By Tom Leturgey
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
On Bob Backlund’s 70th birthday this past August, the former two-time WWWF (now WWE) World Champion performed 20 pull-ups with his legs perpendicular to the floor. When he told the story just months later, he had reduced the workload to only 15 repetitions.
That same mid-November morning, he did 150 “rolled wheel out” reps. Fans may immediately ask about Backlund’s famed “Harvard Step Test.” The fitness enthusiast has trimmed down that session from 60 to 30 minutes. “I feel better today than I ever had,” Backlund told the Current recently during a drive to his Connecticut home.
Backlund is looking forward to his return to the Steel City as the featured guest at the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance (KSWA) FanFest/Toy Drive at Spirit Hall on Saturday, December 7 in Lawrenceville. He’s already got permission from the promoter to stand on his head in the center of the ring, “split” his legs and perform flexibility moves that routinely brings crowds to a fevered tizzy.
Backlund remembers his first appearance in Pittsburgh as the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) World Heavyweight Champion. It was only a few months after winning the belt from “Superstar” Billy Graham on February 20, 1978. The newly-minted champion’s May 12, title defense was against the “Iron Greek” Spiros Arion at the Civic Arena. Backlund won that contest, albeit by count-out.
A native of Princeton, Minnesota, Backlund got his start in professional wrestling after college in the early 1970s. He traveled throughout the Midwest, before getting opportunities to hone his craft in Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Georgia and then St. Louis. It was in St. Louis where he caught the eye of promoters interested in finding their next World Heavyweight Champion.
By the mid-1970s, the northeast’s WWWF was searching for its next standard-bearer. As observers would tell fans, Bruno Sammartino was nearing the end of his historic second reign as WWWF champion and promoter Vince McMahon Sr. had his sights on Backlund. According to his autobiography, “Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling’s World Champion,” promoters all favored the former NCAA Champion wrestler’s poise, reliability and machine-like work ethic.
It was also helpful that Backlund, like Sammartino, lived a clean life and knew what was expected outside of the ring. “Bruno was the greatest wrestler ever,” said Backlund.
After winning the title, Backlund hit the ground running in the Northeast. As records attest, Backlund was defending against top contenders like Ken Patera, Professor Toru Tanaka, and former WWWF Champion Stan Stasiak, practically every single day. The night after defeating Arion in Pittsburgh, Backlund bested “Crazy” Luke Graham in Altoona.
The year 1979 was much busier for Backlund in Pittsburgh. The champion first arrived at the Civic Arena on Friday, February 16 to take on Peter Maivia (the grandfather of Dwane “The Rock” Johnson). According to Wrestledata.com, the match ended in a count-out loss for Backlund at the 23-minute mark. That year, the master of the “Cross-face Chickenwing” wrestled in Pittsburgh about every other month, oftentimes with Sammartino also on the card. “When I first got to the WWWF, Bruno and I didn’t know each other,” Backlund adds.
Always humble, Backlund confirmed stories that when he came to Pittsburgh to defend the World Championship, he paid to park in the lot outside of the Civic Arena and walked alongside fans, instead of finding priority accommodations. And there was this, “I once stayed out until five in the morning outside Madison Square Garden signing autographs,” Backlund said with a chuckle. “Pat Patterson told me not to do that. I did it anyway.”
On December 6, 1983 Backlund had his final WWF title defense in Pittsburgh at the Civic Arena against frequent-challenger the Masked Superstar (Brownsville, PA native Bill Eadie), where the challenger won by count-out. Backlund spoke highly of Eadie, who would later become a two-time WWF tag team champion as half of Demolition.
Ten days after that defense against Eadie, Backlund lost the championship to the Iron Sheik at Madison Square Garden. The ending of the championship was controversial as Backlund’s manager, Arnold Skaaland who served a similar role for Sammartino years earlier, “threw in the towel” when Backlund seemingly couldn’t break out of the Sheik’s infamous Camel Clutch.
That ended Backlund’s 2,135-day reign (the second-longest in WWE history, second only to Sammartino). Backlund’s loss was the first step in the WWF’s first foray into the mainstream. Less than a month after winning the title, Iron Sheik would drop the title to Hulk Hogan and the rest was history.
In 1994, Backlund would come back as “Mr. Backlund” and defeat Bret Hart for his short, second championship run. It’s interesting to note that Backlund says portraying the bombastic “Mr. Backlund” has helped him open up to fans today more than he ever would have without that run.
Backlund says he continues to live life to its fullest and as happy as he could possibly be with his family, and that includes a daily, vigorous workout that would gas most men half his age.