Kayfabe, Lies and Alibis: Back to the Territories – Championship Wrestling from Florida

From Kayfabe Memories
Jim Cornette and Kevin Sullivan cover the Championship Wrestling from Florida promotion.

A brief but well done intro touches on the political strength and drawing power this relatively small wrestling group held.

Eddie Graham was the owner of Florida wrestling but he also wielded much influence over the U.S. wrestling business.

Sullivan explains that Graham dropped out of school in 5th grade and yet went on to become a pilot, a master sailor, and a business leader.

Graham was detail heavy and would give his wrestlers elaborate finishes that encompassed several minutes of ring time.

50’s and 60’s star Buddy Rogers unified with a small group of workers that he used to force promoter’s hands for better payoffs and other control. Since Rogers was such a draw, he could get away with things like that. Rogers also tried to cut off Bruno Sammartino’s push but was thwarted.

Eddie Graham, Sam Muschnick and Jim Barnett were the three real power players in NWA politics. Graham seemed to be the man with the final vote, even over whoever served as the NWA President.

Other promoters would call Graham in order for Eddie to give them the best possible finishes for their matches.

If an NWA promoter was facing competition, Graham would lead the charge to bring in the best talent from around the nation to crush the rival promoter.

Graham made sure to donate to many local charities which provided him with a plethora of civic awards and gave wrestling a less sleazy image.

The newspaper sportswriters were often bribed by Graham to write glowing articles about his charity work and such which would include plugs to the next series of local matches.

Florida fans knew Eddie was the promoter, so they would publicly announce he was removing himself from any promoting interest when he was making an in ring comeback.

Mike Graham, while diminutive, was a world class power lifter. He could bench 450 and had amazing tendon strength.

Stan Lane had to leave the area after getting into a fight with a guy and beating him so badly he was liable for a lawsuit.

Kevin Sullivan next reveals that Eddie Graham divorced his wife but stayed with her in order to care for his son.  Graham only told three people including Sullivan. The sham marriage went on until Eddie’s death. His son Mike never knew of this scenario and was always bothered by his parents being distant with one another. — Author’s note: Sullivan repeated this story on his podcast recently and created a major stir among old school fans who felt Sullivan had created the story out of whole cloth. Sullivan was not a very big star at the time the story was to have happened which leaves little provocation for Graham to have shared a deep family secret with him.

Sullivan goes on to talk about how Eddie’s wife was gorgeous into her 60’s and ran her own business much like her husband.

Graham replaced Louie Tillet, his booker, after a year end review TV special revealed that they ran false finishes aka “The Dusty Finish” all the time. This annoyed Graham to the point where he replaced Tillet with Dusty Rhodes, who would go on to use the same finish constantly until it became infamous.

Tillet asked Terry Funk to do a clean job in the middle of the ring. Funk was okay with this. The next day Graham asked his booker how he got Funk to lose and save face, then scolded Tillet when he heard the response. Graham said Funk would be pissed and Funk did indeed quit the promotion over it. Graham told Tillet he needed to massage the star’s egos more and protect them.

We jump back to Eddie Graham’s early days as Ed Gossett where he worked in Texas, the south and Florida before heading to the WWWF where he became a star as Dr. Jerry Graham’s “brother”. The pair portrayed a rich, arrogant and cocky attitude that enraged fans.

Graham then used the main event money he earned in the WWWF to buy into the Florida wrestling group, which he eventually took over outright. Because of his big earning days in the WWWF, Eddie remained good business partners with Vince McMahon Sr and even had his Florida wrestling tapes shown in New York.

Eddie’s promoting prowess made him a welcome voice to the other industry leaders and he forged relationships with Verne Gagne and every other major wrestling circuit mastermind out there.

Vince Sr. was becoming concerned with using “ethnic” champions on top like Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales after Blackjack Mulligan got stabbed by an irate Puerto Rican fan. This led to McMahon and Graham debating who to use as the next WWWF champ. McMahon wanted Bob Backlund, with his clean cut college wrestling background. Graham suggested to use Steve Keirn, who he felt talked better and had a father who was a World War 2 and Vietnam war hero, who could be used to give his son some steam.

Graham could tailor a finish to fit whatever territory was asking for his help.

Kevin Sullivan and Dick Slater were given their own town to promote and run, with Eddie overseeing their plans.

Jackie Gleason taped a show down in Florida back in the 50’s. Years later Dusty Rhodes would sneak into his old dressing room and use his commode.

The towns were booked to have different matches nightly in an effort to draw fans from surrounding areas. Talent was shifted between larger and smaller Florida towns in order to keep people fresh.

Florida even ran Puerto Rico for a while.

Graham expected his arenas to be 50% or more full or he’d change booking directions in a hurry.

Kevin Sullivan and Blackjack Mulligan brawled outside of an arena one night and went all the way into a dark field. A week later the pair showed up in the middle of another match and were “still” brawling.

Each town had a guy who was in charge of the promoting and making sure the building was set up and ready.

Johnny Valentine and Red Bastien were in a red hot feud and drawing like crazy. One day they were sighted having a BBQ together and were both fired, in spite of having sold out arenas of fans waiting to see their rematches. A statement had to be made.

Another wrestler told his wife about a planned spot and was fired immediately.

TV was taped in a studio on a Wednesday morning. Despite the odd day and hour, they rarely had trouble drawing.

Eddie Graham discovered Gordon Solie when Mike heard him at a stock car race doing announcements. Solie was told to call it straight and don’t ham it up.

The wrestlers loved the short Florida trips and once they got the rub from Graham, they were made.

Sullivan admits WCW pushed you based on how much money you made in order to avoid heat from the Turner beancounters.

Jim and Kevin discuss how the most famous angle of the 60’s was a wrestler having his false teeth stomped on and how it worked despite it’s simplicity.

Jack Brisco vs. Dory Funk Jr. feuded from 1969-1973 based on a pure sports build.

They cover the story on how Dory Funk Jr was in a car accident right before he was suppose to lose the title to Jack Brisco. Funk eventually lost it to Harley Race who dropped it to Brisco in short order. Sullivan says the accident was fake and it was all about Funk not wanting to lose the belt to a babyface. Backdoor deals with Japan and booking the NWA championship also played a role in the ruse. Graham was furious as he had been grooming Brisco to be the champ for years.

Dusty Rhodes became a massive draw in the mid-70’s, even as he ran with Gary Hart as a heel. Dusty’s big turn kickstarted another boom period.

Dusty defended America against Pak Song, who was a giant Vietnamese wrestler, right as the Vietnam War died down.

The WWWF had to take Dusty Rhodes from time to time in order to build new stars in Florida. Rhodes was so over that it was hard to get more guys to a top level with his domineering presence around.

Rhodes made millions as he cherry picked his spots around the country for top dollar while coming “home” to Florida and cashing in there too.

Lou Thesz was making six figures for some of his short Japan in the 50’s. Verne Gagne was making 10% of every ticket he sold while starring on the Dumont network. Sullivan and Corny remind us that big money in wrestling was not a sudden development in 1984 when Vince Jr took over the world.

Bill Watts and Dusty Rhodes were both stars by the time Graham got a hold of them, but he taught them how to book.

Paul Orndorff and Dick Slater were rookies in Florida who had “it” from day one. Graham helped groom and develop them.

Graham and Vince Sr were able to put together the first ever NWA World champ vs. WWWF World champ match in Florida. Superstar Graham vs. Harley Race headlined “The Super Bowl of Wrestling” with an undercard that had Dusty Rhodes, Ken Patera, The Brisco Brothers, Jimmy Valiant, Adrian Adonis, Bobby Duncum, Chavo Guerrero, Pedro Morales, Ivan Koloff, Mr. Saito, Mike Graham, Steve Keirn, Ivan Putski, Ox Baker, Killer Kyle Kox and Rocky Johnson on it, among others.

Kevin Sullivan worked a wild, violent style in the 80’s, with Graham reminding him from time to time not to scorch the earth to the point that the fans will be numbed or conditioned to expect too much.

Despite Vince McMahon attacking Florida (and everywhere else) in 1984, the Florida business held up well. Business began to fall when Eddie shockingly committed suicide in early 1985. Sullivan reveals that the wrestling business had little to do with it, and it was actually a big land purchase Graham had made with another investor. The investor was a crook and Graham wound up facing possible criminal charges and he lost out on the money he had laid out. This led to him drinking for the first time in almost 20 years and eventually things devolved to the point where he shot himself.

Cornette touches on how JCP and the WWF struggled to draw in areas where certain wrestling styles were held near and dear to the fans hearts. Crockett bombed when taking a big “Great American Bash” show to Memphis, for example.

Sullivan talks about how Graham had not shaved in days and was not doing the normal recreational activities he enjoyed in the days before he committed suicide.

Kevin explains the genesis of the devil worshiper gimmick. Youtube thankfully has hours of his promos and matches from this era up:

Sullivan would wear his robes around town in order to live the gimmick. Cops would pull the Army of Darkness over for speeding and Mark Lewin would end up befriending them. On at least once occasion the cops joined them for a roadside beer.

Five fans started to “stalk” Sullivan and his Army of Darkness. The fans gave Sullivan necklaces made of bones and such. Ultimately, the local wrestling fans freaked out and attacked the devil loving fans outside of an arena and burned their van.

Dave Batista was given a gimmick similar to one of Sullivan’s minions in OVW. Batista was pussy whipped by his wife and didn’t want to film vignettes where he crawled out of the cold Ohio river.

The Bahama fans were crazy. Haku (Meng) had a cinderblock dropped on his head. (He almost no sold it) and Jake the Snake was chased under the ring mats as the fans tried to stab him like a rat trapped in the corner.

Another trip to the Bahamas saw the local promoter asked Sullivan to hang a black man. Sullivan refused until he was promised police protection. A near riot ensued but Sullivan was able to protect himself.

The angle where Sullivan “blinds” Dusty Rhodes’ sister is covered.

Cornette praises Sullivan for fighting off rowdy fans while only wearing tights. Corny admits he would wear bulletproof vests in Mid-South to try and protect himself from the knives.

After Eddie Graham committed suicide, Mike Graham was hopeful that Dusty Rhodes would come back from booking JCP and save the promotion. Sullivan was eventually asked to come in and book. Without Graham’s leadership and connections, the promoting aspect went downhill and much of the talent had followed Rhodes to JCP, and thus things were bleak.

Sullivan says the best wrestler ever was Ray Stevens, Mark Lewin or Johnny Valentine. Most underrated guy was Brad Armstrong.

Valentine could enrage a crowd just by sneering at them.

Had Graham not died, Sullivan feels he would have made a deal with Vince Jr. to use Florida as a WWF developmental area or something or that sort in order to save his business and use his connections to help Vince.

Final thoughts: Overall this was a fun two and a half hour shoot. Sullivan was a good choice as he was a Florida insider and a top draw for them, at least for a period. Cornette’s b-roll footage was used only at the very beginning, so don’t expect a lot of photos and montages to tie things together. The guys do get side tracked from time to time but the conversation flows smoothly and this is a welcome entry into this series.

If you enjoyed this, I’ve reviewed dozens more shoots here.


Written by Andrew Lutzke

The grumpy old man of culturecrossfire.com, lover of wrasslin' and true crimes.

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