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Thursday Night Tanders (1/14/16): On Heel Turns and Late-Career Comebacks (Part 1 of 2)


Howdy, Smark Henrytitos and Henrytitas of Manila and beyond! The Throwback Tito is here for his first article of the new year, but before we proceed any further, I’d like to make a quick announcement.

I’ve decided to do away with the chronological show/PPV format I had originally intended for Thursday Night Tanders. Too limited, too restrictive, been done before by so many wrestling bloggers. That simply means we will still covering a wide variety of topics like I have after the first two TNT columns, but probably not going back to show/PPV recaps unless it's something very, very special. And with that said, let’s take you to the inspiration for my latest two-part series on Thursday Night Tanders.

Dolph Ziggler - the inspiration for the first Thursday Night Tanders two-part series of 2016.
On the January 7, 2016 episode of SmackDown, what seemed like a throwaway eight-man tag match originating from a Miz TV segment became what I feel was the most significant part of yet another episode of WWE’s B-show. After Dolph Ziggler won the match for the babyface side, defeating The Miz and The New Day, he let loose on his good guy teammates, superkicking R-Truth, then dumping Goldust out of the ring and apologizing for his actions, saying that it’s going to be every man for himself at the 2016 Royal Rumble. Now that doesn’t seem like an outright return to #HEELZiggler, but it could very well be the start of one.

New year, new hair, new attitude, new Dolph? I mean, why the hell not? 2015 was an absolute disaster for the Show-Off, as he was mired in a horrible “love quadrangle” feud with Lana, Rusev, and Summer Rae none of those four benefited from. He had traded wins and losses in the midcard, put Tyler Breeze over, only for Breeze to see precious little TV time as a lower-carder, and failed to live up to the great potential he had toward the end of 2014. But with Ziggler turning 36 later this year, the clock is running out. If this longtime smark favorite is going to become a legitimate main eventer, he’s got to make good on his promise fast, and a heel turn, for me, could mark the start of a renaissance period for the former golf caddy and male cheerleader. In 12 years with the WWE and its affiliates, Ziggler’s spent most of his time in the midcard, and it’s still debatable whether his second run as World Heavyweight Champion in 2013 counts as a main event push.

Is it too late for Ziggler to return to the main event, and stay there for a good long while? The Throwback Tito believes it isn’t. And that’s because we’ve seen a few examples of wrestlers 35 and above revitalizing their careers and regaining their big push thanks to a dramatic heel turn. For this week’s Thursday Night Tanders, we shall be looking back at the career renaissance of a man who was already in his 40s when he made his first heel turn, becoming WWF Champion again and standing out as one of the few bright spots of the New Generation Era, despite his advanced age. So, for the first part of this two-part series, let’s take you back in time and get you reacquainted with MISTER Bob Backlund’s quick, but memorable comeback run in the ‘90s.



Howdy Doody Bob’s First WWF Run (1977-84) – Milk, Cookies, and a World Title



Back in the 1970s, it was very common for wrestling fans to be middle-aged males who thought that it was all a shoot. These were men who had little to no tolerance for the youth of America, which included young men who grew their hair past their shoulders, listened to bands like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Grand Funk Railroad, and often smoked copious amounts of ganja. Even top professional athletes of the time, such as the NBA’s Bill Walton and the NFL’s Joe Namath, weren’t afraid to express their anti-establishment beliefs and dress like oversized and/or athletically-skilled rock stars.

Clean as a whistle, and the type of guy you'd bring home to Mom. Bob Backlund (shown here circa 1978) was wholesome in and out of the ring.
Former collegiate wrestling star Bob Backlund was nothing like Walton, Namath, or the average young American male of the 1970s, and that's what made him popular, especially among older fans. He wore his hair short, didn’t look like a guy who smokes, drinks, or does drugs, and spoke very calmly and respectfully in his promos. And in terms of look and size, he was nothing like the average main event talent of what was then known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation, or WWWF. He wasn’t overly large or muscular, and his pale white complexion contrasted to the tanned, uber-muscular look of the man who then reigned as WWWF Heavyweight Champion, Superstar Billy Graham. His clean-living lifestyle also differed greatly to that of Graham, who shot himself up with steroids, cavorted with ring rats, and shot himself up with even more steroids because he didn’t drink, smoke, or do other kinds of drugs.

Given how clean-cut he was, Backlund was pushed as a pure babyface, a scrappy underdog with legitimate wrestling talent. Think Daniel Bryan without the facial hair, high-risk style, and snappy catchphrase, or Kurt Angle minus the promo skills. His most memorable feuds in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were those with Graham, whom he controversially defeated for the WWWF Heavyweight Championship in 1978, original “World’s Strongest Man” Ken Patera, and a young, musclebound heel by the name of Hulk Hogan. He was invariably booked against larger, stronger men, ending up victorious most of the time, but by the time 1983 came around, fans were getting younger, the WWWF was now the WWF, Vince McMahon Sr. was bought out by Vince Jr., and people were tiring of “Howdy Doody Bob” as champion. (Howdy Doody, for those who don’t know, was a wholesome cowboy puppet popular with American kids from the late ‘40s to the early ‘60s.)

Bob Backlund wouldn't do the job for the technically-limited Hulk Hogan, but didn't mind losing to former Olympic wrestler Khosrow Vaziri, a.k.a. The Iron Sheik.
With Vince McMahon Jr. now in control of the WWF, plans were made for the championship to transfer to the younger, more jacked, and more charismatic Hulk Hogan, who was back after a brief spell in the AWA and a successful role as a bad guy wrestler in Rocky III.  There was a bit of a problem, though; Backlund didn’t want to turn heel and put Hogan over, given that the Hulkster hadn’t a whit of amateur wrestling skills in him. He did, however, agree to put over another legit wrestler in The Iron Sheik, who beat Backlund for the WWF Championship in the last week of 1983. With Backlund kayfabe-injured following his match with Iron Sheik, Hogan got the title shot in early 1984, winning the match and kicking off the Hulkamania Era in grand fashion. Backlund spent the rest of 1984 demoted to the upper midcard, and wrestled sporadically before quietly leaving the WWF that year.


It’s MISTER Backlund (1992-97) – Crazy Bob Becomes a Surprisingly Good Heel


At the age of 43, Backlund made a comeback to the WWF in late 1992, and that’s where the Throwback Tito was introduced to the former world champion for the first time. Several Thursday Night Tanders ago, I described how my dad was telling me about what a big deal Backlund was, but how I couldn’t care less about the boring, technical old fart who spent over an hour in the 1993 Royal Rumble match. I still wasn’t sold on Backlund as he kept appearing on WWF programming throughout 1993 and 1994. But sometime in August or September 1994 (due to the interminable tape delays of the time), I got to watch a completely different Bob Backlund, one who few people were ever expecting to see.

Nobody expected Bob Backlund to make such a great heel after 15-plus years of playing the good guy, but his "crazy old man" gimmick was New Generation Era gold.
The actual Superstars episode where this happened took place on July 30, 1994, as Backlund was challenging WWF World Heavyweight Champion Bret Hart for the title. It was a battle of old school versus new school, a babyface match between two technical virtuosos. Hart would win that match, taking advantage of Backlund’s uncharacteristic overconfidence, and as Bret helped the older man up to his feet, we saw the genesis of Crazy Bob. Backlund slapped Hart in the face, locking him in his Crossface Chickenwing finisher and screaming like a madman. When it was all over, Backlund stared at his hands, seemingly regretting what he did, but the look in his eyes told the whole story. The once-wholesome, virtuous, and level-headed Bob Backlund had gone cray-cray, and fans were never going to see him the same way again.

As Backlund had passed out from Iron Sheik’s Camel Clutch in their December 1983 title match, he would use that as part of his new gimmick, claiming to be the real WWF World Heavyweight Champion as he neither tapped out nor got pinned. He turned into a man pissed off with the New Generation of WWF Superstars, and he had a Chickenwing for everyone who rubbed him the wrong way—former manager Arnold Skaaland for literally throwing in the towel during the match versus Sheik, occupational midcarder Duke “The Dumpster” Droese, even WWF Magazine writer Lou Gianfriddo, who looked like he weighed 130 pounds soaking wet. And man, did he love using and  misusing highfalutin words in his promos, which would usually have him demand to be called “MISTER Backlund” instead of plain old Bob. He even stayed in “Crazy Bob” character outside the ring, refusing to sign autographs unless fans could tell him all U.S. Presidents in chronological order, and, according to Chris Jericho’s autobiography A Lion’s Tale, using big words even when speaking to the boys outside of the arena.

“First of all, young man, it’s MISTER Bob Backlund! And you’re incorrect. I’ve been the champion since 1978. I never lost the Championship! Tonight, I just regained the belt, and I beat the man that represents YOUR society! I beat him so I could save you! I’m gonna scrutinize you to the fullest! Pasteurize you, homogenize you, and synchronize you back into MORALITY! You understand, ladies and gentlemen? It’s SPORTS EDUCATION! I’M YOUR CHAMPION! And I’ll take on anybody! [in a very low voice] Anybody at all, ladies and gentlemen, in your generation, as I’m fighting for something that’s more important than anything else in this world. It’s put morality back into your lives. And now your children have somebody they can emulate after and try to catch up to.
[screaming again] ‘CAUSE I FEEL LIKE GAAAAAAAHHHHDDDDD!!!!”
- Crazy promo from Bob Backlund to Todd Pettengill, Survivor Series 1994

In a series of ironies, Backlund won the WWF World Heavyweight Championship from Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1994, as Bret Hart’s heel brother Owen convinced their parents Stu and Helen to throw in the towel; Bret was, at that time, fighting valiantly to break out of the Crossface Chickenwing. But like The Iron Sheik was, Backlund turned out to be a transitional champion himself, losing the belt to Diesel just three days later. At a house show. In eight seconds. Try to let that sink in for a moment.


So maybe it was one of the quickest, most forgettable WWF title reigns of all time. So maybe it was a transitional reign designed to get Diesel over, which it did. But Backlund did briefly remain in the main event, or upper midcard at the very least, after getting squashed by Big Daddy Cool. His crazy promos remained a big draw, as you never knew what he was going to say, what he was going to do, who was going to get Chickenwing-ed by Crazy Bob. After losing to Bret Hart in an I Quit Match at WrestleMania XI in April 1995 (where his garbled screams were interpreted by special guest referee Roddy Piper as “I quit”), Backlund essentially transitioned to a non-wrestling role and a no-fanfare retirement. He would then appear less and less frequently on television, but in a final irony for this second run, he and his onetime bitter rival The Iron Sheik teamed up to manage The Sultan (the future Rikishi) for a few months in 1996 and 1997.

To sum it all up, Backlund’s late-career comeback shouldn’t be remembered for him being one of the shortest-reigning main event champions in WWF/E history. Instead, it should be remembered as a rebirth of sorts; from a man who was bland even by ‘70s and ‘80s standards during his prime, he had transformed into a truly entertaining heel as an older competitor facing much younger men, and getting a very solid push while at it. And that’s the way he’s been since then, as all of Backlund’s WWF/E (and TNA) appearances after his retirement have seen him working the crazy old man gimmick.

*****

For the second part next week, we shall look at a man who looked like he would “never, EVER” become a credible main eventer “agayn” after his disastrous run as Undisputed Champion, but turned into arguably the WWE’s most vicious heel of the late 2000s despite being in his late 30s. So join us next week on Thursday Night Tanders…Is…JERICHO!!!



The Throwback Tito is Enzo Tanos, a freelance writer and the drummer/manager for garage rock band The Myopics, where he hopes to debut his masked lucha drummer persona “Sin Verguenza” in future gigs. A wrestling fan since childhood, he’s old enough to remember watching Outback Jack’s pointless vignettes, and One Man Gang’s transformation to Akeem.

PHOTO CREDITS - Dolph Ziggler c/o WWE YouTube, Bob Backlund circa 1977 c/o Pinterest, Backlund vs Iron Sheik c/o Ring The Damn Bell, Backlund staring at hands c/o WWE.

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