What we call “stories,” professional wrestlers call “angles.” Basically, an angle is the reason for any match to take place. Some angles are good, some are God-awful (Big Bossman cooking an opponent’s dog was certainly a low point), but they’re always essential. Without an angle, you just have two men in tights pretending to hit each other.
In today’s wrestling landscape, the key moments in any given angle tend to happen at the monthly pay-per-views; that’s when a wrestler may defeat a hated rival, convert to the dark side, or tussle with Snooki. (Yeah, that happened.)
Twenty-five years ago, World Wrestling Entertainment only had one annual pay-per-view, WrestleMania. But in November 1987, they added another one, Survivor Series—a tradition which continues to this day. (Literally, to this day: the 26th installment is happening tonight.). So, to celebrate twenty-five years of this event, I wanted to re-cap one of my favorite Survivor Series angles, from way back in 1994. I call it, “Bob Backlund is a Crazy Old Man… and now he’s a Crazy Old Champion.”
The seeds for this angle were actually sown eleven years prior, on December 26, 1983, the night Bob Backlund lost his (then) World Wrestling Federation Championship to the Iron Sheik. During his championship reign, Bob was reliable and righteous—that is to say, quite boring. So, when Vince McMahon took over the WWF (now WWE) from his father, he wanted a champ with a little more pizazz, a little more charisma—and he was banking on his new recruit, a rookie named Hulk Hogan, to fill that role.
Problem, though: Hulk couldn’t fight Bob, because they were both good guys. Vince originally floated the idea of Bob becoming a bad guy. When Bob declined, Vince went through his motley crew of villains, finally calling upon the Iron Sheik to serve as the transitional champ.
Sheik ended up beating Backlund with the dreaded Camel Clutch, but Vince did allow Bob to save a little bit of face: instead of having Backlund submit, Bob’s manager, Arnold Skaaland, threw in the towel, ending the match.
Less than a month later, Hulk Hogan beat the Sheik, and the 80s wrestling boom, and all the money and fame that came with it, officially began. Unfortunately, Bob didn’t get to experience any of that; after his loss to the Sheik, he was immediately pushed down the card, his fall corresponding exactly with Hogan’s rise. Within a year, Backlund left the company and didn’t re –appear for another eight years.
Late 1992 saw Backlund return to WWE—to decidedly little fanfare. Still as reliable and righteous and boring as ever, the former champion languished in the midcard for almost two years. Finally, in summer of 1994, Bob had a title match against champion and fellow good-guy, Bret “The Hit Man” Hart, in what was hyped as an “Old Generation vs. New Generation” match. (The fact that Bob, just shy of 45 at the time, was only eight years older than Bret was never acknowledged.)
Bob ended up losing not only the match but something else: his apparent grip on reality. After the match, the previously mild-mannered Backlund attacked Bret and put him in a bizarre submission hold known as the crossface chicken-wing. As the aghast announcers blabbered on about how he had “snapped,” Bob looked down in horror at his hands, as if he himself couldn’t believe what he had done.
Throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall, Bob experienced more and more “snapping” incidents, until he finally became a permanent resident of Crazy Town. He started doing evil things—like dressing in suits and using big words (only some of which used correctly). And he beat up people too, including his former manager Arnold Skaaland, whom he blamed for costing him the title more than a decade before. Indeed, the unstable Backlund claimed that, because he never actually submitted to the Iron Sheik, he should still be the champ.
And that brings us to November 23, 1994. The event: Survivor Series. The combatants: Champion Bret “Hit Man” Hart against Mr. Bob Backlund. The special stipulation: a “Throw in a Towel” match, which meant you could only lose if your corner-man stopped the match by throwing in the towel.
Now then… Did this match make the WWE a lot of money? No way. And was the Hart-Backlund Survivor Series encounter a mat classic? Not really. In fact, I remember most of the match being pretty slow. But as far as an example of effective storytelling, I say it fired on all cylinders.
Consider: this angle had a “fallen angel” villain with a legitimate axe to grind. It had some nice symmetry, book-ended by two Hart-Backlund matches. It developed slowly, over the course of five months. It even recalled past history, with the whole “Throw in the Towel” stipulation.
Finally, it had a twist ending: Bob took the title after his corner-man, Bret’s dastardly brother Owen, convinced his mom to throw in Bret’s towel, after Bret’s corner-man, the British Bulldog, got knocked out. And so, after eleven years, Bob Backlund was now back on top. Not a bad bit of story-telling.
And then they ruined it. Vince McMahon, you see, had no intentions of keeping Bob as champ. Bob was just his transitional man, the role the Iron Sheik played back in 1983. And Vince’s new Hulk Hogan, the man Vince planned to push to the moon? A seven-foot monster named Diesel. Poor Bob didn’t have a chance.
Three days after the 1994 Survivor Series— in a non-televised match, no less—Diesel beat Crazy Old Man Backlund, who once again slid down into the midcard until he eventually stopped competing altogether. The Survivor Series angle was Bob’s last moment in the sun. And the really said thing: the Diesel-Backlund match, the match where Bob lost the title, lasted only eight seconds.
Eight seconds. It took eleven years for Bob Backlund to get back on top. And only eight seconds to come crashing down. I guess there’s a story in that, too.
So the lesson of the 1994 Survivor Series? Simple: brawn over brains. For every intricate, well-crafted angle, there’s another seven-foot angle waiting in the wings, hoping to powerbomb it into oblivion.