"I am the man that walked a barbed wire fence thirty-two thousand miles barefooted, ate steel wool like cake, sopped up lightnin' with bread, picked up Plymouth rock and caught nine pounds of buckshot!"
For anyone who watched Memphis wrestling during the hot period of the early 1980's, for anyone who WORKED for Memphis wrestling and shared a locker room with him even once, he qualified as one of the most unforgettable characters you ever saw. The problem is, with the passage of time, he has begun to be forgotten, by simply not being seen on major promotion television, or talked about by the modern superstars of the sport. This column will attempt to right that wrong. If you're a wrestler, or a wrestling fan, you HAVE to know the story--at least as much of it as anyone really DOES know--of the Dream Machine.
His real name was Troy Thompson--I think, at least that's what he always told me. He was probably born on December 7, 1954, although one internet source claimed 1949, which is likely way off. He was definitely born in Memphis, Tennessee and lived there almost all his life, even when he was wrestling in other areas. He didn't like being away from home, even for short periods.
"Through snow and sleet and drivin' rain, forty below in Bangor, Maine, to a hundred and ten in the Texas sun, there ain't no road the Dream ain't run!"
He was, as most Memphians were, a lifelong wrestling fan. He grew up poor, living in mostly low-income, African-American suburbs of Memphis, and identified with the people who lived there. Growing up, he learned to talk a little "jive", as the trash-talking in the black communities at the time was called--but he got his "Master's Class" in it when he entered the world of wrestling as a pudgy kid in his early twenties.
"I was born in the heat of the desert, my Mama died givin' me life, the pride and the love of a father gone, blamed for the loss of his wife."
Under the name Troy "The Hippie" Graham, he began wrestling for the Curtis family's "outlaw" wrestling promotion in Mississippi, based out of the state capitol, Jackson, just three hours south of Memphis. The Curtis' were on the outs with Bill Watts' Mid-South Wrestling, and ran the big cities of the state--both of them--and many small towns. In those isolated, poor, Mississippi communities he learned to work, to get heat, and most of all, to be a great "stick man"--to cut promos on a microphone (the "stick" in old carny language).
He idolized the booker, the Great Mephisto, who was really an old carnival shooter and veteran pro named Frankie Cain, and he would extoll the virtues of Cain's old-style, Southern booking any chance he got. He also claimed to owe a great debt to Tom "Boogaloo" Shaft, an oldtime, Southern territory black babyface whose "jive" promos and colorful style and personality made him a hero to the largely black fanbase in the smaller promotions in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, like an early prototype of the Junkyard Dog. Tom Shaft could talk the fans into the building, swearing to avenge a wrong done by the heels in the most colorful of terms.
"It's gonna be a graveyard diggin' and a coffin-buyin', a long time weepin' and family cryin'! Get ready for some sad singin' and slow walkin'!"
Those small Southern towns were still in a wrestling time warp in the late 1970's, and Troy Graham got an education in those small armories and gyms that is not available to wrestlers today--a course taught in the ring, on the job, by men who dated back to the origins of pro wrestling in the carnivals and athletic shows. He learned to use the blade to "get color", but also how to give--or take--a "hardway", a real blow to the face to open a cut or close an eye. He learned how to instigate a crowd to the point of riot as a heel, and how to engender their sympathy as a babyface. He learned how to work angles to cause fans to buy tickets to see a match, how to work finishes to make them want to see a return, and how to use stipulations and special rules to juice things up when business was slow. Most of all, he learned to kayfabe, to never let anyone in on the "work" he was perpetrating, as if his life depended on it--because it did. He had no money when he got to Mississippi, and he made little while he was there, so anything that hurt business literally interfered with him being able to eat three meals a day. But while not financially profitable, the education and experience he got from those men was priceless to him, and he would talk about those days often for the rest of his life.
"I'm wired up tighter than a Gibson guitar on a Friday night!"
After a couple of years in the ring, Troy got the chance to work the Southeastern territory based in Knoxville, Tennessee, about 500 miles from Memphis on the other end of the state. Southeastern had gone through a number of ownership changes and business exposes in the previous few years, and the crowds--and money--were a fraction of what they had been during the glory period of the 1970's. But this new, loveable babyface named Troy T. Tyler knew exactly what the fans who remained wanted--fans who grew up on Ron and Don Wright, and a wrestling style of trash-talking, angles, wild brawls and hardway blood.
This run was brief, but it started to call attention to some "bigger name" wrestlers that passed through the area that there was a guy in East Tennessee who physically resembled Dusty Rhodes, and cut a promo full of jive at a million miles an hour that may have sounded more like Dusty than Dusty did. But actually, while the promoters did everything they could to accentuate Troy's similarities to the "American Dream", at the time one of the sport's biggest attractions, Troy had more than that in his verbal arsenal. He combined a poor white Tennessee country boy's slang with the Shaft-inspired "boogaloo", some Bo Diddley song lyrics and a surprisingly quick wit to create a sound unique for the time and other-worldly to today's ears.
His in-ring work held good and bad. At a little over 6 feet tall and almost 300 pounds, Troy never played organized sports--I'm not sure WHAT his school days were like--and he had a physique that was not, as they say, cosmetically pleasing. He was the furthest thing from a smooth, Ricky Steamboat style worker. But, at that size, he was shockingly light on his feet, loved to take big bumps, and was the classic definition of an over-achiever--he threw himself into his matches with reckless abandon and worked twice as hard as anyone else to attone for his lack of genetic gifts. One of his favorite bumps was the upside-down into the turnbuckles, whereupon he would then fly out to the middle of the ring and land on his face and stomach with a thud. As mentioned, he also knew WHAT needed to be done, and WHEN--when to get heat, when to give the babyface a comeback, how to keep the fans hooked--and in many cases DOING the right thing is more important than how it looks.
"Just because your breath smells like Cheetah's, ain't no sign that you're Tarzan, boy!"
But Troy T. Tyler's days in Knoxville came to an end, and Troy Graham--the name he would use for most of the rest of his life, even when introducing himself to the boys--was again an unemployed wrestler, and back in Memphis, when for once in his life, his timing was impeccable.
Jerry "The King" Lawler, the top star in the promotion, had been sidelined with a badly broken leg for the majority of 1980. But when Troy Graham walked into the Memphis Mid-South Coliseum one Monday night in early December, trying to get booked to make some Christmas money, Lawler was just a few weeks away from his return to the ring. Troy didn't know this--but promoter Jerry Jarrett did.
Jarrett also knew that the crowds in Memphis, after a year without the King, had dropped to 3,000 fans per week--probably the lowest averages in Memphis since the mid 1950's. He needed an attraction, and a fresh one, to battle Lawler. The real rivalry was with the King's ex-manager, Jimmy Hart, who had turned on Lawler in his absence. Some of The King's biggest career opponents, like Joe LeDuc, Austin Idol, Jimmy Valiant, and the Funks, were scheduled to be brought to the area by Hart to "rebreak Lawler's leg and get rid of him once and for all". But Hart needed a NEW star, one that could be made to appear a threat at first, then lose to Lawler in his big return and work all the smaller towns the big stars weren't going to make.
Jarrett asked Troy if he could talk, and on the spot, Troy unleashed his jive. At that moment, Troy Graham got the highest-paying, highest-profile job of his career.
"I'll hit you so hard, it'll turn your toenails backwards!"
Dusty Rhodes was one of the biggest stars in wrestling, and also one of the most expensive. As well, Dusty was a babyface. But, Jarrett thought, if you put a mask on this big kid with the great promo, and called him "The Dream Machine", well--some fans might actually believe it was Dusty. Even if they didn't, they sure wouldn't know WHO it was--Troy had only wrestled once in his own hometown, in a forgotten 6 man tag. And that's exactly the way it worked out--some believed, some didn't, all wondered, and the Dream Machine became a Memphis mainstay for the rest of his brief career.
On TV, Hart unveiled his newest find, who laid waste to some prelim wrestlers and cut a promo on Lawler that some fans who saw it can still quote to this day, myself being one of them. He vowed to put an end to the King once and for all, telling the fans that "Jerry Lawler is just like the city of Memphis, he was built on a bluff!" On December 29, 1980, Lawler returned to the Mid-South Coliseum to face the Dream, managed by Hart. If Lawler won--the stipulation that put it over the top--he would get five minutes with his former manager to exact mayhem.
The newspapers put the crowd at a sellout 11,069. It's said about three thousand more were turned away. The headlines in the papers the next day read "The King is Back", and after a violent brawl Lawler had defeated the Dream Machine and put a beating on Hart. The match replayed in every town in the territory to record crowds, from Nashville to Lexington to Evansville to Louisville, where a snowstorm prevented the anticipated sellout. Then it spread to spot shows. Originally intended to be a short-term idea, Troy's promos, ass-busting in-ring work and personality both in front of the camera and in the locker room made the Dream Machine a fixture on the cards.
This was when I first met Troy Graham, and what an impression he made on me at the time. I had been blown away by the first TV promos, and had no idea, in this early video tape era, who he was. I had never seen the outlaw Mississippi TV, and wouldn't see tape of Troy T. Tyler in Knoxville until well after the Dream invaded Memphis. But, in my position as boy ringside photographer, I was not only front and center for Dream's matches, I got to know him behind the scenes as well.
It helped I lived in the right place. Most of the area's talent lived in Nashville, a midpoint in the daily trips. But I lived in Louisville, and so when I would go to Memphis to shoot the matches, Troy found out I would be driving back afterwards--400 miles, or about six hours. Troy had an old car that didn't look like it would make it to the corner, much less out of state, and so he asked me for a ride. I was happy to get the "trans"--back then if you rode in a guy's car he paid you five cents per mile, so Louisville was a $20 trip--but after the first time Troy rode with me, I think I would have paid him to do it again. He was hilarious, and he loved to stay up all night--due to various pharmaceuticals I never saw him do but know he had to be doing--and talk about the wrestling business. At the end of a six hour trip, with the sun rising, my face would hurt from laughing.
He was up to any outrageous rib, or joke. One morning at 6AM, I dropped him off at the hotel in Louisville where the wrestlers stayed, one that had a religious owner and thus had a placard in each room with the number of a Chaplain "on call if you need spiritual help". Of course, Troy immediately called the number, and when the groggy minister answered, he shouted "Preacher, I need help!" When the man of the cloth questioned if Troy could call back in two hours, he responded with "But I need help NOW!", and got hung up on. Thankfully, he wasn't suicidal, just pilled up.
Those long trips were helpful to me. Since I was not officially "smart" to the business, many of the guys kayfabed me--not actually going so far as to try to convince me the business was real, just not speaking openly that it wasn't. But Troy recognized I knew what was going on, and we had some great talks about simple things like psychology, and keeping programs alive between guys. He, along with Bobby Fulton, were the first two people that ever said I would be "a booker one day", which given my status at the time, I thought they were nuts. But they were right.
One day, I was driving Troy and Bobby Eaton from Louisville to Lexington, to go to court. A fan had tackled the Dream on his way to do a run-in, and Troy had "dispatched" him. The guy pressed charges. Bobby and I were to serve as the witnesses that it was self defense. The trip had two memorable occurances--the first, when we had to stop and have a gas station attendant tie Troy's tie, since this was my pre-managerial days and not one of the three of us knew how to tie one--the second, when Troy spent much of the trip instructing me what NOT to say in court. Even with his neck on the line, he wanted me to defend him, but still not say anything on the record that could be construed as saying wrestling was a work. The guy who was usually all laughs was serious when he said "The business is more important than what happens to one guy in it".
The Dream Machine had a run as a heel, then after a few months split with Hart and became a babyface, where he was one of the most popular guys on the card, and a good merch seller--I know, I took the pictures. The fans loved his promos, and he made a good tag champion with partners like Bill Dundee and Dutch Mantell. By August, he had switched back heel again in an issue with Lawler, and faced the King in singles and tags eight weeks in a row. One grudge tag match pitting Dream & Bugsy McGraw against Lawler and Jimmy Valiant drew a sellout 11,600 to the Coliseum. He still wasn't making "big money" in wrestling, but in his runs on top in the area a check for a thousand bucks a week ($2600 today) probably wasn't uncommon. He didn't get a guarantee like some of the "stars", probably because everybody knew he wasn't about to leave Memphis for anything. He still drove the same old car, and lived the same way he always had.
Through 1982, he became a fixture of Hart's "First Family", and might be in a main event one week and a preliminary the next. He treated every match the same and always worked hard. Ironically, during this period, he actually began dieting and working out for the first time in his life, and ended up at a trim--for Troy--230 or so by fall, when he appeared in the territory unmasked for the first time.
Jarrett was setting up Jackie Fargo's introduction of his hot new babyface team, the Fabulous Ones. Stan Lane and Steve Keirn were to be repackaged as an updated version of the Fabulous Fargo brothers from the late 1950's, and they needed opponents to get them over, much as Dream had done for Lawler in his return. Therefore, on TV one morning, Jimmy Hart announced his new team, the New York Dolls, comprised of "Quick Draw" Rick McGraw and an unmasked, slimmed-down Dream Machine in tuxes and top hats, just like the Fargos used to wear. Of course, this blatant gimmick infringement enraged Fargo, who debuted his team a few weeks later, and the Fabs became the hottest tag team in Memphis in 25 years--since the Fargos.
After the Dolls' run with the Fabs, in January 1983 the Dream Machine left the territory. He didn't actually GO anywhere, they just stopped booking him. He had been a heel, a face, and a heel again, masked and unmasked, tag team and single, under two different gimmicks. There was nothing else for him to do. Of course, you may ask, why could a guy who had main evented two sellouts and dozens of huge houses in Memphis against Jerry Lawler not be able to get booked anywhere else? The only answer I can give you is I don't think he tried--Troy loved the wrestling business, but he also loved being "home", even if home was hanging out on the wrong side of Memphis with the wrong kind of people all night when you should be "home".
What proved to be a THIRD lease on life and what should have been his big career break came in the Spring of 1983, when he became a substitution for a substitution. "Iceman" King Parsons and Porkchop Cash were supposed to start on Memphis Tv one morning as a black heel tag team called the Bruise Brothers. Porkchop showed up, but Parsons didn't--he had elected to take a spot as a babyface in Dallas, which would end up being his biggest career run. With only one Bruise Brother, Lawler looked out in the TV station parking lot and saw Mad Dog Boyd, who had been working "outlaw" in Mississippi and hanging around the station trying to get booked. The King supposedly said, "See if the Bruise Brothers jacket fits him". It did, and he became the newest Bruise Brother.
But Mad Dog Boyd, while a wonderful guy, was not up to the in-ring standards of Memphis--or any territory for that matter--a fact made glaringly obvious one night in a 6 man tag featuring Andre the Giant. After several weeks, a search began for a new Bruise Brother, and the one they found actually made the gimmick work--Dream Machine, sans mask and now with black hair, as Porkchop's Brother in Bruise who was obviously white, but black in spirit. This was as close to the real Troy Graham as we ever saw.
Using the entrance music "Soul Man" from the Blues Brothers soundtrack, Jimmy Hart had them make videos at all the iconic Memphis blues joints, where in one, Dream caused all kinds of commotion by making out with a young African-American woman, which was still not done on Memphis TV even twenty years after the civil rights act. They were a great team, between the promos, the big bumps they both liked to take, and the fact that the gimmick was babyface to as many fans as it was heelish to others. They were utility men who could be used up and down the cards, and had a hell of a program with the Rock & Roll Express when they first teamed. By this time, I was IN the business, and Troy and I had some great car trips to the small town "B" shows we were being booked on, or as he called it, the "Buttermilk run".
"I eat lightnin' and clap thunder, walk through the graveyard and make the dead men wonder!"
The Bruise Brothers were still on the Memphis cards a solid year later, in early 1984, when a chance opportunity presented itself. Bill Dundee had become the booker for Mid-South Wrestling, and had taken the Rock & Roll Express, the Midnight Express and I with him. He wanted another good babyface team for the area, and for the Midnight to work with. He thought the Bruise Brothers would be perfect.
Dundee got dates on them, and flew them into Oklahoma to face the Midnights in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa on March 25, 1984, and the next night in New Orleans. The Ok City gate was likely the biggest Troy had ever worked on, ticket prices being higher than in Memphis, and their check for the three days probably rivaled those from his Coliseum sellouts. And that was just the start--the Midnight Express, the area's top heel team, who were about to face Bill Watts himself in a record run on the Last Stampede tour, had lost all three bouts to the Bruises by disqualification.
Troy and Porkchop returned to Memphis to begin finishing up their dates, and in a match in Nashville, disaster struck. Dream attempted to baseball slide out of the ring, but caught his foot in the apron skirt. It was a nasty ankle break, and doctors suggested he would not wrestle again. Over the following few weeks, all the Mid-South towns where the Bruise Brothers had been booked against the Midnights became Porkchop and a fillin Bill Dundee putting us over. Jimmy Hart had even been brought in to be their manager at the Superdome and Houston stops on the Last Stampede tour, to counteract my presence in the Midnight's corner. History has forgotten that our matches with Watts and Junkyard Dog on those events were "Lights Out" matches, and we defended the Mid-South Tag Titles on the undercards against what WOULD have been the Bruise Brothers. I would have been able to work with my friend Troy before 23,000 fans at the Superdome, and before the largest sellout in Houston history. He would finally have been making the "big money" he always heard about in wrestling. Instead, he was unemployed in Memphis with his leg in a cast.
Without the injury, would he have stayed that far from Memphis for long? There's no way to tell, but the best weekly check we made from Watts was $4545, or about $10,500 today. For anything near that, and working in front of those big crowds in a pushed spot in the business he loved, I think he could have done it--but we'll never know. The biggest break of his career was snatched out from under him right as it started, at the age of 30.
"I'm gonna be in your pancakes, I'm gonna be in your eggs and bacon, you ain't NEVER gonna get rid of me or get me out yo' mind, son!"
Troy couldn't walk, but he could still talk, and he was back on Memphis TV by December as the wheelchair-bound Dr. Troy Graham--the first time he'd ever been billed under his "real" name in Memphis--and managing the masked Interns, veterans Roger Smith and Don Bass. This wasn't the first instance of a heel manager in a wheelchair gimmick, but it was the one I "researched" for Ron Wright in Smoky Mountain Wrestling years later. The main event at the Coliseum on December 17, 1984 was Jerry Lawler, Jimmy Valiant and Randy Savage against the Interns and Rick Rude with Dr. Troy Graham. Even crippled, he was still able to main event in big company.
After a few months, the Interns ran their course, and so did Dr. Graham. From that point, Troy was out of the wrestling business, barely 8 years after he'd gotten in it. He never left Memphis, and I'm actually not sure what he DID do. I had no number to contact him, but one day in 1990, I was in Louisville visiting my Mother, whose number Troy still had from when I lived there, and he called. I think he was probably calling every number he had ever had for anyone. We talked for awhile and it was great to hear from him, but then he revealed the purpose of the call--he needed to borrow some money, because he needed a place to live. He knew how well I had done, and I felt badly for him. I sent him $500, and wish I had sent more, and gave him my home number in Charlotte. I never heard from him again.
"Shuckin', jivin', movin', groovin', take a pill, I will, go over the hill like Jack and Jill!"
Troy was out of wrestling until 1994, when he suddenly reappeared on Memphis TV. His ankle had apparently healed enough that he could do what he needed to to get by, but the rest of him looked like he had a lot of mileage on him, and he was covered with tattoos over most of his arms and body. But he applied the same determination and work ethic he'd always had in a renewed angle with Lawler, which was probably precipitated by him again needing money for a place to live. This time around, a lot of Memphians knew him, both as the famous Dream Machine from Memphis' glory days, and in unsavory parts of town as Troy Graham, a guy you shouldn't fuck with. The matches with Lawler were violent, and believable, as were the promos and angles. At one point, Troy told Lawler, "You know who I am and what I'm like, Lawler. So does everybody in town. I hang out in places where people get cut and shot. I don't make a secret out of who I am, or what I've done."
The matches and promos had all the edge in the world, but the crowds were gone by that time, as the territories were dying out. But Troy worked like there were 10,000 fans there instead of 1,000. Manager Scott Bowden once saw Troy looking in the mirror before a promo, punching himself in the face to try to swell his eye closed, so he could claim Lawler had done it. Bowden was surprised at that level of dedication, but I wasn't--Troy used to sit up late at night in hotel rooms, chemically enhanced, "practicing" blade jobs.
After that brief run, Troy Graham was gone again--this time for good. Oh, you knew he was in Memphis somewhere, but he didn't hang out in the same "social circles" as anyone in the wrestling business. He apparently spent some time homeless. No one really knew what had become of him, until word began circulating among those in the business that he had died of a heart attack on March 7, 2002. He was--apparently--47 years old. He left behind, according to the obituary, a seven year old daughter, his mother, and--incredibly--his great-grandmother.
But more than that, to the guys who worked and traveled and laughed with him, and the fans who hated and loved him--sometimes at the same time--he left way more memories than he would have ever believed possible. Troy Graham was another of the handful of guys in a business populated by outrageous characters that you could truly say was "one of a kind".
"The muscles of Charles Atlas, the quickness of Bob Lilly, the meanness of Joe Greene, do the funky chicken better than Isaac Hayes, got more soul than a Brogan shoe, two hundred seventy five pounds of sweet lovin', huggin', squeezin', pleasin', baby blue-eyed soul!"