My first telephone conversation with Billy “The Preacher” Graham took place in April 2006 and it was an odd one. He was fed-up over the rumours circulating about him online and had heard about an interview in which he was described as ‘Not the type of bloke you’d want to sit next to in the pub’. He had also heard that someone had put out a rumour on a forum that he was heavily into cocaine.
I’d phoned him purely on spec. The night before, I’d been ringside for Donovan Smillie’s draw against Rob Burton at Leeds Town Hall and had struggled to get an interview with Carl Johanneson that night as I was not one of the local writers. Someone who did secure one smiled at me and said, “You should go and get an interview with Ricky Hatton and Billy Graham instead,” so I thought, ‘Sod it’, and made plans to phone Graham the next day.
The stars must have aligned as he actually answered his phone, asked who I was and said: “Are you one of those people who can talk to The Internet for me? Because it is saying some diabolical stuff.” This is how we got on to the issue of the article that Ben Carey had written about him. The one about how you might give him a swerve if you saw him down the pub.
“I’m fucking great company in the pub,” was one of the first things he said to me. “Look, I know The Internet is out there and saying things about me. Can you talk to The Internet for me then tell me what it says about me? Then you can tell me what I want to say to it. Especially the cocaine stuff. I’ve never touched it. I’ve got an addictive personality and I can handle my stuff, so if I was to do cocaine I’d do more cocaine than anyone in the world.”
Graham emphasised that last word in that way he has of elongating certain words. You get used to his pattern over time so even on the days when you might think he is a bit Billy Goat gruff you can tell if he is in the mood to talk, and he generally is.
I said “Yes” to his request to speak to The Internet for him, went to the gym for a day the following day and then spent the whole week there before taking up residency from Ricky Hatton versus Luis Collazo through to Juan Lazcano, Hatton’s last fight under Graham. My mission? To deliver the Internet to Graham and vice versa.
Our first interviews happened before the Collazo fight. True to my word, I turned up at Kerry Kayes’s Betta Bodies Gym and waited in the café area. Graham and I had never met, so he had no idea what I looked like, but when I went up to him to introduce myself, he said: “I know who you are!” He didn’t, but I was ushered into the gym, where I met Kayes for the first time, who introduced me to Hatton and that was that. I was given a week’s residence that stretched over the years.
The interviews below took place during the build-up to the Lazcano fight. I unearthed them recently during a spring clean. They are prime Graham and, although he is talking out of time, a lot of what he had to say still sums up the man he is today.
Back in the 1990s, Graham was training for an aborted comeback under the watchful eye of Phil Martin, who had fought as a professional himself before opening a gym, ‘Champs Camp’, in the then-notorious Mosside area of Manchester. After failing to secure the renewal of his license Graham was given another route into the sport when Martin offered him a job working with his fighters in a training capacity.
It kicked off a new chapter in Graham’s boxing bildungsroman, one that took him to the very top alongside Hatton, a kid from Hyde who shared Graham’s dreams of big nights in the UK followed by jaunts to Las Vegas.
“I was helping Phil out in the first place,” recalled Graham. “I knew Phil from old and Steve [Foster] took me to the gym. I was working out. I had packed boxing in way too soon and had nothing to do so was going to have one more fight.
“Look, I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere as a boxer — I just wanted to do it one more time. People were asking me if I wanted to become a trainer and I said I wasn’t interested. Then Phil asked me if I wanted to help out at Champs Camp and I found I had an aptitude for it.
“I really liked it and got the same buzz I got from fighting. At that time, I wasn’t thinking about riches, I thought: ‘I wouldn’t mind doing this to make a living’. If I could just make a living being around boxing, then that was enough for me. The thought of anything else happening never crossed my mind. Then I went out on my own and things were totally different.
“My first fight on my own was a European [cruiserweight] title fight with Carl Thompson [W TKO 6 over Akim Tafer]. Phil was ill. I knew he was ill but not how bad it was. Phil later died of cancer and I never really understood early on how bad things were for him.
“After leaving Phil’s place, I had not known what I wanted to do so when I was asked to train Carl for the title fight I jumped at it. By that time, I was actually obsessed with boxing. I thought I would get my own gym yet had no idea how I’d do it so the money I got from the fight I put into a gym.
“Then I thought: ‘I’m going to make it at this’. I had some good fighters — some older fighters in Steve Foster and Ensley Bingham and that — and I knew they were good fighters. We all sat around coming up with names for the gym and Ensley came up with ‘The Phoenix’ idea because it had been the symbol on his school badge. I knew about the story of the Phoenix bird and the gym has risen a few times in new locations, so it was fitting in the end.”
Training is a vocation that one goes into fully aware that the rewards can be great, but they are also remote and reached by a relatively small number of people. A vocation has to be spurred by pure ambition; it must be free from thoughts of riches. Graham’s own ambition was kick-started by a personal tragedy.
“I was incredibly ambitious in the early days,” he said. “What gave me my inspiration was, sadly, my brother [Joe] dying in a car crash. I had still been at Champ’s Camp when he died, I thought it was the end of the world for me in boxing.
“I decided to quit, but then thought about my brother always telling me that I was useless at everything else yet good at this (boxing). By the time I got my own gym, by the time it came to train Carl Thompson for that fight, I was determined that I would make it as a trainer. I knew I would be successful. I had seen other people train top fighters and succeed — I knew I could do the same. It wasn’t money it was winning things that interested me.
“Going in, I didn’t know how hard it would be or how long it would take. To be honest with you and looking at how long it took to actually make money, I would have probably given it up and got a job had I known it would be so hard. I knew the rewards were there, so I thought the money would come when you started winning British and European titles. The money didn’t come so I kept chipping away. I just wanted to train boxers by that point.”
Boxing is like a spider’s web; from the centre to the outer limits it draws you in and keeps you there. In Graham’s case, it drew him in whilst also breaking him down, his body soon started to suffer under the yolk of the sport. His hands took so much punishment he sometimes had to pick his daughter up using his wrists because his hands were weak after a day at the gym.
“Boxing took away my life,” declared Graham. “As soon as I woke up, I was thinking about boxing. I was thinking about boxing before I went to bed at night. I was completely focused. I stopped going out and wanted to be successful. I always made a living because there were always title fights one year after another. I made a living, but the big money only came with Ricky.
“If you are going to go into boxing thinking you will make a lot of money and be a celebrity then, fuck me, you are pissing in the wind. You are better off getting a job. It is a vocation and there is a lot to put up with. It is so hard and there are so many obstacles and disappointments. If you go in with the wrong attitude you will fall at the first hurdle.
“At Champs Camp, I felt like quitting loads of times. Especially when our kid was killed. Before our kid died, with anything I tried to do, I used to quit as soon as the going got tough. That was it. If I got pissed off, I’d fuck off, simple as that, but his death changed things.
“Joe was actually at Champ’s Camp earlier on in the day he died. He was crazy about sport. He was my big brother and looked after me or out for me — however you see it. Trust me, I was a pain in the arse, and he was a much better person than me. He never let me down — he was passionate about boxing and wanted me to do well.
“It was a pity that I never took more notice of Joe when he was alive. I take more notice of him now he is dead. That is a real shame. I think of things he used to say and talk about him a lot now. He was into sport science even back then and always had something to say on that. He was a massive part in my life and success, but unfortunately it took him getting killed to play the part it did and give me the determination to succeed.
“I made a conscious decision when Joe got killed that I would never quit. After that I never felt like quitting. Any problems [that came up] I would either swerve around or knock them down. There were plenty of disappointments, well not so much disappointments as frustrations. The wins kept me going so I never felt like quitting.”
In the film The Jerk,the protagonist, played by Steve Martin, takes delivery of a telephone book and becomes overwhelmed by the experience, assuming that the publication of his name in the book is the first step on the road to success. Instead, a psychotic killer plucks his name at random then takes pot-shots at him whilst hiding on a hill.
This is not entirely dissimilar to what happens to you when you begin to find success in the sport of boxing. Your name gets put down for all to see, and then the fun really begins. You stick your head over the parapet only for people to attempt to blow it off your shoulders, as Graham found out early on in his career.
“Backbiting is a general thing in boxing,” he admitted. “Obviously, I didn’t know that at that time. I thought it was me, it was only happening to me. The vast majority of people involved in boxing have to work; they don’t make any money from boxing—that goes for fighters and the trainers. But if you get to the top the rewards are massive.
“So with everyone striving to get the same thing, and that thing being limited, the result is a lot of jealousy and bitching in boxing, more than I ever imagined. I’ve had my fair share and really felt it at the time, but it drove me on.”
Described in knockabout terms as being as ‘rough as a badger’, Graham has often projected a tough image, that of a man who may be a little difficult to approach and probably does not care about what people say about him. Graham, though, argued that this view of him is a misapprehension.
“I think it is a misconception because I’ve not got as thick skin as people think. I wish I did to be honest with you because having a thick skin helps you a lot in boxing. I’m the opposite. I’m pretty sensitive. I get upset easily and am too emotional at times.
“When I see things written about me, I can’t believe it to be honest with you. I find it amazing. You have to get tough and you have to get accustomed to things. You have to take a lot on the chin in boxing, and I’ve taken a fucking lot on the chin, especially from certain people. It all goes with the territory.”
Over time, the bumpy terrain can make you fatigued, after being lazily categorised as a foul-mouthed tough guy Graham felt that this caused him to adopt the persona in order to make life easier. In reality, Graham is very approachable, depending of course on the truth of your approach.
“Boxing has made me the way I am in some respects; the bad things about me are down to boxing,” he said, pausing for thought and to spark up a cigarette. “Boxing brings out the best of you and it brings out the worst in you. People pigeonhole you into a certain type and in the end you kind of become that. You think: ‘Fuck them! I’ll behave like that’. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
One thing Graham always asked of his fighters is that they shared a bond with him. A firm believer in personal chemistry, Graham often went on record to state that he could not work with someone he disliked or did not care about.
“I can’t work with a fighter unless I like him. There are very few fighters I dislike anyway. They are people I get on with. I have to feel something for the fighter to get the passion for working with them. It would probably be easier to be the other way. To be more remote. I can’t do it [train a fighter] unless I am attached.
“It is not a conscious effort, but if some guy wants to work with me and he is a right obnoxious fucker then he won’t get anywhere near me. If I walked into that ring and didn’t care about him, his family and his friends then I wouldn’t be able to feel the way I do when I go into the ring with a fighter.”
Despite feeling friendship for his fighters, Graham also recognises the rigours of the sport, stressing that a trainer must find the median between crazy courage and calculated caution, saying, “I’m not squeamish in the corner.
“People pay me to help them win fights. Fighters are not thinking about getting hurt in the ring, he knows it is going to happen and the business is brutal, so he doesn’t think about it. He only thinks about winning. He is scared of losing instead of being scared of being hurt. I have to give him every opportunity to win the fight.
“A fighter has to come through being staggered and being hurt. The crowd can be roaring the other guy on and he has to think about being able to get his senses and hold on without thinking: ‘Don’t stop it, Billy, don’t stop it’. That is what I was thinking as a fighter.
“Some of my fighters had the most brutal fights seen in a British boxing ring so I’ve seen first-hand what it takes and that is why I won’t stop a fight at the drop of a hat. For that reason, I always tell my fighters to let me know if they are ill. They have lied to me in the past because they know I’ll pull a fight.
“I want them to be ready because I let them know they might have to come through some terrible situations, so I always insist on my fighters being right. I think there is a risk of stopping a fight too soon as well as too late. Fighters come to win. I don’t work with people who aren’t ambitious and are only there for a few quid.
“Saying that, there is nothing wrong with that journeyman type of fighter. Boxing has to have journeymen to survive. There are all types of fighters in boxing. I worked with ones who wanted to get somewhere and don’t want to be stopped early. I’m not squeamish, although I do try to be compassionate.”
Following his sacking as Hatton’s trainer in 2008, Graham had one more corner to run after long-time friend Ojay Abrahams asked him to work with him for his final fight. The cult nature of it appealed to Graham, although on the night itself he didn’t get to do much work as “Me, Myself and I” was disqualified in the first. The drive to the fight was interesting, the drive was epic, probably never to be repeated.
It is a shame that Graham spent a fair few years in exile, only giving out the occasional interview, as he always remained a true character and one of the funniest ones you could hope to meet in the game.
At the height of Hatton’s fame, The Phoenix hosted a busy media day. When I arrived, I noticed Graham peeking out of the blinds of his office, which was situated at the end of the gym. He caught my eye and beckoned me to head towards it.
By the time I got in and sat down, he was smoking a cigarette and furiously pacing up and down, so I asked him what was troubling him. “Fucking DCI Burnside from The Bill,” was his improbable response.
“He’s here. He’s in the gym to show Ricky a piece of painting he’s done of Ricky that he wants signed. I really want to meet him, but I don’t know his real name and I’d be too embarrassed to ask him. Can’t you go out and do it?”
Fans of The Bill, back when it was good, will recall that Burnside was a larger-than-life character in the show. Effectively the main star. Graham told me to either ask him his name or ask “Google” and sent me on my way.
Burnside’s painting was actually very good, and I’m pretty good when it comes to bullshitting about art as I studied aesthetics, so I approached him to discuss how he had perfectly captured the inner turmoil of a fighter operating at that level as well as also capturing some of the vulnerabilities. We talked for a few minutes then I made my excuses and way back to the office.
“Well?” said Graham.
“Well what?” I asked.
“What is DCI Burnside’s real name?”
“You know what, Billy, I was so starstruck that I forgot to ask.”
Graham didn’t explode often with me, but that day was a rare exception. “Fucking hell, Terry, I asked you to do one thing for me. You’re about as much use as a chocolate teapot. How I am I supposed to approach him now? I can’t go out there and do the media day now. You’ve ruined this entire fucking thing for me and everyone else. What did you talk to him about, then?”
I explained that DCI Burnside and I had discussed his painting, and what we had both said about it. Graham stormed out. I managed to get some phone reception and discovered that his real name is Chris Ellison. It was a moot point, though, as Graham and Burnside were already deep in conversation about both the vulnerability of a fighter as well as the pre-fight turmoil that they have to go through.
Then Graham went through with the public training session without missing a beat.
Main image: PA Images/Alamy.