Jun 10, 2023

Never Give Up Or You Are Big Time Jabroni

Khosrow Vaziri
1942 - 2023
On Wednesday, one of the true legends of professional wrestling passed away in his home in Georgia.  His name was Khosrow Vaziri, but he was better known to fans around the world by the name of his villainous character in the squared circle, The Iron Sheik.  Mr. Vaziri was 81 years old.

1985 Topps Pro Wrestling Stars - Card #49

Khosrow Vaziri was born and raised in Iran.  He was an accomplished amateur wrestler in his home country and held a job as one of the bodyguards to The Shah of Iran before he moved to the United States.  After settling in Minneapolis, he became the assistant coach of the 1972 United States Olympic Wrestling Team.  The following year, he trained to become a professional wrestler at Verne Gagne's school.  Soon afterward, he created the character that he would go on to be known as for the rest of his life, The Iron Sheik.

He became one of the most successful villain wrestlers of all time throughout the 70's and 80's, and was one of the most prominent members of the roster when the World Wrestling Federation grew from a regional promotion to a worldwide phenomenon.  On December 26th, 1983 in front of a packed house at Madison Square Garden, The Iron Sheik defeated Bob Backlund to become the WWF World Heavyweight Champion.

Sheik's time as champion lasted less than a month, but it was one of the most impactful reigns in the history of professional wrestling.  The man he defeated (Bob Backlund) was a "good guy" in the WWF, and the company decided that a different "good guy" was going to be the face of the company as they expanded to a nationwide audience.  In those days, they'd never have a hero wrestler defeat another hero wrestler, especially to win a championship.  The hero had to triumph over a villain, so The Iron Sheik was the transitional champion who would lose the title to the new hero of the company on January 23'rd, 1984.  The new hero, and the new champion on that night, was Hulk Hogan.

The Iron Sheik would continue to wrestle for the World Wrestling Federation throughout the 80's and 90's.  He was one half of the tag team champions with Nikolai Volkoff, which is when I first watched him wrestle when I was a kid, and he would take on a new name in the early 90's when the WWF capitalized on Operation Desert Storm to create a new villain.

The company turned Sgt. Slaughter from a pro-America drill sergeant character to an Iraqi sympathizer who fought on behalf of Saddam Hussein.  To sell the gimmick, Slaughter was joined by two alleged members of the Iraqi military.  The first was General Adnan, played by veteran wrestler Adnan Al-KaissieAl-Kaissie was born in Iraq and was legitimately a high school classmate of Saddam Hussein.  He was also a former WWF Tag Team Champion in the 1970's when he wrestled as Billy White Wolf alongside Chief Jay Strongbow.  It was a different time back then.  Both men were playing heroic Native American characters, and their heritage was never questioned despite the fact that the team was made up of an Iraqi-American and an Italian-American, neither of whom had so much as a leaf of Native American ancestry in their family tree.

The second member of Sgt. Slaughter's entourage was The Iron Sheik, who was given the new name of Colonel Mustafa.  I suppose that the WWF writers figured that some fans might catch on to the fact that Iran and Iraq are two different countries and that they were not exactly the best of friends, but they'd never be able to tell that the big bald dude with the mustache was the same guy who used to come out to the ring shouting "Iran Number One" as long as they gave him a different name.

On a personal note, The Iron Sheik wrestled under the Colonel Mustafa character on the first wrestling matches that I ever got to see in person.  My dad brought me to see a WWF house show in West Palm Beach on my 11th birthday, which was right in the middle of their Gulf War storyline.  The main event that night featured Hulk Hogan defending the WWF Championship against Sgt. Slaughter in a "Desert Storm Match".  One of the midcard matches that night featured another American hero character, "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, taking on one of the villainous Iraqi characters, Colonel Mustafa.

In the 2000's, The Iron Sheik became known for his shoot interviews.  Whether it was at a wrestling convention, or for a company like RF Video, or one of his appearances on The Howard Stern Show, the Sheik would launch into a profanity-laden tirade against anyone in the professional wrestling business, or pop culture in general, who he felt was disrespectful.  If you search on YouTube, you'll find hundreds of clips with examples of this.  Many of the folks who upload and comment on these clips will call him crazy, but I think he was crazy like a fox.  This is a man who worked for decades as a professional wrestler and who rose to the top of the industry making the fans believe in a character that he was playing.  There are few wrestlers who knew how to work a crowd as effectively as he did, and I suspect that these interviews were his outlet for continuing to do what he did best when he reached an age where doing it in the ring was no longer possible.

A much more thorough piece on the man behind The Iron Sheik character can be seen in the 2014 documentary: The Sheik.  It's available to stream for free (with ads) on Tubi or for a small fee (without ads) on YouTube and Amazon, among other places.  Even if you aren't a fan of professional wrestling, I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to see the true story of a man who found the American dream by playing the villain to the adopted country that he loved.

Finally, I would be negligent if I didn't mention The Iron Sheik's activity on Twitter.  Since 2009, he has tweeted out rants, threats, and random pearls of wisdom (mostly in all caps) on the social media platform.  Just as his shoot interviews, this is an example of the man working the crowd and playing to his retirement gimmick of the crazy old villain who wants to break your back in the Camel Clutch.

My favorite of his many Tweets was this gem from June 9th, 2018.  If he had sold this as a bumper sticker, it would be on my car right now.

What I've written here barely scratched the surface of this man's life.  Khosrow Vaziri was without a doubt one of the most interesting and entertaining human beings to ever set foot in a wrestling ring and he will not be forgotten.  Rest in peace, Sheiky Baby, and thank you for the memories.