“Eddie Graham, Mike Graham and I were in the wrestling office upstairs at the Sportatorium at 106 North Albany Street in Tampa. Downstairs in the arena, Larry Robinson was waiting for a tryout to become a professional wrestler.
“Eddie spoke to Mike, ‘I don’t want this guy injured but let him know that you are the boss. He needs to know how tough wrestling can be. I want him to leave here with respect for the wrestling business.’
“We walked down the steep stairs one floor to the Sportatorium wrestling arena where Larry Robinson was waiting in the ring for his shot at becoming a professional wrestler.
“Mike was all business as he did just a few exercises to warm up, then entered the ring and faced off with Larry Robinson. Mike was quick and aggressive as he dropped in for a single leg take down on Robinson and quickly came up in a riding position on top. Mike moved to the side with a half nelson that put Robinson on his back and slipped into one of his favorite wrestling holds taught to him by Gordon Nelson, the crotch and sugar hold combination. Robinson’s face turned red as he tried to fight out of the hold, but there was no escaping. Just before passing out, Robinson tapped, and it was over.
“Mike had been wrestling with adults who thought wrestling was easy since he was 11-years-old, protecting the business of professional wrestling in the Florida territory. If you wanted to become a professional wrestler, you had to prove your toughness against Mike Graham, Hiro Matsuda or Jack Brisco — no easy way into the wrestling business. There was a high level of respect for professional wrestling in the Florida territory.
“Mike was tough and brought respect to the wrestling business. I had some of my most memorable matches with Mike Graham working throughout the Florida territory and at the Sportatorium in Tampa with commentary by Gordon Solie and Coach John Heath.
“I would like to thank Mike for the respect he brought to the wrestling business that I have benefited from so much.
“My condolences to Mike’s wife, Diane, and his family.
“We love you Mike.
“In regard to Larry Robinson, he was offered the opportunity to brush up on his wrestling skills and then could schedule a return tryout with Hiro Matsuda or Jack Brisco.”
• Former wrestling star Diamond Dallas Page is currently working on the “Best of Nitro Volume 2” release from WWE, and DDP is reminded of working with Randy Savage and Bam Bam Bigelow. Both have passed away.
Already emotional watching footage of himself in the ring with them, he learns about the recent death of Mike Graham. That hit the former world champ hard, as DDP recalls Graham opening the door for him in Tampa with Florida Championship Wrestling in the late 1980s, when Mike took over for his father.
“I feel bad for the whole family,” DDP said. “I would say without Dusty Rhodes there is no Diamond Dallas Page because Dusty really believed in me. However, without Mike giving me that Mike Graham introduction, it would have never happened.”
DDP remembers Graham calling him when he was managing Badd Company (Pat Tanaka and Paul Diamond) in the AWA to work Tampa. DDP did color commentary for FCW. DDP hitchhiked almost 100 miles after his pink Cadillac broke down. He met the likes of Gordon Solie and goes around the back to meet Graham. Five months goes by, and he puts together a tape for FCW. Graham was thankful he made the show because he told him it meant he had heart and cared about the business.
“I get a call about 1 a.m. one night when I have to be up at 6 a.m. to catch a flight for the AWA,” DDP said. “I have strep throat, and I’m sick as a dog. I was a nightclub guy, so I don’t get to sleep until 3 a.m. no matter what. I hear Mike on the machine to pick up the phone. I go, ’Hey Mike, I’m here. I have strep throat.’ He responds back with, ’I don’t want to hear that s#%^. I’m sitting here with Dusty Rhodes.’
“The NWA was just bought by [Ted] Turner, and they wanted Dusty to turn heel. He basically told them %$#% you. So he leaves and goes back to Florida with Mike Graham. They were going to pop the territory. I don’t know this. He told me he was telling him all about me. He wanted to bring in Baby Doll and Gary Hart, and he was telling him about me. He said, ’I want to put you on the phone with him. I want to you to blow him away like you’re the biggest mark on the planet.’ I go, ’No, play him my tape. Play him my tape. I have strep throat.’ He told me the tape machine was busted.
“I then did my thing with Dusty with, ’Good God! Dusty Rhodes, the tower of power, the man of the hour, too sweet to be sour. I went on like this for about 45 seconds. At the end of it I go, ’That’s all I got Dusty. I have strep throat.’ Then there was silence, and it felt like five minutes. Then all of a sudden I hear, ’Was that a recording kid?’ I said, ’No, that was me.’ When I came up to meet Dusty, there was Mike Graham, Steve Keirn and Gordon Solie. Then here is nobody Diamond Dallas Page. Mike made all that happen.’
“There are a select few Dusty is really tight with, and I’m one of them. I don’t have that relationship without Mike Graham. I would later call him at the top of my career. Most people don’t remember #$*%, but I don’t forget anything. The bad #$%^ I’ll forget because it’s not worth holding on to, but the people that do good #%*^ for me like Mike I remember. I would call him five years later to check in and let him know I never forgot what he did for me.”
DDP teamed with Mike in WCW for the Starrcade pay-per-view in 1991.
“I’ll never forget the first pay-per-view I was on with him. It was me and him teaming up,” DDP said. “Graham is walking around backstage and joked, ’You know your career is over when you’re tagging with Diamond Dallas Page.’ I’ll never forget what he did for me.”
• WWE Hall of Famer Tully Blanchard, one of the best bad guys (heels) of our time and a legendary member of the Four Horsemen, said: “I started my career in Florida working for Mike and his dad. They were both very, very instrumental in me finally becoming what I was to be in the business. I wrestled Mike a number of times, not when I first started, but later on. I used to travel with Mike.
“It was a very sad, sad thing that happened. He was a great guy, a great performer, and he was very, very strong. The powerlifting at that bodyweight was amazing. I used to always kid him, though, about his skinny calves.”
Tully shared something a common bond with Mike. A second generation wrestler like Mike, Blanchard’s father, Joe, also ran a territory, like Mike’s dad. The Blanchard base was Texas.
“My dad promoted in South Texas, so I immediately got ‘the promoter’s son’ persona, when I started wrestling. I made sure that I earned my spot, and that it wasn’t handed to me like other people. Mike was not one of those people because Mike can perform. He earned it. I did programs with Mike. We had great matches all over Florida. It was always a joy to work with him. He came to South Texas, and we did well there, too.”
Size doesn’t necessarily matter. Talent matters.
“Back in the 1960s, you had guys like Nick Bockwinkel (5-10, 240), Ray Stevens (5-8, 230) size that were big box office draws. It’s always been that way. The smaller guys had to perform and do stuff better but were equally appreciated and brought in. Gino Hernandez and I, Mike and I, we were semi-next to last in Florida and San Antonio. Action is what sells; believability is what sells. Now with WrestleMania, the main event is two guys 6-3. The [7-0] Big Show is the second match. Jericho [/Punk was one of the featured matches, and neither one of those guys is very big.”
• Dr. Tom Prichard, who worked for Smokey Mountain Wrestling, USWA and WWE among others, also was employed behind the scenes by WWE for Deep South Wrestling and Florida Championship Wrestling, said: “I met Mike in the early 1980s when he made some shots in Texas for Joe Blanchard. I worked with him in Amarillo and one other town.
“He was always nice and good to me. I saw him in different places through the years but really got to know him when I moved to Tampa about five years ago. He was always cordial, fun loving and seemed happy. When his son killed himself, it was an obvious shock and life changing event. I know he talked to a couple close friends he grew up with in Tampa about dealing with Steven’s death, but I don’t think he ever came to grips with his dad and then his son committing suicide.
“My wife’s father killed himself five years ago, and it’s something you never get over. She has good and bad days. I can’t imagine losing your dad and son the same way.
“I think Mike might have appeared happy or carefree as a defense mechanism to deal with his hurt. Mike wanted to help out so much with FCW but was never offered a job here for whatever reason. He would stop by, hang out, and everything seemed fine. That’s the problem with depressed people who are in despair. There’s no tell-tale signs, and it’s difficult to help because you don’t know what to do to help.
“Steve Keirn let Mike help with the beginner’s class with Norman Smiley, and that gave him something to do and be involved in some way. There were no signs or clues that Mike was in a bad place. And that’s the hard part. Not seeing or understanding what was going on so it doesn’t happen to someone else you love or care about.
“Working with Mike was always a pleasure for me. He was easy going and wanted to have fun.
“Mike was just a guy that would show up, talk about things and go home. I cannot imagine the hurt and feelings he must have been going through. I know from experience that you don’t know what to say or do to help anyone who’s experienced a suicide in their family. Let alone two suicides.”
• WWE Hall of Famer Blackjack Mulligan, who made a big mark in the United States especially Florida -- as did his Windham sons -- said: “Eddie and Mike were super to me.”
Mulligan went into the real estate business with Eddie. The business had its ups and downs, but they remained friends.
Mulligan said: “Michael was a little guy but tough. I got a picture of him and his dad. It was like [out of the late 1950s/early 60s TV show] ‘Sea Hunt.’ Michael’s about 8 or 9-years-old, and they’re all geared up, going deep sea diving.”
Mulligan respected Mike.
“Mike was a high-caliber worker. I had tag matches against him, and he rescued me one time. I got paid tremendously working there, especially with Kevin Sullivan [Army of Darkness], crazy stuff.”
Mulligan was close to Eddie, and Mike was close to Blackjack’s son, Barry Windham.
“I don’t think Mike ever got over his dad’s death,” Mulligan said, and his son’s death, too. Just tragic.
Mike’s death hit Barry hard.
“Mike and Barry, they were very close,” Mulligan said. “They were even in the Corvette business together. Mike took Barry under his wing, and they’re building Corvettes and doing things.”
Mike enjoyed motorcycles, too.
Mulligan said: “Mike loved going over to bike week. I just wish nothing but the best for the Graham family.”
• South Florida’s Snakemaster Abudadein, part of Kevin Sullivan’s original Army of Darkness in Championship Wrestling from Florida in the 1980s, said: “Mike was one of the first people I met when I got into the business. Great worker, great mind for the business, great man. Mike is one of a few guys in this business who was highly respected, and I’ve never heard a bad thing said about him. He was a longtime friend and will be missed.”
• Bruno Sassi, also known as Sally Boy, an associate producer with TNA Impact Wrestling and promoter/wrestler with Coastal Championship Wrestling in Florida, said: “In the summer of 2005, Mike worked two shows for CCW, one in Melbourne and one in Ocoee. He worked with the Blackhart Dave Johnson and Soulman Alex G.
“Mike was a pleasure to deal with. He was a great worker, tremendous. He was so smooth and easy in the ring, and he knew his stuff. He was great, and he was a legit tough guy, a legit shooter, if he had to handle things in the ring if they got out of hand. He was fearless.
“Mike was a true professional in every way. I worked for Mike when he was an owner in Florida and when he was an agent in WCW, and later he worked my [CCW] shows. I never had a problem with him.
“When I was in WCW doing jobs in the mid-1990s, he was an agent for the matches. He always knew what he was talking about, very old school.”
• Bill Apter, an icon in professional wrestling journalism who is in his fifth decade covering it (reporting, writing, photography), said: “He was the consummate professional in the ring and a true gentleman outside the ropes. In terms of Florida wrestling, he kept the Graham name and honor alive and in very high regard. I am shocked to learn of his death.”
Two big events with Mike Graham
Superbowl of Wrestling
Jan. 25, 1978
Presented by CWF, NWA, WWWF
Rocky Johnson defeated Killer Karl Kox via DQ.
Ivan Putski defeated Ox Baker.
Joyce Grable won an eight woman battle royal.
Chavo Guerrero defeated Tank Patton.
Bobby Duncum defeated Don Serrano.
Keith Franks (Adrian Adonis) defeated John Ruffin.
Mike Graham and Steve Keirn defeated The Valiant Brothers (Jimmy and Johnny) to win the NWA U.S. tag team titles.
Pedro Morales defeated Lars Anderson.
Jack and Jerry Brisco defeated Ivan Koloff and Mr. Saito.
Dusty Rhodes defeated Ken Patera.
WWWF champ Superstar Billy Graham vs. NWA champ Harley Race ended in a 60-minute time limit draw during a three-fall match.
Gorilla Monsoon and Don Curtis were the special guest referees. Graham defeated Race via submission in the first fall, before losing the second fall via countout with less than 15 minutes remaining in the time limit. When the time limit expired and the match tied at a fall apiece, it was declared a draw.
Lords of the Ring
June 30, 1984
Presented by CWF, NWA
Velvet McIntyre and Princess Victoria defeated Judy Martin and Peggy Lee Leather.
Mike Graham defeated Chavo Guerrero Sr.
Blackjack Mulligan defeated Kevin Sullivan in a Hangman’s Noose match.
Junkyard Dog and Wahoo McDaniel and Jimmy Valiant defeated Angelo Mosca and Black Bart and Ron Bass.
Hector Guerrero defeated Denny Brown.
Dick Slater defeated Joe Lightfoot.
Jerry Lawler defeated One Man Gang by DQ.
Billy Jack defeated Superstar Billy Graham by submission.
U.S. tag champs Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda defeated The Road Warriors by DQ.
Dusty Rhodes defeated NWA champ Ric Flair in best 2 of 3 falls match. Rhodes did not win the title because of a DQ finish.
• There will be a celebration of Mike Graham’s life at 2 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2 in the Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Dr., Largo, Fla. 33771. Visit www.talkingwrestling.com for information.
• Miami Herald pro wrestling writer Scott Fishman contributed to this report.