Anyone who watched the then-WWF’s professional wrestling as a child in the 80’s and 70’s will undoubtedly be familiar with the camel clutch, the pre-Hogan all-American Bob Backlund, and of course, Hulk Hogan himself. Most likely one would also recognize Khosrow Vaziri’s, or as he’s better known, the Iron Sheik.
Igal Hecht’s documentary, The Sheik, chronicles Vaziri’s life from his upbringing in Iran, through his position as the Shah of Iran’s bodyguard, his escape from Iran, his position as a coach on the United States Olympic Team, and ultimately his role as a coach with the University of Minnesota. More than just a heel in the realm of sports entertainment, and the impetus for the rise of Hulkamania – he was the ultimate villain that allowed Hogan’s popularity to flourish – Vaziri was a real wrestler. And a real Iranian.
Like other films have done (most notably Beyond the Mat), this one delves into the seedier side of professional wrestling, particularly the fates of those wrestlers that helped the industry to explode in the 1980’s. Addiction to pain pills and other narcotics is commonplace, are the references to sleepless nights and years that require 300+ days on the road to make a living and the penultimate relegation to some arbitrary, virtual-backyard, independent circuit of wrestling.
However, the most fascinating facet of The Sheik is how it illustrates the World Wrestling Federation cum World Wrestling Entertainment as global-filtration system for its spectators.
The rise of the Iron Sheik came from the WWF’s effort to “play off the core Islamaphobia” incited in this country by the hostages that were taken at the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979. Such a rise was one surrounded by vitriolic hated spewed from the spectators that crammed into each arena. One needs to remember that, up until the 1990’s, most teenage fans – and some adults – “still believed [wrestling] was real.” The squared circle was a place for feuds and grudges. It represented a sanctioned violence through which to work out world affairs.
While entertaining, wrestling varied from any sort of dramatized depiction of ethnicities, races, and cultures one finds on television. The TV itself creates a divide between reality and fiction. It provides a natural separation between the viewer and the content. However, being part of an audience that cheers and boos un unison as wrestlers approach the stage fashions a group-constructed reality that can’t be matched – or at least couldn’t at that time – on television.
And in this, Vaziri embodies the line between the reality and fiction of which wrestling entertainment is comprised. On the one hand, athletic ability is – most often – needed to put on a show for the masses. On the other, the outcomes of each match are pre-determined, as are the storylines. However, aiding the fiction of the Iron Sheik’s nefariousness is his true Iranian ethnicity. His accent is authentic. His look is authentic. His Farsi is authentic. He becomes the “epitome of what a bad guy should be.”
By all accounts, the Iron Sheik was a revolutionary force in wrestling entertainment. The hatred aimed toward him in the early eighties grew the sport and opened the door for Hulk Hogan to become Hulk Hogan. Ironically, a low point in Vaziri’s life also become an eventual high point in the wrestling industry.
Cruising around late one night with Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Vaziri and Duggan get pulled over. The first problem is an eventual DWI charge. The second is that, as a heel, Iron Sheik should not be seen consorting with a baby face wrestler, or, a good guy. The questions that arose the next day in a number of papers was whether professional wrestling was all a ruse
In the long run, this worked out perfectly for the then-WWF who were able to get more ridiculous with storylines while embracing that people knew they were coming to see a soap opera, not necessarily real life played out on stage.