How does wrestling, or at least the WWF, treat its own? It's no babyface, that's for sure, as former WWF champ Bob Backlund can attest. Backlund is that rarest of creatures, a wrestler whose ring persona is his own. No combat fatigues. No bullwhips. No burnous. Backlund is a clean-cut all-American farm boy from Princeton, Minn., who loves children, hates drugs and actually uses words like "shucks." He is an excellent technical wrestler; he won the 1971 NCAA Division II 190-pound championship for North Dakota State. In dealing with fans and the press, he is courteous to a fault.
Backlund's just-plain-Bob image was tolerated by former WWF boss Vince McMahon Sr., who kept him as his champion from 1978 to '83. But by the time the elder McMahon died of cancer last spring and his son, Vince Jr., decided to push the WWF into the national big time, Backlund's days were numbered. "I was told I wasn't worth marketing," says the ex-champ. Backlund, who is said to bear a resemblance to Howdy Doody, was asked to dye his reddish hair black and turn into a heel, but he refused. "I try to be a good role model for the kids," he says. "That stuff is very important to me. I was told my morals were too high."
Backlund's fall began during a WWF-or-chestrated TV promotional spot in late 1983. He was in a test of strength with the Iron Sheik, in which both wrestlers were using the Sheik's "75-pound" Persian clubs. The Sheik clobbered him from behind, and Backlund supposedly suffered a hyperextended elbow.
The scene was absurdly staged, even by wrestling standards, but it gave a boost to an upcoming grudge match for the WWF title in which Backlund, hindered by his bad arm, was trapped in the Sheik's dreaded Camel Clutch. Backlund's manager threw in the towel, thus sparing Backlund the dishonor of quitting himself. One little thing: A title is supposed to be passed only on a pin or submission. That match ended with neither.
WWF officials said that Backlund would get a rematch, but it never came. Instead he found himself relegated to undercards. Last summer, finally convinced that he had been made to disappear in what amounted to a WWF monte game, the ex-champ left the circuit and returned to his home in Glastonbury, Conn. There he worked for a friend installing Sheetrock and talked to youth groups, under the auspices of a local heating oil company, about alcohol and drug abuse.
Last fall Backlund signed on with Pro Wrestling USA, which has allowed him to perform on his own bland terms, as the ultimate babyface. "I'm always going to be Bob Backlund," he says. "[Vince Jr.] and I have a strong difference of opinion. He wants to lower the standards of the business, and I just wasn't going to do that. I want my wife and daughter to be proud of me. I don't want them to be embarrassed because I've made a fool of myself on TV. I can't control what the whole business does, but I can control what Bob Backlund does."