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The Enemy of the Babyface Is My Hero

The Iron Sheik was the quintessential heel, and the ultimate postmodern pro wrestler

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2004 there was a WWE wrestler called Muhammad Hassan. The character was an Arab American (played by an Italian American New Yorker) who bristled at the prejudice and stereotyping he experienced in the post-9/11 world. He was a villain—because he had been weaponized by others’ intolerance—but he wasn’t that kind of villain. Within a few weeks, either the character’s patience with the audience or, more likely, the creative team’s devotion to nuance had worn out, and Hassan turned into that kind of villain, a straightforwardly Middle Eastern terrorist character, now weaponized by the necessities of broad-brush storytelling, who would eventually be removed from television because his in-ring terrorism hewed a little too close to reality. Hassan was a walking, grappling reference, both to the geopolitical current events of the day and to the Iron Sheik, WWE’s original kaffiyeh-wearing heel.

If every pro wrestling gimmick is a retread of one that worked at some point in the past, then Hassan’s wasn’t hard to discern: he was a War-On-Terror retread of the Iron Sheik, who passed away on Wednesday at 80 years old. And if there’s a certain irony to the inability of the 21st-century audience to deal with the polarization of wrestling in the way they had in the 1980s, there was a deeper irony to the fact that the Hassan character was, unintentionally, a deeper parallel than the surface read might suggest.

The Iron Sheik tried to play it straight. In the earliest days of his pro wrestling career, the Iron Sheik—known at first by his real name, Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, and later as Ali Vaziri—was a traditional babyface and moreover a traditional grappler, who touted his real history as an assistant coach to the U.S. Olympic team in the ’70s, Iranian national champion, and University of Minnesota wrestling coach. It didn’t work, though—at least not well enough for Vaziri, who saw the difference in his pay and the pay of those above him on the card, and for bookers around the country who saw the potential for a bigger draw.

Out went the Olympic hopeful American immigrant in favor of a foreign menace in the mold of the infamous Detroit legend the Sheik, as well as Middle Eastern in-ring curiosities dating back to (the Armenian American) Ali Baba and before. And despite the implicit humor in most of his well-known run in the World Wrestling Federation, the early Iron Sheik initially borrowed heavily on the original Sheik’s penchant for lawless violence, using weapons hidden in his boots to bloody his opponents. The new character was a draw in itself, but Vaziri knew that the real money in wrestling was printed in blood. By the time he got to the WWF, the bloodwork went by the wayside and his unscrupulousness was mainly siloed in the boots themselves—the curved-toe Persian boots that he used to batter his opponents, breaking the rules without wholly abandoning the family-friendly pretense of the New York version of the sport.

If the Iron Sheik was one-dimensional in story line, his overt disgust of the American ideal drew a straight line to the transformation of Vaziri to the Sheik—he was forced to evolve into this diabolical specter, forced to turn heel because of the trifling expectations of the crowd and of the genre. The pro wrestling world had no room for the nuance of Olympic hopeful emigre Khosrow Vaziri. It only wanted the one-dimensional Iranian villain. And with the Iran Hostage Crisis that began in 1979, the boos from the audience flowed loudly and freely.

When Vince McMahon acquired the WWF in 1982, his first order of business was the installation of Hulk Hogan as the new face of the company. The champion at the time, Bob Backlund, refused to lose to Hogan, so the Iron Sheik was tabbed as the “transitional champion”—an industry term for a wrestler whose sole purpose is to ferry the title from one champ to the next for story line exigencies—defeating Backlund for the title (with story line caveats: Sheik had injured Backlund’s neck before the bout, and Backlund lost not by submitting but when his manager threw in the towel on his behalf) and then losing in turn to Hogan a month later. Both matches were at Madison Square Garden; both were main events. The fans were primed to root for Backlund, and in the latter match they were ecstatic about the last-minute substitution of Hogan into the challenger’s spot. But the biggest reaction of either pre-match introduction, by far, was the boos that attended Sheik’s hoisting of the world championship belt prior to the Hogan match. Unlike so many foreign menaces that came before and after him, the Iron Sheik was not content to just wallow in their jingoistic disdain. He provoked the crowd, jeering at them and lauding himself. In his later years it was distilled into a catchphrase: “Iran number one, USA *hack-ptooey*,” the end there being an onomatopoeic approximation of Sheik hocking a loogie on the ground in deepest disrespect.

A couple of notes on the Hogan match: A lot is made of Sheik as transitional champion. But the Iron Sheik, and moreover the anti-American antagonist, is always a transitional agent. He is a force, champion or no, running parallel to our national appetite for war—and just as in geopolitics, we’re all in on our nationalism at the beginning, but interest inevitably fades and a new villain must be found—or created. Which is all to say the tide that helped carry Vaziri to the top of the pro wrestling world also defined its own ebb. Nothing in wrestling (or international conflict) lasts forever, especially not cartoon villainy.

There’s also a longstanding story built into the Hogan match that prior to the bout, Verne Gagne, the Minnesota pro wrestling promoter who brought Vaziri into the business, offered Sheik a $100,000 bounty to break Hogan’s leg in the match, presumably to embarrass Hogan, who had just left Gagne’s AWA for the WWF, and McMahon, who had stolen a number of AWA stars and was threatening to turn the WWF into a national wrestling promotion that would swallow the regional operations. The backstory there is all true, but there’s good reason to disbelieve the bounty story for a lot of reasons—for one thing, Gagne’s son says it’s not true.

What’s more interesting, though, are the people who insist upon its veracity, namely Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik. Hogan has made a post-career career out of mythmaking of this sort, most notoriously in his insistence that he didn’t know if Andre the Giant was going to let him win at WrestleMania III. The Iron Sheik hit job is another sterling example: In a world where pro wrestling is openly staged, these are ways in which we can insist upon its reality, or at least the real danger inherent in it. But for the Sheik it’s something more subtle. He could have taken the money and returned to the AWA as a conquering hero, but he chose to do what he had originally promised to do. He kept his word, and more importantly, he protected the business. On that night, Hulk Hogan was made into a star, a babyface superhero for a generation. The Iron Sheik would go on to play villain for years to come, but in the retelling, in the insistence upon the bounty story, on that night, the Iron Sheik turned babyface too.

The Iron Sheik’s career in the WWF marched onward—he famously teamed up with Russian villain Nikolai Volkoff to form a button-pushing tag team of anti-Americanism, but it was more of a comedy act than an invading force. He was written into the fabric of the era with his inclusion in the Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling cartoon series. Despite his cartoon iniquity, Sheik had a hand himself in the dissolution of kayfabe—the pro wrestling art that puts realism above all else—when he was pulled over by the New Jersey State Police along with on-screen rival (and American patriot) “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and found to have cocaine in their shared vehicle. The emergent controversy wasn’t so much about the illicit substances as it was about the idea that these blood rivals were cavorting as recreational drug-sharing pals in their off hours. Despite the WWF’s coinage of “sports entertainment” and the widespread understanding that pro wrestling was not, in fact, “on the level,” Duggan was suspended by the company and the Sheik was fired. Sheik returned briefly the next year, and then toured through the remaining wrestling organizations outside of the WWF, including a semi-notable run in WCW.

His next major act was not as the Iron Sheik but as Colonel Mustafa, an Iraqi soldier working with Sgt. Slaughter, who had renounced America during the run-up to the Iraq War. Slaughter was being positioned to feud with Hogan, and Vaziri’s inclusion in the faction—inexplicable as the role change seemed at the time—helped to ramp up the tension. Despite the tension, or maybe because of it, the angle was a dud. The 1990s WWF borrowed from real life, but only in the most cartoonish ways—this wrestler is an IRS agent and he wants to take your money; this wrestler is a repo man and he wants to take your car, etc.—and pro wrestling fans perhaps felt that exploiting the war was crass even in a milieu where the Iron Sheik had been such a phenom (and where wrestling Nazis goose-stepped in front of WWII vets in the post-war era).

The escape hatch was even more buffoonery. After Slaughter saw the error of his ways, Mustafa was relegated to a midcard act, no more or less foolish than the other overcooked acts around him. In 1996, he teamed up with his old foe Backlund in managing the Sultan, a new ambiguously Middle Eastern menace. In 2001, at WrestleMania X-7, the WWF staged a “Gimmick Battle Royal,” where mostly retired performers of a certain vintage were reheated to indulge the fans in self-aware nostalgia. The Iron Sheik won, supposedly because his knees and ankles were in such bad shape that they didn’t want to risk tossing him over the top rope. Regardless, he earned the victory; fans cheered him lustily when he came out, ensconced as he was in our shared pantheon of guilty pleasures. If the Iron Sheik secretly turned babyface in his match against Hogan at MSG, this was the night he finally felt the fans’ embrace.

There are legends in real time and legends in reminiscence. Hogan is the former, the Iron Sheik is the latter. It’s only in the postmodern gaze afforded us now that we can look back and realize that Hogan wouldn’t have been Hogan without the Sheik. Without “USA *hack-ptooey*” we wouldn’t have had the same joy of watching him dispatched. The ecstasy is nothing without the agony.

By 2001, the pro wrestling world had turned meta. Wrestlers abandoned gimmicks on-screen and turned to using their real names. Backstage power brokers became on-screen characters. A cocaine bust was as likely to get you a main-event match as it was to get you fired. And stories of real-life heroism was the stuff legends were made of. So perhaps it’s little wonder that the Iron Sheik’s final stage, a post-ring career of self-caricature, is what he’s more renowned for. His in-person interviews on platforms like The Howard Stern Show were delightfully crude and unintelligible. Shoot Interviews—the ultra-modern form of wrestling currency, where wrestlers gave warts-and-all retellings of their careers—were a stage for Vaziri, as everyone seemed to contain an Iron Sheik impression along with almost unbelievable stories of his hard living and general irrepressibility. And his Twitter account—run not by Vaziri himself but by his nephews Page and Jian Magen—was perhaps his biggest footprint, despite it not being his in any way. It was largely a parody of the parody that the Iron Sheik legacy had become, typed out phonetically and in all caps and always crassly insulting cohorts like Hulk Hogan with rampant “FUCKs” and promises that people would be “humbled.”

It was a good bit. The Iron Sheik’s career was built upon good bits. He was every bit the villain we needed exactly when we needed him. He could yell and spit and enrage the crowd at a given moment better than just about anyone in the business. But that Gimmick Battle Royal hinted at another legacy: Like so many others of his generation, the Sheik’s body had deteriorated to such a degree that he could barely walk. Despite several corrective surgeries, it would be a recurring theme of his last two decades, and despite his stardom, he rarely had the money to get the help he needed. He was a symbol of ’70s and ’80s geopolitics, he was a symbol of anti-Americanism in the world, he was a symbol of evil in an arena that distilled things down to the basics. And in the end, he was a symbol of his sport, his craft, and of the toll it took on those that succeeded at it. To be immobilized by pro wrestling is to have been a pro wrestler.

At some point every gimmick becomes a drab routine, and Sheik’s Twitter presence was no exception. “FUCK THE MONDAY,” “FUCK HOGAN,” “FUCK THE APPLE VISION PRO HEADSET”—those are all tweets from June 5th. He had become this character, this last iteration, because it was what the crowd demanded, and now it had swallowed him whole. His last tweet, posted 15 hours before he passed away, was “FUCK THE WILDFIRES,” which, I mean, agreed, but that’s not the Sheik I knew. The Iron Sheik I knew would embrace the yellow haze and lung damage that came from the smoke-filled air. The real Sheik said “FUCK” not as a direct insult but as an eyeroll. “FUCK THE HULK HOGAN” really means, “Who gives a fuck about Hulk Hogan?” The Iron Sheik I knew wouldn’t bother to tweet about the wildfires. The Iron Sheik would humble the wildfires with indifference.

I say that like I know him. I say it like I know more than just the matches and tweets and documentaries have told me. The Iron Sheik was a central piece of my childhood canon, a monster somehow both comical and diabolical all at once, a winking, snarling demigod. That he was a postmodern character in the last phase of his life isn’t a disclaimer or an apology: it’s who he always was. It’s also a qualifier for the pro wrestling pantheon. The Iron Sheik is the pro wrestler in its most evolved form: He didn’t need to be a stereotypical Middle Eastern villain, but he needed the fame that came with it. He absorbed the character, making it bigger than anyone dreamed it could be. He made it funnier than it had any business being. Then he became the character, in the ring and in real life. And then, after giving his body and his humanity and everything he had to give to the sport, he became, almost retroactively, a legend.

Sometimes I like to think that the Iron Sheik did turn down that $100,000 to break Hogan’s leg. Because it makes a good story. And in this story, the Iron Sheik is the hero.