August 15, 2004
Sheldon Kane III
WWWF CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
Bruno Sammartino (Champion) vs.
Superstar Billy Graham (Challenger)
April 30, 1977
Many longtime WWE fans look back on April 30, 1977, as a "changing of the guard." Others look back on that day as a night in which one of WWE's all-time legends was a victim of robbery. No matter which way you look at it, the April 30, 1977 WWWF Championship match between champion "The Living Legend" Bruno Sammartino and challenger (WWE Hall of Famer) Superstar Billy Graham has over the years become as legendary as the two Superstars that competed in it. For WWE fans in the 1970s, it was a can't-miss ticket: the WWWF's greatest and most beloved hero of the era facing the chiseled, flamboyant strongman from Paradise Valley, AZ...with the WWWF Championship as the prize.
Prior to this match, Bruno Sammartino and Superstar Billy Graham had several wars over the WWWF Championship, most notably a match that took place the previous year at Madison Square Garden. In that match, Graham snared a countout victory over Sammartino, and based on this, tried to make a claim to the WWWF Championship despite the fact that under WWWF rules, the Championship only changes hands on a pinfall or a submission. Determined to shut the "Superstar"'s mouth for good, Sammartino decided to grant Graham another shot at the gold, at the Baltimore Civic Center, on April 30, 1977. It would be the last time Bruno Sammartino would ever wear the WWWF Championship belt.
Graham's manager, WWE Hall of Famer the late Grand Wizard of Wrestling, did not appear at ringside for this match. Perhaps the Wizard had such high confidence in Graham that he felt no need to be there. From the opening bell, it seemed that this night would belong to Graham. A pair of collar-and-elbow tie-ups saw Graham get the upper hand, both times shoving Sammartino into the corner with brute force. The "Superstar" turned to the crowd and displayed his amazing physique, which garnered not only the boos that a typical heel character would recieve, but also a swath of cheers from fans that enjoyed watching Graham perform. Indeed, Graham was a performer ahead of his time, as Superstars ranging from Jesse "The Body" Ventura to "Big Poppa Pump" Scott Steiner have patterened their personas largely after Graham's. Graham succeeded the first couple of times in out-muscling Sammartino, but on the third lock-up he wasn't so lucky. This time, it would be "The Living Legend" that would gain the advantage, pushing Graham into the corner and using the momentum to take Graham down to the mat and apply a armbar into a wristlock. It appeared Sammartino's strategy was not to engage in a brawl with Graham, but rather use his knowledge of the sweet science to outwit Graham, who was never known to use much scientific skill. While in the armbar, Graham managed to reach the ropes and leave the ring to take a breather and recollect himself. When he returned to the inside of the ring, Graham at first attempted to beg off, but then lured Sammartino into a test of strength. It seemed Graham was trying to keep Sammartino from using pure wrestling skill and force the champion to adapt to HIS style, which employed a lot of brawling and power moves. At the start, Graham had Sammartino on his knees and at his mercy. Sammartino then fought back to his feet and appeared to be overpowering Graham, but it was to no avail, as Graham applied more pressure and once again had the advantage. This time however, Sammartino was able to successfully power out, and again take the "Superstar" down to the mat and into an armbar. It looked like "The Living Legend"'s strategy was working out for him. Graham would have other plans, though.
Using his impressive strength, Graham forced his way out of the armbar, threw Sammartino into the ropes, and caught him with a knee to the gut. Now, Graham had the chance to employ his strategy, as he repeatedly stomped the champion and leveled him with open-handed chops to the throat. Graham punished Sammartino relentlessly, choking him on the ropes and continuing to stomp away at the Italian sports legend. The tide began to turn in Sammartino's favor though, when Graham threw him into the opposite corner and charged toward him. Sammartino ducked, and Graham's extended knee hit only the turnbuckles, sending the challenger backwards, crashing to the canvas. Working on all cylinders and his adrenaline pumping, Sammartino began to employ brawling tactics of his own, stomping away at Graham and then ramming him headfirst into the steel ringpost, bloodying the challenger. With the Baltimore fans on their feet and jacked, Sammartino showed no mercy, going straight for Graham's head wound with a powerful series of rights. Bruno then attempted to Irish whip Graham into the corner, but Graham reversed the move, and caught Sammartino in his bearhug. Using his massively muscled arms to crush the breath out of Sammartino, it appeared the champion was just moments away from a submission. But Sammartino still had plenty of energy to spare, and started to punch his way out of Graham's grip until he was released from the hold. Sammartino then threw Graham into the opposite corner. With Graham fallen on the mat, Sammartino kneed him in the back repeatedly, setting Graham up for a bearhug of his own. With Graham apparently softened up, Sammartino then employed a bearhug of his own. Bruno Sammartino appeared to be on his way to another successful championship defense.
But not if Graham still had a say. While locked in the bearhug, Graham managed to reach the ropes, thus legally forcing Sammartino to break the hold. Sammartino seemed to be growing increasingly frustrated with Graham. Which is exactly what Graham wanted. With Sammartino off his mindset, Graham would be able to strike unexpectedly and get the victory, no matter what he had to do to get it. Sammartino kept Graham in the corner, and went back to work on the head wound with several hard punches. Referee Jack Davis forced Sammartino to back up and allow Graham to get out of the corner. This was exactly the opening Graham was looking for. While Sammartino was focused on arguing with the official, Graham grabbed an unsuspecting Sammartino's left leg and tripped him to the mat. Graham rolled Sammartino onto his shoulders, and with his own feet illegally on the ropes for additional leverage, Graham scored a tainted three-count to win the WWWF Championship. Sammartino, his manager Arnold Skaaland (another WWE Hall of Famer), and the majority of the fans in attendance were outraged by what had just taken place. As Sammartino and Skaaland argued with the referee, Graham quietly headed for the dressing room with the belt now in his possession. Bruno Sammartino's second (and final) reign as WWWF Champion had just come to an abrupt end. And the era of Superstar Billy Graham was dawning.
To some, the rulebreaking Superstar Graham represented a new breed of Champion and a refreshing change from the heroes of old. To others, after all he had given to the company over the years, Bruno Sammartino deserved better than to lose his title in such an unfair manner. In actuality, the debate was irrelevant. Nothing could change the fact that on the night of April 30, 1977, the "Superstar" conquered the "Living Legend."