On July 19, I sat at ringside at the DCU Center in Worcester — we locals still call it the Centrum — to watch the draft between WWE Raw and Smackdown. And one of the biggest surprises for me of the night was the crowd’s reaction to former three-time WWF Heavyweight Champion Bob Backlund.
If you don’t keep up with wrestling these days, 66-year-old Backlund is back on TV, playing the role of a coach to current WWE wrestler Darren Young. Backlund has even gone as far as to “allow” Young to use his old finisher, the cross-face chicken wing.
In Worcester, at one point during Young’s match, the crowd erupted into a chant: “Backlund! Backlund! Backlund!”
Backlund first beat Superstar Billy Graham for the belt in February 1978, lost and regained it in a quickie switch to Antonio Inoki in Japan in 1979, and then lost the title to the Iron Sheik in a famous match on December 26, 1983, that marked the end of Backlund’s era and the start of Hulkamania.
Longtime fans will remember the stories about Vince McMahon asking Backlund to turn heel after Hogan won the title in 1984, which Backlund refused to do. Ironically, a decade later, Backlund returned to the WWF and became a bad guy in a memorable run that culminated with a brief reign as champion again.
Former WWF and WCW writer Vince Russo, in a June podcast with Backlund, asked about his change in attitude about being a heel.
Backlund said his reasoning to McMahon was that time enough time had passed by to make a heel turn work. “Our daughter’s grown up and the kids that I was being a hero to are older and they’ll understand,” Backlund recalled telling McMahon.
Backlund said that he was also legitimately dismayed that in the 1990s, the babyfaces wre often scoundrels. “The good guys are lying, cheating, and swearing … Let me be bad by being good,” was his reasoning to McMahon.
“I was so serious and I liked what I was saying … I believed I was trying to help society,” Backlund said on Russo’s podcast.
He said his wacky promos in 1994 were not acting, but instead from his heart. “I was overacting, but I was so serious and proud of what I was saying,” Backlund said. “I was very driven.”
His current coach persona is toned down, but still has hints of the heel Backlund. He doesn’t look all that different than he did in 1984, and appears to still be in great shape.
Backlund wrote a book, Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling’s World Champion, that I haven’t read yet myself, but I want to.