where he studied under the G.I. Bill.
Somewhat of an expert in hypnosis, which he sometimes incorporated into his wrestling act, he once used a stage name of Dr. Zombie and did stunts like putting a 150-pound block of ice on a 90-pound girl’s stomach and then breaking it in two with a 16-pound sledgehammer – without hurting the subject.
Dr. Jerry Graham represented a special time in the sport known as the golden era of wrestling. But in the end, he will be remembered as one of the sport’s most tragic, and sad, figures.