Turban Decay: Iron Sheik (Part 1)

03/16/2017  By  Jordan Saïd     No comments

Turban Decay deals with images of Arabs in the cinema, as observed by Front Row Central staff writer and actual Arab Jordan Saïd. The column deals with stereotypes and changing perceptions both before and after 9/11.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve liked pro-wrestling… and I’ve had to overlook the depiction of Middle-Easterners in order to like pro-wrestling. Perhaps because of its cultural association with the white working class, pro-wrestling has a long history of racism. Black wrestlers face a concrete ceiling in the WWF, and stories of on- and off-screen racism abound. Mainstream exposure did nothing to quell the racism, then or now. (Nor did disavowing Hulk Hogan, by the way.) Through the use of colorful gimmicks and soap-operatic storytelling, pro-wrestling could function as a source of ethnic pride and visibility (cultural appropriation notwithstanding). For some wrestlers (like Tatanka and Tito Santana), it has. But for Arabs… not so much. For most of the WWF’s 1980s heyday, the promotion had one major Middle Eastern wrestler, and he existed only to get booed and beat down to raucous, patriotism-inspired applause. Consequently, in order to discuss the history of Arabs in pro-wrestling, we have to focus on the rise and fall of perhaps the most effective heel in wrestling history: the Iron Sheik.

Why Wrestling?

As this article states, “Wrestling is… a theater whose purpose is to restore the moral intelligibility of the universe — the heroes are obviously heroic, the villains obviously villainous, the signs and their meanings unambiguously fused.” Wrestling serves a purpose similar to opera: the performers elicit the audience’s sympathy through simple stories with big and loud emotions. Where opera sells its emotions with music, scripted physical entertainment (like pro-wrestling and martial arts films… and maybe even porn?) achieves the same effect through unabashed celebration of the human body and its capabilities.

Without wrestling, I’d never have known the human body could do this… or that the human body would have any reason to.

In my observation, people follow sports not because of the athleticism, but out of an atavistic tribal craving to identify with a group that we hope to see dominate a perceived out-group. No matter how far we distance ourselves from our club-swinging, sloped-brow-having ancestors, human beings will always feel a need for victory. The WWE channels this instinct into patriotism and conflates love of country with love of their wrestlers. When the nastiest heels need to get over, they do so by betraying America. When the WWE books its most cathartic victories, expect American flags waving and an audience chanting, “U.S.A.” as the foreign menaces receive a beatdown with the rhythm of a ritual sacrifice.

The Pre-Sheik Years

Part of what throws the WWE’s otherization of ethnic/minority wrestlers into stark relief lies in the similarity of their life stories. As with so many first-generation American wrestlers, the future Sheik—Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri—grew up in a poor working-class household. For him, wrestling seemed like a ticket out of poverty. His passion—then and now—lay in Greco-Roman wrestling. He idolized the wrestlers he saw participate in the Olympics. His choice of hero would become a bizarre irony: Gholamreza Takhti, an Iranian wrestler famous for his dedication to honorable fighting and sportsmanship. In a match against Alexander Medved, Takhti lost rather than exploit Medved’s injured leg. Takhti, who openly called for democracy for Iran, died under mysterious circumstances at age 37. Not the kind of guy one would expect one of the most memorable heels in pro-wrestling to idolize.

Takhti in his usual state of not capitalizing on American stereotypes of Iranians for money.

In fact, Khosrow went on to work as a bodyguard for the same infamously corrupt Shah who would possibly have his idol killed. He emigrated circa 1969, finding Iran dangerous after Takhti’s death. Khosrow made his way to Minnesota, where he won the Amateur Athletic Union Greco-Roman wrestling championship. In 1972, Verne Gagne (one of the rabble of rival promoters Vince McMahon, Jr. first colluded with and later defeated on his way to the top) recruited him to become a professional wrestler. Gagne’s wife suggested the Sheik gimmick. Then everything changed.

The two biggest changes: less hair, more Cyndi Lauper.

So much of the tragedy of Iron Sheik’s story lies in the way that the world of pro-wrestling filed down his convictions. Khosrow grew up a devout Shiite Muslim. He didn’t even lose his virginity until age 28! When Gagne let the naïve Khosrow in on the kayfabe nature of the sport, Khosrow resisted joining up at first. He agreed only when Gagne made the world of wrestling sound like a fraternity. The abstemious, focused Khosrow avoided drugs until Jimmy Snuka talked him into trying a joint. The joint transformed him into the kind of drugged-out wrestler whom other wrestlers tell road stories about.

As Khosrow’s standing rose (in those halcyon days when wrestling promotions didn’t care what drugs their employees did), he left Gagne for Vince McMahon, Sr., to Gagne’s dismay. For the decades to come, Vince McMahon, Jr. would fire and hire the Sheik numerous times, balancing the Sheik’s real wrestling acumen and skill at putting his opponents over with his inability to kick.

Having Sheik around gave Fred Blassie and Nikolai Volkoff an excuse to dress up as stereotypes.

In fact, when WWE Heavyweight Champion Bob Backlund got the news that it had come time for him to lose his belt, he chose Iron Sheik to defeat him over Hulk Hogan. Backlund agreed to job only for a wrestler with legitimate amateur experience, of which the Iron Sheik had an enormous amount. The McMahon family booked it all: the Sheik would defeat Backlund on Boxing Day 1983; less than three weeks later, the Hulk, ostensibly brought in as a substitute for Backlund, would take the belt off the Sheik’s hands. Although the Sheik and the Hulk have both claimed that a vindictive Gagne offered Sheik $100,000 to defy McMahon and break Hulk’s leg as a shoot, the Sheik refused the offer.

The big day came on January 23, 1984, at Madison Square Garden. Hulk came out wearing a tank top that said, “American Made,” heralding the jingoistic theme of the match. As soon as the bell rang, Hulk rained blows on an unprepared Sheik from behind, to audience approval. The applause intensified when Hulk lifted Sheik in a chokehold and later spat on him. The crowd erupted in a star-spangled frenzy when Hulk pinned the Sheik. The WWF labeled this worked beatdown a victory for America and the canonical birth of Hulkamania. The audience cheering their hearts out at the sight of the WWF’s only Iranian getting choked and spat on speaks volumes about cultural perceptions of the time.

The crowd loved this strangulation. The cheering hit Thunderdome levels.

The match became the best-known moment of the Sheik’s career: a humiliating defeat by a white rookie. This goes to show that (except for extreme special case Dwayne Johnson) a minority wrestler in the WWE can receive no greater honor… than the privilege of putting white wrestlers over.

The 80s and the Sheik

The 1980s transformed professional wrestling. Vince McMahon, Sr. had seen tremendous success with his WWF promotion because of his canny decision to focus on densely-populated territories (namely New York City and New England). His son bought his company in 1982 and (against Senior’s wishes) focused on bursting into the mainstream. Vince, Jr., ever the quintessential hyper-capitalist sleazebag, bought out his rivals (promotions and promoters), headhunted the best wrestlers working at the time, wooed all the Hollywood talent he could find (from Ozzy Osbourne to… Herb), and made pay-per-view the linchpin of his business model. Through Cyndi Lauper’s friendship with Captain Lou Albano, Mr. T’s then-formidable star power, and the runaway success of WWF’s pay-per-view events, McMahon the Younger succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.

Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff would form the nucleus of the WWF’s kayfabe anti-Americanism. Thanks to the then-recent Iranian hostage crisis and the Cold War, these characters became easy sponges for nationalistic hate. Volkoff would demand audience attention as he bleated a monotone rendition of the Soviet national anthem. On the frequent occasions when they partnered up in a wrestling Axis of Evil, Iron Sheik would punctuate Volkoff’s rendition by crying, “Russia, number 1! Iran, number 1! USA, ptoo!”

Probably the first uncensored flippings-off on basic cable.

Their opponents never failed to invoke America in the fight against these muscular foreigners. For most of the 80s, the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff epitomized all of America’s enemies, and the faces who defeated them did so for America. When Hogan fought Volkoff the next year in Saturday Night’s Main Event, Hogan ended by tossing the Soviet flag to the ground and spitting on it, after which he brandished an American flag to thunderous applause. When Volkoff and Iron Sheik performed their ring entrance shtick in the first WrestleMania, Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo came out wearing red, white, and blue. In WrestleMania 2, Corporal Kirchner—a handsome but under-utilized jobber to the stars—defeated Volkoff and, in keeping with the theme of the match, waved the American flag as “The Army Goes Rolling Along” played. These matches would climax to the audience chanting, “U.S.A.,” as the patriot pummels the foreign menace. (Some fans would take these matches to heart. The Iron Sheik has had wrestling fans stab him, threaten him, and vandalize his car.)

The WWF portrayed anti-American wrestlers as indefensible, so much so that even resident heel commentator Jesse Ventura stopped short of supporting these wrestlers. While he openly cheered for other heels, he would praise Sheik and Volkoff for their physiques and leave it at that. (Although Ventura has improved since his wrestling days, he has his own history of dropping racist commentary during matches. In a blatantly racist incident on a 1986 episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event, two white wrestlers pinned down Mr. T and whipped him across his back. Ventura tried to make light of it by describing the incident as “Roots 2.”)

I MEAN, REALLY, WWE. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?!

Of course, I don’t see anything wrong with love of country. But if you look at the most patriotic wrestlers and angles, you’ll only see one skin color. Through Hulk Hogan and John Cena and Kurt Angle and Lex Luger and Jack Swagger, pro-wrestling has associated patriotism with whiteness. WWE has employed a plenitude of faces of color, foreign faces, and white heels. Nevertheless, whenever they play the American pride card, the most prominent standard-bearer looks every bit the (often blond) Aryan übermensch.

Subtle.

This becomes problematic when the WWE books the heels to make silly mistakes to elicit ridicule. In the WrestleMania I match, Barry Windham tricks Iron Sheik into landing his flying kick on Volkoff, his own teammate. In the 80s, the bookers used this heel ineptitude to make the villains seem equal parts evil and pathetic. In a patriotic match, where white Americans fight shifty foreigners, this inculcates the message that foreigners lack “our” sophistication or intelligence. But if they don’t have enough intelligence to avoid hitting each other, they have enough to cheat, as Iron Sheik does to win his match in WrestleMania I.

Anyone who gets whacked with Fred Blassie’s cane invariably hits the ground and instantly loses consciousness. What the hell did Blassie put in that thing? A heart condition?!

In typical 80s wrestling sloppiness, WWF’s personnel make no distinction between Persian and Arab. Even the word “Sheikh” (from the Arabic “شيخ‎‎,” which means “elder”) describes Arabs, not Persians. In Saturday Night’s Main Event, announcer Lord Alfred Hayes consistently—incorrectly—calls Iron Sheik “the Arab.” Iron Sheik even does it to himself! He incorrectly implies that he comes from an Arab country after his WrestleMania match. This intellectual laziness makes fertile ground for racism. It becomes easier to hate a people if you paint them in your mind as “all the same.”

The story continues in Part 2.

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About Jordan Saïd

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Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.

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