Robert Louis Backlund was born August 14, 1949 in Princeton, Minnesota. While attending junior college, Backlund was an All-American in both football and wrestling. He eventually became Division II NCAA champion amateur wrestler at North Dakota State University. He graduated from North Dakota State with a degree in physical education.
He received his professional wrestling training from the legendary Ray Sharkey who would go on to train other Minnesota greats like the late “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Tom Zenk, Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Sean “X-Pac” Waltman.
Backlund debuted in 1973 in Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA) as the All-American clean-cut baby face.
Within one year, Backlund started a tour of the various territories of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). When in the territory owned by the Funk Brothers, he defeated Terry Funk for the NWA Western States Heavyweight Championship.
In mid-1975, Backlund teamed with Gerry Brisco to capture the NWA Georgia Tag team Championships from Professor Toru Tanaka and the late Mr. Fuji. Backlund would soon depart for Florida Championship Wrestling and would capture the NWA Florida Tag team Championship with partner Steve “Doink the Clown” Kiern over Bob “Ace” Orton Jr. and Bob Roop.
Moving on to Missouri, Backlund defeated the legendary tough guy Harley Race to win the NWA Missouri heavyweight Championship, losing to the late Jack Brisco after a 7 month run.
In 1977, Backlund joined Vince McMahon Sr.’s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) managed by “The Golden Boy” Arnold Skaaland. He started a feud with the main heel on the roster, WWWF Heavyweight Champion “Superstar” Billy Graham. After a series of grueling shots at the gold, Backlund finally defeated Graham, causing an enraged Graham to destroy the belt after Backlund’s victory.
He would go on to face countless competitors, chocking up victory after victory such as Ivan Koloff, George “The Animal” Steele and Graham.
Unlike today’s wrestling, back in the 70’s there were many interpromotional matches. Thus, it was not unusual for Backlund to face AWA Champion Nick Bockwinkle or NWA Champion Harley Race, often going epic matches with 60-minute time limit draws.
He formed a tag team combination with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s grandfather, High Chief Peter Maivia only to have Maivia undergo a heel turn on Backlund. Backlund and Maivia then entered a long and intense feud, with Backlund ending up the victor in a steel cage match.
Backlund found further tag team success with partner Pedro Morales when they defeated the Wild Samoans for the WWWF Tag Team Championship. As Backlund was also Heavyweight Champion, the titles were stripped from the pair. Backlund would also team with the popular Antono Inoki where the two won a tag team tournament in Japan.
In 1980, Backlund defended his title against an up and comer that was drawing a lot of attention as a heel: Hulk Hogan. Hogan was never able to formally defeat Backlund nor was Ken Patera, the (now called) WWF Intercontinental Champion at the time.
In the early 1980’s Backlund feuded with the late Johnny Valentine’s son, Greg “The Hammer” valentine. Valentine did score a “victory” of sorts over Backlund, but because Backlund’s foot was on the rope at the time of the pinfall, Valentine was stripped of the belt and it was declared vacant. Backlund would later defeat Valentine to reclaim the title and feud with him in a steel cage match thereafter.
Backlund continued to be champion throughout 1982 – 1983 having feuds with a who’s who of 80’s wrestling heels: the late Big John Studd, the late Adrian Adonis and most notably, the late great “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka whom Backlund defeated in a steel cage encounter.
It was in 1983 when things took a drastic turn for Backlund. Vince McMahon Jr. had decided that Backlund had run his course and it was time to crown a new champion. McMahon had his eye on Hulk Hogan who by this time was a popular face. Having a face vs. face encounter was unheard of at the time and Backlund refused the offer for a heel turn. Hence, an intermediary heel champion was decided: The Iron Sheik.
Sheik would cut come memorable promos for his upcoming feud with Backlund, calling the champion “Howdy Doody” with his red crew cut and large ears. While displaying his skills at swinging the heavy Persian clubs, Sheik attacked Backlund and injured him in storyline. Thus, when the two face one another, Backlund had a “handicap” and Iron Sheik was able to gain a victory for the championship with the Camel Clutch when Backlund’s manager Skaaland threw in the towel.
Backlund never got a title shot after Hogan beat the Sheik and he faded into obscurity thereafter. He did appear in some independent promotions sporadically, but basically became largely forgotten in the minds of the current generation of WWF fans.
He returned to the WWF in 1992 but was largely unknown to the fans despite his impressive 61-minute duration in the Royal Rumble event. In 1994, he faced WWF Heavyweight Champion Bret Hart in a classic face vs. face scientific encounter. After Backlund lost, a brilliant new swerve started to take place; the goody two-shoes Backlund was going to turn heel. Backlund snapped after the match, becoming an enraged lunatic and trapping Hart into his “crossface chickenwing” submission hold.
Later, he snapped back to normal again and felt ashamed at what he had done. This was only the beginning of a series of “snaps” Backlund would undergo, often attacking his opponents in a highly aggressive brutal, unsportsman like fashion.
As his character evolved, the heel Backlund started wearing suits with bowties, screaming his promos and using fanciful words to prove his intellectual superiority. He only wanted to be referred to as “Mr. Backlund” and would only acknowledge fans if they could name all of the US presidents in order!
Backlund would continue to feud with Bret Hart in submission matches where the victor had to win by either the crossface chickenwing or Hart’s Sharpshooter. Backlund aligned himself with the late Owen Hart who was a heel foil to brother Bret at the time.
During the bout, Backlund caught Hart in the crossface while Owen went to parents Stu and Helen Hart who were observing at ringside. In a replication of history, Owen gave Helen a towel to throw in on Bret’s behalf. She did and Backlund became the WWF Heavyweight Champion for the second time in his career.
Despite his considerable in-ring skills, Backlund was too over-the-hill and eccentric for the new generation of WWF fans to relate to. As such, his second run was very brief as three days later he jobbed the title away to Kevin “Diesel” Nash in an embarrassing 8 seconds in Madison Square Garden at a house show.
After his loss, Backlund was not very involved with in-ring completion, however he did face Hart once again in an “I Quit” match at WrestleMania XI. Backlund was screaming incomprehensively during the Sharpshooter application and special referee the late “Rowdy” Roddy Piper wisely took this to be a reason to quit the match.
Backlund was then involved in a silly angle whereby the All-American announced his candidacy for the US presidency. The angle was dropped shortly after its inception and was not mentioned again. Ironically enough, Backlund really did run for a seat in Congress in Connect in 2000, but lost.
The heel Backlund reunited with his old rival the Iron Sheik and the two managed a dreadful wrestler called “The Sultan” (Rikishi under a mask) which went nowhere fast.
He cropped up as a losing entrant in the 2000 Royal Rumble and then managed fellow scientific wrestler Kurt Angle, but Angle soon fired him and placed him in his own crossface chickenwing hold.
In 2007, Backlund appeared in Dixie Carter’s Total Nonstop Action (TNA), again as a weirdo heel that was full of wholesome advice for the next generation. He was used as a judge in their Paparazzi Championship Series and participated in a couple of uneventful matches.
Thereafter, Backlund made sporadic, often goofy appearances in the WWE, putting Heath Slater in the crossface chickenwing and tried to canvass votes to be the special guest referee in the “Hell in a Cell” championship match of Daniel Bryan vs. Randy Orton which was eventually given to Shawn “HBK” Michaels.
In 2013, Backlund was inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame and became an official ambassador for the WWE in 2014.
At present, Backlund is still used in the WWE programming, now as the mentor for Darren Young. Backlund’s advice and encouragement has helped the youngster get out of a career slump and advance his status on the card.
Backlund is truly a living legend. He was WWE Heavyweight Champion for nearly 6 years in his first run. No one would ever have thought the clean-cut ultra-conservative poster boy for America would ever become a loose cannon heel, but Backlund pulled it off. He is regarded as one of the best technical wrestlers of all time and has certainly been the inspiration for many future generations of Superstars.
Special thanks to Dr. Stephen Balsky for contributing the above wrestler profile.
Dr. Stephen Balsky is a chiropractor currently in practice in his native Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He has been a wrestling fan since age 13 and is very passionate about the product, especially the “old-school” 80’s – 90’s era. He completed his Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree in 2015 and currently is also working part-time as a professor in both business and healthcare.