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One of the finest technical wrestlers in WWE history, over 30 years since his original title reign came to an end, Backlund is still third all-time for most combined days as WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Known for his humble attitude and legendary conditioning, Backlund was arguably the biggest star in wrestling during the first half of the 1980s.
As an amateur wrestler Backlund achieved great success, winning the NCAA Division II National Championship at 190 lbs his junior year at North Dakota State University. As a senior he moved up to the heavyweight class and finished fifth nationally. Following his success on the mat, Backlund became another gifted amateur wrestler from Minnesota to enter professional wrestling, being trained by the famous Eddie Sharkey. Backlund began his career in the American Wrestling Association and his clean-cut good looks and amateur background immediately got him over with Mid-western fans as a likeable babyface.
In 1974 Backlund would balance working for the AWA with traveling into different National Wrestling Alliance territories to gain additional seasoning. He spent time in the Amarillo, TX territory working for Dory Funk Jr. and Terry Funk. In Amarillo Backlund clashed with the wild Terry Funk, and the mix of tight technical wrestling and physical brawling in their matches helped pop the territory. Backlund would defeat Terry Funk for the company's main championship, the NWA Western States Heavyweight Championship, before dropping the championship to Karl Von Steiger.
Backlund would also work in various promotions in the Southeast, including Georgia Championship Wrestling, were he teamed with Jerry Brisco and the two former amateur wrestlers became a big babyface tag team, eventually wrestling the tag team championships away from the villainous duo of Toru Tanaka and Dr. Fuji in October of 1975. In 1976 he traveled to Championship Wrestling from Florida when it was the top territory under the NWA umbrella. Once again he formed a top tag team, this time with Steve Keirn to defeat Bob Orton Jr. and Bob Roop. Later, Backlund would move to the St. Louis territory and engage in a feud with the legendary Harley Race, taking the NWA Missouri Heavyweight Championship from Race and holding the championship for seven months before dropping it to Jack Brisco at the end of 1976.
At the time St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick and World Wide Wrestling Federation owner Vincent J. McMahon had a good working relationship and McMahon was looking for a new, blue-collar babyface to build the company around. The colorful heel "Superstar" Billy Graham was the current world champion, but McMahon was a firm believer in the idea that his company needed to be built around a classic babyface that connected with his working class audience. After having Backlund work in St. Louis, Muchnick suggested that Backlund would make a good babyface for McMahon that he could build feuds around similar to the way McMahon booked Bruno Sammartino for years to great success.
Backlund debuted in the WWWF in early 1977 and quickly became a top contender for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship. His first challenge against Graham ended when he was defeated by count-out. His chase for the championship would continue, the re-match resulted in a double-count-out and then he won via count-out. In February of 1978, Backlund finally won the title, defeating Graham by pinfall. Backlund would retain the championship in a rematch, defeating Graham at a sold-out Madison Square Garden show in a Steel Cage match.
Backlund's run as champion would last over 2,000 days and just shy of six years. Backlund in a lot of ways was ahead of his time when it came to WWF World Heavyweight Champions. He is bookended by Graham and Hulk Hogan (well the Iron Sheik, but he was champion for only 28 days) two charismatic men with herculean physiques. While Backlund didn't have the charisma or the physique that the other two did, he more than made up for it with his terrific work ethic and great attitude. Revisionist history has Backlund occasionally labeled as a boring, milk-toast champion that nobody really cared about.
That of course is untrue, nobody holds the championship for five years and is boring the entire time. Backlund held arguably the top position in wrestling for half a decade because he was immensely talented and very popular. For four straight years, Backlund was the top draw in all of wrestling according to research conducted by The Wrestling Observer. In 1978 and 1983 he was the second biggest draw in the world. Some believe that those big gates that Backlund headlined was due to other wrestlers drawing, such as Mil Mascaras, who would appear from time to time for the WWF, but the fact remains that Backlund was one of the biggest draws of the last 50 years and that is an undisputable fact.
Backlund would become known the world over for having the best technical wrestling matches anywhere. Due to his amateur background and his superb conditioning, Backlund would routinely have terrific, long matches with a variety of different opponents. A big hallmark of Backlund's title reign was his clashes against other world champions. His first battle was against NWA World Heavyweight Champion and former foe Harley Race. Backlund and Race would meet on four different occasions, all ending in either count-outs, draws, or disqualifications, and all in front of sold-out audiences. Throughout his title reign he also met Ric Flair, Antonio Inoki and Billy Robinson, all in title unification matches, with the match against Robinson ending in a 63 minute curfew draw.
In addition to his clashes with other world champions, Backlund would wrestle various different stars in the Northeast. Similar to the way Sammartino was booked, numerous different big names would come into the territory and work feuds against Backlund, challenging for the world title. In 1978 Backlund would form a tag team with Peter Maivia and the two would challenge for the tag team titles. Maivia would turn on Backlund following a title match loss and attack Backlund. In the aftermath, Backlund shocked fans cutting a promo where he announced he would "kill that son of a b---h" in reference to Maivia. This was the debut of a new side of Backlund, showing that this humble farmboy could snap into a raving lunatic if he was pushed far enough. Backlund would defeat Maivia in another Steel Cage match in January of 1979.
Backlund would continue to be a dominant champion and top draw into the 1980s, turning back challenges from top names such as Greg Valentine, Bob Orton, Ivan Koloff and a young Hulk Hogan. A key feud for Backlund came against Pat Patterson, which led to a famous Alley Fight in 1981, a hardcore match that was the predecessor to later Street Fight matches in WWE. Another famous moment took place during a feud with Jimmy Snuka in 1982. After defeating Snuka in a Steel Cage match, Snuka beat Backlund down and scaled the top of the cage and attempted a diving splash onto Backlund, who moved out of the way.
Throughout his title reign Backlund would battle Sgt. Slaughter. In 1983, Slaughter brutally assaulted Backlund, whipping Backlund's back to the point that Backlund was convulsing on the mat with red welts on his back. The return match at Madison Square Garden saw Backlund steal Slaughter's whip and beatdown Slaughter as MSG came unglued.
By 1983 a changing of the guard was happening behind the scenes. Vincent K. McMahon had bought out the WWF from his father and was interested in implementing a new strategy to take the WWF national and roll-over the rest of the territories. In McMahon's mind Backlund was a relic from a bygone era, unlike Hogan who McMahon had tabbed as the flag-bearer for his wrestling empire. McMahon allegedly wanted Backlund to turn heel and feud with Hogan, but Backlund refused to turn on his fans, so McMahon had him drop the championship to The Iron Sheik in December of 1983. The Iron Sheik would then drop the title to Hogan and the launch of Hulkamania began.
Backlund would quickly fall out of favor in the new WWF, and he quietly left the company in August of 1984. Backlund worked in some of the fading territories following his departure from the WWF, before retiring. He resurfaced in Japan working for the worked-shoot promotion Union of Wrestling Forces International and feuded with company ace Nobuhiko Takada. Backlund would return to the WWF in 1992, eventually wrestling in the 1993 Royal Rumble that saw Backlund set the all-time Rumble record by lasting 61 minutes in the match. Backlund would appear at WrestleMania for the first time in his career, losing in a forgettable match to Razor Ramon.
Backlund's return to the WWF was interesting because Backlund had departed the company before WWF had expanded nationally and tremendously increased its fan base. Unless you were a long-term fan from the Northeast, you probably didn't remember Backlund and his humble attitude and basic wrestling style was largely outdated in the colorful and charismatic era of the 1990s.
Backlund's career would take off once more on an episode of WWF Superstars in July of 1994. Backlund was given a WWF World Heavyweight Championship match against current champion, Bret Hart. Hart, while blessed with more charisma and a more modern wrestling style than Backlund, was similar to Backlund as a gifted technical wrestler who was a tremendously popular babyface. The match ended when Backlund believed that he had defeated Hart on a near-fall, and while helping Hart to his feet, Hart reversed the maneuver and pinned Backlund. Following the loss Backlund snapped in a famous heel turn where he beat down Hart, locking him in his famed crossface chickenwing submission hold and screaming at the top of his lungs. When Backlund finally released the hold, he seemed to snap back into reality, and he stared at his own hands, like even he couldn't believe what he had done.
Backlund would evolve into one of the most memorable heels of the 1990s, turning himself into an old curmudgeon who was committed to teaching the new generation a lesson. He insisted on being called Mr. Backlund and would only sign autographs for fans that could name all the United States Presidents in chronological order. He eventually got another title shot and defeated Bret Hart when Bret's brother Owen threw in the towel for Hart when Hart was locked in the crossface chickenwing.
Backlund's second world title reign was short lived, as a he quickly dropped the championship to Diesel at a house show in Madison Square Garden. Backlund would continue to feud with Bret Hart, leading up to a match at WrestleMania XI where Hart defeated Backlund in an "I Quit" match. Backlund would then wrestle less and less for the WWF, easing himself into retirement and occasionally wrestling on the independents well into the new millennium.
Backlund was both a throwback and ahead of his time. As a champion he fell right in line with the territory stars of the day, like Jack Brisco and Dory Funk Jr., quiet and humble babyfaces who were excellent workers in the ring. While he was relegated to the background and cast off as a relic during the rise of Hulk Hogan, Backlund's style would come back into favor during the 1990s when Bret Hart became the biggest star in wrestling. In the new millennium, wrestlers like Chris Benoit and Daniel Bryan, while not the most colorful stars, would get over thanks to their technical brilliance and babyface attitude. Backlund was an all-time top draw and a terrific worker to boot, making him one of the greatest wrestlers to ever work for WWE.
Next week we reach the half-way point in the list with #25 being revealed, perhaps the most innovative wrestler in history and someone whose influence is apparent on every wrestling show today.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund