Time for part three in a peek at Bob Backlund’s 2015 autobiography “Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling’s World Champion”. At this point we are in 1977 and Backlund is navigating the world of Vince McMahon Sr.’s locker room:
There was a definite clique in that dressing room, comprised of Bruno, DeNucci, Rodz, Garea, Chief, and Scicluna. They were a strong and tight-knit group. Fortunately for me, Vince McMahon Sr. went out of his way to make me feel welcomed and at home.
Those six guys were all mainstays of the New York territory and rarely ventured elsewhere to wrestle. Baron Mikel Scicluna and Domenic DeNucci wrestled each other approximately 35,000 times over the years. Tony Garea was a multiple time tag champion and later became one of the agents and guys who come from the back to breakup brawls. The “Unpredictable” Johnny Rodz mostly worked as a jobber to the stars but later became a trainer extraordinaire. Chief Jay Strongbow was popular in the northeast but wasn’t a great wrestler and was divisive as a backstage presence, considered a stooge by many. And Bruno Sammartino was the undisputed leader.
Backlund was a brand new face in 1977 and was actually brought along somewhat slowly. He only wrestled TV matches for a very long period to build him up before finally being put in the house shows, which is backwards from how things are often done.
It wasn’t long after I came in for the first tapings that the WWWF moved its television tapings out of the Philadelphia Arena and up the road a bit to the little arena at the Allentown Fairgrounds, and the next day at the Hamburg Fieldhouse.
In November 1978, the WWWF moved the tapings from Philadelphia to Allentown in an effort to bring it a bit closer to the New York base. They continued to tape in Allentown and Hamburg until the summer of 1984, though 33 years later it would inspire the name of a wrestling podcast called Greetings From Allentown.
Because each of those arenas held only about 750 people, it was basically the same people who were there all the time.
Allentown and Hamburg were pretty small venues that had a devoted fanbase coming out for the tapings every three weeks. It’s really no different than having a season ticket for a baseball or hockey team.
Although I can’t remember exactly, I’m pretty sure I wrestled Johnny Rodz first. Rodz was an excellent hand—and more than anyone else on the roster, Rodz was the guy that Vince Sr. put in the ring with new incoming talent to figure out how good they were.
Rodz was sort of like Steve Lombardi before the future Brooklyn Brawler ever appeared in the WWF. A solid worker, he could be relied on to judge new talent coming in and also good enough in the ring to put guys over strong. With that in mind, it is no surprise that Rodz became a well-regarded trainer of wrestlers like Tazz, Tommy Dreamer, Matt Striker, and Big Cass.
Some of the guys thought that Backlund might have lacked a little bit of charisma, and some of the heels, at least in the very beginning, felt that they had to wrestle his match, as opposed to their match, because Backlund wasn’t a natural when it came to brawling. (Bruno Sammartino)
This is one of the few passages from Bruno in the book. Bob and Bruno were kept very separate at all times because they did not want Backlund to end up in Bruno’s shadow. Sammartino could wrestle a bit, but he was more known for a brawling style that was more in favor in the New York territory. Backlund was always more of a pure wrestler and it did take him a while to become more of a brawler when he needed to be.
At the time, Dusty and Graham were at the forefront of a group of guys around the wrestling business looking to organize themselves, seize power from the promoters, and have more influence over their lives in the business.
This wasn’t to do something like form a union or anything, it was more like would be seen in the mid-1990s in the WWF with the Kliq wherein Graham and Rhodes would dominate the booking in whatever promotion they were in.
I think that Graham and Dusty were interested in trying to take greater control of Vince’s promotion in much the same way that Dusty had done with Eddie’s promotion down in Florida.
Dusty Rhodes effectively swallowed the Florida promotion whole by the early to mid 1980s. (Please, no fat jokes) He was booking and the number one star and the Jenga piece of Eddie Graham’s group. When he jumped ship for Jim Crockett Promotions in 1984, the entire Florida promotion fell apart because the underneath guys followed Dusty out the door. It’s been done elsewhere (like All Japan in 2001) but this one was particularly tragic: despondent over the fall of his territory, Eddie Graham committed suicide in 1985.
That was the last time I ever drank and drove an automobile or got into the car with anyone who had been drinking. I was very fortunate to learn that lesson and to be able to live to tell about it.
This story really surprised me because Backlund generally kept himself clean, but it’s a reminder to know your limits whoever you are. Backlund was in an accident but luckily was not too seriously hurt. The lesson is that you have a lot more to lose in that situation than there is to gain.
Even though the outcomes were predetermined, there was an unwritten rule in the wrestling business that the referee needed to make things look legitimate.
The only way this is still in effect today is referees are instructed to count if the shoulders are down. Unless of course, you’re Eva Marie in NXT.
Coming up next time: Backlund reflects on Andre the Giant, the quality of the WWWF roster versus the NWA, Arnold Skaaland as a manager, and rightfully rips Mil Mascaras a new one.