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Political Smackdown: Former Wrestler Takes On McMahon
Linda McMahon, in her campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, has repeatedly distanced herself from the business that made her rich and propelled her aspiring political career - professional wrestling.
In TV commercials and campaign brochures, McMahon mentions that she operated a highly successful business with her husband that had once gone bankrupt. But the commercials never mention wrestling.
Now, one of the best-known champion wrestlers of the 1970s and '80s is bursting from behind the curtain, vaulting the ropes and trying to disrupt the match in progress - an annoyance and political distraction that McMahon does not need.
Superstar Billy Graham is speaking out against the woman he says made millions from the violence, sexual exploitation, blood and excesses of professional wrestling. What outrages him particularly, he says, are recent attempts to sanitize the wrestling mega-enterprise whose sexy women wrestlers once performed in "lingerie matches" and were still posing nude in Playboy as recently as 2008. He views this toning down as a huge act of hypocrisy - an attempt to graft a family-friendly face onto a business that has been anything but.
After operating the highly successful World Wrestling Entertainment empire for years with her husband, Vince, Linda McMahon has resigned as chief executive officer and is campaigning full time against four fellow Republicans for the right to face Dodd in November 2010.
Graham makes no bones about his love-hate relationship with the McMahons, which started years before Linda McMahon emerged as a candidate for public office. The WWE, an attorney for Vince McMahon and Linda McMahon's campaign all denounce Graham as a bitter former employee with zero credibility.
Nonetheless, his promise to dog her campaign threatens to keep the gritty and, to many, unsavory aspects of professional wrestling's past a part of McMahon's run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
GRAPPLING WITH MCMAHON
Graham, now 66, limped slowly on the short walk toward the front door at a local Starbucks on Long Island, clearly favoring his left leg.
Only seconds after Graham stepped out of his car, a middle-aged woman recognized him and said hello - a common occurrence for the former wrestling champion who signs autographs regularly despite retiring two decades ago. He was staying on Long Island recently at the home of his agent during a New York-area tour that included several autograph- signing sessions for fans.
Known for his charisma, Graham was a close friend of Hall-of-Famer Andre the Giant and grappled against most of the best-known wrestlers of his era: Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Gorilla Monsoon, Haystacks Calhoun, Chief Jay Strongbow and many others.
He still accepts the adulation of rabid fans, but the praise for the wrestling legend came at a price - six hip replacements and five hip dislocations he attributes to taking massive amounts of steroids that built his body to super-human proportions and allowed him to bench-press 600 pounds. Graham is lucky to be alive after receiving a liver transplant that he needed, he said, because he contracted hepatitis C from the blood of another wrestler.
Graham is furious about having no pension and no continuing health care from his wrestling career, an anger that fuels his campaign against McMahon's candidacy.
"She may look like a Sunday school teacher," Graham said, but he insists nothing could be further from the truth. "Linda McMahon's hands are as bloody as her husband's because she is aware of every move in the ring," he said.
The WWE, Vince McMahon's attorney and the campaign all dismissed Graham as a loose cannon who is firing in multiple directions and is not credible. They say he is a former employee who has become disgruntled and bitter regarding the McMahons. Her campaign spokesman, Ed Patru, said, "That rhetoric is so over the top and so outrageous that it's not credible and not believable."
Graham admits that he is disgruntled and bitter. But he is also beside himself, watching as Linda McMahon sells herself to a Connecticut electorate with little mention of her professional wrestling past. He said he feels compelled to call her out on behalf of Connecticut voters - and he plans to do so by traveling to the state next summer on a regular basis.
It is not just the candidate who is changing her colors, Graham said.
Since McMahon, 61, announced her campaign in mid-September, Graham said, there have been three immediate, major changes in the professional wrestling business.
First, in a sport where bleeding was once commonplace, blood has been virtually banished from the ring. Graham said he cut himself with a razor blade 300 to 400 times in his decadeslong career. Said Graham: "She has had no problem with grown men - myself included - cutting their head with a razor blade. All of a sudden, why aren't these guys bleeding anymore? Because Linda is running for the Senate."
The second major change, he said, is that the attractive female wrestlers who have posed nude in Playboy magazine in the past are suddenly no longer posing.
Third, wrestling no longer features "bra and panty matches," in which female wrestlers would strip each other down to their undergarments. "You might as well put a pole in the ring and let them dance around like in a club," Graham said.
But a spokesman for WWE said the company's move to PG programming occurred long before McMahon announced her candidacy, and the Playboy poses stopped in April 2008.
Furthermore, the company released a letter that Graham had written to Vince McMahon in May 1996 in which he apologized "for all of the false statements" that he made in the past. WWE also said that Graham remained on the company payroll from April 2004 through July 2009, including a 90-day severance when he was released in April 2009.
"Clearly, Superstar Billy Graham has a pattern of making false statements about WWE and Vince McMahon when he's no longer on WWE's payroll," the company said.
Calls to McMahon's campaign seeking comment about Graham's accusations were handled by the campaign spokesman, who, in addition, referred certain questions to the WWE.
Jerry McDevitt, an attorney for Vince McMahon and the company for more than two decades, said that on a scale of 1 to 10, Graham's credibility is "minus 5."
He added, "He's just a bitter, angry man who doesn't know what he's talking about. ... Vince doesn't hate Billy. If there's any hate, it's a one-way thing."
'I AM DISGRUNTLED'
A political conservative who supported U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater and Sen. John McCain in his home state of Arizona, Graham was never actively involved in politics before this year.
An aspiring painter, Graham said he intends to create and distribute T-shirts that depict a drawing of McMahon with a razor blade taped to her finger with dripping blood and the slogan, "Linda McMahon is a scam and is made out of spam."
McMahon is battling with four other Republicans in a potential five-way primary for the right to face Dodd.
She trails Republican front-runner Rob Simmons in a potential primary in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, but the same poll shows McMahon slightly ahead of Dodd by 43 percent to 41 percent.
The margin of error of 2.8 percentage points means it is a statistical dead heat between Dodd and McMahon.
Graham does not like Dodd, either, for his role on the Senate banking committee because he says his daughter almost lost her house in Florida to foreclosure because she had a subprime mortgage.
Graham, who boasted on a wrestling video about campaigning for Simmons, said that he favors Simmons for his work in saving the U.S. submarine base in Groton.
When asked how he would respond if McMahon's supporters dismissed him simply as a retired, disgruntled wrestler, Graham became more animated than at any other time in the interview.
"I am disgruntled," he said with his voice rising. "I am bitter. I am mad at Vince McMahon for not having health care. Absolutely print that. Absolutely, I'm bitter to the core."
1993: Becomes president of the World Wrestling Federation while her husband, Vince McMahon, is on trial, accused of distributing steroids to wrestlers. He is acquitted.
September 2009: Joins Republican race to challenge Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd.
SUPERSTAR BILLY GRAHAM, aka Eldridge Wayne Coleman
1992: Admits that he used steroids; accuses WWF President Vince McMahon of condoning steroid use among wrestlers.
Present: His body ravaged by steroids abuse, Graham lectures high school athletes about the dangers of steroids.