30 years ago this week, the Iron Sheik beat Bob Backlund

I can’t believe it’s been three decades since a moment that until many years later was probably the single most shocking thing I had experienced as a young pro wrestling fan: The Iron Sheik winning the WWF Heavyweight Title from Bob Backlund.

The match took place on December 26, 1983, in Madison Square Garden. The Sheik had attacked Backlund a few weeks earlier on WWF Championship Wrestling and clobbered the champ with a pair of Persian clubs. None of this really indicated a title change, as Backlund was always involved with angles with his challengers on TV.


During the match, the Sheik applied his finisher, the camel clutch, to Backlund in the middle of the ring. As Backlund struggled, his manager, Arnold Skaaland, threw in the towel, signaling a forfeit by Backlund, which surprised the crowd. A near six-year title reign for Backlund — other than a quickie title change back and forth in Japan with Antonio Inoki in 1979 — had come to a sudden end. The length of Backlund’s tenure as champ is simply incredible to think about today.

In reality, Backlund’s end really wasn’t sudden. The wheels were in motion for a hugely important year for the WWF in 1984, as Hulk Hogan steamrolled back into the federation and soundly defeated the Sheik for the title about a month later at MSG. Hogan’s victory was the start of the WWF’s national expansion, and it laid the bricks for WrestleMania in 1985.

Backlund stuck around for about six months in the WWF following his title loss, but in a famous story, he refused to turn heel and dye his hair black, which eventually led to a falling out with Vince McMahon, Jr. (Vince, Sr., was still alive at this point, too).

Given that Backlund a decade later made such a great, nutty heel, I often wonder how wrestling history would have changed had he become a bad guy in 1984. It would have probably been on the biggest heel turn in WWF history at the time, as no former WWF heavyweight champ had ever become a turncoat like that.

Backlund appeared on Monday Night Raw earlier this year in a nostalgia cameo, and he still looked good and moved youthfully considering his age. That’s more than can be said of Sheik and Hogan these days.


  1. Pingback: On Smackdown, crowd chants for old-time favorite Bob Backlund | Boston Garden Balcony
  2. Pingback: 30 year ago this week: Hogan wins the title, Hulkamania is born | Boston Garden Balcony
  3. Modew's Manager

    Backlund got the title because Senior wanted someone with legit wrestling cred, like Jack Brisco, to follow Superstar Graham. Backlund was ripped in the early days. But he changed his training regimen to build more stamina (which never was a problem) and looked fit but not muscular. That, plus his average promos and Junior’s expansion plans, sealed his fate. Six months after leaving WWF he was a drywall installer.

  4. Joe Lowry

    I have commented on this historic event in past blogs. But never the less, it was still a huge turning point not only within the WW(F)E industry but this shocked any pro wrestling fan in the northeast at that time. Waking up on Saturday morning and tuning into what was suposed to be a normal WWF telecast proved otherwise. On that particular Saturday morning the WWF world was abuzz with news of Bob Backlunds title loss to The Iron Sheik earlier in the week at NYC’s Madison Square Garden. At the time you had sensed Backlunds appeal was diminishing with the fans. Even though the sport was changing you did not think at the time that this change would invovle a new WWF Champion. Pesonally I think it was not who Backlund lost the title to, but rather why he lost the title. Our answers came within the next week or so when Hulk Hogan came to Backlunds aid in a televised match against one of the Wild Samoans. It was then that we would all come to the realization that the WWF was entering a new era…the era of HULKAMANIA. Historically speaking, I do recall a card the following January (Jan. 14, 1984) at the old Boston Garden in which Backlund received his one and only rematch against The Iron Sheik. The match ended in a DQ win for Backlund. (The following week Hogan pinned Sheik for the title at MSG) As a kid I remember running down the hallway to catch a glimpse of Backlnd leaving the dressing room. To see him without the coveted WWF Title felt weird. The reality sunk in that he was no longer the champion, my champion.

  5. CT

    This was an OMG moment during Christmas vacation in 1983. I remember calling friends and family discussing the shocking news. For young fans, no one ever thought Backlund would loose, let alone to the Iron Sheik. Remember, there was no internet, no social media, no cell phones, people were just starting to get answering machines. The Apter magazines were a couple months behind before ‘news’ hit the magazines. The only information was the Saturday morning shows. Can’t believe it was 30 years ago. Everyone was excited to see Hogan come in and we were all Hulkamaniacs. It would have been more shocking if Backlund turned heel. Backlund did main event and sold out many shows until he left in the summer in 1984. I remember is was odd that Backlund, not Hogan, main evented the March and April 1984 MSG shows. Backlund took on Greg Valentine and sold out both shows, so the Northeast fans were not ready to say good-bye to Backlund. I think this was one of the first times the champ did not headline MSG?
    We did all get a great bonus feud out of all of this for most of 1984–Sgt. Slaughter’s face turn to take on the Iron Sheik. They even stole the show from most of Hogan’s matches. I never heard the behind the scenes planning for that feud…was it planned or kind of just happened?
    I could go on and on….it was a great time to be a pro wresting fan 30 years ago!

  6. Evan J Rodgers

    It was a shock as Backlund seemed invincible. I remember a neighbor calling to tell me the news. At the time I was tired of Backlund as champion and I really did not appreciate his amatuer and scientific skills, real strength and great fanatical conditioning. Besides, I had always liked heels and rooted against Backlund. I was not impressed with Hogans return to the WWF as a fan favorite, I liked him the first time round when he was managed by Fred Blassie. To me in hindsight the great talent who is so overlooked in this historic turn of events is the Iron Sheik. He had the scientific and amateur wrestling skills to defeat Backlund in a shoot, or at least come quite close. His strength (as evidenced by his swinging of the clubs) was very real!!! In spite of his anti-American heel image, in many ways he was a patriot living the American dream. He defected from Iran, his life possibly in danger- immigrating to the United States and going on to train United States amatuer wrestlers in preperation for the Olympics!!! He became a successful, hard working pro-wrestler here and entertained thousands!! To me, Iron Sheik was the real deal and a deserving WWF Champion. I see him as a much more legitimate champion than Hulk Hogan ever was. In fact, I have read that Backlund did not want to lose the title to someone with no real amateur, scientific wrestling backround, hence Iron Sheik being chosen. In fact earlier in 1983 Backlund and Iron Sheik had a surprisingly amatuer, scientific match, conducting themselves as atheletes and gentlemen (I saw it on classics on demand). To this day, Backlund remains in great shape and I think has gained more and more respect over the years. Iron Sheik remains a very unique personality with a whole legion of fans!! I follow him on Facebook and look foreward to his updates!! Hulk Hogan no doubt ushered in a new era with Vince McMahn Jr. As time goes by, his lack of wrestling skill becomes more and more apparent (no disrespect intended toward him as a person)- and it seems that Iron Sheik, Bob Backlund, Ric Flair, Harley Race and Nick Bockwinkel are gaining stature as true hero’s of real style wrestling. 30 years went by so fast!!! Thank you Boston Garden Balcony for reflecting and acknowledging this historic turn of events….Your right had Backlund made a heel turn, who knows the historic ramifications. Just think, instead of match after match of Hogan getting beat up, “Hulking up” and coming back with that fake looking leg-drop- imagine Backlund chasing him for the title, locking in the chicken-wing, imagine Iron Sheik holding the belt longer- destroying challengers and wreaking havoc with the Camel Clutch. Sure4, Hogan could have been a major hero and champion of the expansion- but it would have been interesting to see Backlund and Iron Sheik remain vital singles champions/challengers- kind of like pro-boxing had Ali, Fraiser, Norton and Foreman!!! Yet history went down as it did and here we are now, older, looking back with love and fascination- the “what if’s” really dont matter.

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