One of the most technically sound wrestlers of all time. Bob Backlund had a squeaky clean persona that elevated to fan favorite status – and doomed him to eventual failure. View the career of the man who needed no gimmicks, just talent.
Real Name: Bob Backlund
Stats: 6′ 1″ 234 lbs.
Born: August 14, 1950
Although it says “Wrestling” on the marquee, it seems that more often than not, pro wrestlers have limited knowledge of the amateur, or “pure” aspect of wrestling. In days gone by, the wrestlers who were the most capable and well-schooled grapplers were the ones who rose to the top in the pro ranks. Although pro wrestling in the 20th century has pretty much always been a “work,”men like Frank Gotch, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Lou Thesz, and other pro champions knew the value of amateur wrestling. In fact, it was their actual wrestling skill and knowledge of holds that made them so hard to defeat — even when their opponent would occasionally stray from “the script” and actually try to win a match (and title) that had been predetermined they were to lose. To the champions, promoters, and fans of the early 20th century, wrestling skill was what were important…not entrance music or wild gimmicks. In this sense, Bob Backlund was like a throwback to a lost era…the champion who, with very little fanfare, went to the ring and incorporated the “fake” aspect of pro wrestling with the very real skill of Greco-Roman wrestling. With no gimmick other than being “The All-American Boy”, the highly skilled (and very plain) Bob Backlund dominated all comers in the World (Wide) Wrestling Federation for over 5 consecutive years.
Backlund made a quick, although characteristically quiet, impact soon after entering professional wrestling. He made his way onto the territorial circuit, wrestling mainly in Florida, Georgia, and Minnesota. His red hair, athletic build, and polite mannerisms endeared him quickly as a classic “babyface” to many fans of the day. Bob won one of his first titles with Jerry Brisco in 1975 when they defeated the powerful and devious team on Fuji & Tanaka for the Georgia Tag Team title. Backlund also teamed with Steve Keirn (later known in the WWF as the alligator-wrestling Skinner) to win the NWA Florida Tag Team title in 1976 by defeating Bob Roop & Bob Orton, Jr. He slowly built a following as a “good guy”, gaining experience and confidence along the way. Although his lack of interview ability was often a hindrance, teaming Backlund with Brisco, and to a greater degree, Keirn, allowed the focus to be on Backlund’s considerable skill — not his somewhat weak interviews. Again, much like champions from the past, Backlund did his talking in the ring…
“Superstar” Billy Graham, on the other hand, was about as flamboyant, colorful, and brash as you could get when he was The Grand Wizard’s WWWF champion back in 1977, at the time Backlund (with Arnold Skaaland as his manager) first entered the World Wide Wrestling Federation. While the charismatic champion defended his title against the likes of Sammartino, Putski, Mascaras, Strongbow, Monsoon and the rest of the top WWWF contenders, Backlund slowly but surely defeated opponent after opponent, until there was no question he was the #1 contender.
Graham seemed unimpressed by Backlund, and began referring to Backlund as “Howdy Doody” during his interviews. Having survived the best the WWWF had to offer, and still remaining champion for nearly a full year, the boastful Graham appeared supremely confident in his interviews leading into his matchup with Backlund. However, that confidence may have been just a mask for Graham, who likely realized that his days as champion might be over with the emergence of Backlund in the WWWF…
Then, on February 20, 1978 in front of over 22,000 pumped-up Madison Square Garden fans, Graham and Backlund finally met head to head. Graham, perhaps knowing that it would be his last match as WWWF champion, appeared far less cocky once in the ring, and Backlund dominated much of the match. After nailing his patented “Atomic Drop” finisher, Bob Backlund pinned Billy Graham (who had intentionally draped his leg over the bottom rope, making him the only man to both win and lose the WWF title with a foot on the rope) to become the new WWWF Heavyweight champion. An “enraged” Graham protested bitterly, but it was to no avail…Backlund was the winner. The two combatants would then engage in a classic series, with Graham winning the rematch due to Backlund’s profuse bleeding. The final encounter was held inside of a steel cage, and, after coming within a hair of regaining his title, Graham missed a running knee into the corner, entangling his foot in the wire mesh of the cage. He watched helplessly as the bloody and disoriented Backlund regained his composure enough to walk out of the cage…
After years of monthly title defenses, it seemed Backlund had truly wrestled them all in his new “home” of Madison Square Garden…all except for the gigantic blond rulebreaker known as Hulk Hogan. When Hogan entered the WWF in the Fall of 1979 as the latest, greatest find of premier manager “Classy” Freddie Blassie, he, like so many before him, went through challenger after challenger on a road to the #1 contender spot and a chance at the WWF title. Hogan did that, but after nearly a year of working his way up, never received his MSG title shot against Backlund. The two did meet, in a few scattered East Coast matches, but the big one — a showdown in Madison Square Garden — eluded Hogan. Eventually the future Hulkster would lose his (already weak) title push, and was instead put into a program with partner-turned-rival Stan Hansen, and eventual left the WWF for other challenges. Backlund, on the other hand, slowly turned from a pure-as-snow farmboy to an experienced and toughened veteran champion. He was still rather bland, but he was also young, and in great shape — and the fans of the WWF knew he would give his all during a championship defense.
Other than his natural talent and superb conditioning, the real key to Backlund’s success, and longevity, can perhaps be found in whom Backlund was paired against. The challengers were the ones with all of the charisma; therefore, fans were still interested in the matches. Backlund didn’t need to be a fast-talker or visually intimidating, because his opponents already possessed those qualities. All Backlund needed was his skill and ability to perform, which he possessed in abundance. The large crowds that Backlund invariably drew in the allover WWF’s North Eastern territory were proof of his popularity.
But when Vince McMahon Sr. sold his Capital Sports promotion to his son Vince Jr. (who renamed it Titan Sports), an unsuspecting Backlund soon found out (the hard way) that after over 5 years of defending the WWF championship, his services were no longer needed. Many believe the powers at Titan Sports felt that Backlund’s serious style would not attract the pre-teen audience the promotion was now actively seeking. At the same time, it is said that WWF officials felt they could not trust Bob Backlund — despite nearly 6 years of conducting himself as the consummate pro — to lose the title when he was told to. Therefore, on December 26, 1983 during a match (once again at MSG) against The Iron Sheik, Backland not only lost the WWF title, but literally had it taken from him before he could realize what happened.
Unaware that he would be losing the title that night, Backlund allowed himself to be placed in the Sheik’s Camel Clutch. At that point, Arnold Skoaland “threw in the towel”, and Backlund — who thought he would be winning the match — suddenly found himself an ex-champion. A matter of a few weeks later, Hulk Hogan returned to the WWF and pinned The Sheik to become the new champion, and Hulkamania was born. Suddenly, Backlund found himself on the outside looking in…
Backlund later claimed that Vince had asked him to dye his hair purple and create a new crazed and bitter character that would challenge Hogan. McMahon later went on record to deny Backlund’s claims. In any case, Backlund was gone from the WWF within a month of his loss to the Sheik. But surprisingly, other than a few low-key appearances in the NWA’s regional Florida promotion and in Japan, Bob Backlund disappeared from the world of wrestling. Not only did his leave…he stayed away, as year after year passed. It seemed an honest, hardworking man had been railroaded out of the business.
But then, in a rather big shock to longtime WWF fans, it was announced on WWF television that former champion Bob Backlund would be returning to the promotion, after a 10-year hiatus. Once back on WWF programming, it was clear that there would be no purple hair for Bob. He returned with the same “gimmick” he always had — which was basically no gimmick. However, his return to the WWF was not nearly as successful, or well received by the WWF’s “New Generation” fans. Backlund lost a mid-level feud with Razor Ramon, and soon found himself on the lower end of the WWF’s roster. With his original core of fans (for the most part) gone, and the current WWF fans knowing (or caring) little about Backlund other than that he was once champion, Backlund’s return quickly faltered. Soon, his appearances on TV became more and more rare. However, it would later be known that Backlund wasn’t fading away again…he was training for what he called, during video promos leading up to it, “the match of my life” against WWF champion Bret Hart. After making a reasonable and dignified request for a title match, Hart agreed, and Backlund received his first title match in over a decade.
The contest was an exciting one, with Backlund controlling much of the encounter. But when referee incompetence cost Backlund a sure victory, and then the match, Backlund finally “snapped” after years of pent-up frustration. When Hart offered his hand in respect, Backlund instead captured Hart in his painful Cross-Face Chicken Wing hold…and refused to let “The Hitman” go. His bizarre actions caused a major feud with Hart, and soon, Backlund’s character did a flip-flop. No longer the somewhat shy, soft-spoken and respectful man he once portrayed, he was now Mr. Bob Backlund, extreme right-wing fanatic. Mr. Bob conducted long, outspoken interviews, using his expanded vocabulary to insult not only Hart, but the WWF fans as well.
Now on a quest to cleanse the WWF and its fans of the “encephalopathy” that Mr. Backlund found to be “caused by the infested quagmire of hedonism you pathetic souls call your lives.” Mr. Backlund proudly stated that he was there to save the “New Generation” from itself by regaining the WWF championship.
On camera, Mr. Bob alienated any wrestler — “good” or “bad” — that he came into contact with. But more importantly, his rather bizarre personality switch enabled Backlund to once again “get over” with many WWF fans — albeit in a much different way than during his 5-year WWF reign. Instead of being the object of the fans’ respect and adoration, he now inspired their hatred, which in pro wrestling is essentially the same thing. But at the same time, Backlund turned heel — something he vowed for many years never to do — on his own terms. There was no purple hair or bizarre costume…just his conservative bow tie, plain grey suit, and a vocabulary as expanded as his still-formidable wrestling repertoire. Suddenly, Mr. Backlund was pro wrestling’s deranged representative of the far Right Wing. He was the principal everyone hated growing up…the politician bent on restoring “moral fiber” and imposing his own values on the rest of the population…the unyielding voice of authority. In other words, a wrestler that fans loved to hate!
Still, even with his new role as the WWF’s primary heel, no one was quite prepared when on November 23,1994 at the Survivor Series, Bob Backlund defeated Bret Hart in a controversial “Towel” match to regain the WWF title that had been so dastardly taken from him a decade earlier. Bret’s brother Owen had a great deal to do with Backlund gaining the victory, but it didn’t really matter how it happened, the fact remained that Bob Backlund…make that Mr.Bob Backlund…was now a two-time WWF World Heavyweight Champion. However, just as The Iron Sheik had been the interim champion that bridged Backlund’s 1st reign with Hogan’s, Mr. Bob now assumed the role of “transition champion” himself. After ending an 8-month WWF championship run by Hart (his 2nd) Backlund himself would usher in a new major WWF champion in the form of the 7-foot steamroller known as “Big Daddy Cool” Diesel. After doing his best to “rehabilitate” the WWF during his 3 days as champion, Backlund went down to Diesel’s powerbomb in record time on December 26,1994. It was a merry Christmas for Big D, but for Mr. Backlund, a ten year wait translated into a 3 day reign. He tried repeatedly to gain revenge on Diesel, as well as Hart, but his association with the WWF World Title was forever ended that night in Madison Square Garden, the same place his 1st reign began some 15 years prior.
After his run as top contender, transition champion, and then top challenger again, Mr. Backlund’s push began to wane. Instead of wrestling, Mr. Backlund announced his candidacy for President of the United States. Presumably running on the WWF Ticket, Mr. Backlund campaigned during various WWF television programs, live events, and at other orchestrated publicity events. If there was a WWF event taking place, the fans could pretty much be assured that Candidate Backlund would be in the stands, “bringing in the vote.”
But when that angle ran its course, Backlund was teamed (ironically enough) with The Iron Sheik as co-manager of The Sultan. Fans never really took to the trio, for a number of reasons, and Backlund once again began appearing less and less frequently on WWF television. However, this time there was no “comeback” as had been the case nearly two years earlier, when he made his challenge to Hart. This time, Backlund simply faded away, and was eventually written out of the WWF storylines.
Although he is for all intents and purposes retired, Backlund still appears on various scattered indy cards, as well as making occasional promotional appearances for the WWF. However, as he nears the age of 50, it is unlikely that Bob Backlund, or even Mr. Bob Backlund, will return to one of the “Big Two”. And in all honesty, he has no need to. Backlund’s lofty spot within the “history books” is secure, and there seems to be nothing left for him to prove. Having held the World title for over 5 uninterrupted years, gaining the World Tag title in addition to his Heavyweight championship, and then having the necessary tools to regain the WWF title after a decade of retirement, Backlund has been a championship player his entire career. His place in wrestling history is well-deserved, and we at The Ring Chronicle are proud to induct two-time WWF World Heavyweight champion Bob Backlund into the TRC Hall of Fame……..
By Steve Slagle