In the years leading up to, during, and after his five-year run as WWWF World Heavyweight Champion, Bob Backlund wrestled countless classics against many who, too, would leave an indelible mark on wrestling history. The following are ten of our favorite matches from this period and what it was like to witness these memorable events in person!
The Very Best Matches of Bob Backlund
I recently completed Bob Backlund’s autobiography, Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling’s World Champion. In it, Backlund gives a detailed description of his greatest opponents and matches. Reading about these feuds and matches brought back many memories going back forty-plus years of me seeing the champ live.
I want to share my top 10 list of Bob Backlund matches I caught in the New York City area before, during, and after his five-plus-year run as WWWF World Heavyweight Champion and my rationale for their rankings.
As most of these matches are readily available to view on the WWE Network and/or streaming sites such as YouTube, I won’t be doing a blow-by-blow description of each match. Instead, I intend to give a taste of what it was like to witness this action live.
10. Bob Backlund vs. Hussein Arab (Iron Sheik) on 6/4/79, Madison Square Garden (30:40)
Imagine the incredible conditioning the Iron Sheik was in at that time, not only winning a Battle Royale the very same night but going toe-to-toe with the champ for a grueling half-hour in a fantastic match.
Bob Backlund raves about The Sheik’s in-ring abilities in his book, and they were certainly in evidence that night as they put on an all-time classic bout. It’s a shame that the Howard Stern appearances and such present a very different Sheik because, in that era, he was fierce and a world-class athlete.
9. Bob Backlund vs. Ivan Koloff on 8/28/78, Madison Square Garden (31:45)
Having bested Bruno Sammartino, the great Ivan Koloff was always considered a threat to any champion he faced here. And in Ivan, you had a wrestler’s wrestler who could match up with the best of them.
On the night of August 28th, 1978, and any time they met, Bob Backlund and Ivan Koloff put on a clinic that made you proud to be a fan.
Bob losing via facial cuts was also quite dramatic, although not that unusual during that era. The fact Ivan Koloff isn’t in the WWE Hall of Fame remains an utter disgrace.
8. Bob Backlund vs. Magnificent Muraco on 8/24/81, Madison Square Garden (1 Hour)
To the day I die, I’ll say that prime heel WWWF Magnificent Muraco was the greatest Inter-Continental Champion of all time and one of the best heels ever.
He was an extraordinary wrestler, could brawl, the "Beach Bum" schtick was a tremendous gimmick, he was an incredible talker, and his heat was off the charts. And, yes, he was another big, big man who could move about that ring like he was somehow a hundred pounds lighter.
So, whenever he met Bob Backlund at Madison Square Garden, it was an almost guaranteed sellout.
On the night of August 24th, 1981, the MSG fans were treated to yet another 1-hour draw that will be remembered forever.
By the way, Bob Backlund and Magnificent Muraco once wrestled two one-hour Broadways on the very same day. It’s hard even to fathom that kind of conditioning and stamina.
While I couldn’t find a video of the one-hour broadway match discussed above, here is one of the many stand-out matches Backlund and Muraco had at MSG:
7. Bob Backlund (WWWF Champion) vs. Harley Race (NWA Champion) on 09/22/80, Madison Square Garden (35:32)
It would be hard to explain to a modern fan what a huge event and dream match it was to have the WWWF and NWA champs put up their belts in the mecca of professional wrestling.
Harley Race, easily a top 10 all-time heel and one of the most respected champions in the history of the business, was just the man to come to New York City and do it.
For 35 incredible minutes, Bob Backlund and Harley Race battled tooth and nail in a beautiful match marred only by the expected indecisive ending.
Politics would eventually prevent them from ever having that MSG rematch, which is an utter shame.
6. Bob Backlund vs. "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka Steel Cage Match on 6.28/82, Madison Square Garden (15:10)
Nobody had ever seen anyone quite like "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka in the WWWF.
In perfect physical condition with a wild mane of hair and a purposely crazed look in his eye, he was "over" like a million dollars, and the sellouts at Madison Square Garden attested to his greatness.
The blow-off to the Bob Backlund and Snuka feud was their Steel Cage brawl.
When Snuka climbed to the top of the cage and tried to leap on the prone Backlund, the massive crowd let out a primal roar before the champ moved out of the way, and Snuka dramatically crashed to the canvas.
It was a magical moment topped only later in his run by a "face" Snuka leaping off the cage and landing on one Don Muraco in what was probably, at that point, the greatest single dramatic moment in the history of the business.
5. Bob Backlund vs. Sgt. Slaughter on 5/23/83, Madison Square Garden (16:53)
Most 300-or-so-pounders are limited in the ring, but not prime, heel Sgt. Slaughter.
Sgt. Slaughter — another perfect package with one of the all-time great gimmicks — was that rarest of big men who could fly around the ring with the greatest of ease, take big bumps, hold his own wrestling anyone, and when the occasion called for it, bleed like a stuffed pig.
I rank him among the Top 10 all-time heels, and only much later in the decade did he slow down. But, on the night of May 23rd, 1983, he was perfection, as was the match.
Honestly, any of the several Bob Backlund vs. Sgt. Slaughter MSG bouts were fairly interchangeable; these boys never had an off night. And Backlund says just that, raving about the Sarge in his tome.
4. Bob Backlund vs. Greg Valentine on 2/19/79, Madison Square Garden (1 hour)
In the WWWF, a one-hour Broadway was exceedingly rare for a variety of reasons.
First off, the big, massive 300-pounders Vince Sr. loved to showcase in the main events couldn’t pull them off.
Also, with an 11 p.m. curfew, they’d put pressure on the rest of the card, compressing or even canceling some of the prelims because costly union overtime kicked in should they go late.
Side note: I was once at a Stevie Wonder concert at Madison Square Garden. At 11 p.m., he announced, "This is going to cost me forty thousand but we ain’t stopping!"
A one-hour main event was a very, very big deal back then. But a prime Greg "The Hammer" Valentine pulled it off beautifully.
Although a hated heel, Valentine was a wrestling machine, and he and Backlund went move for move in a clinic that’s still cherished today.
For anyone who doesn’t see the artistry in pro wrestling, they should watch this match. Sitting in those seats, I just kept saying to my Dad in awe and wonderment, "I can’t believe they went an hour!" It just wasn’t done here in that era. Memorably great.
Although not the match I described above, here is a video of another classic bout between Bob Backlund and Greg Valentine from one month later at MSG:
3. Bob Backlund (WWWF Champion) vs. Pat Patterson (WWWF Intercontinental Champion) Steel Cage Match on 9/24/79, Madison Square Garden (16:43)
Pat Patterson, a top 20 all-time great, was that rarest of legends equally magnificent as a heel or a face.
The blow-off match to an unprecedented and never equaled four straight MSG main-events, this Bob Backlund vs. Pat Patterson match was, except for the NWA’s War Games, the greatest steel cage match I ever saw live.
Backlund and Patterson wrestled, brawled, bled, climbed the cage, and did everything two human beings could do to entertain a rabid, blood-hungry audience.
For those who only remember Patterson doing bad comedy with Jerry Brisco on WWE TV, it’s a shame you didn’t get to see this man live. He was special, and Backlund acknowledges just that in his book.
2. Bob Backlund (WWWF Champion) vs. Ken Patera (WWWF Intercontinental Champion) on 5/19/80, Madison Square Garden (22:56)
Ken Patera, a former Olympian and "World’s Strongest Man," was that rarest of total packages.
He could wrestle, brawl, cut a great promo, and he had off-the-charts charisma and credibility. Any time he stepped in the ring, a then mostly "mark" audience felt a title change was a possibility, mainly as he was a very credible WWWF Intercontinental Champion on that very night.
Back then, the IC belt held much gravitas, and the sold-out crowd was a testament to just that.
On May 19th, 1980, Bob Backlund and Ken Patera did it all that night in a Texas Death Match, garnering the prestigious Wrestling Observer Match of the Year award in the process.
1. Bob Backlund vs. Adrian Adonis on 3/21/82, Nassau Coliseum. (27:00)
Many fans might remember him as the bloated, cartoonish "Adorable" Adrian Adonis from his run later in the ’80s. Or, perhaps, you might remember him during his leather-jacketed run in the East-West Connection alongside Jesse Ventura. However, Adonis also had great singles success as a WWWF main-eventer and number one challenger to Bob Backlund.
While he was not exactly svelte even then, the younger, lighter Adonis of the early ’80s was a wrestling machine, and Backlund was best with the technicians rather than the huge lumbering super heavyweights the WWWF and Vince McMahon Sr. usually offered.
On the night of March 21st, 1982, Adonis went a remarkable, fast-paced 27 minutes move-for-move, hold-for-hold elevating pro wrestling to an art form.
It’s almost ironic considering Madison Square Garden was the mecca of pro wrestling that the best Backlund match I ever saw live was on the "B circuit," but such is the case.
This was a back-and-forth beauty, a 4 ½ star classic etched in my memory forever.
Although I cannot find footage of this wonderful match, here is a lumberjack match between Backlund and Adonis that took place exactly one week later:
(All at Madison Square Garden)
- Backlund vs. Superstar Billy Graham Steel Cage Match on 4/24/78 (14:28)
- Backlund vs. Ernie Ladd on 10/23/78 (17:24)
- Backlund vs. Playboy Buddy Rose on 8/30/82 (20:24)
- Backlund vs. Masked Superstar on 10/17/83 (16:13)
- Backlund vs. High Chief Peter Maivia Steel Cage on 1/22/79 (20:46)
I hope this brings back some fond memories for the older fans and adds some insight for the younger ones.
While Backlund’s matches with some of the huge monster heels or aging veterans of that era could be lacking, his amazing conditioning and wrestling skills, when showcased with the right opponent, led to many a night where they reached for and attained greatness.
These stories may also interest you:
- Bob Backlund – Humble Beginnings to Championship Gold
- Bob Backlund and the Time He Humbled a Heckling Truck Driver
- Wrestling at Madison Square Garden – Our Top 5 Moments
- Sunnyside Garden Arena – A Snapshot to Wrestling’s Past
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