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 I Will Make You Humble
  • February 24, 2014 : 07:02
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To get to the Legends of the Ring fan festival, I take a bus from the Port Authority in Times Square down the New Jersey Turnpike, past billboards, power lines and swampland to Monroe Township, an hour away. The bus overshoots the hotel by about half a mile, so I walk with a group of wrestling fans down County Road 612 toward the Crowne Plaza. As we pass an assisted-living facility, Louis Curry, 42, a technician at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, asks my birthday.

“May 5.”

“May 5,” he repeats, calculating something in his head. A light goes on, and he smiles widely. “Cowboy Bill Watts!”

At the convention there’s no sign of Watts, whose birthday is also May 5 and who ran a pretty exciting promotion in Oklahoma as the WWF, with Hulk Hogan at the helm, was putting other regional territories out of business. But the hotel’s ballroom does have former WWF champion Kevin “Diesel” Nash, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and Marty Jannetty—Shawn Michaels’s partner in the late 1980s in a popular tag team called the Rockers—signing autographs next to tables covered with DVDs, WWE action figures and old wrestling magazines. Upstairs I sit down with Croatian-born Josip Peruzovic, who, as Nikolai Volkoff, performed as a Soviet heel and a tag-team partner of the Iron Sheik. Volkoff, 66, is a far cry from his Commie persona: In 2006, he ran as a Republican for the Maryland House of Delegates, but when he’s around wrestling fans he wears his gimmick, a fur hat with a Soviet army seal.

He probably knows the Iron Sheik better than anybody in the wrestling business. “I couldn’t speak good English, and he was worse than me, so we traveled together and became good friends,” Volkoff says.

Before early flights, the two saved money by sleeping in airport lots in a van Volkoff outfitted with a sofa bed. Sometimes they shared a hotel room. “We had different habits,” Volkoff says. “He liked to party. I’m allergic to alcohol. I always wanted to save money. If I could take the shuttle from the airport to the hotel, I’d do it. The Sheik hated that. He’d say, ‘Nikolai, you cheap bastard, I’ll pay for the taxi.’”

Hotels presented their own problems. Once, before an important singles match with Hogan, Volkoff ordered the Sheik to keep quiet. When Volkoff woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, he grew dizzy and stumbled. “I turn the lights on,” Volkoff recalls, “and I see the whole room is full of smoke. I had a contact high. It wasn’t just the Sheik in there. It was lots of wrestlers. Some have passed away—I don’t want to say who, God bless their souls. I said, ‘Fuck off. Party’s over.’ And I don’t like to curse. The Sheik could have gone to their rooms. Why does he have to bring everybody to me, to whisper and smoke and sit on the floor in the dark?”

Even when the Sheik was partying, he conducted himself as if he were back at the zurkhaneh, the traditional “house of strength” where he first learned to wrestle and juggle 75-pound Iranian exercise clubs.

“We’d be sitting around smoking a joint, and he’d start doing squats,” says King Kong Bundy, the 458-pound hairless behemoth announcers called the Walking Condominium. “And he’d do hundreds of squats. He’d be dripping with sweat. Just dripping. He was a beast, a real beast. He has the constitution of a rhino.”

Cowboy Bob Orton Jr.—father of current WWE headliner Randy Orton—met the Sheik when the future champ still wrestled under his birth name, Khosrow Vaziri, with a full head of black hair. Orton remembers sharing a room with the Sheik in either Cleveland or Detroit and hearing an unusual quiver in the middle of the night: “I’m thinking, What’s this guy doing? I look over and he’s got this cooler of beer sitting there, and he’s drinking beer with his feet up against the wall, doing handstand push-ups. I say, ‘It’s four o’clock in the morning.’ And he goes, ‘The Sheik has to stay in shape.’”

It took a while for the Sheik gimmick to ignite. He tried a number of variations, sometimes billing himself as Lebanese, since at the time the shah of Iran was a U.S. ally. Then came the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which saw the shah replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini and a hostage crisis that involved 52 Americans held captive in Tehran for 444 days. Although the Sheik had served as a bodyguard for the shah’s family, he went on television and claimed to act on orders from the ayatollah, mentioning specific mullahs he regarded as mentors. Instantly he became the most despised man in the squared circle.

It was good for business.

“Everyone hated him because of what was going on overseas,” says Orton. “The arena would go quiet sometimes because the people were so mad they couldn’t get the words out. They’d have to put his match on in the middle of the card so he wouldn’t have to fight his way out of the building. But he relished the heat that he had.”

These were the innocent days of wrestling, when fans were not wise to the fact that winners were predetermined. A substantial number of audience members truly believed in—and hated—the man who came to the ring with a flag bearing the likeness of Ayatollah Khomeini.

At the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, a fan dove into the ring, knocking the Sheik to the ground. “I go to hit the guy, and I see the Sheik get up,” Volkoff recounts. “The Sheik was ready to kill. So I grab the guy to save him. Man, the Sheik kicked him in the jaw harder than anything I’ve ever seen.”

Without breaking character, the Sheik looked at security and demanded, “Now, take this American piece of garbage and throw him out in the street where he belong.”

“Sheikie became Sheikie at some stage,” says Bruce Prichard, an industry lifer best remembered for his televangelist gimmick, Brother Love. “He stopped being Khos. The character became him. In fact, the Iron Sheik became a caricature of the Iron Sheik. I remember him watching the Saturday morning cartoon show [Hulk Hogan’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling started running on CBS in 1985], seeing the cartoon of himself on TV and saying, ‘Yessss, look at Sheikie.’”

Shortly after the Sheik locked Bob Backlund in the camel clutch and won the WWF championship, he received a phone call from his old friend and AWA promoter Verne Gagne. An athlete of the Sheik’s caliber did not deserve to lose his title to a showman like Hulk Hogan, Gagne allegedly said. Instead, Gagne purportedly offered the Sheik $100,000 to break the Hulkster’s leg and bring the belt to the AWA.

The Sheik respected his old trainer. After all, it was Mary Gagne who’d created the Iron Sheik gimmick. But he felt a greater affinity to WWF boss Vince McMahon. At his 2005 WWE Hall of Fame induction, the Sheik remembered his response like this: “Maybe you think Hulk Hogan is a jabroni Hollywood blond. But my boss, Mr. McMahon, is not jabroni. He is the real number one promoter in the world. God bless his soul. I love him forever.”

On January 23, 1984, the Sheik defended his title against Hogan in front of a ravenous crowd at Madison Square Garden. “The Sheik went out and put over Hogan like a million bucks,” Prichard says. “Not a lot of guys would have done that. Sheik could have tied Hogan up in a knot, but he didn’t. He did business. He did the right thing.”

History supports his decision. In 1991, the AWA declared bankruptcy. The association’s video archives are now owned by the WWE.

Wrestlers still tell the story about Gagne’s attempt to derail Hulkamania. “I think the Sheik believes it happened, and it probably did,” Orton says. “But who knows?”

In the backroom at the Warehouse, an event venue in Toronto’s Downsview Park, Phife Dawg, a member of the pioneering hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, is reclining on a couch when the door bursts open and the Sheik rolls in in a wheelchair. Phife looks up as a friend of the Magens sweeps in behind the ex-wrestler and locates a tote bag containing the Sheik’s AAU medals.

“Okay,” the Sheik says, tapping his cane as the medals are placed on his lap. “Let’s go.” And he’s gone as quickly as he arrived.

The medals are among the Sheik’s most valued possessions. He wore them while cutting promos in the WWF and worries about them obsessively. He blames this on Volkoff, who once blurted out their room number in a Newark hotel lobby.

“What you think happened?” the Sheik asks disdainfully. “Some motherfucker broke in and took everything.”

Volkoff wasn’t happy his hot plate was missing—he hates spending money in restaurants and would cook in the room—but the Sheik was inconsolable.

“Sheik was maaaaaad,” Volkoff says. “He was mad. Oh my God, he was so mad, he was crying, ‘Oh, Nikolai, they stole my medals.’ I said, ‘What you worry about your medals? They took my hot plate. You can go to any 10-cent store and buy another medal.’”

That’s when Volkoff realized the Sheik traveled with his genuine medals—the AAU later replaced them—rather than the facsimiles a wrestler was expected to use.

Phife Dawg wasn’t allowed to watch wrestling back then—his grandmother was a strict Seventh-day Adventist who disapproved of such frivolousness—so he had to sneak over to his friends’ homes if he wanted to see the Iron Sheik on TV. All these years later, he finds it difficult to grasp that he’s at the same event as the Sheik. But it is Jian Magen’s bachelor party, and the Sheik’s co-manager has invited his favorite celebrities. As a DJ transitions from Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” to 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love,” former major league outfielder Jose Canseco—remembered as much for winning the American League’s most valuable player award as for chronicling his steroid abuse in a 2005 tell-all book—plays cards at a red-velvet poker table.

The Magens’ friends monitor him closely. “He’s big,” says one.

“He’s got a great tan.”

For most of the night, the Sheik is subdued, his replica gold belt draped over his shoulder as he sits with the Magens’ father, Bijan, and speaks Farsi with white-haired men. When one of the 250 guests approaches and mentions that he’s Israeli, the Sheik, known for his diatribes against “cheap Jews” on The Howard Stern Show, smiles politely.

Yet even when he does nothing, the Sheik captivates. Dave Keystone, a veteran of Canadian reality show The Lofters, holds a drink while watching the Twitter sensation. “Most of his fans today probably don’t give a shit about wrestling,” Keystone says. “It’s his diction, the delivery, an old man ranting in choppy English.”

In fact, even the two strippers hired to lap dance in an adjoining room stick their heads past the curtain to look at the Sheik as he poses for a photo with an invitee who lingers too long. Page hustles the man along. “What, are we here to make friends?”

The Magens have yet to run out of uses for the Sheik. For the past seven years, they’ve been making a documentary about their idol, subsidized in part by an Indiegogo campaign. Some have accused the pair of pimping the legend, but Jian insists, “This is a passion for us. We love him, and he loves us.”

The bachelor party culminates with Jian stepping into the ring for a series of comedy matches against local wrestlers. His mother interferes at one point—before Jian is thrown ringside and the Sheik places his nephew in the camel clutch.

The morning after the bachelor party, the Sheik shambles toward the kitchen in Jian’s home, clad in a red button-down shirt and blue cap. Gripping his cane with one hand, he reaches forward to be helped down a set of steps. As Bijan pours his friend orange juice and spreads cream cheese across a bagel, the Sheik pulls a medal—this one from the WWE Hall of Fame—from his pocket and asks me to place it around his neck.

He spots the replica championship belt on the table. “You find the belt?”

“It was never missing,” Jian answers, explaining that, the night before, a friend hid it as a gag. The Sheik appears relieved.

The Sheik takes a call from his daughter Tanya. “When you know the guy, you realize he’s a loving father, grandfather, a loyal friend, a smart, caring guy who watches CNN and talks about the world in a serious way,” Jian says. “But you don’t see that because his verbal presence will move you out of a room.”

The twins remember when they first became aware of the Sheik: Jian was watching wrestling, and his mother rushed into the room, asking why the man on TV was cursing in Farsi. When the family discovered it was Khosrow Vaziri, arrangements were made to meet him the next time he visited Toronto.

“My mother cooked for 10 days,” Page says. “We picked him up from the airport. We had a big party on the block, and the Sheik and Nikolai came.”

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read more: sports, lifestyle, magazine, wwe, issue march 2014

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