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Superstar Graham, Tom Snyder invade Memphis wrestling in October 1979

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“The wrestling fans are the forgotten masses.”

–Jerry Jarrett, Memphis territory owner/promoter

Baby, he's a Superstar: Graham muscles in on the World title picture in Memphis.

I’ll always remember October 8, 1979, as the first time I saw “Superstar” Billy Graham live and in living tie-dyed colors at the Mid-South Coliseum for a night of Memphis wrestling. After nearly two years of seeing the most charismatic wrestler in the world splashed across countless Apter magazine covers, 8-year-old Scotty Bowden was in the cheap seats as Graham’s world-famous pythons took down CWA World titlist Pat McGinnis in arm-wrestling exhibition before crushing his foe with a bearhug to claim the championship trophy. (That’s right–initially there was no belt. The supposed heavyweight champion of the World as recognized by the Continental Wrestling Association had to lug around an oversized trophy–rumored to be one of promoter Eddie Marlin’s bowling awards–as he defended his laurels around the globe; that must have been a real pain in the ass. Sort of reminds me of when Marlin awarded new TV champion Koko Ware a new television set as opposed to a title belt. Was he supposed to transport the TV to the studio each week to defend it?)

While a far cry from the sold-out Madison Square Garden crowds he was accustomed to, the former WWWF champion commanded the championship spotlight once again, with Graham taking the title in front of about 6,000 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum and the camera crew of Tom Snyder’s “Prime Time Sunday,” which was filming for a story about the phenomenon of “Hollywood wrestling” in the South. Because Snyder’s cameras were present, Lawler made one of his famous elaborate entrances to the ringside area at the Coliseum on this October night, carried on a throne to the ring by some local jabronis, footage that was used in several of the promotion’s music videos over the years that followed. The shots of Jimmy Hart and Lawler baiting Jonesboro fans (“Sit down you redneck–you hillbilly!”) as they attempt to stooge off the King’s chain to oblivious-as-ever referee Jerry Calhoun is classic stuff. (Believe it or not, by the time I got into the business as a heel manager, the fans in Jonesboro had gotten even uglier. )

Graham’s presence was clear–to provide some semblance of credibility to the CWA strap before Jarrett crowned Lawler his World champion at Lexington’s Rupp Arena in November. What’s not as clear is why Jarrett granted Snyder’s cameras backstage access in the kayfabe era and just what the point of the story truly was. The resulting TV piece was not what Jarrett expected, with the show attempting to reveal some aspects of the inner workings of the business–with laughable results. Fake-blood capsules? Please. Even with the shot of blood gushing out of Dundee’s forehead as he attempted to close his laceration with a bandage, they still couldn’t fathom the possibility of real blood. (And you thought John Stossel’s “20/20” piece was bad.) Love those shots of fans scooping up Dundee’s blood from the canvas and sniffing it, as one fan obviously “smart ” to the business bellows, “…That stuff’s fake–good show, though, ain’t it?!”

Still, Snyder’s piece certainly made for entertaining TV, especially today in hindsight.

God bless whistle-blowing fan Mary Spry, a throwback to passionate fans gone by. I used to love sitting around fans like her when I’d go to the matches and watch their reactions to the mayhem unfolding before their eyes. Mary doesn’t go honky-tonkin’. She doesn’t drink. Oh, sure, there’s the occasional pinball game. Just give Mary her rasslin’ and she’s happy. I know I was on that October night in 1979.

  1. Sean D
    October 7th, 2010 at 10:00 | #1

    Thanks for posting this one Scott. I remember going to the matches in Evansville and there being a little thing in the program about the Prime Time Sunday story and how it would air just before Christmas. As it turned out, I don’t think it aired on the Evansville NBC affiliate. (or if it did, it was when we were without power in my town thanks to the weather that year.) I guess I’ve been waiting 30 years to see that piece.

    Oddly enough, that same program had another small blurb about Bill Dundee being on the shelf due to contracting hepatitus.

  2. admin
    October 7th, 2010 at 10:45 | #2

    I remember watching it when I was a kid and being thrilled to see footage from the night I was there. Not even their claims about fake blood and such could kill my enthusiasm for wrestling.

  3. October 7th, 2010 at 11:49 | #3

    Scott, seeing this old segment makes me miss tuesday nights at the Louisville Gardens that much more. God bless all the Mary Spry’s of the world, wherever they now are.

  4. David
    October 7th, 2010 at 15:29 | #4

    That old lady (along with the little blonde haired oldie from “I’m From Hollywood”, remember?) continued going for years and years…

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