Kayfabe, Lies and Alibis: Billy Graham Shoot Interview 1977 WWWF

Presented by Sean Oliver and the Kayfabe Commentary crew

The Man: Billy Graham was born Wayne Coleman on June 7th, 1943.  The man who would gain fame for his cartoonish physique first walked into a gym at age 10 and by age 11 Coleman had created his own weights  and started to build his body. He used this strength to help promote his devout Christianity and performed demonstrations while at sermons.

Coleman became a shot put champion in High School and also practiced boxing, culminating in his participation in the 1959 Golden Gloves.  In the early 60’s Coleman focused on body building and won the West Coast Mr. Teen America contest.  By the late 60’s Coleman was training side by side at Gold’s Gym with Arnold Schwartzenegger. Coleman maxed out at a 605 pound bench press by this point.

 Coleman took to football for money in the late 60’s and played for the CFL’s Montreal Alouette’s and the AFL’s Oakland Raiders briefly.

Pro Wrestler Bob Lueck spotted Coleman in the CFL and encouraged him to enter the business.  This led to Coleman to train with Stu Hart and debuted in January of 1970 for Stampede Wrestling. Coleman wrestled back in his home state of Arizona that May and he and Dr. Jerry Graham began a partnership.  The two traveled to Mike LeBell’s Los Angeles based promotion that August and changed his name to Billy Graham.  Eventually he would be named “younger brother” to Jerry, Eddie and Luke Graham – all established workers and all fictional family to one another.

Graham would end up in San Francisco by that December and got his wrestling Ph. D from master teachers like Ray “Crippler” Stevens and Pat Patterson. Despite having been in the business under a year, Graham was already making covers of national wrestling magazines thanks to his huge muscles and hippie gimmick. Graham would remain on the West Coast most of the next two years- other than a brief run in Hawaii.

In October of 1972, Graham would march into the AWA and took on the nickname “Superstar”.  Graham was put over hard and battled top stars like The Crusher, The Bruiser, Wahoo McDaniel, and Billy Robinson. He also engaged in strongman competitions with fellow muscleman Ken Patera, who was fresh off an Olympic career as a power lifter. Graham’s remarkable charisma and 22 inch biceps covered up for his inexperience in the ring.

In late 1974 Graham toured Japan and soon ended up in Dallas battling Mad Dog Vachon. By Fall he wound up in Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, helping fill a void left by Ric Flair’s injuries that he suffered in his famed plane crash.

In October 1975 Graham entered the WWWF and made an impact right away by teaming with Spiros Arion to defeat Bruno Sammartino and Dominic Denucci.  He was given the Grand Wizard as a manager and Graham was awarded a series of matches with Bruno for the World title and tangling with Ivan Putski in a battle of strongmen.

He would leave the WWWF that June for a tour of Houston, then Japan – clashing with top Japan star Antonio Inoki. Once he returned to America, he and Ivan Koloff launched a failed attempt to start their own promotion in California. By late 1976 Graham would jump to the Florida promotion and beat Dusty Rhodes for the Florida title and would also travel to St. Louis to battle NWA World Champion Harley Race.

In April 1977 Graham returned to the WWWF and stunned the wrestling world by beating Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World title on April 30th. Graham would hold the title for 296 days, a record for a heel champion in the WWE. Graham’s reign saw him defend the belt in both America and Japan – facing Jack Brisco, Mil Mascaras, Dusty Rhodes, Sammartino, Pedro Morales, and a famous title for title defense against NWA Champion Harley Race.

The WWWF fans were drawn in by the package of charisma and muscularity, and despite being a rule breaker, Graham was starting to hear significant cheers from a vocal base of fans.  They were loud enough that even kayfabe articles written during the time had to mention his shocking popularity.  Due to this Graham attempted to convince Vince McMahon Sr. to allow Ivan Koloff to turn on Graham and turn Billy into a legit babyface.  Vince had already agreed to make Bob Backlund his next long term champion and refused Graham’s offer. Superstar would drop the strap on February 20th 1978. During his WWWF run Graham headlined 19 sell outs of Madison Square Garden in 20 opportunities.

After another series of matches with Dusty Rhodes, Graham left the WWWF – still bitter over having the belt “taken” from him.  Graham toured Houston, California, Florida, Japan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Texas sporadically before quitting the business in April of 1980. Graham gained 50 pounds and attempted to compete in “World Strongest Man” competitions.  He wrestled twice in 1981 and by January 1982 when Graham went on another Japan tour, he had lost a ton of weight and was falling apart physically from his steroid abuse.

In September of 1982, Graham returned to the WWF (now with “wide” removed from the company name) and looked remarkably different to the fans he had once ruled over: Bald, leaned out and bearing a mustache.  His tye dye hippie look was now replaced with karate pants. The martial arts gimmick bombed and is often mocked as Graham’s “Kung Fu” phase.  Billy was trying to quit the “Superstar” gimmick out of spite for having his title reign cut short.

He chased after Backlund’s belt – literally ripping it in half in one memorable angle – but his heat was hurt by his new look and he left the WWF soon after. Another factor that hurt Graham on this run was the fact that Gorilla Monsoon had erroneously announced Graham’s death during Billy’s down time in the early ‘80’s and many fans thought that this guy was an imposter.

Graham ended up back in Florida, as a member of Kevin Sullivan’s “Army of Darkness” but it was a return to Mid-Atlantic that sparked the return of the “Superstar” persona. Billy bulked back up, returned to his tye-dye look, growing a goatee and dying his mustache blond. He would end up as a champion in Florida, before making a brief return to the AWA and finally joining Paul Jones’ Army in JCP – appearing at Starcade ’84 against Wahoo McDaniel.  He eventually broke up with Jones’ group and ended up at war with the Army.

Graham returned once again to the WWF but his hip had deteriorated to the point where his comeback was put on hold while he had it replaced.

When Graham was able to return in mid ’87, the WWF tried to push him back to the top of the cards, feuding with Butch Reed – and being announced as Hulk Hogan’s partner as part of the Survivor Series ’87 main event. However Graham’s ankle and hip injuries would prove too much to overcome and the WWF had the One Man Gang injure him to write him off as an in ring participant. Graham would become a manager for Don Muraco (who had run in to save him from the Gang’s assault) for a few months before being made a commentator. When that didn’t go as well as the WWF had hoped, Graham was let go.

Graham was forced to have several more surgeries on his ankle and hips over the next several years and spent much of his time railing against Vince McMahon and the system of steroid abuse that his business perpetuates.  Graham testified against Vince in the infamous 1994 steroid trials Vince was subjected to and Vince responded by railing against “Wayne Coleman” in his WWF magazine in a special section that was called “Now It’s Our Turn”.  Originally designed as a monthly P.R. article to rail against his oppressors, it was canceled quickly.

Graham would make amends in 2003 with Vince and be inducted in the 2004 WWE Hall of Fame class.  Graham would be under WWE contract for five years as a “legend”, and spoke positively of the WWE during this time.  Things would change when the WWE chose to release Graham. Billy started to rage against the WWE, sold his Hall of Fame ring on ebay, and asked the WWE to remove his Hall of Fame profile.  Graham remains in constant poor health to this very day.

The Shoot:

Bruno had issues with opponents being too fired up to be in Madison Square Garden and working a bit wild and/or stiff with him.

Graham says fans were making their own “Superstar” T-shirts and Graham wanted Vince Sr. to start making shirts for a Graham babyface run. Sr. said he wasn’t into marketing merchandise.

Eddie Graham and Sr. had a great relationship and they mutually made money by working together.

Vince Sr. called Graham in 1976 and told Graham that Bruno wanted to retire and had the exact dates set as to when Graham would win the gold and lose the gold to Bob Backlund – at the time Bob was fairly unknown.

Graham was taken aback by Vince Sr. wanting him to have a manager. He was used to doing his own talking.

Arnie Skaaland was stingy with giving Graham ticket comps – even with Graham selling out arenas for him.

Graham had 1/3 of his weekly paychecks held by the WWWF as an assurance that he would give up the belt when asked.

Vince Jr.’s first town he was given to promote was Bangor, Maine.

Blackjack Mulligan was stabbed and cut from his knee to his hip by an irate Puerto Rican fan.  Mulligan was facing Pedro Morales at the time.

Graham starts to cry as he tells this story: Baron Mikel Scicluna was going broke by being stuck in prelim matches and barely getting paid.  Graham saw him outside on a cold winter night and Graham gave him the jacket off his back, then took him to a store and bought him a jacket.

Bruno being an amazing gentleman is discussed.

Eddie Graham, Sam Mushnick and Verne Gagne convinced Vince Sr. that Backlund was the man who should be his next great champion.

Billy felt characters sold a lot more tickets than technical workers like Billy Robinson.

Graham pinned Bruno with both feet on the ropes to save Bruno’s mystique.

Billy sliced a gusher on his forehead during the match to help get Bruno and the match over as much as possible.

Catering was donuts and maybe some fast food hamburgers at TV tapings.

Superstar says Hogan ignored the jobbers once he hit it big.  Graham would give jobbers rides at times.

Monsoon got mad that Graham took too long to beat Curt Hennig on TV and came down and told Billy to wrap it up – all caught on camera.

Dick the Bruiser was “revoltingly, disgustingly egotistical”.  Graham had to defend his WWWF gold versus Bruiser in St. Louis early in his reign.

Graham refused to do business with Billy Robinson because Robinson was well known for intentionally injuring guys.   Later Graham taped a razor blade to his finger and threatened Robinson to work light or face violent consequences.

Abdullah the Butcher helped Graham a bunch when Graham was breaking in, and they remain friends to this day.

Billy wasn’t a fan of touring around the Midwest defending his WWWF belt as he felt the NWA guys were jealous and that the fans didn’t care about the Northeastern based title anyway.

Superstar tried to get out of a title defense with Haystacks Calhoun because he realized the match would stink among other reasons.

Graham suffered an infection in his knee and had to miss 3 weeks of bookings in midst of his title run.  Vince Sr. wanted to drag Graham around in a gurney to try and prevent fans from wanting refunds.

Chief Jay Strongbow was jealous of Graham. Jay would try and make Graham blow up by working up tempo.

Billy didn’t enjoy hanging around the locker rooms or idle wrestling talk.  Graham would come to arenas late and spend the extra time in the gym.

Pedro Morales was a good worker, but was way too stiff with his stomach punch.

Graham credits himself with making Tony Garea’s career.

Ivan Putzki drank some beer at ringside during a bout and Vince Sr. was very angry over it.

Billy had so little faith in Backlund that he tried to convince Bruno Sammartino to go against the planned finish of a cage match between Bruno and Graham and have Bruno retake the belt.

Mil Mascaras was “a prima donna”.

Capt. Lou Albano bladed his cheeks accidently while intoxicated.

Albano also dropped a pocket knife in the ring that he used for blading on another occasion and Vince Sr. freaked out thinking the athletic commission was going to ban wrestling from Madison Square Garden.

Superstar refused to go to Japan to defend the title, Vince Sr. had to beg him personally.

Graham puts over Harley Race hard.  Graham tried to get out having to work a 60 minute match against Race in a title for title match.

Graham ended up defending the belt in Florida, California, Missouri and Japan – in addition to his usual WWWF circuit.

Backlund won the belt but Graham had his foot on the rope, an effort to save his heat.

During the rematch Backlund covered up the belt with his robe and Vince Sr. and Bob had to argue over displaying the belt.

Vince Sr. asked Dusty Rhodes and Superstar Graham to teach Backlund charisma.

Graham feels Vince Sr. realized Backlund was a bad choice to be champ but refused to admit he was wrong.

We finish with Graham reiterating for several minutes that Backlund should never have been made champ.

Final Thoughts: 

This was a sad DVD to watch on the grounds that Graham is apparently still holding back a lot of bad feelings from things that went down 35+ years ago.  You just want to scream at the TV for Graham to go to the NWA and turn babyface and quit whining.  With Billy’s clear lingering angst, it’s no wonder that his life would spiral into drugs and his career destroyed so soon after the time period covered came to pass.  Billy also comes across as hard to deal with, since he personally admits to refusing to go along with so many plans offered.  Mildly recommended.

Photo courtesy John Jewell

 

Written by Andrew Lutzke

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

2 Comments

Leave a Reply
  1. Is this the shoot where Billy Graham breaks down crying telling some tall tale about giving one of the regular job guys the coat off his back because Vince Sr paid the undercard guys so poorly that they were almost starving to death?

Leave a Reply