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Title: The Sheik
Director: Igal Hecht
Streaming on: Netflix
Primary focus of interest: The Iron Sheik
Secondary focus of interest: Wrestling’s 1980s heyday
Over the past few years, I have gotten into wrestling as much one can without ever, you know, watching an actual match. Not to get too name-droppy, but the catalyst for this was when my friend Robert Siegel wrote The Wrestler. I am a big fan of that movie (Rob wrote and directed Big Fan as well), and I guess you could say that really turbo-boosted (my friend Rob also wrote the movie Turbo) a revived interest in an entertainment I was a big fan of during my Hulk Hogan-obsessed youth. It also helped that I was writing a book about Insane Clown Posse, a pair of former (and sometimes current) wrestlers who, in a fulfillment of their wildest childhood dreams, started their own wrestling league in addition to wrestling briefly in the WWF (now WWE) and NWA Total Nonstop Action. Insane Clown Posse has made wrestling a big part of the gestalt of ebullient, unapologetic trash culture that makes up so much of the group’s mythology. Consequently, Insane Clown Posse has also made wrestling a big part of their annual festival of arts and culture, The Gathering Of The Juggalos, and it was there that I first saw The Iron Sheik in the flesh.
The Iron Sheik straddles two distinct eras of both professional wrestling and pop culture: Wrestling’s 1980s golden age and the social-media-crazed present. In the 1980s, The Iron Sheik was the preeminent heel on WWF, a cartoonish figure of Islamic menace designed to tap into roaring anti-Muslim sentiment following the overthrow of Iran’s Shah, the subsequent hostage crisis, and the institution of an Islamic theocracy. He was the guy you loved to hate, the living embodiment of all that was evil and anti-American.
As chronicled in the gripping documentary The Sheik, the man born Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri was something of an authentic fake. Much of the package that he brought to arenas was legitimate. For starters, he was a real wrestler of the old school, a classically trained grappler who competed for a spot on the Iranian Olympics team as a young man and was an assistant coach for the U.S. Wrestling Team in 1972. Furthermore, he was a genuine Iranian who, in a wrestling-crazed culture, once occupied the distinguished position of the Shah of Iran’s personal bodyguard.
What wasn’t authentic about The Iron Sheik’s persona was his vitriolic, theatrical anti-Americanism. Vaziri lived the immigrant dream when he briefly became a transitional champion of the World Wrestling Federation—the terminally boring but technically gifted Billy Backlund refused to give up his belt to Hulk Hogan, a wrestler he didn’t respect, but agreed to give it up to a wrestler he did, namely, the Sheik. This changed the direction of wrestling. Once The Sheik got the belt and championship, the stage was then set for Hogan, the ultimate blonde all-American and the antithesis of the Sheik’s foreign evil, to then defeat The Sheik and usher in the age of Hulkamania during which wrestling became big business and a truly international pop-culture phenomenon.
The Sheik teases that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Sheik would do what his bosses wanted and lose to Hogan. He was certainly the stronger wrestler and could easily have defeated him, or broken his leg if he chose, then headed back to his home in Minnesota in the heat of victory. But the Sheik was a company man and a good soldier who lived by his word. So he not only let Hogan beat him, he made him look good in the process, a crucial gift for a professional wrestler. Though he gave up the championship, Sheik got a lot out of the arrangement as well. He became the WWF’s top heel.
The Sheik spends a lot of time addressing the different kinds of “heat” a wrestler can attract. There’s the heat when a crowd is booing someone, but it’s a much different, darker form of heat when that anger turns into the crowd wanting to murder a heel. And when the Sheik and a promising “babyface” (wrestling jargon for the good guys) nicknamed “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan were traveling together, the Sheik attracted the worst kind of heat imaginable: the police, who arrested these ostensible enemies after discovering cocaine in their car.
This made the WWF look bad on two counts. Overlord Vince McMahon was not overjoyed that two of his stars were busted with drugs (though his own body was clearly created through steroids), and it made it look even worse that these would-be enemies were revealed to be traveling and drug buddies in real life. This began a dark period in Iron Sheik’s life when he wrestled for the kinds of tiny independent promoters and shows seen in The Wrestler, and developed powerful addictions to booze, crack, and cocaine that threatened his relationships with his wife and daughters.
For a while in The Sheik, it’s not clear whether we are watching a man destroy himself before our very eyes (as in the previous Streaming University entry Last Days Here) or whether he will magically pull himself back from the brink (not unlike the protagonist of previous Streaming University entry Last Days Here). Thankfully this is a film with a happy ending. Sheik gets off the drugs and, with the help of a spirited new manager savvy about re-packaging an old name for a new generation, experiences an unexpected, George Takei-like comeback as a social-media personality. Sheik harnesses the powers of YouTube and Twitter (with the help of some younger, more tech-savvy affiliates) and re-creates himself as a professional “personality,” a foul-mouthed online insult comic forever threatening to humble various media figures by sodomizing them to the delight of a huge and devoted following. (Needless to say, his polite Minnesota wife doesn’t seem too crazy about this turn.)
The Iron Sheik essentially transformed the wrestling art of trash-talking an opponent into a sort of online performance art, where the opponent the Sheik is trash-talking is pretty much everyone in pop culture. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is among the wrestling luminaries interviewed here; as always, he’s charming, smart, insightful, and generous in giving the Sheik credit both for being a mentor and for creating the term “Jabroni,” which would become something of a catchprhase for The Rock.
Today, while the Sheik’s once mighty body has been shattered, his mind remains fresh and filled with good-spirited contempt. His real life turned out to be much more dramatic and entertaining than his fictional persona, and I highly recommend The Sheik for former wrestling buffs like myself who want to remember a time when men like Vaziri could dress up as cartoonish villains and exploit xenophobia and anti-Islamic fervor while secretly embodying everything that makes our nation great.
Educational value: Exceeds expectations
Entertainment value: Exceeds expectations