Bob Backlund – Last of the Old Schoolers, Last of an Era

From being homeless and sleeping in his car, eating tuna from a can, and having to defeat up to 9 fans from the crowd before the matches each night in order to keep his spot on the card, Bob Backlund faced harsh challenges at the start of his career. However, with a positive mental attitude, grit, and determination, he grew to become a true gentleman and a champion in every sense of the word.

Image result for bob backlund wrestler
Bob Backlund, WWWF Champion circa 1978. [Photo: WWE.com]

The Late ’70s / Early ’80s WWWF “All-American Boy” Bob Backlund vs. ‘ 90s WWF’s Mr. Backlund

Many fans know the name Bob Backlund, but for fans of a younger generation, it is more likely that the heel character he portrayed in the mid-‘90s is remembered over the “All-American Boy” that was handpicked by Vince McMahon Sr. to become his WWWF/WWF World Champion from February 20th, 1978 to December 26th, 1983.

The more recent heel character was “the moral echo, the unspoken and forgotten conscience of our society in the ‘90s,” according to Bob Backlund, who would become Mr. Backlund, a raving psychotic who would “snap” and apply his feared Cross-Face Chickenwing submission hold on unsuspecting opponents, fans, and staff members alike. The “All-American Boy,” who had once been revered by countless fans, had become conspicuously old-fashioned, rejected, and mostly forgotten by the new generation. His clean-cut, ever-present babyface persona was no longer connecting with the fans. So in turn, Mr. Backlund needed to emerge to teach them a lesson. In his words, he became bad by being good.

Mr. Backlund, although a fascinating character in itself, was a far cry from the sedulous, unwearied wrestler who, with uncompromising ethical morals, went against some of the best talent pro wrestling has ever seen including Jack Brisco, “Superstar Billy Graham”, Don Muraco, Greg Valentine, Jimmy Snuka, Ken Patera, Sgt. Slaughter, Paul Orndorff, Harley Race, Hulk Hogan, Ivan Koloff, Antonio Inoki, Pat Patterson, Angelo Mosca, Stan Hansen, Nick Bockwinkel, Ric Flair, and the list goes on! When you talk about wrestling champions, with actual wrestling skills, look no further than Backlund. Known to be able to work most any kind of match whilst making his opponents look like a million bucks in the process. 

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper corroborates Backlund’s greatness in Backlund’s highly recommended autobiography, Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling’s World Champion written by Rob Miller. “The competition in those days was heavy, man. And Bob Backlund managed to cut through all of that, and to work his way up, the honest way, to become world champion, and then to stay there for almost six years. Six years was a lifetime in our sport. For almost six years, he was the world champion of the most lucrative territory in wrestling, filling the biggest buildings night after night.”

“Mr. USA” Tony Atlas was also a witness of the success brought on by Backlund to the business. “When I was in the WWF, Bob was champion because he sold-out buildings. If nobody was paying to see Bob Backlund, he would have never gotten the belt- and if people didn’t keep paying to see Bob Backlund wrestle, he never would’ve kept the belt.”


“Bob Backlund was a true gentleman and a champion in every sense of the word. He was the epitome of what a champion should be. He was and is, a credit to our business. Most of all though, you know, Bobby has a heart of gold.”

– “Rowdy” Roddy Piper


Bob Backlund faced countless quality opponents during his almost six-year WWF championship run. Seen here pictured with Vince McMahon Sr. and NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race.
Bob Backlund faced countless quality opponents during his almost six-year WWF championship run. Seen here pictured with Vince McMahon Sr. and NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race. [Photo: WWE.com]
Harley Race has only praise for Backlund. “Let me tell you this about Bobby- when I went into the Garden to wrestle him, I went out to the ring first, and when he came through the curtain, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a crowd pop louder for anyone. I don’t think that I’ve wrestled anyone anywhere in the world who was more over than Bobby was at the Garden.”

 

Race continued, “He was a great athlete, a great wrestler, a person that people just loved to love. Backlund was the ultimate fucking babyface.”

But, as we’ll soon learn, reaching unbelievable heights of championship glory was anything but easy!

Bob Backlund and His Rough Beginnings in the Tri-State Territory

Before being spotted at the 7th Street Gym in Minneapolis, Minnesota by trainer Eddie Sharkey, ironically, the first person that planted the seed for Backlund to become a pro wrestler was none other than “Superstar” Billy Graham in the spring of 1972 at a YMCA in Fargo, North Dakota. Ironically because several years later, Backlund would become the WWWF World Champion by defeating “Superstar” in what some would say at the peak of his run, or at least when Graham was still a big draw.

But before that, Backlund began his career in the Tri-States territory headed by Leroy McGuirk (who was blind) which was comprised of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. A 1968 green Chevrolet Impala Backlund bought for $200 would be his mode of transportation as he headed off to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for the not-so-glamorous life of a professional wrestler where he would try to cut his teeth in the territory system of the National Wrestling Alliance.

His first match was against Ron Starr, who was pretty green back then as well, but who did have later success in various territories of the NWA; twice becoming World Junior Heavyweight champion. Japan, the World Wrestling Council in Puerto Rico, and Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in the ‘80s and early ‘90s were no strangers to Starr’s exploits later on. 

Backlund’s first match didn’t go so smoothly. He wound up getting caught in the ropes as he entered the ring, was thoroughly lost the entire time, and was laughed at by the fans on several instances. The good news? He did get paid. The bad news was that it wasn’t nearly as much as he had hoped for.

Backlund recounts, “I pulled out the envelope and thought about what I was going to do with the money. First, of course, I was going to have to pay for my lodging at the Sheraton. I thought about treating myself to a good steak dinner to celebrate making it as a pro, and then I thought about sending some home to my parents to help with my younger sister Mary.”

When Backlund opened the envelope, he shockingly discovered that he had been paid a whopping five dollars for his first match. 

He recalls the dire straits he found himself in. “With no money to get a room at even the cheapest motel in the area, I found myself 1,000 miles away from home and effectively homeless. I bought a couple of cans of tuna and a can opener, and that became dinner.” Backlund needed to find a place to sleep, so he found a distressing solution. “I drove around and eventually found a church parking lot, pulled in, and with nowhere else to go, I curled up and went to sleep in the trunk of my car.”

The “All-American Boy” and future WWWF/WWF champion Bob Backlund went through tough times when starting in the business of professional wrestling.
The “All-American Boy” and future WWWF/WWF champion Bob Backlund went through tough times when starting in the business of professional wrestling. [Photo: WWE.com]
Bob Backlund didn’t really get any help from anybody because he didn’t know anyone in the territory and lacked a permanent address. The little money he had needed to be used for food. At nights, he would sleep with an old wooden bat he had come by to protect himself from the gangs that would hang out in the area and around his car at night. Once they even sat on his car, not realizing he was sleeping in it. 

 

“In retrospect, those first few weeks were rock bottom for me,” Backlund somberly remembers.

Backlund resorted to exercise to keep his spirits up. “I went to a local gym every day, and I trained as hard as I could and washed up in their bathroom. Working out put my mind at rest and gave me a release.”

With all his earthly possessions in the car and barely able to sleep at night because of the stifling Louisiana summer nights where the air felt oppressive and hard to breathe, Backlund began to have serious doubts about whether he had made the right choice in pursuing a career in wrestling. For the most part, he was paying his dues by “jerking the curtain,” doing the job for wrestlers who he claims wouldn’t have even been able to score a point on him if it was an amateur bout; Backlund had won the NCAA Division II championships at the 190 lbs weight class in 1971 with North Dakota State University and placed a very respectable 5th the following year when he moved up in class.

Manhandling Marks and Learning the Business

Jake “Grizzly” Smith (father of Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Sam Houston, and Rockin’ Robin) was the booker of the Tri-States territory under Leroy McGuirk. In many of the towns, there were “marks” (fans not smart to the business) who would want to challenge the wrestlers. Backlund, with his clean-cut babyface look to him, was not intimidating to them, but this fell right into Grizzly’s plan because he knew Backlund was more than capable of handling himself with his superb amateur wrestling background. So night after night he would wrestle the marks before the matches started. Oh, and forget about air conditioning… 

“Once the bleachers and the seats were full, the temperature rose by at least 15 degrees and the air smelled like a combination of body odor, sewage, and stale beer. On some nights it was hard not to throw up- except that I didn’t have much in my stomach anyway!”

One night in Lafayette, Louisiana, according to Backlund, he wrestled nine people in a row from out of the crowd before the matches began. Failure to subdue and defeat these people was not an option.

As Backlund explains, “If you were a professional wrestler and got manhandled by a drunk mark who came out of the crowd in jeans and cowboy boots, it would hurt the legitimacy of the business in the eyes of the fans. Your career, at least in that territory, would be over.”

“For the entire time I worked the Tri-States territory, I ate tuna fish out of a can, drank as much water as I could get at the gym or the public library, and lived in my car.”

But through all this, Backlund’s positive mental attitude (PMA, as he calls it), and remembering his trainer Eddie Sharkey’s lessons helped see him through this very rough beginning. “I was out there to learn the craft- and the small civic arenas and gyms in these small southern backwater towns were the classrooms of our profession. I was polite, respectful, never complained and always willing to do whatever was asked of me.” 

As time went by, he began being booked for fifteen-minute draws at some of the house shows and was given the opportunity to call some spots, show a few moves, and even earned a couple of wins. 

Meeting Terry Funk, The End of the Beginning

The first meaningful contact Bob Backlund made was when Terry Funk came into the territory to main-event in one of the towns. Backlund, when asked how he was doing, told Terry that he was learning but was “getting pretty rundown from living in his car.” 

Terry Funk may have salvaged the career of Bob Backlund after extending a helping hand and offering an opportunity in Amarillo, Texas. Here, Terry Funk and Bob Backlund are seen with the NWA World and Missouri Heavyweight Championships respectively.
Terry Funk may have salvaged the career of Bob Backlund after extending a helping hand and offering an opportunity in Amarillo, Texas. Here, Terry Funk and Bob Backlund are seen with the NWA World and Missouri Heavyweight Championships respectively.

Before the conversation even ended, Terry gave Backlund his phone number to call him when he was ready for a change. A couple of weeks later, Grizzly let the boys know that Terry needed some guys to do some jobs on TV in Amarillo, Texas and of course, Backlund didn’t hesitate to offer up his services.

“Anxious to explore something different, I made the long hot drive from Shreveport to Amarillo. That set in motion a long chain of events that, one to the next, would ultimately take me all the way to the world championship.”

Bob Backlund, Last Of The Old Schoolers Before Rasslin’ Went Mainstream 

The career of Bob Backlund spanned over 30 years and saw him become a hero to numerous fans across the globe. He always represented wrestling with dignity, honor and held the sport in the highest regard. Backlund was a throwback; a line of demarcation, if you will, that separated the last of the old school style wrestlers and the new era to come. 

Watch: Don Muraco speaks candidly about Bob Backlund

In many ways, this change in philosophy of how the sport would be presented was ushered in by the vision Vince McMahon Jr. had for how he wanted wrestling to be presented, and a fellow by the name of Hulk Hogan would be the executor of said vision that would push old school wrestling, led by Backlund, into a corner, as further explained by George “The Animal” Steele.

“Once Hogan had the belt, it was Hogan’s show and screw everybody else.” Steele continued, “Junior (McMahon) had a vision for where he wanted the thing to go, and it was all about Hogan. So our old school wrestling business blossomed into a totally different business- what I call the ‘cartoon era.'”

According to Roddy Piper, “In a blink of an eye, relatively speaking, the business changed and the great technicians, the guys who knew how to use psychology to get the people and who were formerly the cornerstones of the business became dinosaurs.”

Roddy Piper also had a strong opinion on the transition of favoring wrestlers such as Hogan over Backlund. “Vinnie put a great technical wrestler like Bobby in mothballs in favor of what he thought was a more entertaining kind of match, animated by characters that they created and could market. But now we look back on it and see that the wrestlers of this generation don’t have the training in the psychology of how to tell a story in the ring like Bobby Backlund did, so they have to do all kinds of song and dance to try and keep the thing going instead of just having one man who knew the art, like Bobby Backlund did.”

Rob Miller, who is author of the book, Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling’s World Champion, offers his take on the changes wrestling suffered once Bob Backlund dropped the belt. “Professional wrestling exploded into a billion-dollar worldwide industry. But with the new cross-cultural exposure and evolution into a pop-cultural phenomenon, the once passable ‘sport’ evolved into a farce, and the ever-increasing physical demands on its characters led to rampant steroid and drug use and premature deaths too numerous to count.”

When it came to the eventual dethroning of Bob Backlund in December 1983, the Iron Sheik is certainly proud of having been the man to do it, even if in the history books he is considered a transitional champion who held the title for only 28 days (similar to Ivan Koloffs’s 21 days, and Stan Stasiak’s 9 days).

“Six year, nobody beat Mr. Bob Backlund!” Sheiky-Baby thunders, referring to the man he dethroned for the title. “I beat him at most famous arena, Madison Square Garden! Without Iron Sheik, there be no Hulkamania!”

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All quotes, unless specified, are from the highly-recommended autobiography, Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling’s World Champion written by Rob Miller.

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Javier Ojst
Javier Ojst is a senior contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories and an old school wrestling enthusiast. He is the creator/administrator of the FB page "Classic Wrestling Stars" and can be reached there or by e-mail at jojst1@gmail.com. He welcomes any feedback you may have!