“Is that the real Iron Sheik?”
Jorel Claudio, a 28-year-old pastry chef, weaves past slow-moving tourists on King Street West in Toronto, contemplating the rough-hewn, barrel-chested man with the black handlebar mustache and red-and-white-checked kaffiyeh lodged in the passenger seat of a BMW at the curb. Before Claudio can approach, Marc Lacoursière, a 34-year-old graphic designer, asks the Iron Sheik for a favor.
“Tell me to go fuck myself, like you do on Twitter.”
The Iranian native’s eyes flash as he rolls down his window. “Get the fuck out of here!” he booms.
Both Claudio and Lacoursière look on in wonder.
To reemphasize his point, the former World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) champion bellows again.
“Get the fuck out of here!”
The small crowd gathered around the vehicle gawks at the Sheik, then back at Lacoursière, who grins.
“That made my day,” he says softly. “As a matter of fact, it made my year.”
The Sheik has all but forgotten the exchange when his managers, 34-year-old identical twins Jian and Page Magen, help him from the vehicle to a yellow plastic chair on the sidewalk in front of the Belly Buster, a sandwich shop they own.
Resting on his cane (even after replacement surgery a decade or so ago, bone bulges from his left knee, the residual effect of more than two decades in the ring), the Sheik stares straight ahead, as if the coffee shop across the street were the red light on a camera at a WWF event circa 1985.
“Six year, nobody beat Mr. Bob Backlund!” he thunders, referring to the man he dethroned for the title in December 1983. “I beat him at most famous arena, Madison Square Garden! Everybody know I’m the real champion, and I beat Angelo Mosca at Maple Leaf Garden not far from here!”
Heads hang out of a number 510 streetcar as it winds off King Street West toward Adelaide. Not everyone understands his references, but nobody can look away.
“Without Iron Sheik, there be no Hulkamania!” he yells, assuming it’s common knowledge that he agreed to lose the title to Hulk Hogan one month after procuring it in order to provide WWF head Vince McMahon with a tanned, telegenic lightning rod who could expand the company from its Northeastern wrestling territory to an international conglomerate. Then, switching to a real-life grudge, he adds, “But I don’t have respect for jabroni Ultimate Warrior!”
In another age, the Sheik would be stuck venting his hostility on a street like this or in a gym or barroom, but social media has given the retired wrestler a wider audience—and an outlet where he can continue being the Sheik. He has more than 367,000 Twitter followers, who track his thoughts on everything from wrestling adversaries to the NFL, the NBA, the Premier League, pop culture and politics. When he approves of something, it’s the “real bubba” or even “Sheik class,” as in this December tweet: “Nelson Mandela god bless you forever you forever Iron Sheik class.” But when he disapproves (“jabroni” is one of his favorite insults), things really get colorful.
“Tom Brady wife need the #Obamacare after I suplex her.”
“Wednesday please go fuck yourself.”
“Miley Cyrus Ultimate Warrior sister.”
“Tony Romo play great tonight for dumb piece of shit raisin balls grasshopper dick motherfucker.”
A recurring theme: placing a rival facedown on the mat and bending him backward in the painful camel clutch—the hold the Sheik used to defeat Backlund—then “humbling” him by fucking him in the ass.
“Who talks like that?” Page Magen asks. “Adam Sandler doesn’t. Chris Rock doesn’t. He’s not gay. He’s not a rapist. It’s just an extreme way of saying you disapprove of another person.”
Yet it always gets a pop. “The Sheik’s popularity is based on his utter lack of any sort of social-media graces,” says Ed Zitron, a public relations specialist and author who has written about the Sheik. “He grandstands like wrestlers do. He isn’t perfectly worded. He is just the Iron Sheik, and he is fantastically passionate.”
And the Magens—Persian Jews who run a business that provides entertainment at Toronto-area weddings, bar mitzvahs and corporate events—are determined to make a brand out of the man they consider an uncle. (Their father, Bijan, a former table-tennis champion in Iran, and the Sheik are childhood friends.) In 2010 they brought the Sheik to the Grammys and introduced him to Jay Z and Beyoncé on the red carpet. “Beyoncé actually kissed his hand and asked to take a picture with him,” Jian claims. “I watched Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day walk past Tony Bennett because the Iron Sheik was there.”
The Sheik’s crossover cult stature is based on something more than nostalgia, a concept the Sheik himself doesn’t fully grasp. When asked why his Twitter following continues to grow, the Sheik gives a tired look.
“I imagine they like it. No?”
“He thinks it’s all from wrestling,” Page says. “But he sees he’s getting a lot of attention, so he dials into it. He told me one day, ‘Even Ray Charles knows me.’ Does he not know Ray Charles is dead, or is he saying that because it’s funny? After living his gimmick for so long, it’s a little bit of the real-fake thing.”
“Even so-called normal wrestlers get lost in their character,” says Greg Oliver, author of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. He mentions Dick “the Destroyer” Beyer, an international star from the 1960s, as an example. “The Destroyer is a well-spoken guy who has taught school and saved his money. Yet when he went to a large event, he still put on his mask, because that’s who he is. There’s a slippery slope to keeping your sanity when you’ve played a character for so long.”
1. Wrestling legend “Classy” Freddie Blassie managed the Iron Sheik, who dubbed him “Ayatollah” Blassie. 2. The Sheik with his old friend and tag-team partner Nikolai Volkoff. 3. In 1984 he agreed to lose the WWF championship to Hulk Hogan.
The man who would become the Iron Sheik was born Khosrow Vaziri in March, or maybe September. He isn’t sure. He believes the year was 1942 but is uncertain of his birthday, since his family often confused the Western calendar and the one used in Iran. He knows he was born in the ancient city of Damghan and was so dedicated to amateur wrestling that as a teenager he had 90 tattooed on his right forearm, for the 90-kilogram weight class in which he aspired to compete. The tattoo was done in a brothel despite the fact that Vaziri took his training and his Shiite faith so seriously he didn’t lose his virginity until he was nearly 29. By then he’d represented Iran at international tournaments.
Among the Sheik’s heroes: Shaban Jafari, who performed feats of strength for foreign delegations, and Gholamreza Takhti, a gold medalist in wrestling at the 1956 Olympics. Jafari and Takhti could hardly have been more opposite. Jafari won the favor of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, for organizing mobs to bust dissidents’ heads, earning him the ire of the people, who called him Shaban Beemokh—Shaban the Brainless. Takhti became an activist, capitalizing on his fame to cross police lines and bring food to demonstrators, until, in 1968, the government announced Takhti had committed suicide in his room at Tehran’s Atlantic Hotel.
Vaziri had a good thing going at the time. Because of his athletic achievements, he worked as an assistant cameraman for the national television network, reporting directly to the shah’s cousin, and was assigned to guard the royal family during the 10-day festival at Persepolis, the ancient Persian capital. Convinced by Takhti’s death that no one was safe in Iran, Vaziri fled, accepting a long-standing offer to join the Minnesota Amateur Wrestling Club, which has consistently fielded competitors on the U.S. Olympic squad for the past half century. Guided by coach Alan Rice, Vaziri won Amateur Athletic Union silver medals in 1969 and 1970, as well as the gold in 1971. The next year, he served as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic team.
He also began training for professional wrestling with Verne Gagne, promoter of the then potent American Wrestling Association in Minneapolis. Gagne was particular about whom he admitted into the fraternity, and Vaziri’s class included U.S. Olympic weight lifter Ken Patera, former Miami Dolphin and San Diego Charger Bob Bruggers and the man widely regarded as the greatest professional wrestler who ever lived, Ric “Nature Boy” Flair.
It was Verne Gagne’s wife, Mary, who came up with the gimmick that transformed Khosrow Vaziri into the Iron Sheik. The promoter and his spouse were with the wrestler in a French restaurant in Montreal, where Vaziri was working as an assistant coach for the 1976 American Olympic team. Vaziri told Gagne he was unhappy. He was doing jobs—losing—to nearly everyone in the AWA, even manager Bobby “the Brain” Heenan. The problem, he said, was that because of his amateur background, the AWA was presenting him as a babyface, or fan favorite. The three bantered about possible heel personas, when Mary Gagne shouted out, “The Iron Sheik.”
The wrestler was unimpressed. Sheiks are Arab, and he is Persian. And there was another problem.
“We already have a Sheik in Detroit.”
Vaziri was referring to Ed “the Original Sheik” Farhat, the Lebanese American promoter who played a crazed Bedouin, shooting fireballs at his foes and carving them up with a pencil he stashed in his trunks. Farhat did not appreciate gimmick infringement. After Frankie Cain portrayed a similar character called the Great Mephisto, Farhat slapped the hell out of him on a Japanese tour.
“Don’t worry about Farhat,” Mary Gagne countered. “He doesn’t pay your bills.” Likewise, the American public was largely clueless to the fact that Persians and Arabs had different customs.
“She was a smart lady,” the Sheik remembers of the woman who invented the character that would alter the rest of his life. “I love her forever.”