Posted on


Close-up of Superstar Billy Graham, casual clothing, in NYC, shot by Bill Apter

ALTHOUGH WE ARE not always able to react to such sad events so soon after they occur, we felt it was important to commemorate the late “Superstar” Billy Graham, who passed away yesterday, May 17, 2023, at the age of 79.

Standing at 6’5” tall and weighing in at a muscular 275 pounds, Graham profoundly impacted the industry with his memorable promos and one-of-a-kind ring presence.

Reflections from PWI Contributing Photographer (and longtime friend of Graham’s) George Napolitano

Graham was a larger-than-life performer, both due to his physique and ability to draw thousands of paying fans all over the U.S. After holding championships for NWA Florida, NWA Texas, and the Japanese IWA promotion, the Arizona native defeated the legendary Bruno Sammartino on April 30, 1977, to win the WWWF World heavyweight championship. That title win—and subsequent 296-day reign as champion—defined Graham’s career.

Superstar Graham has Bruno Sammartino on the mat, as the WWWF official looks on (1977)
“Superstar” Graham attempts to pin Bruno Sammartino’s shoulders to the mat. (PHOTO BY BILL APTER)

Able to draw the ire of fans like no one else, peak-era Graham similarly inspired strong reactions in his would-be peers. His persona, brightly colored attire, and flashy promos influenced the work of all-time greats including Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, and Dusty Rhodes.

Over the course of his career, Graham regularly graced the pages of publications such as PWI. He was a close friend of wrestling magazine giant George Napolitano, who, in an interview around his 2022 Stanley Weston Award acknowledgment, recalled being invited by Graham to a WWWF show in Baltimore. As fate would have it, that was the day when Graham unseated Sammartino as World heavyweight champ. Napolitano was on hand to photograph the unforgettable title change.

Today, the news of Billy Graham’s passing has been widely reported by most major news outlets, indicating the iconic grappler’s lasting impact on the world at large.

Simply put: “Superstar” Graham was one in a million. He will be missed.

Superstar Graham pays for food from a NYC street vendor, photographed by Bill Apter
A shirtless, musclebound Billy Graham looms large over this New York City street vendor and other customers as he pays for his food. (PHOTO BY BILL APTER)
Posted on

FROM THE VAULT: Baba and Vince Open the Forbidden Door

Giant Baba, Vince McMahon, and Seiki Sakaguchi pose together for a photo

FROM THE VAULT: Baba and Vince Open the Forbidden Door (updated 11/19/21)

VINCE MCMAHON. GIANT Baba. Together in the same ring. The 2,350 FANS in attendance at Korakuen Hall on January 28, 1990, were in for a big surprise. As recently as the early-1980s, McMahon’s WWF had enjoyed a solid relationship with All Japan’s biggest competitor, New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Suffice to say, no one was expecting Vince McMahon and Giant Baba to show up on the final day of AJPW’s New Year Giant series.

But that’s exactly what happened. On a show that saw All Japan Pro Wrestling founder Giant Baba defeat American journeyman Rip Rogers in a singles bout—along with the swan song of The British Bulldogs—no less than Vincent Kennedy McMahon made his way to the ring to address the crowd.

Vince McMahon waves to the crowd at Korakuen Hall, January 1990
Vince McMahon waves to the crowd at Korakuen Hall as Giant Baba looks on.

The above photo, along with the forthcoming photos in this entry, was sent to the Pro Wrestling Illustrated offices by a Japanese freelance photographer who asked us not to name them. This person specifically cited the fact that McMahon appeared in the photographs as the reason for their anonymity. Regardless, the veteran photographer seemed excited to share the photos in question.

As one might guess, Vince wasn’t simply in town as a tourist, opting to take in a show at one of Japan’s most historic combat sports venues. He was there on business. McMahon took the microphone and announced to the crowd that the WWF would be teaming up with not just AJPW, but NJPW, as well. The three promotions would come together to present the WWF/AJPW/NJPW Wrestling Summit.

Giant Baba, Vince McMahon, and Seiki Sakaguchi pose together for a photo
From left to right: AJPW President Giant Baba, WWF President Vince McMahon, and NJPW President Seiji Sakaguchi pose together for a photo.

The event, which emanated from the Tokyo Dome on April 13, 1990, was attended by more than 53,000 people. Despite not being released officially in the U.S., it was voted Best Major Wrestling Show in that year’s Wrestling Observer Awards. With an undercard that included a bout between Bret Hart and Tiger Mask, the show featured Andre The Giant and Giant Baba teaming up to take on Demolition, and the main event pitting Hulk Hogan against Stan Hansen.

Vince McMahon shakes Giant Baba's hand
Backstage at Korakuen Hall, Vince McMahon shakes the hand of Giant Baba.

In 2021, promotions are increasingly working together for the greater good. From the contemporary IWGP Conception, which saw NJPW copromote with Ring of Honor and CMLL, to the current, extensive interplay between AEW, IMPACT, the NWA, and other companies, cooperation is arguably one of the most exciting things about today’s wrestling landscape. Given WWE’s history of partnering with promotions overseas—and, later, giving visibility to upstarts like ECW and EVOLVE—is it really so hard to imagine the industry leader doing so once again?