Related Links:

Superstar Billy Graham Official Website


Chappell: This brings out a subject that’s covered in the book, that fans in the Mid-Atlantic area in the late 70s wouldn’t have been able to experience. When you were the WWWF Champion, the fans were actually starting to cheer for you when you were a heel. But Vince McMahon, Sr. was committed to bring in Bob Backlund as the new Champion in 1978, even though you were selling out everywhere.


I often ask wrestlers in these interviews whether holding a Title was significant to them. The response is typically a mixed one. But in your case, as you mentioned earlier, having to drop the WWWF Title sent your career, your life for that matter, spiraling downward.


Graham: Yeah, I mean, some Titles…they don’t mean that much to folks. But THIS particular Title…meant New York City and Madison Square Garden, you see? This is the real big-time here!


We’re talking about New York City, the World’s most famous city, and Madison Square Garden, the World’s most famous sporting Arena…well, you know, that’s a real big deal!


Superstar Graham battles Bob Backlund for

the WWWF (WWE) Heavyweight Title


Chappell: It had to be tough to give up that spot.


Graham: (pauses) When I had to pass the torch onto Backlund…it was very difficult to accept. And, of course, the fans didn’t accept Backlund…


Chappell: As Champion?


Graham: Yes. Vince Sr. had to push him down the fan’s throats. They immediately starting calling Backlund ‘boring.’


Chappell: (pauses) As early as 1978?


Graham: Oh yeah…and they’d get on him about his haircut, and about his freckles and stuff like that.


The transition from a flamboyant person like myself, that persona, to a very quiet type mid-western kid…was astounding! It was like people were shocked that this thing actually happened, you know?


Chappell: BIG change, that’s for sure.


Graham: As you know, having read the book, I called the title to one of my chapters, ‘But I Like My Robe.’


Chappell: Yes…


Graham: And, Dave, can I tell the Mid-Atlantic fans real quickly how that happened?


Chappell: Please!


Graham: On a return match with Bob Backlund, at the [Madison Square] Garden, after I gave him the belt, he wore the belt and he had this long black boxing robe OVER the BELT!


Chappell: (laughs) Uh oh! My website partner and title belt aficionado, Dick Bourne, is going to really cringe when he hears this! 


Graham: I came walking out with my tie-dye and all the stuff, and Vince McMahon Sr.’s standing there before we go into the ring, and he says, ‘Bobby, the BELT, you have to show the BELT! My God, it’s all about the BELT!’


Chappell: (laughing)


Graham: Backlund’s answer to Vince Sr., was, ‘But I like my robe.’


Chappell: (laughs) Truly unbelievable…Backlund must not have had a clue.


Graham: (laughing) It’s really a sad story, actually.


Chappell: It is!


Graham: I think it was a problem with the kid’s mental stability, concerning that event. To actually hide the belt, underneath a black robe. A boxing robe…ankle length boxing robe.


Chappell: Looking back on it now, it seems incredible that Backlund was made Champion over you at that time. You were selling out everywhere as Champion. But as you go into in the book, Vince Sr. was committed to Backlund from the get-go, and he didn’t waver from that.


Of course, the mindset of the business was quite different in the late 1970s. I thought it was interesting how you went to Vince Sr. and pleaded for a continued run as Champion as a babyface, but he stayed the course and stuck with Backlund.


Graham: He was committed to Backlund, and he didn’t want to lose face with other promoters that he told he was going to do this. He committed himself to one year to get Backlund over…then he knew he was making a mistake.


World Wide Wrestling Federation Champion

Superstar Billy Graham


Also I told him, I said, ‘Sir, don’t you understand for the first time ever there are people wearing Superstar t-shirts out there. I’m a heel, and there are Superstar Billy Graham big posters for the first time ever.’


Chappell: Superstar, I suspect at that time in the business, nobody really understood what your popularity meant. As Sr.’s father, Vincent K. McMahon, has said since in so many words, you were very much ahead of your time!


Graham: Vince McMahon, Sr. was afraid that I was too big to be a babyface. I just tried to convince him that of course I could sell, I could sell, I could sell. And that I could talk, and I could entertain the folks.


But he was committed to the old tradition…old school tradition. So, Backlund was basically force fed to the folks for almost five years.


Chappell: Right, from 1978 through the dawning of the Hulk Hogan era in the WWF in late 1983. And, of course, after Vince, Sr. passed away and Vincent K. McMahon took over the reigns…there was that tanned, muscular babyface that was made Champion.


But it wasn’t Superstar Billy Graham…it was Hulk Hogan. Had that switch been made to run you as a babyface Champion in 1978, you have to wonder if Superstar Billy Graham could have been pushed like a pre-Hulk Hogan media and merchandising machine back then.


Graham: Without question, that would have happened. The fans were turning me…


Chappell: Do you often think back and say to yourself, ‘What if?’


Graham: Oh sure, sure. I would have been good for the next six or seven years with that belt, I think.


Because, like I said, the FANS were turning me babyface…not the office. The fans were doing it. And when that happens, when they turn you, you’re good to go. That means you’ve got the real deal. The fans want you to be a certain way, and when they want you to turn…you turn for them.


Chappell: Of course, that turn was never allowed to happen, and you had some real tough years immediately after that. The book gets into a lot of detail as to what was happening to you in the late 1970s and very early 1980s when there were all those rumors about your having died.


A lot of drug issues, among other things, but you did resurface in the early 1980s with the karate gimmick that you’ve mentioned previously. Where did the martial arts persona originate from?


Graham: What led me into the martial arts deal was that I decided that I’d come back and give it another run. But I was not going to come back and be the original Superstar Billy Graham, who had New York City in the palm of his hand.


Chappell: Why not?


Graham: I just refused to come back and be the original Superstar Billy Graham, because I knew, obviously, that I wasn’t getting the belt back.


Chappell: No, I’m sure by the time you came back to the then WWF in 1982, you weren’t on the short list to get Backlund’s belt. There probably wasn’t even a list at all!


Graham: So, I just decided to come back as a ‘non-person,’ a flat person, a flat monotone karate expert…that meant absolutely nothing. It was nothing even close to Superstar Billy Graham.


   (Eddie Cheslock Photo)


Chappell: It really wasn’t. I remember looking at the Apter magazines during that time frame and seeing photos of you in that martial arts attire, and wondering, ‘Where is Superstar Billy Graham?’


Graham: He was gone by that point….I just refused to come back as the original Superstar Billy Graham. And that’s what sparked the karate gimmick.


Chappell: The karate gimmick seemed to be so far from the Superstar Billy Graham that was headlining in New York, and let’s not forget in the Mid-Atlantic area as well, in the 1970s.


That’s just a small example of the many changes, and ups and downs, that typifies the story of your life. One reason I think the book is so powerful, is that it takes you from the very earliest part of your life…and tells your story as one of continual upheaval and perseverance from the very start. Most of the information in the book about your early life, under your given name of Wayne Coleman, is new to your fans. What stands out most to you from that part of your life?


Graham: Yes, without a doubt, the collapse of myself…as a person who could have self control. And the collapse of myself…turning to drugs.


Chappell: Certainly, any folks wanting to get a VERY vivid picture of steroid and drug use and abuse by an elite athlete, and all that entailed, will find your book a real eye-opener from that perspective.


Graham: And, also, then dragging my wife Valerie through this.


Chappell: She’s certainly an amazing woman. But, of course, I don’t need to tell you that!


Graham: This book is really OUR story!


Chappell: There’s no doubt about that.


Graham: I took my wife from the penthouses of New York, to the hellish slums and dirty motels that went with my drug addiction and overdoses of drugs.


All the hell that Valerie was drug through…


Chappell: There are some episodes that you two went through together…that are incredible. And very scary.


Graham: But the larger factor in our story, is how courageous she was, and that she stayed with me through all those years…the commitment she made to me, through hell or high water.


Chappell: Your story definitely has its share of hell and high water.


Graham: (pauses) Yeah, so many things, many of them very difficult.





© 2006 Mid-Atlantic Gateway