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.