Thursday, October 22, 2015

Wrestling's "All-American Boy" Tells His Story

For various reasons, I was unsure how a Bob Backlund autobiography would turn out. He was the top guy in what is certainly one of the most celebrated eras in wrestling history, but I just couldn't picture how well his own experiences would translate into a good story. Once announced and in production, the book also had several delays as far as release date. I also had some concerns about how much content would cover pro wrestling. Many remember how he mainly dwelled on his early life in his speech at his WWE Hall of Fame induction in 2013. Little if any time was devoted to his wrestling career. Fans of the squared circle will be happy to know that it is much the opposite here. Backlund and his co-author Rob Miller know that the target audience here wants to read about pro wrestling.

"Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling's World Champion" was quite a surprise. One of the first public appearances that Backlund made with the book was at Legends of the Ring in New Jersey (where Bill Apter also appeared with his new book) in October 2015. The book is nearly 500 pages and, with that kind of heft, feels like a bible in your hands. He may have had a nearly six-year run with the WWWF/WWF Championship, but could Bob Backlund, known for living a clean life as a family man, have that many stories? The answer is "yes."

To begin the book, we get enough of his early life and schooling to know how he was molded into the man and athlete that he became. It isn't long before he has a chance meeting, with someone who would also figure into a high point in his career, that directs him into the world of wrestling. In somewhat of a surprise to me, we also learn, and hear from, some fellow wrestling legends that I was unaware had such an influence on Backlund's early career.

Fans of the very New York, very Madison Square Garden, very Vince Sr. era of the WWWF will be in Heaven. This is one of the best opportunities we've ever had to take a peak behind the fabled MSG curtain. It isn't just Backlund providing the view, either. Harley Race, Don Muraco, Ken Patera, Bruno Sammartino, and others help to further the story of both Backlund and those years in pro wrestling with their own spaces in certain chapters. It should also be noted that the foreword is provided by the late, great, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. "The All-American Boy" and "The Hot Rod" didn't have too much interaction during their careers, but you will read about the match that they did have early on.

Why did Backlund fit as WWWF champion but did not figure into NWA World Championship plans? Why did Backlund go to the top so quickly after entering the WWWF? What was the relationship between Backlund and Bruno? Backlund and the McMahon family? Backlund and Andre the Giant? All of these questions are answered by both Backlund and some of his "guests" in the book, occasionally giving you two sides to one story.

Although I'm sure that some research was done to flesh out the small details, Backlund's recollections of certain opponents, programs, and angles is meticulous. The fun that Backlund had during his long run completely comes through, as does the enjoyment that he had working with different styles of opponents. Someone, like me, who goes into the book thinking that Backlund only enjoyed wrestling foes who shared his patented technical in-ring style will come out quite surprised.

Of particular note is the segement dedicated to the night that Backlund took the WWWF Championship from Superstar Billy Graham. Obviously there weren't any cameras filming a "WWE 24" style show on Backlund's day, so his recollections are just about the only record. If there is ever a Bob Backlund movie, I hope that the sequence covering that day is as detailed and dramatic as this book portrays it to be.

At one point, Backlund describes those championship years as "passing by in the blink of an eye." Thanks to how well they were recreated in the chapters, the reader gets a good sense of that, despite those years taking up a majority of the book. Although we get a good synopsis of Backlund's post-World Championship life, it's near the end of the book. Backlund really did go back to being a full-time family man after fading from the wrestling conscious. Even the "Mr. Backlund" era of the mid-1990s is taken care of in about a chapter. Bob Backlund is proudest of those six World Championship years, so that is what we get the best look at.

In addition to being a thick book, it is also elegantly published. The book itself is styled the way that you would expect the memoirs coming from a politician or major celebrity to be. It's a handsome and well-edited book. Only two brief stories stuck out to me as being repeated earlier in the book. A few times the shaded areas marking the words of a "guest" writer didn't quite match up to the passage. A small printing error that did not detract from my enjoyment.

Aside from my earlier given concerns, I was also worried that Backlund would dominate his book with academic and athletic stories other than pro wrestling as George Steele and Lex Luger did in their books. This was not the case by any means. Backlund knew that this was to be a wrestling book. He may not have gone out with the boys nightly, but he still had many a story to tell. Those stories make the hundreds of pages go by in a flash. Enjoy them. I did.

It's All-American!

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