DVDanger: The Sheik
The world broke his back. He made it humble.
By Richard Whittaker,
1:30PM, Tue. Mar. 1, 2016
In professional wrestling, there are faces – the good guys – and the bad guys, or heels. And few heels ever held the crowd in his hand like the Iron Sheik, subject of documentary The Sheik.
It's no exaggeration to say that, without the Iron Sheik, there would be no Hulk Hogan. It was their 1984 fight in Madison Square Garden, when the heroic Real American beat the man that represented the worst of Iran at the height of tension in the region. But there's a lot more to Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, the man behind the headdress and the curling moustache. A former bodyguard to the Shah who escaped to the West to become an amateur wrestling champion and assistant coach to the U.S. Olympic team, Vaziri started his pro-grappling career as a bronzed and adored babyface, only to develop the devilish heel persona of the Iron Sheik, to play off the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis.
But there's a more tragic side to the Sheik: pain, drugs, a terrible loss that sent his life into a spiral. And yet now, at 71, bruised and battered by decades of life in the ring and on the road, the Sheik has become an Internet sensation, Twitter's crazy uncle and YouTube's favored maniac, who shoots (wrestling parlance for publicly unleashing the truth behind the curtain) upon everyone and everything from Hogan, to Justin Bieber, to beer over wine, to leap years.
Yet behind it all is Vaziri. His Iranian accent is still dense, his ingrained politeness still there (everyone is "mister this" or "mister that"), and he speaks with a degree of humility about how he became one of the greatest heels the industry ever saw. "I was a natural Iranian, I speak Farsi, and whatever I did was true about me, and I did my job the best I can. I was just natural me."
One of the driving forces behind the film was Jian Magen. He is not only the Sheik's manager and The Sheik's producer, but has known him as a family friend for years. He said, "My brother and I grew up with this man in our lives. Our father was best friends with the Sheik growing up in Iran. Nine years ago, we thought it would be the coolest thing to make a documentary about his life, because we knew all these cool stories that most people didn't know. There are fans out there that would obviously love to know more about the Sheik, and for the Iranian community, we would be able to put out a really cool project."
When Magen proposed the documentary to him, the Sheik said, "I was very happy, because the two brother know me better than anybody, that they can write a documentary about the true story of Iran, and the true story of me since I left Iran."
For Magen, it was vital to include Vaziri's early life in Iran as his time in the squared circle. "If you just make a film about his wrestling accolades, then it becomes a wrestling movie. His life is much more."
It's part of the complicated legacy of the Iron Sheik that, while most Americans saw him as the Iranian flag-waving bad guy, for Magen he was the only Iranian he saw in popular culture. For a first generation migrant kid growing up in Canada, that was important. "My parents dressed us funny, and we had funny names, and when every kid had peanut butter and jelly in there lunch box, I had rice. When everyone's favorite wrestler was Hulk Hogan, mine was the Iron Sheik."
Even though Vaziri was the booed heel, he was still there, on TV, selling out arenas, as an Iranian. Magen said, "You look forward to today, and Iranians are some of the leading doctors, entrepreneurs, real estate tycoons. In every field, there's a successful Iranian right now, and I think the Iron Sheik was a pioneer." As for his success today, after years of pain and addiction, Magen paints him as a new folk hero. "The Sheik is living proof that you can overcome demons."
Of course, those wrestling accolades have won him a slot in multiple halls of fame, including his upcoming induction into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. That wasn't all about his gimmick or persona, but the fact that (in wrestling lingo) he could go. Vaziri was a legitimate tough guy, and Magen compared him to NCAA champion turned WWE champion turned UFC champion Brock Lesnar. "There's wrestlers out there that the fans aren't buying, because they're just playing a character. The Iron Sheik, his character was a part of who he really was."
And now the world gets a daily dose of the Sheik through his Twitter account. Run by Magen and his brother, they simply transcribe the most furious and fun pronouncements on the world. "Who would have thought that the Sheik's opinions on sports, on the local news, on world news, on the presidential debate, on wrestling, would be so recognized?"
But what does the Sheik think about the industry that made him world famous, so that legends like The Rock and Mick Foley line up to pay tribute to him in the documentary. When asked, he demurs, instead praising them and their successors like Triple H and John Cena, for their achievements. "Wrestling is the toughest sport in the world," he said. "I paid my dues, and I don't want to put myself over too much. I leave it to my wrestling fans. God bless you, and have a good day."
The Sheik (Dark Sky Films) is available on DVD, VOD, and Netflix now.