I was too young to understand the cultural and political aspects that made the Iron Sheik’s character such a hated villain within the confines of, what is known in wrestling parlance as, the squared circle. My first memories of The Sheik, are seeing him and his tag team partner, the equally despised – at the time – powerful, Russian, Nikolai Volkoff, capture the WWE ( then WWF) tag team titles from The U.S. Express, Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo, at the inaugural WrestleMania. Only later, while watching an old wrestling VHS tape, did I see The Sheik, when he was the heavyweight champion, drop the belt to Hulk Hogan. After winning the title on December 26, 1983, from long reigning champion, Bob Backlund, The Sheik held the title for just under a month. During that time, he defeated notable wrestlers, such as Pat Patterson, Tito Santana and Chief Jay Strongbow, before a scheduled January 23, 1984, re-match against, Backlund, at Madison Square Garden, in New York City. Due to injury, Backlund couldn’t compete and was replaced by Hulk Hogan. Not knowing it at the time, The Iron Sheik became the catalyst for one of the most important events in the history of professional wrestling. When Hogan won the title, it launched an already immensely popular wrestler’s career into another stratosphere, and gave birth to Hulkamania; a force which has never fully stopped to this day. (As an aside, rival wrestling promoter, Verne Gagne of the American Wrestling Association, offered the Iron Sheik, $100,000 dollars to break Hogan’s leg, instead of merely dropping the match, in order to derail the momentum of Hogan’s popularity from further benefiting the WWF. The Sheik outright refused).
The film “The Sheik” premiered in Canada on April 26, 2014 at the “Hot Docs International Documentary Festival.” Directed by Igal Hecht (A Universal Language), who also shares story credit with Jian Magen and Jake Neiman, the documentary is entertaining, informative, honest and, at times, sad. The ninety-five minute film details the rise and fall and rise of The Iron Sheik’s life, in and out of sports entertainment. Removed of fluff, the film presents layers to The Sheik – whose real name is Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri – that fans who attended his matches, watched him on television and pay-per-view, or read about him in wrestling magazines, would never have known. His wounds run deep. They are both of a physical nature, for example, the camera shows Vaziri’s foot, which looks like someone took a hammer to it and pounded away, not to mention his badly damaged knees and ankles, which force him to walk with a cane and sometimes use a wheelchair. The Sheik also deals with painful psychological scars as well. On May 3, 2003, his eldest daughter, Marissa was murdered by her live-in boyfriend, Charles Reynolds.
The director doesn’t shy away, when it comes to showing the viewer, how Vaziri for a long period of time, coped with both types of pain; namely his descent into alcohol abuse and becoming a crack addict; a drug The Sheik refers to as his ‘medicine.’ As spoken about in the documentary, The Sheik would go to hotel lobbies, with his title belt, hoping to be recognized, in order to sell 8×10 pictures, to help fuel his addictions. There is also the inclusion of a scene where The Sheik is inside of a seedy motel room purchasing drugs. Additionally spoken about, is the May 1987, incident, where The Sheik and fellow wrestler “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, were stopped by New Jersey police, while on their way to an event together. Duggan was suspected by the officer of drunk driving. The end result, Vaziri was found to be high on cocaine, and arrested alongside Duggan, who was driving under the influence of marijuana. The Sheik received a year’s probation for the crime. When asked to speak about his dependency on drugs, The Sheik responds by saying: “I’m a master. I control my medicine. The medicine doesn’t control me.”
Born on March 16, 1943 in Tehran, Iran, like every Iranian male citizen, he had to join the army, however, he was treated much better than the average soldier. Already a wrestling hero to the Iranian people, he was sought out by the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to become one of the leader’s bodyguards. Vaziri’s younger days are shown through the use of archival photographs and poor quality video footage. His eventual reason for leaving his country, where he was beloved, was the death of fellow popular Olympic wrestler, Gholamreza Takhti. According to the official government report, Takhti committed suicide. Vaziri didn’t believe the story for a second, feeling that Takhti was far too beloved and at the top of his game to have a reason to kill himself. Fearing that one day, he might be targeted for something he might say or do, which would run counter to the policies in place during the Shah’s reign, The Sheik fled to the United States.
An assistant coach for the United States Olympic wrestling team in the early 1970, Vaziri was with the American squad at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. A bit later on, he was discovered by the aforementioned, AWA founder, Verne Gagne, who offered The Sheik work with his wrestling promotion. Vaziri’s job, initially, was to train potential new talent. In addition to former Intercontinental Champion and fan favorite, Ricky The Dragon Steamboat, one of the other individuals The Sheik worked with would go onto become a sixteen time World Champion, WWE Hall of Famer, and wrestling icon, The Nature Boy Ric Flair. The Sheik worked for the AWA up until 1979, when he made his WWF debut, at Madison Square Garden, in a battle royal no less, that he would go on to win, granting him a title shot.
Although, technically proficient, at a level far greater than most, when Vaziri first left amateur wrestling to become a pro, there was one thing he was missing. He had to learn the art of in-ring psychology, that was certainly not taught to traditional, Greco-Roman wrestlers. Over time, he became a master at getting up the ire of the fans, not only by denigrating America on the microphone, but through his actions in the ring, portraying a heel who would do whatever it took to win. The movie shows he was nothing like that in real life. The Sheik’s character came about at the right time and place in history for his in-ring persona to make an impact on a global scale. While in his prime with the WWF, the Iran hostage crisis was taking place, allowing Vince McMahon Jr. to exploit the situation, bringing more heat to The Sheik’s matches, as well as a bigger box office draw, with fans desperate to see the Iranian nemesis get defeated. All of this, of course, transpired during a period, when the truth regarding character creation and pre-determined outcomes to matches, hadn’t been admitted yet to the public by those in the wrestling profession. The Sheik feuded with many of the popular, good guy wrestlers of his generation, but the feuds he had with the character of patriotic, flag waving, former military man, Sgt. Slaughter, he considers the very best matches of his lengthy career.
In recent years, the Sheik’s life has had a resurgence, thanks to the popularity of his presence on social media. He has a large Twitter following, who love his rantings and ravings on everything from fellow wrestlers to pop music’s Justin Bieber. He also has made numerous appearances on The Howard Stern Show, produces youtube.com videos, which garner thousands of hits, and attends wrestling fan conventions, where his autograph, picture, and a minute or two of his time, is sought out by countless fans.
Thanks to his increasing popularity and career renaissance, outside of in-ring competition, as his wife Caryl, whom he has been married to since March 21, 1976, puts it, “he has more good days than bad.” The Sheik and his wife Caryl have two grown daughters, as well as five grandchildren. Providing commentary throughout the documentary, amongst numerous others, are Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, Mick Foley, and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. The documentary will likely be enjoyed the most by those wrestling fans who lived through The Iron Sheik’s prime competitive years. With that being said, I can also see current fans, especially those who enjoy learning about the history of professional wrestling and how far it has come, liking it as well. Hard to say, whether or not, non-fans of wrestling will find the overall subject matter interesting. Considering it is available for instant streaming on Netflix, and its reasonable runtime, give it a shot for twenty minutes, if you’ve found anything I have written about the man to be of interest. The worst thing that can happen is you remove it from your list and move on to the next film or television show you want to watch.