We pick up in the mid-1970s in Bob Backlund’s 2015 autobiography: “Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling’s World Champion”. Bob is making an impression on many promoters, not the least of which is a guy named McMahon in New York.
What happened that night certainly diminished my respect for Jack [Brisco]. He was the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, and was supposed to be a role model both for the fans and for young wrestlers like me.
Backlund has a very strict set of ethics, which can come off as a bit pious but I respect it particularly in this regard. He was riding with Jack Brisco who just happened to be smoking dope at the time. On a personal note, before I got my drivers license early in my junior year of high school, I carpooled with others in my town and a classmate of mine gave me a ride one day. He drove 70 in a 30 while smoking a joint which scared the shit out of me. Needless to say, I never rode with him again. So I can get why Backlund might be pissed off.
I also wrestled Randy Savage while I was down in Georgia. Back then, Randy was just coming off a pretty good run in minor league baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds organizations, and his personality was just perfect for the wrestling business.
Not sure if it would be classified as a pretty good run, but the Macho Man sure had good numbers in his first year in rookie ball: .420 OBP and a .912 OPS albeit in only 81 plate appearances. But he never really progressed and topped out in A ball in 1974 with a .662 OPS in 521 plate appearances. Savage actually had started wrestling in the offseasons and certainly made the right choice giving up baseball. Backlund and Savage never really crossed in the WWF; by the time Savage showed up in 1985, Backlund was long gone. And when Backlund came back in 1992, Savage was in reduced duty though they were the last two guys eliminated by Yokozuna in the 1993 Royal Rumble.
When I was the world champion in the WWWF, if I was going to be coming back to town the following month (like at MSG or the Philadelphia Spectrum, where I wrestled every month if I was in the United States) my match was usually scheduled as the fourth or fifth match on the card, right before intermission.
This was standard practice in the WWF and was the way they did things all the way up to the first house show I ever attended in 1991 at the Boston Garden. Hulk Hogan’s title defense against Sgt. Slaughter went on 4th, and the idea was that you could sell tickets for the rematch next month during the intermission. When there is a double main event billed (such as WrestleMania 8), the first main event will usually be before an intermission break.
The fans in St. Louis responded to all of this by turning out in droves. Several thousand fans bought a “season ticket” to the matches for an entire year, which, of course, gave Muchnick the working capital he needed to keep the promotion running and to secure the talent he needed to keep the houses full.
The WWWF and later WWF did this is many locations for years. When Vince Jr. took over in 1983, he put a stop to it and really pissed off a lot of the most loyal fans. He also kicked out “independent” program vendors and insisted that they be WWF sanctioned only. Nowadays, it only SEEMS like certain fans have season tickets, like that guy who wears the Mets jersey at all WWE PPVs.
I would do what was asked of me without complaint. Being asked to do the honors to [Bulldog Bob] Brown was a test. I passed.
It was common practice in various promotions to have a guy do a job to check if he was a team player. Backlund did this for the much less talented Bulldog Bob Brown. Other examples of this include: Dusty Rhodes losing to Ted DiBiase on his 2nd day in the WWF in 1989, and Arn Anderson losing via countout in a completely bizarre match against Tom Magee. Seriously, watch that bout….it’s incredibly strange.
Interestingly—that match with [Killer Karl] Krupp was the first match I can remember where my opponent no-sold my finisher and the booked finish of the match. Sam had called for me to demolish Krupp with the atomic kneedrop, but when the appointed time came and I hit the finisher, Krupp did not go down. Instead, he just staggered around the ring sneering at the fans—which I took as a sign of disrespect both to Sam and to me. I immediately went into shoot mode, slapped him into a standing front facelock, choked him out, and whispered to him that I was going to suplex him for a revised finish, and that he better stay down.
One theme throughout this book is that Backlund was very much willing to do stuff like this if he felt disrespected, not so much out of feeling hurt personally but more out of an obligation to protect his title belt at all costs. It’s a shame that match isn’t on YouTube.
In many of the places I went as the World Champion, I had to play the worst asshole on the face of the earth, and to be honest with you, that came easy to me. (Harley Race)
One thing I love about this book is the various pieces of commentary from Bob’s contemporaries. Some of it is fantastic like the above passage and others by Harley Race, Sgt. Slaughter, and Roddy Piper. It adds a lot to the book.
What happened in that meeting in St. Louis was part of the reason why Vince was always so loyal to Bobby. Vince Sr. had pulled Backlund out of contention to become the NWA World Champion in order to bring him to New York, and had promised the WWWF title to Bobby right down to the day he was going to get it.
Backlund was bandied about as a potential NWA champion, but the problem he would face is that as NWA traveling champion he would be forced to be in a lot of matches against other babyfaces and that wouldn’t have worked so well with his character. Vince Sr. traditionally ran his territory with a babyface champion and decided to go with Backlund to replace Bruno Sammartino in part because he was different enough in many ways. Bob was much more of a true “wrestler” than Sammartino and wasn’t ethnic like Bruno or Pedro Morales. He was the all-American boy.
Coming up next time: Backlund heads to the WWF and comments on the locker room politics, Bruno gives his thoughts on Backlund, and Bob has some very candid thoughts on Billy Graham and Dusty Rhodes.