During his five-decade career within the professional wrestling business, Bob Backlund carried the WWF on his broad shoulders as the All-American Boy from Minnesota who fought for the fans that made him. But during his second go-around, the All-American Boy shtick grew old, the fans turned on him, and the business he helped build became infested with people who felt he lasted one too many days in the spotlight.
But every morning that Backlund wakes up and lives to see another day, he only focuses on the positive side of life.
“I have a policy before I get out of bed, I convince myself that I’m going to have a positive mental attitude all day, and I never capitulate on that rule,” said Backlund with a Madison Square Garden-sized smile on his face.
Certainly, Backlund’s career-credentials as a wrestler, both amateur, and pro, are second-to-none. After winning a Division II NCAA championship in amateur wrestling for North Dakota State University in 1971, the clean-cut Backlund took his talents to the world of professional wrestling, where he would become one of the most legendary competitors – ever.
Bouncing around in the early stages of his career, Backlund eventually settled with the WWF in 1977, winning the WWF championship less than one-year later by defeating “Superstar” Billy Graham. The Princeton, Minnesota product would go on to hold that title for nearly six years, defending it against the biggest names in the WWF and around the world.
Now, 40+ years later, Backlund has put his experiences in print, authoring his new autobiography, Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling’s World Champion. Besides sharing wrestling stories, Backlund’s book is also a self-improvement novel, one he tried to base off a book that changed his life in the ‘1980s.
“In ’85, I read a book that helped me forget about the past and work on the future as far as success goes, and it was Napoleon Hill. And you’ll see things in this book that are similar to that and is in there because I want this book to do what that book did for me, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill,” said Backlund. “It pulled me out of a deep hole, I could have been going in a real negative direction, but that book pulled me out. It got me thinking about the future, and it made me forget about the past – not completely– but if you’re gonna go, you gotta go and you gotta go for something that’s gonna happen in the future.”
For those six years when Backlund reigned supreme, fans would come in droves to see him defend his championship. From Ken Patera to Ivan Koloff, Backlund defended his title against all comers. However, nearly six years in, the company chose to go in a different direction, and Backlund was out of wrestling as quickly as a competitor would submit to his Crossface Chickenwing finisher.’
Trying to stay ignorant to the political side of the business, Backlund never knew the reasons for a lot of things. He just wanted to go out to the ring, put on the best match possible, and return home to his wife and kids. That’s why his book features interviews with the likes of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Terry Funk and Vince McMahon, to get insight from people who were in tune with the political side of wrestling.
“I didn’t get into the politics of the wrestling business, they did. They knew things I didn’t have a clue about, most of the things that went on behind-the-scenes. I wasn’t interested in that, I was interested in training, going in the ring, having good matches, working hard every night and staying on the top. In the first part, it was my job to climb to the top and I had to do principles that would get me there because my life when I was in Junior High School and High School, the things that happened to made be a better person and made me the person that could climb above people who were in the business for 10-15 years, thinking it’s their turn.”
Backlund said: “Vince McMahon Sr. put me over those people because I was working harder for them, I was going the extra mile and I was doing some principles that make you stand out over everyone else.”
So when Backlund thinks about Napoleon Hill’s book and his current book, he sounds like a wise college professor in that he wants people to study and learn to maintain a positive mindset.
“I love the book, I love the story and I love what it could possible do for people. You can’t just read something once and then say ‘I’m gonna do that.’ You gotta study it, you gotta read it over, you gotta get into your head and change the way you think.”
Before selling out MSG or being the champion was thought in Backlund’s mind, he still had a lot to prove to his peers, fans, and promoters.
Prior to “The All-American Boy,” there was “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino, who was the biggest name in professional wrestling. The muscular Italian held the WWWF championship on two separate occasions, with both reigns combining to last over 11 years.
While Backlund admits that Sammartino was not a huge influence on him, he was honored to earn Sammartino’s respect after both men got to know one another.
“When I came to the WWF, I didn’t know him, I never watched him, I was out in Minnesota watching the AWA, I’d hardly hear of him. I met him, he met me and it took us nearly two years to get to know each other. We weren’t talking day-to-day but he found out what I was like and we have mutual respect that’s very high because we feel we’re similar in a lot of ways. It took him three years to decide ‘I’m glad Bob Backlund had the championship after me’ And I’m glad and proud that I got to get it after he had it because of the man he was.”
Both Sammartino and Backlund have been huge advocates for leading lifestyles becoming of a champion, lifestyles that do not involve drug use. That’s why when Hulk Hogan, the man who succeeded Backlund as the face of company replaced him, it didn’t sit well with him.
The WWF was mired in a steroid scandal in the 1990s, and Hogan was at the forefront. Also, in subsequent years, several accusations regarding his usage of drugs have put a damper on his image, including a 2011 article by Examiner. In Backlund’s view, Hogan took the easy way out.
“Hulk Hogan told your children not to take drugs and cocaine and eat your vitamins and minerals. He talked the talked, but he didn’t walk the walk,” said Backlund. “It was very embarrassing for me and Bruno Sammartino to have a man like that to replace us because we believed doing right was a very important element of a champion.”
Said Backlund: “We don’t hate Hulk Hogan, we didn’t like what he did, what he did to improve. He cheated in life and took drugs to get ahead, and it’s not that you hate a person you just don’t like the things he did.”
Perhaps the closest example in the modern era to Hogan is 15-time WWE champion, John Cena. Much like Hogan, who told kids to take their vitamins and say their prayers, Cena promotes a Never Give Up attitude and represents Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect.
In a way, the Cena of today shares certain qualities with the Backlund of years ago. Both men have clean-cut looks, both men advocate for a clean lifestyle and both men share the principles of Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect that Cena has worn on t-shirts for a decade.
But despite the qualities people see Cena exude on television, Backlund questions the authenticity of what’s presented on television versus what Cena is actually like.
“I’m not a fan of his, I see what he does on television, I don’t see what he does [off television]. Has he ever went to a hospital without a camera with him? I judge him on that he was a married man at one time, you say ’till death do you part.’ You honor that for the rest of your life, so I don’t know him well enough to tell you he walks the walk,” said Backlund.
Going by the mindset of judging people based on what you see, Backlund has a lot of praise for one man who is responsible for ushering him back into the WWE Universe. When Backlund left the WWE after his second extended run in 1997, he only made a handful of appearances for WWE, becoming a forgotten commodity who helped build the foundation of WWE.
So, in 2013, when WWE returned home to Madison Square Garden to host the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony, WWE COO Paul “Triple H” Levesque brokered a deal for Backlund to be inducted in the same venue he enjoyed a plethora of success’ during the ‘1970s and ‘1980s.
Since then, Backlund has progressively had more interaction with Levesque, forming a positive opinion on him in the process.
“He’s done everything he said he would with me since I met him. I can’t say he’s Vince McMahon Sr, but you can’t judge somebody in a years time span. You gotta do business with them for quite a while before you could really know that he is that person you’re hoping that he is. So far, I believe he’s a very good person and I know he’s a good family man.”
Putting aside Backlund’s legendary career inside the squared circle, his personal achievements, and various other ventures, a lot of people within wrestling have asked, what if?
What if Backlund turned heel during the height of his popularity in the late ’70s, early ’80s? After ruling the pro wrestling world as its ultimate good guy, turning his back on his roots and fans would’ve given Backlund’s career an entirely new dimension. New matches, new feuds and potentially made him a lot of money.
Instead, Backlund left the WWF for almost a decade and to this day, he harbors no regret toward that decision and is satisfied with it because he did right by the one thing he loves more than anything, being a family man.
“I’m a dad, I’m a family man, I believe family is the most important unit on the face of the earth. If anything is going to get fixed, family will do it,” said Backlund.
“I will be a role model, I wanna be a role model, and I will not cheat. And I don’t go home and beat my wife up.”
For audio of this interview, you can listen to it at this link.
[Images via WWE.com]