Bob Backlund, a former WWWF world champion that is known almost more for his eccentric quirks than for his superb in-ring ability, is much debated as to his place in pro wrestling history. Some will tout his six-year reign as champion as historic while others will consider his time at the top of the card as a notable step down from the previous era.
Debuting for Verne Gagne’s AWA in early 1973, Backlund was a former Division II amateur champion at North Dakota University prior to his transition to the pro ranks. After a short run for the promotion in his home state, the technician spent the mid-70s working for various NWA territories and polished his skills inside the ring ropes. When he landed in Vince McMahon’s organization in 1976, the company approached an uncertain time for the business. Bruno Sammartino, the Italian strong man that held the championship for a record-setting eleven years over the course of two reigns, considered retirement after a broken neck and a series of other injuries during his legendary career. Bruno continued his in-ring work on more of a part-time basis through the early 80s, but even in the late 70s, the two decades of wrestling he had done previously took their toll on him. The beloved champion was ready to step down, but that left a void in the north east territory that was built upon baby face heroes to draw an audience.
When Backlund arrived, the company was in the mist of a rare heel champion run with “Superstar” Billy Graham at the top of the card. Graham, the charismatic grappler that inspired future generations, wore flamboyant tye dye attire and became extremely popular despite his villainous persona. As hypocritical as Graham continues to be even now, he undoubtedly deserves credit for his revolutionary work when he held the belt, and arguably, should’ve had an extended run as champion. Less than a year after he defeated Bruno to claim the title, Superstar dropped the belt to Backlund.
This is where the debate centers around the native of Princeton, Minnesota, did Backlund fail to live up to the standard as champion or did circumstances prevent him from being more successful? There’s no question that he had the skills of a champion, but ultimately, Backlund didn’t seem to fully translate to the crowds in the major markets of the WWWF. The mid west athlete brought an apple pie clean cut image to the ring, which was something that the blue collar audiences didn’t identify with or relate to at events. For example, the steel workers of Pittsburgh connected with the gritty brawls that Bruno had in the main events. Bob Backlund just didn’t have the charisma to obtain that type of crowd support, an aspect that was key to success during the kayfabe era.
At the same time, it’s somewhat unfair to expect Bob Backlund or anyone else to live up to the standard that Bruno set in his prime. In many ways, anyone that was the next successor to directly follow Sammartino would be measured against the previous success, and those are steep demands for even the most talented wrestlers. As was the typical process of that era, the next major champion was determined based upon previous popularity and the title run was planned far in advance. The choice to anoint Backlund as the successor to Bruno was based on his popularity around the other territories, which makes sense in terms of the philosophy of the era. As mentioned, it didn’t translate, but again, the timing wasn’t beneficial at all, considering that he followed the most popular champion in the history of the business at the time.
Bruno was a true hero and truly identified with the ethnic crowds of the north east. Surviving illness while hiding in the mountains in his native country during the nazi invasion of World War II, Sammartino was a legitimate example of the American dream. He arrived in the blue collar city of Pittsburgh without much to his name, but worked hard to rise to the role of honorable champion. Along with that, Bruno, much like Backlund himself, understood the perception of a world champion and the responsibility that went along with it. Sammartino took his role as a respectable champion very seriously and used his status to provide a good example for others. Perhaps what best represents the support that he had was actually when he initially lost the belt to Ivan Koloff in 1971. The grind of the schedule and travel left the iron man wore down and after nearly nine years of full-time wrestling, he requested time off. As the referee counted three and declared the Russian the winner, the Madison Square Garden crowd went silent in total shock. Koloff was hustled from the ring to avoid any confrontations as Sammartino slowly made his way to his feet. When Bruno climbed down from the apron and made his way back to the dressing room, fans cried as they told their hero, ” Bruno, we still love you.” When he recounted the story in interviews, Bruno revealed that as he unlaced his boots in the locker room, he also got emotional because he thought he let the fans down when he relinquished the title. It’s quite remarkable the fan support that Bruno retains even today and it speaks volumes about his greatness.
Backlund was booked to be the “next Sammartino” from the beginning of his WWWF run, as he was managed by “The Golden Boy” Arnold Skaaland, the respected figure that accompanied Bruno to ringside. Opinions about how successful Backlund was during his six-year reign vary depending on who you ask, but it appears that it’s fair to say he was, at best, a moderate draw. Keep in mind, there’s a difference between technical skill and the ability to draw money.
When Vince McMahon bought the WWWF from his dad in 1982, he knew he needed a more popular star for the expansion that he planned. By 1983, Backlund’s popularity had noticeable decreased and some fans began to resent his “howdy doody” character. Originally, a heel turn was suggested, but Backlund didn’t agree to it because he thought it would taint his clean image. As a result, the legendary Iron Sheik won the belt during the memorable moment when Skaaland threw in the towel to save his protege from the camel clutch. Just a few weeks later, Sheik was pinned by Hulk Hogan to launch the “Rock N Wrestling” boom of the 80s. Backlund’s relatively plain presentation doesn’t seem like it would’ve fit with the colorful era that followed, and he made a quiet exit from the company in 1984.
Post-WWF, he made a few appearances, but didn’t resurface on the national stage until late 1992. Much of the eight years since he worked for the league were spent as an amateur coach away from the spotlight so many fans weren’t as familiar with him when he returned. Part of the reason he was brought back to the promotion was his clean image was useful from a PR prospective when the steroid scandal garnered negative press. He remained extremely skilled, but again, timing seemed to work against him, as he didn’t quite fit with the cartoonish era of the “new generation” of the early 90s. The lunatic character in 1994 didn’t come across as anything more than confusing to the audience, and Bob didn’t have the promos skills to make it work. His feud with Bret Hart is memorable, but Backlund’s second title win at Survivor Series was more of a way to push the Bret/Owen rivalry from the same year. He dropped the belt to Diesel during an eight second contest at an MSG house show and faded away from the company a few months later.
His stints as a manager in the late 90s, including the “Mr. Backlund” persona when he ran for senate in 2000, were mostly cringe worthy. His eccentric personality showed through during most of his angles, including when he went off-script during a live interview segment with Kurt Angle in 1999 and asked if it was time for him to apply the chicken-wing submission. In 2013, he was rightfully inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, where he had to be cut off when his induction speech devolved into a nonsensical rant. Most recently, he worked as the manager of Darren Young in 2016 and gained another run of popularity for doing very well in his role. He might be eccentric, but the audience seemed to appreciate Bob’s genuine enthusiasm for being on-screen again.
So, what was the total of Bob Backlund?
Comparatively speaking, Backlund didn’t live up to the numbers that Bruno drew as champion, but it’s doubtful that anyone could’ve done it during that particular era. More specifically, it’s a tough path to follow in the footsteps of one of the most popular stars of all time. At the same time, the gritty WWWF era didn’t suit his technical style or persona quite well. Still, Bob’s skilled in-ring ability led to a notable six years as champion. Timing plagued him again when he returned to the spotlight during the cartoon era, but was never known for using a gimmick. Ultimately, Backlund was only moderately successful as a draw, but was certainly a skilled athlete that earned his Hall of Fame induction with the in-ring ability displayed during his career.
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