Friday, December 25, 1998
SLAM! Wrestling Guest Column
Before Bret there was Backlund
Bret "The Hitman" Hart. "The best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be." He's a man who for years was cheered by the fans. For years, fans clamored to see him, seeking his autographs, and buying his merchandise.
Both Hart and Bob Backlund are former WWF Heavyweight Champions, both holding the belt numerous times. Both had big fan followings, but, due to the lack of marketing and merchandising in the late 1970's and early 1980's, Backlund's character was never able to sell any merchandise.
What has happened to Bret Hart, in part, is similar to what happened to Bob Backlund.
In Hart's case, (and this may be attributed to the changing of Hart's character to a heel prior to his leaving the WWF) the fans seemed to get sick of Hart, his interviews and persona. This is not due to Hart's true personality, or professionalism, both of which are said to be exemplary. This has to do with "tiring" of a character, coupled with the changing attitudes of today's pro wrestling fans.
In 1978, Superstar Graham (Wayne Coleman) dropped the belt to a relative newcomer to the pro wrestling circles, Bob Backlund. Backlund, a Princeton, Minnesota, native, and former NCAA amateur wrestling champion, captured the title from Graham on a wintery Monday night, February 20, 1978, in New York's famed Madison Square Garden.
Upon his debut in the WWWF (now WWF), Backlund developed a huge fan base, which grew larger when he won the title from Graham. Backlund successfully defended the title against all comers, including memorable feuds with greats like Pat Patterson, "High Chief" Peter Maivia (yes, Rocky Maivia's grandfather), Olympic strongman Ken Patera, George Steele, Sgt. Slaughter and many others.
In all those years, except for a not-to-berecognized title loss to Antonio Inoki in Japan, Backlund retained the title in every defense, continuously over FIVE YEARS!
One night, after matches at Madison Square Garden, which was sold out with 22,000 people, Backlund stood on a sidewalk outside MSG, and gave autographs (at no charge) for thousands of fans. When was the last time you saw a wrestler do that?
Backlund had the popularity on his side, but not for long. When 1983 rolled around, things had changed. The WWF was being geared up by Vince McMahon for national expansion, and Backlund, who, despite having tremendous technical abilities, never had the greatest interview skills. McMahon, and the fans, it seemed, were looking for a change.
Along came Hulk Hogan, in his second run in the WWF. In his first run, he wrestled as a heel, having a memorable battle with the late Andre The Giant on August 9, 1980, before over 40,000 fans in New York's Shea Stadium.
The second time around, Hogan was a breath of fresh air for the stale WWF. McMahon wanted Backlund to turn heel after "losing" (in a controversial match where Backlund's manager Arnold "Golden Boy" Skaaland threw in the towel, costing Backlund the title) to Iron (Khoshrow Vaziri) Sheik, who, as a transition champion, lost the belt to Hulk Hogan the following month. Backlund refused to dye his hair black, change his character, and end up as a "bad guy" in a feud with the new "good guy super hero" Hulk Hogan. He felt it was important to "uphold his image" of a good-guy, a wholesome all-american boy. Backlund felt it was important to be a "hero" to the fans, especially the younger ones, refusing to let his established "good-guy" character die.
Does this sound familiar? Can you say B-R-E-T H-A-R-T?
Refusing to turn heel relegated Backlund to mid-to-low card status, and eventually, his departure from the WWF. In Hart's case, his departure form the WWF meant a $9-million-dollar salary from WCW. In Backlund's case, in those days, there were no major competitors, so Backlund wrestled for a few smaller promotions, and eventually retired to his home in Glastonbury, CT, getting involved in real estate and other projects.
Backlund eventually returned to the WWF in 1993 as a "good guy," but was unable to "get over" with the fans, and later, decided to do a heel-turn, which saw him gain some revenge from his original manager, Arnold Skaaland, and gained the WWF title, albeit for a short run, for another reign.
Both Backlund and Hart didn't want to turn heel or kill their characters, fearing not only a loss of popularity, but a "letting-down" of their fans.
Too many of today's younger fans are not aware that there was once a young man who stood up for principles, for wholesomeness, and believed in his fans. A man who had tremendous in-ring abilities, and a man who was loved by the fans.
That description more recently may have fit Bret Hart, but before their was Bret Hart, there was Bob Backlund.
Walter Mann is from North Haven, CT. He can be emailed at email@example.com