Bob Backlund’s return to professional wrestling in 1992 was not without its share of controversy. When he lost the title to the Iron Sheik in 1984, a move to set up Hulk Hogan’s initial title win and run, Backlund was promised a second run with the belt, a promise Vince McMahon and the entire wrestling world would eventually come to regret.
That promise was made by Vince McMahon under the impression that he would never get around to putting the strap back on Backlund until well after Backlund had retired. In which case, Backlund would never again be WWF champion, and McMahon was safe to get the Age of Hulkamania underway just in time for the gung-ho glory patriotism of the late Eighties and early Nineties. Which would have been fine considering Bob Backlund’s vanilla Opie charisma was a product of his era’s small town American patriotism (the reason Sgt. Slaughter still enjoys a healthy career in wrestling). These fans are the same people that elected Jimmy Carter president.
For example, Hulk Hogan won the WWF title back from a former patriot turned Iraqi sympathizer Sgt. Slaughter in the main event of WrestleMania VII, in the spring of 1991—sadly, the war ended three months before their feud, in January. Anyway, America at the time yearned for the bleached, tan California patriotism Hulk provided with every sassy wag of his finger and torn shit thrown into the crowd. Backlund wasn’t gonna cut it anyway.
Sadly, McMahon’s speculations were incorrect. Not only did Bob Backlund return in 1992 to active competition (including a spectacularly bad match with Razor Ramon at Wrestlemania IX that ended with Razor getting the nod via small package pin and Bobby Heenan exclaiming, “He beat the wrestler with wrestling!”), he cashed in on that title promise and wound up getting booked into a program with Bret “The Hitman” Hart that lead to him winning an “I Quit” match, after having completely lost his mind and re-established the crossface chickenwing as the bizarrest submission hold in wrestling.
This new crazed and bloodthirsty Backlund was quickly replaced by a new fan favorite, Diesel, who was being built up as Shawn Michaels’ bodyguard. Thus, when Diesel beat Backlund with a single move in Madison Square Garden to win the title, the student became the teacher, and a feud with Michaels and the rest of the more skilled WWF Superstars was born.
Kevin Nash, who portrayed Diesel and now appears weekly on Monday Night Raw as himself, is historically known as the lowest-drawing champion in WWF history, bringing in little money. But Nash was a politician and parlayed the rising tide of professional wrestling at the time (despite the little help he made to WWF) and jumped ship for a big contract in WCW in 1996. That was the start of the New World Order. And the NWO above all was the final nail in WCW’s casket when it (and ECW) closed in 2001.
So was Bob Backlund the reason wrestling fell apart in the late Nineties? Hell no. But it’s still fun to think of his lasting effects in the industry. Never count out an old man who keeps himself in shape!