The 'Shroom:Issue 200/The Wrestling Shoeserver
Hello, and welcome to a section that has been years in the making! As many of you (especially Blocky, Hood, and Vomm) might know, I'm a huge old school wrestling fan. Now, for years, I've been trying to turn that into a section but, to be honest, it always felt like a huge amount of work. I'd have to watch a bunch of programming, and that stuff could last months! So this never really worked out as a monthly or even bi-monthly feature, but with issue 200 here, I thought "screw it, this would make the perfect special section to confuse people, who will wonder why it's here". So, that's what we're going to do in this one-off (or maybe more!) wrestling section! You'll start off confused why this is even here, but you'll learn something by the end!
For our subject, we're going to be covering one of my all-time favorite runs, the 1994 run of heel (bad guy) Bob Backlund. But first, let me give you some backstory, and, by that, I mean a lot of backstory! I'm giving you a lot of backstory because I can't tell the story of why the 1994 run is so good without giving you some history of the wrestling legend Bob Backlund.
Babyfaces in the Northeast and Passing the Torch
The year is 1976, and World Wide Wrestling Federation promoter Vincent J. McMahon (father of current WWE chairman Vincent K. McMahon) is in a bit of a pickle. You see, since the 1950s, the Northeastern WWWF (previously known as Capitol Wrestling Corporation and centered around the prestigious Madison Square Garden) had always been known as an ethnic babyface territory. What that means is that, with New York City being a city of immigrants, the top stars in the northeast were always were meant to appeal to a specific subset of people.
In the 1950s, you had Antonio Rocca who appealed to Hispanics. In the 60s, you had the Italian strongman Bruno Sammartino, one of the biggest draws in all of wrestling, who was the hero to, well, Italians. Then, from 1971 to 1973, you had Pedro Morales, the Puerto Rican superstar, at least until the WWWF transitioned back into Bruno Sammartino in December of 1973.
The thing was, Bruno couldn't hold the title forever, though not because the fans were sick of him, mind you. In fact, he was still the biggest draw in the northeast and one of the biggest in all of wrestling. But, instead, his body was beat up and he was tired of the intense schedule that, as champion, he was put on (being the WWWF or NWA Champion basically meant you were on the road 365 days a year). Worn out, Bruno was ready to drop the belt, and Vincent J. McMahon complied. But there was a pickle. Without Bruno, who could he give the title to? He could have gone back to Pedro or some other ethnic babyface as he had done for the previous sixteen years, but, here's the thing, back then there was a large portion of the population that thought wrestling was real. And since a Bruno or a Pedro was considered a genuine hero to their people, it was common for the people to riot if their guy got fucked over.
For a quick example of this, take when Ivan Koloff beat Bruno Sammartino in January of 1971. The announcer didn't announce Bruno as the champion, and the referee didn't give Koloff the belt, afraid the fans would riot over this. Or take 1982, when Ric Flair dropped the NWA Champion to local hero Jack Veneno in a match in the Dominican Republic, because the promoter feared a riot if Veneno didn't win, and Ric Flair was not looking to get stabbed that day (the title would be returned to Flair because Jack refused to defend the title outside of the Dominican Republic.) So, Vince McMahon Sr. decided he wanted something different, something that had never really gotten over in the Northeast Territory. He wanted a classic All-American White Meat babyface.
Bob Backlund Steps Up
Enter the subject of this section, Bob Backlund. A legitimate amateur wrestler, Bob Backlund, in his college days, had won an NCAA championship at North Dakota State for wrestling. Having broken into the business in 1973, Bob Backlund's masterful technical wrestling had made him a fairly big star in the territories, being highly regarded by Florida promoter Eddie Graham and St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick. Deceptively strong and master of mat wrestling, for Vince, he was the perfect choice as the new All-American babyface in the northeast. But this presented a new problem for Vince. After all, Bob Backlund had never wrestled in the WWWF before, so who knew if the audience would take to him. So, to give himself time to get Bob Backlund over, Vince Sr. did something that he had never done before. He booked a long-term heel champion!
Now, there had been heel champions before, those being Ivan Koloff and Stan Stasiak, but they were both transitional champions who only won the belt so they could drop it to the next top babyface shortly thereafter, with Ivan Koloff holding the title for 21 days and Stan Stasiak holding it for only 9. See, at the time, you didn't want two top babyfaces to face off against each other, because, if they did, who would the fans root for? Plus, one of them is going to have to lose, making them look worse. So, for the first time, a long-term heel champion (not counting when the WWWF didn't have a champion and instead used the touring NWA Champion) was selected. The man to get the honors? The flamboyant, charismatic, and muscular Superstar Billy Graham.
Now, Vince Sr. was rigid in his decision making, and, according to Billy Graham, the day he won the title he was also told the exact day in the future he was going to lose the title. Billy Graham was only given the title to give Bob Backlund time to get over. To help his new star get over, Bob Backlund was even given Bruno Sammartino's manager, the "Golden Boy" Arnold Skaaland, to add legitimacy to him. Now, if Vince Sr. wasn't so rigid, Bob Backlund would have never become WWF Champion. You see, a funny thing happened on the road to getting Bob Backlund over. Superstar Billy Graham, with his flamboyant dress and arrogant charismatic promos, got over with the crowd to the point where he started getting cheered. You have to understand that at this point in time a heel being cheered was not necessarily unheard of, especially in the Northeast, which was always considered one of the "smarter" territories. But it was still unusual for a heel to be cheered as if he was a babyface. But that's sort of what was happening near the end of Superstar Billy Graham's title reign, with the crowds being almost split 50/50 between cheering and booing him. Superstar Billy Graham as a heel was one of the top draws in the country, selling out arena after arena. The crowds would have easily accepted him as a top babyface, which would have really changed the landscape of wrestling because you would have essentially gotten Hulk Hogan before Hulk Hogan. But for whatever reason Vince Sr. never saw it, so when the time came on February 20th, 1978, on a televised airing of WWF on MSG Network, Bob Backlund would pin superstar Billy Graham to win the WWWF Championship. Though technically the pin shouldn't have counted since Billy Graham's foot was on the ropes, which breaks a pinfall, this caveat-making detail was incorporated to keep Billy Graham looking strong in defeat as well as to set up a series of house show matches. Whatever the case, Vince Sr. now had his White Meat All-American babyface champion!
Bob Backlund the Champion
Now, Bob Backlund was a great wrestler; in fact, he was probably one of the best technical wrestlers in his era. A legit shooter, Bob Backlund looked every part like a real wrestler in the ring, defeating his opponents with his excellent mat work. Bob Backlund had one serious problem, though, and that was that he couldn't talk to save his life! As a promo, it was like Bob Backlund lacked confidence. His promo style was bland and mumbling, frequently tripping up and using a very boring, almost monotone delivery style. To illustrate my point better, here's a video of a 1980s Bob Backlund promo.
Bob Backlund was honestly a terrible promo and never really grew into even an adequate talker during his long reign. Only rarely did Bob Backlund manage to display genuine emotions. One notable moment where he did came after he was betrayed and attacked by the High Chief Peter Malvia during a tag team match against Spiros Arion and Victor Rivera. This betrayal caused Bob Backlund to scream after the match that he was going to "kill the son of a bitch". These moments, however, were few and far between. Instead, Bob Backlund acted more as a straight man, a determined and skilled champion who would defeat his opponents in the ring. Luckily for Bob Backlund, he didn't need to talk, as the northeast had three of the greatest managers in the history of wrestling.
Who were these three? They were "Classy" Freddie Blassie, Ernie Roth the "Grand Wizard of Wrestling", and, finally and most famously of all, Captain Lou Albano (hey, that's Mario!). Those three, with their various proteges, would talk the people into the arenas to see Bob Backlund defeat their clients and, hopefully, get his hands on them too! Bob Backlund himself was indeed quite popular, and, while he never grew to the popularity of, say, Bruno Sammartino, and although the cards were a little more juiced with popular wrestlers from across the country such as Dusty Rhodes, Bob Backlund was still a legitimate draw.
But all good things must come to an end. Bob Backlund would hold the championship for six years, the second-longest championship reign in WWWF history, but fans had started to grow tired of the man derisively called "howdy doody" by Ernie Roth, Grand Wizard of Wrestling. Never a showman in the ring and a bad promo, the fans had started to grow bored of the style of wrestling Bob Backlund brought to the table. It got to the point where voters for the Wrestling Observer newsletter voted Bob Backlund's title reign the "most disgusting promotional tactic" in 1982. Then they voted Bob Backlund himself the "most overrated wrestler" in 1983.
It didn't help matters that, for some reason, in mid-1982, Bob Backlund cut his mop-top hair cut for a straighter cut and started wearing a regular wrestling singlet. This had the effect of making him appear to be an even more generic shooter wrestler and made him appear out of place even in the 1980s! It was time for a change. Enter Vincent J. McMahon, son of Vincent K. McMahon. Having bought the WWF (renamed from WWWF in 1979) from his father in 1982, Vince Jr. had bigger dreams than just a regional wrestling promotion. He wanted to turn the WWF into not just a national promotion, but the largest promotion in the country, but to do that, he needed somebody fresh, somebody new, somebody exciting. He needed a wrestler that, even if you'd never seen a wrestling match, you'd probably still know him. He needed Hulk Hogan, and Hulk Hogan he got!
End of the Backlund era; Birth of Hulkamania
While he had decided on his next big star, there was still a question of how to get the title on Hulk Hogan. Hulk Hogan, while a huge star in the 1980s in the AWA, had in fact been a heel the last time he had been in the WWF. Before he could lend them his star power, first they had to establish Hulk Hogan as a babyface. So what did Vince Jr. do? Why, it was actually quite simple. On the January 3rd edition of Championship Wrestling, Hulk Hogan would make his return by helping Bob Backlund fend off the Wild Samoans.
After the match, Bob Backlund would cut a promo on Hulk Hogan, telling the fans how Hulk Hogan was a changed man and was no longer going to associate with people like Freddie Blassie (Hogan's heel manager during his 1981 run). That solves the Hulk Hogan needing to be a babyface problem, but that still leaves the problem of how to get the title on him. Remember, Bob Backlund was still a babyface and still relatively popular, even if his popularity had dwindled. Also remember that you'd never have two top babyfaces wrestle each other. Vince's original plan was to turn Bob Backlund into a heel, presenting him as jealous of the attention Hulk Hogan was getting, but Bob Backlund was legitimately involved in a lot of charity work and had young children, so he turned that idea down. Also, just for a little clarity, the reason Bob Backlund could refuse the title change was because, really, until the 1990s, wrestlers didn't have formal contracts. If he wanted to, Bob Backlund could have left the territory without dropping the belt and would have suffered no legal ramifications.
Since Bob couldn't become a heel, it was time to dust off the old favorite, the transitional champion. The choice? The Iron Sheik. On the December 24th, 1983 edition of All- American Wrestling, the Iron Sheik would challenge Bob Backlund to the Persian Club Swing challenge, a legitimately difficult form of exercise the Iron Sheik would do that involved swinging two very large clubs. On the third attempt, Bob Backlund would successfully swing the clubs, enraging the Iron Sheik, who would then beat down Bob Backlund. Two days later, in a match at Madison Square Garden, the Iron Sheik would face off against Bob Backlund. Still feeling the effects of the beatdown, Bob Backlund would find himself locked in the Iron Sheik's dreaded Cobra Clutch.
With no escape, but refusing to give up, Bob Backlund's manager, Arnold Skaaland, could take no more and threw in the towel, ending the match and Bob Backlund's six-year reign. Hulk Hogan would face off the Iron Shiek twenty-eight days later, with the WWF Championship on the line. Late in the match, The Iron Shiek would lock Hulk Hogan in the Camel Clutch. However, Hulk Hogan would power out of it, achieving what Bob Backlund couldn't do. One leg drop later, Hulk Hogan would pin the Iron Shiek to win the WWF Title, and just like that, Hulkamania was born.
Retirement and a Return in an Era of Change
After losing the title, Bob Backlund would quickly fade from the wrestling spotlight. Leaving the WWF in 1984, Bob Backlund would enter a state of almost semi-retirement, rarely appearing in any major shows. Things stayed that way until 1992, when Bob Backlund would make his "triumphant" return to the WWF. Unfortunately for Bob Backlund, this return would be anything but notable. You see, with the birth of Hulkamania in 1984, the WWF would grow rapidly. It would grow even bigger with what's called the "Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection", where the WWF would team up with huge stars such as Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T (who would even headline the first WrestleMania, teaming up with who else but Hulk Hogan). This new era featured larger-than-life personalities who had the look of real-life superheroes. Bob Backlund, who, again remember was never a showman, didn't fit in at all with this new era. Worse still, as the last pre-expansion champion and one who disappeared right after losing the title, many fans didn't even know who he was! This early run saw few notable moments for the former champ. One highlight was him lasting sixty-one minutes in the 1993 Royal Rumble, but this was followed up by an extreme lowlight when Bob Backlund made his WrestleMania debut taking on "The Bad Guy" Razor Ramon at WrestleMania IX. This match would show just how far Bob Backlund had fallen in the promotion's eyes, lasting less than four minutes and only being used so Razor Ramon could get a "big" win over an "established" star.
Bob Backlund's fortunes would change, however, on the July 30th edition of WWF Superstars, where, after challenging Bret "The Hitman" Hart to a title match, Bob Backlund would get his match. Dubbed as a special "new school versus old school" match, this match would pit the star of a forgotten era versus one of the symbols of what color commentator Vince McMahon had dubbed "the New Generation".
In their place, a New Generation of stars had taken hold in the WWF. Smaller and generally more athletic than their Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection counterparts, many of them had played parts in the Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection 80s WWF but were now blossoming into full-blown superstars. There was The Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michales, a brash, arrogant showboater generally thought to be one of the greatest to ever lace a pair of boots. There was the New Generation's foreign heel, Yokozuna, a mammoth 500-600 pound Japanese former sumo wrestler… or so they would say. In reality, he was actually a Samoan, and, in fact, was a member of the Anoa'i family, the same family Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Roman Reigns belong to. This monster heel, by 1994, was already a two-time WWF Champion and could, in fact, claim responsibility for ending Hulkamania after destroying Hulk Hogan at the 1993 King of the Ring to claim the WWF Title. You also had Big Daddy Cool Diesel, billed at 7 seven feet tall. Diesel had originally been the bodyguard to Shawn Michales, but his charisma and towering menace quickly shot him near the top of the card. Finally, you had the crown jewel of the New Generation, the current WWF Champion when Backlund was returning, Bret "The Hitman" Hart. Originally, Bret Hart was in a tag team with his brother-in-law, Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart, with their team being called the Hart Foundation (often considered one of the greatest tag teams in WWF history). Bret Hart broke out as a singles star, becoming the top babyface of the New Generation. Dubbing himself the "best there is and the best there was," Bret Hart truly lived up to the moniker. Considered one of the greatest technical wrestlers of all time, Bret Hart wowed the fans with his awesome technical skills and flashy style. In many ways, Bret Hart was almost like a 90s Bob Backlund, being a fantastic wrestler even if he wasn't really able to get his personality across.
The build-up to this match is pretty solid. It's all about how Bob Backlund, who had held the title for nearly six years, saw his title as one he lost even though he was never pinned nor did he submit. In other words, though he accepted it happened, he didn't think he should have lost the title, because it was his manager who threw in the towel! Then, despite his long reign, he never even got a rematch for said title. This is a Bob Backlund who for ten years has been waiting for his shot to reclaim his glory! Now, finally, he has a chance, just one chance, to reclaim the championship he so proudly wore! By the way, the part about not getting a rematch isn't actually true. It was just fluff to promote the match with Hart. Bob Backlund actually had several untelevised house show matches against the Iron Sheik, all of which ended in either count-outs or disqualifications. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
The commentary team of Jerry "The King" Lawler and Jim Ross do a great job of selling the desperation of Bob Backlund, selling that this is his one chance to reclaim the title. The match itself is fantastic, but what else do you expect when you put two master technicians in the ring together? Bob Backlund starts the match hyper aggressively, executing multiple takedowns-into-pinning combinations, flustering Bret Hart, who, if heel commentator Jerry Lawler is to be trusted (and trust me, he's not), underestimated Bob Backlund. Bret Hart would take the advantage, using a number of submission maneuvers to wear down the stamina of the aged Bob Backlund (Backlund was a comparatively old 45 at the time). A hard-hitting grappling affair full of counters and submission holds ensues. Near the end of the match, Bob Backlund would roll Bret Hart into an inside cradle, with Bret Hart kicking out just before the count of three. Bob Backlund celebrates, thinking he has won before realizing the referee said Hart kicked out. Bob Backlund attempts to pounce on Bret Hart, knowing he has the advantage, but Bret Hart rolls Bob Backlund into his own inside cradle. The referee then counts to three, and Bob Backlund fails to kick out. Bob Backlund's ten-year quest to regain the WWF Championship has ended in failure.
Enraged, Bob Backlund pleads his case to the referee, insisting that Bret Hart did not kick out before the three count was finished, but the referee refuses to hear it. What happens after the match is honestly beautifully executed. It starts with Bob Backlund, enraged over his loss, walking around the ring, hearing the fans cheer for Bret Hart and growing more and more frustrated over their cheers for him. Then, despite his anger, despite his frustration, despite feeling he was cheated, Bob Backlund, ever the sportsman, offers Bret Hart a handshake. Bret Hart, having been through a gauntlet, shakes the hand of his opponent before raising a reluctant Bob Backlund's hand in victory. Bret Hart then poses with the title belt on the turnbuckles as the crowd showers him in cheers while a distraught Bob Backlund looks on. Bob Backlund goes to leave the ring when Bret Hart offers him another handshake. At this point, Bob Backlund can take no more. How dare this man mock him? A man he knows he can beat! A man he did beat!
Enraged, Bob Backlund snaps, slapping the champion Hart before locking him in the dreaded Crossface Chicken Wing. Officials pour out from the back, trying to get Bob Backlund to release the hold as Bob Backlund screams madly. Finally, Bob Backlund breaks the hold, staring at his hands in horror.
A New Bob Backlund Steps Into the Ring
On the following Raw, taking place on August 1st, 1994, Bob Backlund would appear on the King's Court segment with Jerry "The King" Lawler. Here, Bob Backlund would show a few different personality changes. First, note that, before his match with Bret Hart, Bob Backlund acknowledged his championship loss and said he understood his manager throwing in the towel even if he disagreed with it. Now, Bob Backlund, egged on by Jerry Lawler dripping poison in his ears, claims that, because he never submitted and he was never pinned, he is still the WWF Champion! More importantly, while before he had stated that Bret Hart was a worthy champion and a good man, Bob Backlund now considered Bret Hart and the people he represented to be part of a lazy, soft generation. While he had spent his life trying to help people, he was very disappointed in how the fans had changed. This new generation, according to the new Backlund, lacks discipline and the will to work hard enough to accomplish what they want.
This promo would see Bob Backlund's character take a remarkable shift. Whereas before Bob Backlund was the generic howdy doody All-American boy, great in the ring but terrible on the mic, now Bob Backlund was a bitter and crazed boomer angered by the people abandoning him and tired of how the new generation acted. He's now out to reclaim the championship that was stolen from him and, more importantly, to beat some respect into this so-called New Generation.
What's more is that Bob Backlund, a man who couldn't cut a promo to save his life as a babyface, finally finds his voice in this new role. As the out of touch boomer here to take on the New Generation, Bob Backlund's charisma finally comes through. His promo style is wildfire and articulate. He commonly uses "big" words… even if their use is dubious, such as claiming the championship belt was "procured" from him in 1982 or referring to the fans as "plebians". One line that really sticks out to me is from a promo on the October 29th edition of Superstars, where Bob says:
You know I'm a very benevolent, convivial, and gregarious individual.
Not only was the use of big words perfect for this angered, out-of-touch old guy gimmick, but his promos could be explosive. The way he would go from the stern elder statesman instructor to a wild man just yelling about the evils of the New Generation, about how he has never sworn, how he has raised his kids, and how he's never taken drugs, it's spectacularly done. It's honestly incredible how much he changes in this new role, how a guy who was probably one the worst promos to ever hold a major championship is suddenly one of the best promos in the company, cutting these fiery and insane, but still somewhat rational, promos. Here's a great example of his new promo style from the October 17th edition of Raw.
Everything about the way Bob Backlund presents himself is just so different from how the wrestlers in the 90s were presenting themselves. For example, Bob Backlund now demands to only be referred to as "Mr. Backlund". Mr. Backlund also comes to the ring with no entrance music, as was the style at the time he held the WWF Championship. He also eschews the flashier unique wrestling gear of wrestlers such as Shawm Michales, Bret Hart, or Diesel. Instead, Mr. Backlund wrestles only in simple wrestling tights and boots. Finally, before every match, Mr. Backlund begins every match by attempting to shake his opponent's hand, a twisted form of sportsmanship that is rejected every time by his opponents, much to his anger.
Now, here's the thing. Outside of the "Mr. Backlund" thing. Mr. Backlund was already doing everything on this list, but when he was a babyface, having no entrance music, simple attire, and handshaking thing made him come off as a generic babyface. He was someone who the fans could clearly see wasn't going anywhere in the current business. As a heel, and more importantly as this old boomer heel out to teach this newfangled generation some respect, these habits sell the character completely, making him stand out as that throwback figure that just can't get with the new generation. It's honestly perfect for his character that he would ignore all these attention-grabbing gestures and instead continue to do things the "right" way. Another great thing that really helps him stand out and that really plays to his character is the fact that, when he does interview segments, he doesn't wear his wrestling outfit. He's not wearing anything flashy like Bret Hart or Shawn Michales; he's wearing a suit and bowtie because he's a respectable man out to bring respect to a disrespectful generation.
Mr. Backlund's wrestling style is very unique for the time. It's a very old school shooter style. He emphasizes takedowns and submission holds. He's still doing the same amateur-style wrestling moves that he did in the 70s. It's the same style that people turned on in the 80s and the same style that wasn't really getting him anywhere in the early 90s, but now, as a heel, it totally works. It totally fits this out-of-touch character he's playing. For him, this is the way wrestling should be, and, dammit, he's going to show all these youngins how things are supposed to be.
In the ring, he's hilarious. He's such a crazy goofball. He is constantly doing things like yelling "WOAAAAH" whenever he takes a move. Then, when he hits something as simple as an arm drag, he's celebrating like he has just hit the greatest move of all time. It's something that could easily have gotten him relegated to a comedy character, but it just fits so well with this crazed character he's doing. Because, yes, he's eccentric and a madman, but he's also built up as a legitimately-skilled professional wrestler who is genuinely dangerous in the ring, so it doesn't kill his character to be constantly doing all these goofy things. If anything, it enhances the fact that he's supposed to be this crazy-yet-dangerous wrestler.
The way they put over Mr. Backlund's finishing move, the dreaded Crossface Chickenwing, is brilliant. First, let's talk about what the Crossface Chickenwing is. The Crossface Chickenwing is a submission move where you first bend your opponent's arm behind his back like a chicken wing. Then, you use your free arm to choke them out by putting your arm under their neck like a sleeper hold. It's a legitimately painful-looking hold, with it both stretching your arm and choking you out. Billed by Mr. Backlund as the hold that cannot be broken, the various WWF shows constantly build up how, once it's locked in, nobody can break the hold. Commentators constantly bring up how the hold cannot be broken. With the babyface commentators, while you hear them express skepticism that the hold is truly unbreakable, you also hear them admit nobody has broken the hold, while the heel commentators gleefully talk about how the only way out is if Mr. Backlund is gracious enough to let you out.
Mr. Backlund, in a number of promos, even promises to retire if anybody breaks the hold, which always draws great cheers from the crowd. And, guess what? Nobody breaks the hold! Once Mr. Backlund turns heel, nobody breaks it. It's exactly how you're supposed to get a move over, because, as soon as he locks it in, it's over. The opponent always submits, most of them immediately. Mr. Backlund does a couple things that make the move even more impressive looking. First, because Mr. Backlund is a legitimately strong man, whenever he locks it into a smaller wrestler or non-wrestler, he swings them around wildly like a wild animal, really putting over how much he's throttling them. Second, Mr. Backlund incorporates a leg scissors portion to the move where he brings the opponent to the ground and wraps his legs around them, adding a new element of pain to the move.
But what really sells the move is how Mr. Backlund presents the process of locking it in. Whenever he's about to put it on, he starts getting these maniacal looks, sidestepping around the ring with his arms held out as if he's stalking his prey. Then, once he locks in the hold, he just starts screaming madly as he applies more and more pressure to his helpless foes. Then he never lets go of the hold; instead, he keeps throttling his opponents, sometimes causing officials to pour out from the back to get him to break the hold. After he's done, he always stares at his hands in satisfaction in what he's done. One of my favorite examples of this is in a segment on the September 19 edition of Raw, where he does a demonstration of the hold on WWF Magazine writer Lou Gianfriddo. Now, it's important to note that Mr. Gianfriddo was a legit writer for the magazine, and he is portrayed as somebody who not only wrote about Mr. Backlund for years, but was also a friend of his. So unlike this damn New Generation, Mr. Backlund has no reason to dislike him. Despite this, Mr. Backlund still locks in the move fully, despite Lou's pleas to take it easy.
He snaps and starts swinging him around madly as Lou screams in pain. All hell breaks loose as Mr. Backlund refuses to break the hold, screaming wildly as officials pour out, trying to break the hold along with Vince McMahon, who had been conducting an interview with Mr. Backlund prior to the demonstration. But Mr. Backlund refuses to break the hold and, finally, color commentator Macho Man Randy Savage, who had retired from wrestling and was barred from competing by WWF President Jack Tunney, can take no more. Declaring "to hell with Tunney," he dives into the ring to forcibly break the hold.
The hold was so well-sold as this unbreakable, extremely painful hold that, on the Go Home episode of Raw before the big throw-in-the-towel Survivor Series match between Bret Hart and Mr. Backlund, the WWF did a phone poll to see what move the fans thought hurt more, and the Crossface Chickenwing won with 79% of the vote!
The character work of Mr. Backlund is fantastic. Not only are his promos fantastic, but he just so seamlessly goes from an old man lecturing today's youth to a madman screaming. The fans fucking hate him! They want nothing more than for somebody - hopefully Bret Hart - to beat this man's ass. They're constantly chanting things like "hazbin" and "we want Bret" during his matches. Probably one of the best segments they do comes when they actually have Arnold Skaaland appear for an interview to explain why he threw the towel in on Mr. Backlund. It's pretty much what you'd expect. He threw in the towel to protect Mr. Backlund from a potential career-ending injury at the hands of the Iron Sheik. Hearing this slander, Mr. Backlund marches into the ring and launches into this amazing promo during which I'm pretty sure he compares being locked in the Iron Shiek's Camel Clutch to the following things:
- Being inside a hurricane
- Being inside a tornado
- Being in a plane crash
I want to give a quick shoutout to heel commentator Jerry Lawler, who really helps make this segment. Every time Mr. Backlund lists one of those things, he just goes "Yeah!". It's amazing. Arnold then "apologizes" and, by that, I mean he tells him "if that's the way you feel, I'm really sorry". That's not really an apology! That's a non-apology, Arnold, ya son of a bitch! He goes to shake Mr. Backlund's hand, but Mr. Backlund is having none of it, so Arnold goes to leave and Mr. Backlund snaps, attacking him and locking him in the Crossface Chickenwing.
From here onwards, he would also start coming to the ring wearing a robe, and, around his neck, the same towel that his traitorous manager Arnold Skaaland threw into the ring all those years ago. Which, again, A+ character work. This also leads to the next week on Raw, with Mr. Backlund cutting probably his wildest promo of this run, a promo that everybody should watch.
Mr. Backlund also starts just assaulting people after their matches, locking them in the Chickenwing and taking them out of action. A great one of these happens on an episode of Superstars. Duke "The Dumpster" Drose defeats some fuck-off jobber. Well, Mr. Backlund locks him in the Crossface Chickenwing, then, when Duke makes him break the hold and checks on the poor jobber, Mr. Backlund attacks Duke and locks him in the Chickenwing!
Unfortunately, the televised matches aren't great. That's not really Mr. Backlund's fault. That's just kind of how the televised shows were at the time. You see, nowadays if you watch, say Monday Night Raw, you'll see a lot of main eventers wrestle each other. But at this point in time, you almost never see that. Instead, it's a lot of squash matches featuring top stars taking on no-name jobbers, or, if they take on somebody that's established, it'll be a lower-card superstar. For instance, the very first match in Monday Night Raw history was the monster heel Yokozuna taking on the popular an established babyface jobber Koko B. Ware. Instead of having big stars facing off on television, the idea was big matches were for house shows pay per view shows so people would have to pay to see them. As a result, usually on any given show, you'll only see one match that features people of equal level, and that's typically an upper midcard guy. The good news is that Mr. Backlund doesn't lose a match between losing to Bret Hart and Survivor Series, and he does pick up some really solid wins. He beats Bob "Spark Plug" Holly in a pretty solid match. He beats the 1-2-3 Kid, one of the more established upper midcard wrestlers in a match (one I was really looking forward to but could not watch because that episode of Raw got, like, corrupted, so that match does not appear on the Peacock version of Raw).
He even defeats probably the number-two babyface in the company, Lex Luger, via the Crossface Chickenwing. Now, granted, he only locks the hold thanks to a distraction from the Native American Tatanka, but it's a big win and shows how far the WWF was taking him.
A Rematch with Bret Hart Realized
Finally, though, Mr. Backlund gets his rematch signed for Survivor Series. Originally it gets booked as a standard match, but Mr. Backlund gets it changed to a special throw-in-the-towel submission match where each person will have a cornerman and the only way to win is to have your opponent's cornerman throw in the towel. The build-up to this match is great, because, not only is Mr. Backlund just full-on madman in the ring, constantly taking people out with submission moves, but you get this great segment on the November 14th edition of Raw where, after defeating the 1-2-3 Kid and refusing to break the Chickenwing, an enraged Bret Hart comes out to make him break the hold. A scuffle between the two breaks out and, once again, officials are on the scene to prevent anything from happening. In all the chaos, however, Mr. Backlund gets behind Bret and locks in the Chickenwing… but then he just lets him go. Having shown that he can lock the Chickenwing, Mr. Backlund gets on the mic and basically tells him that was just a taste of what's going to happen to him at Survivor Series, claiming that, at Survivor Series, the only way he's going to break the hold is when Bret's cornerman throws in the towel. He goes to leave, but then Bret attacks him and locks in the Sharpshooter before getting on the mic and telling him the same.
They even manage to include some of the Hart Family Feud storyline that has been going on into this story. For his cornerman, Bret chooses his brother-in-law, Davey Boy Smith, the British Bulldog. But for his cornerman, Mr. Backlund enlists the King of Harts, Owen Hart, Bret's younger brother who, since the 1993 Royal Rumble, has been out to prove that he's the best of the Harts. Defeating Bret Hart in the opening match at Wrestlemania X, but losing to him in a Steel Cage match for the WWF Title at SummerSlam 1994 in a five-star classic match, Owen has good reason to want to show up Bret here.
Everything about this storyline is amazing. They're constantly showing you footage of Mr. Backlund's loss to the Iron Sheik. Heel commentators are constantly dismissing that loss and claiming that Mr. Backlund should still be the champion, while the babyface commentators express sympathy for his claims but horror in light of his actions. It's really amazing that they managed to make such a heel star out of a guy that, four months prior, nobody cared at all about. Before, he was a lower-level midcarder at best, getting vaguely positive babyface reactions entirely because he was the babyface, and now he was a top heel in a WWF pay per view title match where everybody wanted to see Bret Hart beat this old, out-of-touch, and crazy man. They all wanted to see Bret Hart force Owen to throw in the towel and finally put Mr. Backlund in his place.
Finally, Survivor Series happens, and Mr. Backlund and Bret Hart face off in the one-of-a-kind special throw-in-the-towel submission match, a match that I don't think has been done since. This match lasts a long time, over 36 minutes, which could have been a disaster. You see, submission moves aren't exactly flashy, and a lot of them are used as rest holds. For those who don't know, a rest hold is where you would put your opponent in, say, an arm bar so you could catch your breath. Since they aren't flashy, with a submission match, you have the chance of losing the audience, because you can't get the dramatic near falls you can get after big moves like you can in a regular match. You also stand the risk of losing the audience through boredom, because most holds aren't particularly exciting to look at since they mostly consist of just a guy putting pressure on their opponent's body parts. But I'll give them this. They manage to keep the crowd invested the entire time. The crowd is constantly cheering on Bret Hart, and at any moment Mr. Backlund locks on a hold, they cheer Bret on and cheer for him to escape.
The match has some really good spots. The first spot of the match is great. Mr. Backlund charges at Bret Hart before the match (because he's a dick), but Bret Hart catches him and slams him down, with the audience exploding into cheers. One particular favorite of mine is one that happens early on in the match. Bret Hart manages to counter a move from Mr. Backlund and ends up on top of him in a pinning formation. He holds the formation, expecting the referee to count, but, of course, there aren't any pinfalls in this throw-in-the-towel match. We even get one of my all-time favorite spots. Bret Hart locks in the figure-four leg lock and, as everybody knows, the only way out of that hold is to flip your opponent over, thus reversing the pressure. Mr. Backlund, screaming with pain, struggles to do so as Owen Hart refuses to do so. Finally, Mr. Backlund gets that wild look in his eye and snaps before successfully reversing the pressure. Sadly, the spot ends with something that I think is confusing. Bret Hart re-reverses the pressure, and Mr. Backlund gets to the ropes, forcing Bret Hart to break the hold. But… like… Why would there be rope breaks? And why didn't Bret just keep the hold locked in? After all, it's not like there are DQs in this match!
It's not really a back-and-forth match, though. I would say, outside of the ending, Bret Hart takes between 65-70% of the match. It's a lot of him locking Mr. Backlund in various submission holds and countering Mr. Backlund's attempts at the Crossface Chickenwing, which is something that Mr. Backlund goes for a lot in this match. He constantly attempts to lock in the Crossface Chickenwing, the hold that cannot be broken. Bret Hart also attempts to lock in his Sharpshooter multiple times, but Mr. Backlund keeps fighting out of it. It's a really good technical match and the commentary really sells the match, talking about, for instance, how, while Bret Hart might know more submission moves than Mr. Backlund, Mr. Backlund might be in better physical shape than Bret Hart.
The ending of the match is great if not a little illogical. Bret Hart begins to lock in the Sharpshooter, causing Owen Hart to hit the ring. Again, since it's a throw-in-the-towel match, there aren't DQs. This causes the British Bulldog to hit the ring to prevent Owen from interfering. The British Bulldog chases Owen Hart out of the ring, and the two run around the ringside. Owen Hart enters the ring, with the British Bulldog giving chase. For some reason, the ref stops the British Bulldog, and, with the ref distracted, Owen Hart breaks the hold, hitting a bulldog on Bret Hart. Owen Hart then celebrates outside the ring, only for the British Bulldog to lunge at him. Owen Hart, however, dodges him, and the British Bulldog crashes into the steel steps headfirst, knocking himself out. Owen Hart, who until this point had been a total slimeball, shows concern for his brother-in-law, realizing his actions could have seriously injured him. Then Owen Hart accidentally distracts Bret Hart, allowing Mr. Backlund to lock in the Crossface Chickenwing.
Bret Hart fights and fights, but he can't break the hold, and Mr. Backlund brings him to the ground with the hold fully locked in. It's here that Owen Hart, who until now had hated Bret Hart more than anything, realizes the harm that he's done. With no cornerman, there is nobody to throw in the towel, and Bret Hart refuses to quit (which apparently is another way you can lose this match?). Owen goes to ringside and implores his parents, Stu Hart and Martha Hart, to throw in the towel, to save his brother from his own pride, to save his brother from serious injury from the hands of that madman Mr. Backlund.
For eight and a half minutes, Mr. Backlund has the hold locked, tearing the arm of Bret while also cracking the neck of the champion. I will say that the fact that Bret Hart is in this move for eight half minutes is a really weird decision. Like, this move is supposed to be this super dangerous move, but how dangerous could it be if Bret Hart can withstand it for over eight minutes? But I will say this, from a selling and psychology standpoint it's a masterclass by Bret Hart. There's a reason Bret Hart is considered one of the greatest in ring wrestlers of all time, and it's spots like this that really show how good he is. Because the fact of the matter is you would never consider something like this with anybody else. An eight minute submission spot? Are you mad? The crowd will be rioting from boredom! But here, Bret Hart shows why he was styled the Best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be. Because throughout this entire spot, he never loses the crowd. The crowd, throughout this entire 8 minutes, believes their hero Bret Hart can get out of the Crossface Chicken Wing, the hold from which there is no escape. The progression for how this spot goes is just fantastic. It starts off with Mr. Backlund locking in the hold, with Bret Hart desperately trying to get to hold onto the ropes but Mr. Backlund pulls him off of them. Then it's Mr. Backlund trying to lock in the leg scissors, but every time he goes for it, Bret Hart manages to not counter the move, but prevent Mr. Backlund from locking in the scissors. Finally though, the pressure and the pain from the Crossface Chickenwing brings Bret Hart to his knees and Mr. Backlund pounces on him, using the move to take him to the mat. But Bret Hart still fights, rolling and kicking as he desperately attempts to prevent Mr. Backlund from locking in the leg scissors. Bret Hart fights and fights and he manages to fight his way back on to his feet. This is closest anyone's come to breaking the Crossface Chickenwing. The crowd goes unglued, they desperately want Bret Hart to break out of this hold. But just as the crowd gets that little bit of hope, Mr. Backlund snatches it away. As quickly as Bret Hart gets to his feet, Mr. Backlund has taken him back to the mat. Only this time, try as Bret Hart might fight, Mr. Backlund locks the legs and the Crossface Chickenwing, the hold from which there is no escape, is fully locked. As much as I praise Bret Hart for how he keeps the crowd invested, you have to praise Mr. Backlund just as much. A lot of times a babyface is only as hot as the heel he or she faces, and the fact is Mr. Backlund has nuclear heat with the crowd. The crowd wants to see Bret Hart shut up Mr. Backlund they want to see him breakout of the Crossface Chickenwing. So as long as Bret Hart keeps fighting, the crowd is fully behind him.
Owen Hart is in tears, pleading for his parents to end this match and to save his brother from what could be a career ending injury. Stu Hart refuses, but, between the cries of Owen and the anguish of Bret Hart in the ring, Martha Hart can take no more. She steals the pink and black towel out of the hand of Bret Hart and throws it into the ring.
Owen is relieved that his brother has been saved from what could have been a crippling injury. EXCEPT IT WAS A TRICK! OWEN DIDN'T CARE ABOUT BRET! HE JUST WANTED BRET TO LOSE. Owen Hart celebrates as he runs to the back and cuts a great promo after the match about how he tricked his parents into ending their own son's title reign. The best line from this promo is Owen going "Bret, you're a loooooooooooser and I'm a king!"
That is not to say this moment isn't about Mr. Backlund, because it is about him as much, if not more, than it is about Owen Hart. Mr. Backlund celebrates in the ring like this is the greatest day of his life. He stares at his hands with glee, screaming in happiness. He then points at his stomach and makes the referee put the belt around his waist (as was the style of the 70s).
Mr. Backlund celebrates like he has just won the greatest babyface victory in the history of babyface wins, going from turnbuckle to turnbuckle, celebrating as the fans rain down boos (not that Mr. Backlund cares). The commentary really sells how horrible this is for the World Wrestling Federation, the recognition that this madman who hates the New Generation is now the champion of the World Wrestling Federation. Later in the night, after the Survivor Series match of team Guys and Glory vs the Million Dollar Team, we got our first word from the new champion, Mr. Backlund, who is being interviewed by Todd Pettengill. This is the best promo of the run, and everyone should watch it. In case you can't watch it for some reason, though, I took the liberty of transcribing it, because it's just that good.
Wait a minute. First of all, young man, it's Mr. Bob Backlund, and you're incorrect. I've been the champion since 1978. I never lost the championship. Tonight, I just regained the belt. And I beat the man that represents your society. I beat him so I could save you. I'm going to scrutinize you to the fullest. Pasteurize you, homogenize you, and synchronize you back into morality. You understand ladies and gentleman, IT'S SPORTS EDUCATION! I'M YOUR CHAMPIOOOOOOOOOOON! AND I'LL TAKE ON ANYBODY! Anybody at all, ladies and gentleman, in your generation! 'Cause I'm fighting for something that's more important than anything in this world. Is put morality back into your lives, and now your children have someone they can emulate after and try to catch up to. CAUSE I FEEL LIKE GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD.
Bob Backlund, Champion Once More
With the title returned to its rightful champion, this is the beginning of a great heel champion run, right? Like, Mr. Backlund, who is already hated, is going to hold this title. He's going to continue his reign of terror, cutting nonstop awesome promos and locking in the Chickenwing in his war on the New Generation. Well, sadly, that's not what happens. Instead, three days after Survivor Series, on an episode of Superstars, it's announced that Mr. Backlund would take on Diesel for the title at Madison Square Garden later that night. Mr. Backlund, as champion, cuts a promo on the show talking about bringing morality back into the people's lives while questioning what Diesel has done to earn a shot. He blames Diesel even getting a shot on the WWF bureaucracy. This is honestly probably his worst promo of this run. There are a lot of cuts and a lot of parts where they edit it to make it look like Mr. Backlund had forgotten what he was trying to say. It's crazy Mr. Backlund, but it's the bad type of crazy where it's really played for comedy and they make him out to be a senile man. Then, later that night, at the house show in Madison Square Garden, Mr. Backlund would drop the WWF championship to the newly-turned babyface Diesel in a match that lasted 8 seconds!
Yep, the match started, gave Mr. Backlund the Jackknife Powerbomb, and it was over! I just don't know why! First, the idea that you would build up this great heel, who the people hate and the people fear, only to have him drop the title at a house? Not even an episode of Monday Night Raw? It's preposterous! Mr. Backlund had won over the crowds as a heel! He was their top heel, and it's not that Survivor Series had done this terrible number where you go "oh god, we need to pivot our plans right now." No, that Survivor Series did really well! It did 254,000 buys compared to the previous year's 180,000 buys. In fact, if you look at all the pay per views, the Survivor Series had the best buyrate increase of any of them. So there was obviously a lot of interest in the Bret Hart-Mr. Backlund match. It's just, to me, such a wasted opportunity to do all this build-up to create this heel that's red hot, to make the people crave him getting his ass kicked, and then you waste his defeat on a show that's not even televised.
I don't even think it's this "great win" for Diesel. The guy starts his WWF title reign with a show that isn't televised. Yes, Madison Square Garden was always a huge thing for the WWF, and, yes, they would show replays, but, like, you're not getting that big moment with the big televised pop and celebration. You aren't getting that moment that Diesel takes down this hated heel and then all the babyfaces celebrate with him. Like, I'm a big fan of this run, but I'm not saying he should be so short-term a champion. I fully understand that you probably don't want to have your WrestleMania built around Mr. Backlund, but you had another pay per view and you had the Royal Rumble; you could have months of these great promos and have had Diesel win some sort of match to become the number one contender (instead, in storyline, Diesel is given the match because Bret Hart was hurt from the Survivor Series match). Then it would just be weeks of these great promos, because Mr. Backlund and Diesel cut some great promos on each other after Mr. Backlund loses to Diesel. I don't think Mr. Backlund losing in 8 seconds is a problem. In fact, I kind of think that's great. If they would have built up to where you're getting this great moment where Mr. Backlund finally gets what's coming to him at the Royal Rumble, or even if you do it a just a Monday Night Raw or Superstars, at least you could get the big celebration. instead, the title change just becomes sort of an afterthought.
I will say this, though. Mr. Backlund did everything in his power to sell the effects of the Jackknife Powerbomb, even climbing back to the locker room on his hands and knees to put over the devastation. I do think it's kind of ironic that Mr. Backlund, who is this throwback the older days of wrestling, ends up being a transitional champion of old, only being used to transport the title from a babyface to another babyface.
Ending on a Low Note
Mr. Backlund would never get a televised rematch with Diesel for the title. They would cut a few promos on each other and would wrestle on house shows, but I hear those matches are rotten. Which, that makes sense. Mr. Backlund was a real technical grappling kind of wrestler, whereas Diesel was more of a power wrestler and needed the babyface to bump around him, so they just didn't mesh well together. Instead, Mr. Backlund would transition back into a feud with Bret Hart, costing Bret Hart the title at the Royal Rumble, only for Bret Hart to cost him a chance at winning the rumble itself by assaulting him before he entered the ring.
The two would face off against each other in a special submissions-only "I Quit" match at Wrestlemania XI. This match sucks! So, first off, why are we doing another submission match? We already did one of those at Survivor Series, so why are we doing another? This I Quit is very different from what an I Quit Match would eventually become. Whereas I Quit matches would become famous for being violent affairs, like at the 2000 Royal Rumble where The Rock hit Mankind (Mick Foley) with a horrifying nine unprotected chairshots to the head, or at the 2005 Judgement Day I Quit match between John Cena and JBL, which would end with John Cena losing buckets of blood and beating JBL with a semi-truck exhaust pipe, this one isn't all that violent. No, in fact, this one is just submission moves, which, again, we have already seen happen!
This match is a far cry from the classics the two had put on earlier. First, it gets like no time, lasting less than 10 minutes, which is a far cry from the 14 minutes their match on Superstars got, and an even further cry from their Survivor Series encounter which got, I remind you, 36 minutes. For some reason, Roddy Piper, who is not part of this feud, by the way, is the special guest referee for this match, and he is awful! He turns the match into a joke because he keeps hotdogging for the camera, and, like whenever a move happens, he runs up to the competitor and is like "WHAT DO YA SAY?!". It's unbearably awful!
Even the ending of this match is bad, which is preposterous, because they set it up in such a way that should have been impossible to screw up. Bret Hart charges into the corner at Mr. Backlund, who gets out of the way, causing Bret Hart to ram into the steel turnbuckle shoulder-first. Mr. Backlund sees blood and he starts getting that psychotic look. He goes for the Crossface Chickenwing, the hold that cannot be broken, the hold that has brought so much terror to the WWF. He locks it in, but Bret Hart grabs the robes so Mr. Backlund can't fully lock it. Then Bret Hart gets out of the hold and he locks the hold on Mr. Backlund. The hold is fully locked in on Mr. Backlund as Bret Hart takes him to the ground. The hold that Bret Hart withstood for eight and and a half minutes at Survivor Series without giving up, Bret Hart is going to make Mr. Backlund say "I quit" to his own hold!
It's the perfect ending for this feud! BUT THAT'S NOT WHAT HAPPENS! Instead, Roddy Piper (who, by the way, asks if Mr. Backlund wants to quit like five times in the process of this hold being fully locked in) asks Mr. Backlund if he quits. Mr. Backlund screams gibberish, which Roddy Piper interprets as him quitting. WHY DIDN'T THEY JUST HAVE MR. BACKLUND SAY "I QUIT"!? You have the perfect ending to this feud! it is right there! Mr. Backlund quits to his own hold! And it's not like they've got these big plans for Mr. Backlund such that they need to make sure he looks strong in defeat! Trust me, they don't! There was no reason he couldn't have just lost this match outright!
The End of Bob Backlund
This would be the end of any kind of main event run by Mr. Backlund. After this loss, he would become a total comedy goof character, with him "running" for President. It's a real shame, because, yes, Mr. Backlund was always funny, with the way he would scream in the ring and a lot of his wild promo style being hilarious. But at the end of the day, he was still a serious character. He was somebody the fans truly bought into. Through that combination of hilarity and seriousness, he went from a basically forgotten nobody to the company's top heel, and they just threw it away.
This is one of my favorite runs of all time in general. The way Mr. Backlund transforms from the generic All-American boy to hated, out-of-touch boomer heel is incredible. The promo he cuts after his championship win at Survivor Series is one of my favorite promos of all time. It's a real shame that this run ended the way it did. It started with so much promise, starting off so strong and even seeing Mr. Backlund regain the WWF Championship, something unfathomable at the beginning of the year, and it's amazing for it. It's just a shame that something which starts so good just gets its legs cut out from under it as it reaches a climax, ending it prematurely when there was so much more it could have done.