Saturday, January 07, 2006

BOB BACKLUND: Politics, Madness, and A Good Clean Shave in The Heart of Darkness

According to The Book of Revelation 13:5, "The beast was given a mouth for uttering proud boasts and blasphemies, but the authority it received was to last only forty-two months." After coming back from hibernation, Bob Backlund's authority as the World Wrestling Federation's number one Beast lasted only four days. But then this is the nineties, and despite the best efforts of the wild-eyed fanatics at PETA, a beast doesn't last very long in this era.

But blame that on the times, not on the beast. And, perhaps, on Madison Square Garden. Yes, Madison Square Garden.

For some people Manhattan's Heart of Darkness is Wall Street, where prematurely graying men in business suits nervously pace the floors while the words "buy" and "sell" go through their heads like savage mantras. For others it's the theater district, where the mantras include words like "Cats" and "Grease," and where, in the ultimate act of Broadway blasphemy, a man by the name of Mandy Patinkin has been anointed the Holiest of Holies. But for people like me who've never reached these depths of hell, Manhattan's Heart of Darkness has always been Madison Square Garden, the site of numerous brutal tests of endurance, among which one may count the many bloody wrestling matches, a week long engagement of The Grateful Dead, and the 1992 Democratic National Convention. And for the purpose of shedding some light on Bob Backlund's present situation, it will do us some good to look back at what went on at that convention. Hell, it may even do YOU some good as well.

As we well know, the survivor of that series was Bill Clinton. Having fought off the likes of Paul "Mr. Electricity" Tsongas and Jerry "Spaceman" Brown, Clinton suddenly rose from among the crowd to become The Man. Supporting his rise, amidst a deluge of multicolored balloons and confetti, was a crowd that was riddled with celebrities. Among them: Stephen Stills of the fat boy vocal group Crosby, Stills, and Nash (who presaged the fat boy tag team, Men On A Mission, by over twenty years); Jill Larson, who plays Opal on the soap opera All My Children (you may remember that Jesse "The Body" Ventura, before going the Kojak route, claimed he got his hair done at Opal's Glamorama in Pine Valley); and Bianca Jagger who was hanging out not with Mick ("Double J" Jeff Jarrett's more sophisticated cousin from across the sea) but with fashion poobah Calvin Klein.

A lot of things had changed since 1992, in wrestling and in politics. You'd think that with Hogan Hulk Hogan fleeing the WWF stables and taking with him, among other things, the Mouth of the South and the reconstructed cheekbones of Brutus Beefcake, that Bob Backlund might once again reign supreme in the WWF. Especially since Bob Backlund—once the ultimate do-gooder—is now looking more like the evil spawn of one of Sybil's more damaged personalities and the Marquis de Sade. After all, these are hard times, and it takes someone with a hard heart to make it to the top.

On the night before Thanksgiving, Bob Backlund, having put behind him the petty desire to please the fans, looked like the man to do it. Indeed, things were looking good for Backlund that night—just as they were for Bill Clinton back in 1992. But today it seems like Clinton will be going down in the history books as a single term commander in chief (or Jimmy Carter II). Which means that after four years you won't have Bill "Bubba" Clinton to kick around anymore. Though while Bill Clinton still has a couple of years left, Bob Backlund has already had his four days.

But I'm getting ahead of the story here again, moving on to the sad and terrible aftermath when what we should be doing, for the moment, is concentrating on the good old days. Days we can count on a single hand, with a finger left over to relay a parting gesture to the Heart of Darkness.

The good days began on the night of November 23d 1994, two weeks after an election which saw the defeat of such luminaries as Mario Cuomo and Ann Richards. Back in Washington D.C., having little reason to give thanks, I'd resigned myself to singing the blues, and so took to drowning my sorrows at The New Vegas Lounge, a smoky blues bar ten blocks away from the White House.

Accompanying me were two fellow writers, Eddie Dean and Jim Rogers, who ordered beer after beer while I tried to negotiate my way through the evening with a cheap Jack Daniel's substitute. Despite our attempts at frugality, we were overcharged for our drinks and treated like the demons who made it necessary to sing the blues. But maybe that was the price we had to pay, because in addition to the pick up blues band that was playing that night, The New Vegas Lounge had, showing on the television with the sound turned off, The WWF Survivor Series.

As my friends didn't have much interest in wrestling, they busied themselves watching a guitar player by the name of Sky Shaw break into a rendition of "Crossroads." All the while my eyes were glued to the TV set, and when Bob Backlund applied the chicken wing to Bret Hart, I let loose with a hearty, "Break his neck, Bob!" Eddie looked over to me and asked, "Who's that?"

"That's Bob Backlund," I said reverently. "But I like to call him The Beast."

When Stu and Helen Hart walked over to ringside to throw in the towel it looked like the good times were back again, because Bob Backlund was, once again, the WWF Champion. Holding both the belt and his head high, Backlund looked down upon the masses and with a single facial expression said what would always take Bret Hart an entire interview to say: "I am the best."

Back in the New Vegas Lounge the band stopped playing and the other bar patrons stood in silence, gazing upon the perfect countenance of Bob Backlund. My friend Jim Rogers, who had finally found his curiosity piqued by the happenings on the television screen, held his head up high in turn and declared, "Now that's a guy who looks like a champion! The other guy's just another greaseball loser." Which goes to show what was always part of Bob Backlund's charm: whether he was being good or being bad—whether he was babyface or Beast—even people who weren't fans of wrestling knew that he was real thing, while someone like Hulk Hogan was nothing more than a Saturday morning cartoon character.

With Backlund back where he belonged, I went up to New York the following Sunday to see for myself the new champion defending his belt against Diesel, the overgrown meter man from the gas company, ready to celebrate Bob Backlund's first successful title defense.

Getting off the train at Penn Station in New York, I relished the memory of the past four days, days that brought back a air of wealth and good feelings. But just as Madison Square Garden would eventually work its curse on Bill Clinton, so it would on The Beast.

Possessing more wrestling skill in a single raised eyebrow than Diesel has in his entire seven foot body, Backlund should have been able to make quick work of Diesel. But this was Madison Square Garden. And while Bill Clinton won his ascendancy at Madison Square Garden, Bob Backlund lost his at that very same space. Because what Madison Square Garden giveth, Madison Square Garden will taketh away—though even if you didn't get it at Madison Square Garden, Madison Square Garden will wrest it from you anyway. It is, after all, The Heart of Darkness, and as such has no sense of mercy, no sense of right or wrong.

Like a Democrat donkey going up against a Republican rogue elephant, Backlund tried to take his stand. He used all the weapons he had at hand—an arm whip, an elbow smash, a monkey flip—but nothing worked, not even his trademark chicken wing, the submission hold that had brought many more skilled opponents to their knees. In the end it was Diesel who prevailed, putting Backlund down for a three count.

But unlike when he lost the belt to The Iron Sheik a decade ago, Backlund shed no tears, did not hold his head in his hands, remorseful that he'd disappointed his fans. No, this time he held his head high.

Back in the dressing room he immediately lathered his face with shaving cream and pulled out a razor. "I've found that it's always a good idea to have a shave after a match," he explained. Even though he's a beast, he's a CLEAN beast. When he was done, he wiped his face, then began reflecting on the night's events. "I have wrestled with Diesel," he said, as he opened up a bottle of Mennon Skin Bracer and splashed the stinging lotion on his cheeks. "It was the most unexciting contest imaginable, taking place in an impalpable grayness, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire for victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in my own right, and still less in that of my adversary." He paused, then held out his bottle of Mennon Skin Bracer. "Here, have some. It's good even if you haven't just shaved."

Strange words from a strange man. And although some may take these words as a sign of madness, others will contend that Backlund has simply EVOLVED, moving on to a realm where victory and defeat are mere words—words which are of no concern to him. But maybe that's just because his work in this world is done; and after going through a perfunctory series of rematches with Diesel, Bob Backlund—The Beast—will disappear again.

But then you may remember that according to The Book of Revelation there is a second beast, a beast that will force "all men, small and great, rich and poor, slave and free, to accept a stamped image on their right hand or forehead." A beast that "will not allow a man to buy or sell anything unless he is first marked with the name of the beast or with the number that stood for its name." Maybe it's also a beast that will find a way to survive The Heart of Darkness.

Of course it's possible that that beast will just be Bob Backlund again, this time wearing a mask. And a different aftershave. Something like Brut.


Originally published, in June, 1995, in Wrestling World. A lot of this story is actually true. Stephen Stills, soap opera actress Jill Larson, and Bianca Jagger (accompanied by Calvin Klein), were, like me, among the guests at the 1992 Democratic Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York. And I actually was at the New Vegas Lounge with old friends Eddie Dean and Jim Rogers, watching the wrestling match where Bob Backlund actually did defeat Bret Hart to regain the WWF title. Of course, just about everything else written here about Bob Backlund was completely made up. But that, thanks to my old friend Stephen Ciacciarelli, the former editor of Wrestling World, was the joy of writing about wrestling.

As for Bill Clinton being a one term president, that wasn't fiction. That was just wrong—though at the time things weren't look very good for him (and this was
before Monica Lewinsky).

One final note: Bob Backlund, in 2000, actually ran for the United States House of Representatives. A Republican, he lost. Nowadays, he runs a bail bond company in Connecticut.

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