Of all the turbulent relationships that Vince McMahon has been one half of down the years, it’s difficult to think of one that has had more ups and downs than that which he shares with “Superstar” Billy Graham. Graham’s first involvement in New York matters was actually under the wing of Vince McMahon Sr., when he took the then World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) championship from Bruno Sammartino in April 1977, but as Graham’s body broke down, and the younger McMahon took the reins from his father, the relationship between the two deteriorated, climaxing when Graham lied about McMahon’s involvement in the steroid scandal of the early ’90s.
When Graham wrote McMahon a letter of personal apology in 1996, it began another chapter in the Graham-McMahon saga that has again taken a new turn in 2009. Thankfully, the issues are far from being as slanderous as they were in 1991, but they have been enough for Graham — who stood vehemently behind McMahon in the aftermath of the deaths of Eddie Guerrero and, more notably, Chris Benoit — to declare his Hall of Fame ring as meaningless, and to auction it and the jacket he wore to the ceremony in 2004. It is quite the turnaround considering the pride that Graham displayed in being honoured by the WWE at the time, and the good terms that he and McMahon appeared to be on until this year.
“One of the reasons I decided to actually sell the ring was when Vince McMahon made the statement that the Hall of Fame was really just in his head, and a figment in his imagination,” Graham told SLAM! Wrestling from his home in Phoenix. “He said there would never really be a physical Hall of Fame to honour the wrestlers. On the other side of the coin, Shane McMahon has been saying for years that there will indeed be a building to house these garments and things, to honour the wrestlers.
“It was really the callousness and the coldness of Vince saying that there would never be a real Hall of Fame. That drained the emotion and the pride of having a Hall of Fame ring — which was a beautiful ring — especially when it was so cavalier. It was like the Hall of Fame, with the rings, was simply a spur-of-the-moment thing to Vince, and just a way to generate publicity.”
The ring was eventually sold for $11,500 (US) on eBay – to a buyer in Liverpool, England – and the auction for the jacket only has two days left. Graham was also inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, based in Amsterdam, New York, this past May, but did not attend the induction ceremony, and therefore did not receive his PWHF ring.
While McMahon’s comments clearly caused deep disappointment within the former champion — who remains the longest-reigning heel World champion in WWE history, with a record of 296 days — the straws that finally broke the camel’s back were the non-renewal of Graham’s employment contract with the WWE, for whom he served as an ambassador, and the fact that he was not invited to attend WrestleMania XXV in April in Houston. Even more insulting to him was the reason given for not flying him in for the anniversary show.
“I was certainly offended by being released from the company, by letting my contract expire,” he said. “Not to be too braggadocios, but I consider myself to be an icon because of my influence on guys like Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura. So just dropping me from the employment contract was really a slap in the face.
“As regards WrestleMania, I wanted to participate in the art festival that they’ve had for the last couple of years, where WWE employees put their art on display. With me being a professional artist, I felt I should certainly be a part of that, but John Laurinitis told me that they couldn’t afford to fly me from Phoenix to Houston, which is about a $225 (US) round-trip. That, I found that very insulting. They said that they’d like to use some of my art there, but that the budget prevented them from flying me there.
“So rather than anger or frustration, there’s a lot of disappointment in me towards Vince McMahon at the moment. It’s not anger, I’m just very saddened at the lack of respect for the contribution that I’ve made to the WWE, and in fact inspiring Triple H to a great degree, not to mention Hogan, Ventura, Austin Idol, and many others. The selling of the Hall of Fame ring is really more due to disappointment, as opposed to a vengeful act of animosity. And to be discarded in such a blunt way with the excuse of budget cuts — that doesn’t sit well with me.”
Even with all of these reasons in mind, it is still somewhat surprising to think that Graham would be willing to leave behind the plaudits reserved for a special group of performers, which includes the likes of Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes, and Hulk Hogan. But even more deep-rooted than his feelings on a physical Hall of Fame building, or his treatment regarding WrestleMania, is the fact that Graham claims to have no real passion for the sport, and nor, in fact, did he ever. In reality, that seems to be the foundation of his decision to auction.
“I have to say, I have never, ever been sentimental about professional wrestling, or anything attached to it or associated with it,” he affirmed. “I’ve always enjoyed it as theatre, and a form of art, and almost like a Broadway play, since it was always predetermined winners and losers — we were actually acting. Even though it required a lot of stamina and physical effort, I never emotionally attached myself to the business of professional wrestling. I actually considered it to be a job. So therefore there was no sentimental connection to the ring.
“Without question, the adulation and the emotion of having an event, like against Bruno in Madison Square Garden, and feeling the emotion was quite exhilarating, and it did raise a level of adrenaline in me. That rush from having an emotional reaction of 20,000 people was quite thrilling and quite satisfying, without a doubt. The actual act of performing and receiving the accolades and the input of genuine emotion from the fans was quite an amazing accomplishment. But for me, there was nothing more to it than that.”
An interesting side-note in this situation is Graham’s relationship with every McMahon not named Vince or Shane. Linda and Stephanie, Graham states, have been particularly out-reaching towards him, and he even remembers fondly his relationship with Vince McMahon Sr., which was based entirely on a handshake of trust, even when it came to his famous WWWF Title run.
“My relationship with Vince McMahon has always been one of love and hate, and love and hate. But I will go on record as saying that my relationship with Linda has always been very good, and I’ve always enjoyed her company. And with Stephanie, our relationship has always been wonderful, and I’ve enjoyed, and still do enjoy, being around her. I have a great respect and a great like for both of them. It is the son and the father that are the problem.
“A common thing among wrestlers who have been with both Vince Sr. and Vince Sr. is to talk about how much Vince Sr. was respected by everyone. George ‘The Animal’ Steele, I believe, is on record as saying that he never had more than a handshake with Sr., and that was good enough. Vince Sr. was always a gentleman, and was courteous, and was always true to his word in dealing with me. I don’t ever even recall signing a contract with him; even when I met with him in his home in Fort Lauderdale to discuss the idea of changing the belt from Bruno to me, and then forwarding it on to Bob Backlund, it was all on an oral agreement. I don’t believe anything was ever signed.
“The difference in Sr. and Jr. is remarkable, also because Sr. was a very docile individual. At one point in my career I remember I was becoming very popular with some fans, and I could have become a babyface very easily, and I suggested to Vince Sr. that at least we should have some t-shirts made up, because fans were making their own, even back in 1977. But he said to me, ‘You know, Billy, I’m just not very interested in merchandise.’ (laughs) That was the quote! He was content just to promote wrestling.”
Despite all of the qualms about the disrespect he feels he’s suffered, and the catalogues of health problems he has suffered down the years, Graham is keen to point out that he is in fine fettle, especially considering his 66 years. While the well-documented abuse of steroids caused the death of bones — as his doctor put it — in his ankle and hip, Graham still trains every day at the gym, and remains thankful to the people that are concerned about his well-being, even 30 years since he’s career peak.
“You know, that I had my liver transplant seven years ago this October. I’ve had orthopaedic problems, with hip replacements, ankle fusion, and a collapsed spine, all from heavy doses and prolonged use of steroids. There is some pain from my ankle and from my back, but the hips are perfect because they are made out of titanium (laughs). So my quality of life is excellent, and in fact, I’ve just come back from the gym. I get up at 5.30 every morning and I train, and I’m in basically great health considering the abuse I gave my body. Everything is good, everything is great.
“It truly is an amazing thing to think that people are still considerate about my well-being,” he concluded. “Especially since the world and our culture has become so selfish and self-centered, it’s amazing that they express concern for me. It’s a wonderful human trait to see, because professional wrestling fans could be quite callous themselves. To see and feel the gratitude of comments like I get about my health — it’s something I feel very good about.”