Vince McMahon is renowned for the ruthlessness he displayed during the expansion of the WWF during the 80`s. Much of that was directed at other territories as he hoovered up all the brightest and best talents. However, it wasn’t solely reserved for opponents as Bob Backlund, a man that was champion under his late father, would find out.
Vince McMahon Sr envisioned a wrestler that was clean cut, wholesome and a virtual underdog who could win a big match when his back was against the wall. An “all American Boy” who would represent the World Wrestling Federation with class and dignity. McMahon Sr chose none other than a red haired amateur wrestler from the University of North Dakota State named Bob Backlund.
Not only did Backlund fit the vision of the elder McMahon to a tee, Vince McMahon Sr also knew that Backlund was a tough as nails ‘shooter.’ A wrestler that could go out and defend the WWF world title against opponents that might try to legitimately try and take on the champion. That was something to be fearful of back in the day. Bob Backlund and Vince Sr. would develop a Father and Son like bond through the years. Backlund would represent the WWF as world champion from 1978 to 1983.
1983 would be the key year in the career of Backlund as not only a champion but also as a top tier talent for the company. By this time, Vince Sr was ageing and sick and decided to sell his company to his son Vincent Kennedy McMahon. A move that would forever change the face of professional wrestling. The younger McMahon saw the entertainment part of the business more than he did the actual sport and began to transition the company into his own vision.
Part of McMahon’s vision was to take the company national and eat up all the smaller, much weaker territories across the country. The second part was getting the WWF title off of its mainstay champion Bob Backlund and put it on the more hip and charismatic wrestler named Hulk Hogan. Vince Jr. felt that a man like Backlund was not the type of wrestler he wanted at the top. He felt Backlund was part of the old guard in pro wrestling. Someone who could wrestle, but was not entertaining enough.
Hulk Hogan, on the other hand, was beginning to become red hot after his cameo in the movie ‘Rocky III.’ Vince Jr and Hulk made a handshake agreement that if he left the AWA and Japan then he would make him his champion. The problem was neither Backlund or Vince Sr. were ready for such a move to be be made. A closed door meeting was set up between Vince Jr, Hogan, Backlund and Vince Sr. about the title situation. According to Hogan, Bob Backlund didn’t feel Hogan was the proper wrestler to hold onto the world title. Vince Jr felt other wise and was committed to having Hogan become the new WWF champion.
Vince Sr. who by this time already sold the company to his son still had an influence over Vince Jr and the entire WWF. He said that he wanted Backlund to hold the title for another 6 months and then see what happens from there. Hogan was frustrated and said he made a deal with Vince Jr to become world champion and if the deal wasn’t honored, he would walk out and leave the company and return to Japan.
Vince Jr was staunch in his beliefs that Backlund was boring and Hulk Hogan was the future of the industry. After a few days McMahon Jr. convinced his dad that Hogan would get the title after all. Vince Jr. then approached Backlund with the idea of dying his trademarked red hair black and turn heel allowing Hogan to beat him for the championship. Backlund was scheduled to wrestle B. Brian Blair (a tag team partner and fellow babyface) on house show events in the northeast. This would set up fans to see Backlund’s darker side. An idea that was allegedly thrown around was Backlund would turn on Hogan and set up the feud.
The heel idea never came to fruition as Backlund felt it wasn’t who he really was. Bob felt like he was a real hero to kids…especially his daughter who he didn’t want her to see him as evil. So McMahon Jr. used the former Iranian Olympian known as the Iron Sheik to be the transitional champion between Backlund and Hogan.
An injury angle was set up where the Iron Sheik would injure Backlund by hitting him with a 20 plus pound Persian Club setting up and excuse for Backlund to lose the WWF title. On December 26, 1983, Backlund was to submit to the dreaded camel clutch due to his injuries but McMahon Jr. feeling that Backlund wouldn’t submit had the angle where Backlund’s manager Arnold Skaaland would throw in the towel forfeiting the match and awarding the belt to the Sheik.
With the title no longer in the possession of Backlund, the second phase of McMahon Jr’s. plan went into effect. At the television tapings in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Bob Backlund would go out to the ring against a member of the Wild Samoans and bring out Hogan as an equalizer. The idea was for Backlund, as a babyface, to endorse Hulk Hogan to all of Backlund’s fans as the next big thing in the WWF. Backlund was aginst the idea but Vince Sr. convinced him to do it. Only out of loyalty to Vince Sr. did Backlund endorse Hogan as the future of the WWF.
In January of 1984, Hulk Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik to become the new WWF champion and of course the rest is history. 4 months later, Vince McMahon Sr. passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 69. 3 months after McMahon Sr’s death, Bob Backlund left the company. Backlund would wrestle for a few places after his WWF departure, but focused his attention on his family and working installing Sheetrock and doing occasional speaking engagements.
Bob Backlund was thrown away like yesterday’s garbage during the beginning stages of Vince McMahon Jr’s national expansion. Ironically, he would return 8 years later during one of Vince Jr’s darkest points in the early 1990’s. This time agreeing to become the dreaded heel he was so opposed to 8 years prior.