Where Are They Now? Bob Backlund
To some members of the WWE Universe, Bob Backlund is the scrappy, ginger-haired, All-American boy who used his collegiate wrestling skills to defeat the flamboyant "Superstar" Billy Graham for the WWE Championship in 1978. To others, he is Mr. Backlund, the bow-tied blowhard who challenged fans to recite every United States President in chronological order and punished opponents with the vicious Crossface Chickenwing throughout the 1990s. (PHOTOS)
In reality, Bob Backlund is a little bit of both.
Born in Minnesota in 1949, Backlund was a natural athlete who excelled in football, wrestling and track. His remarkable abilities took him to North Dakota State University where he played football and wrestled, becoming one of the only men to ever win an NCAA championship in both sports. Backlund was then selected to play semi-pro football, but the job paid so little he had to sell encyclopedias door-to-door to make ends meet. Realizing a professional football career wasn't in his future, Backlund decided to make a career change.
"I was working out in a gym in Minneapolis and I met this guy named Eddie Sharkey," Backlund recalled of his chance encounter with the noted wrestling trainer. "He had a school there where wrestlers like Red Bastien, Billy Red Lyons and Mad Dog Vachon were working out. Those were some very interesting characters, but they were all good athletes, so I joined."
When his training was complete, Backlund immediately began cold calling wrestling promoters throughout North America, looking for an opportunity to ply his craft.
"Bret Hart's father, Stu, was the first promoter that I called," Backlund remembered. "I was on a payphone in Minnesota, and I called to ask if I could come there and wrestle for him, but Stu's discourse came out very slow. I ran out of money before I got to ask him!"
Eventually, Backlund managed to connect with WWE Hall of Famer "Cowboy" Bill Watts, who offered the young grappler a chance to compete for him in Oklahoma City. With $20 in his pocket, Backlund jumped in his 1968 Chevrolet Impala and headed out to begin his wrestling career.
"I thought I was going to do pretty good, so I made a reservation at the Sheraton," Backlund revealed. "Then I wrestled, got paid $5 and ended up sleeping in the trunk of my car."
Despite the long hours and low payouts of these early years, Backlund persevered. Highly motivated with an unmatched work ethic, he honed his craft by traveling the country and competing against - and learning from - a literal Who's Who of wrestling legends and WWE Hall of Famers, including Harley Race, Terry Funk and Jack Brisco.
"At that point, you started at the bottom and had to learn how to tell a story in the match," Backlund said. "You were restricted in what you could use. You didn't use a chair - you did an armdrag. As you climbed up the ladder, you did a little more, but if someone was going to do something wild, it would be in the main event."
With his reputation as an impressive young competitor quickly spreading, Backlund caught the attention of Vince McMahon Sr, who was looking for an All-American type to be the face of his company. In 1977, Backlund signed with WWE.
"I say thank you to him every day of my life," Backlund said of Mr. McMahon's father. "I've got goosebumps, that's how important he was to me in my life. There was no reason for him to do that for me. How many people told him I was the wrong pick? More than you think."
Despite some naysayers, Backlund quickly found success, defeating "Superstar" Billy Graham for the WWE Championship in 1978. The veteran can still recall the day vividly.
"It was nerve-wracking, because I came from a town of 2,000 people and there was going to be 27,000 people in Madison Square Garden. When I won the championship, my whole life changed. I was known all over the world."
Backlund would carry the gold for more than five years, defending the title all over the globe against challengers like Sgt. Slaughter, Greg Valentine, Jimmy Snuka and Roddy Piper, and regularly competing in hour-long matches. (WATCH)
"People want to loaf, but they didn't loaf when they were in the ring with me," Backlund said of his legendary workrate.
By the early '80s, MTV had hit the airwaves, and pop culture was changing. McMahon's son, Mr. McMahon, had recently acquired WWE and a national expansion was underway. On Dec. 26, 1983, Bob Backlund lost the WWE Championship to The Iron Sheik when Backlund's manager, WWE Hall of Famer Arnold Skaaland, threw in the towel to end the match. Weeks later, Sheik would lose the title to Hulk Hogan, ushering in a new era in World Wrestling Entertainment.
For nearly a decade, Backlund competed outside WWE, until he made an unexpected return in 1992. At this point, WWE had undergone many changes, and Backlund's boy-next-door looks and ear-to-ear grin didn't receive the same reaction they once had.
"I went back there to be Bob Backlund with the Mom and Dad and apple pie, but people didn't want to hear about it," Backlund recalled. "In the '90s, the good guys were lying, cheating and swearing. So I thought, let me be bad by being good."
Inspired by loudmouthed talk show hosts and his own personal ideologies, Bob Backlund became Mr. Backlund, a bowtie-wearing, dictionary-wielding madman who enraged the WWE Universe by pointing out their own failings.
"Is there anything wrong with saying, I'm getting sick and tired of you plebeians throwing garbage out the windows of your car?" Backlund asked. "They thought I was wacky, but I was thinking I was the good guy."
With Mr. Backlund quickly becoming the man the WWE Universe loved to hate, the verbose Superstar entered into a bitter rivalry with WWE Champion Bret Hart. Their conflict led to a showdown at Survivor Series in 1994, in which Mr. Backlund won with his signature Crossface Chickenwing submission hold. More than a decade since he lost his first WWE Title, Bob Backlund was once again the champ.
"I was 45," Backlund said. "I would've liked to hold it for longer, but three days later I lost it to Diesel."
Following his brief second reign as WWE Champion, Mr. Backlund made a memorable run at the United States Presidency. While Mr. Backlund's campaign was played for laughs on WWE TV, Bob Backlund would make an earnest bid for Congress in 2000, running on a platform of family values.
"Vince McMahon was kind enough to let me go to the arenas and sell T-shirts," Backlund said. "I actually sold 8,000 shirts and that's the money we used for the campaign. Most people in politics spend every dime they have, but I had $15,000 left at the end and I did that on purpose."
Though he was not victorious in his bid for Congress, the former champion has not given up on his political aspirations.
"I'm going to run for governor [of Connecticut]," the political moderate revealed.
Backlund has made sporadic WWE appearances over the past decade and now dedicates most of his time to the home heating business. As the owner and operator of Backlund Energy, the former WWE Champion runs a company that delivers heating oil to homes throughout central Connecticut. In fact, Backlund personally delivers the oil himself, working long hours to please his many customers.
"I was at somebody's house at six in the morning on New Year's Day," the entrepreneur said with a genuine sense of pride.
Backlund attributes his quick success in the business to the tireless work ethic and ability to perform that he learned in WWE. Building his company from the ground up, he handed out business cards door to door for months before Backlund Energy launched, and learned everything he could about the oil business.
"I learned to love the oil business as much as I love the wrestling business," Backlund said. "[In wrestling] we don't have a coach telling us to do this and that; you motivate yourself. There's no reason why I couldn't apply that same kind of focus."
When he's not working, Backlund still makes appearances at small promotions throughout the Northeast. He doesn't own a TV or a computer, and still hits the gym every day. And while Backlund spent most of his life on football fields and in wrestling rings, he hasn't suffered any of the physical ramifications that often plague older athletes.
"I feel pretty darn good," Backlund said proudly.
Backlund's years of performing have affected him in many other ways, however.
"I became a different person because of the things that happened to me in this business," the ring legend said. "It's been a little bit of a fairy tale because when I started, people told me not to get in the business. They said 'you're not big enough, you're not strong enough, you're too shy.'"
Backlund thought for a moment and smiled. "I was very fortunate. And I still am."