I will admit to being one of the more nostalgic people that I know. Perhaps it is a flaw, but I think it serves a great purpose. While I’m happy to live in the moment, the things that I’m nostalgic for, and reflection upon them, help keep that past as close as possible, which can’t be all bad, right? Especially when we are talking about people like The Iron Sheik, the former WWF bad guy who helped usher in the era of Hulkamania and the golden age of wrestling as entertainment. While many people today only know The Sheik from his exceedingly humorous Twitter feed, his backstory, which Hecht draws out in this film, has remained largely uncovered. The Sheik gives us the whole gamut of the wrestler’s life, up to and including his foray into becoming a social media star.
Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri was born in 1940 in the Iranian capital of Tehran. At an early age, he acquired a strong love of wrestling and dove into that passion headlong, eschewing all other activities to pursue the sport. He quickly rose through the ranks and at an early age became a national champion, modeling himself after his hero Gholamreza Takhti and later became a bodyguard for the Shah of Iran. But political turmoil and the questionable death of Takhti drove Vaziri to flee Iran and land in America. Here he became an AAU wrestling champ and helped coach the 1972 and 1976 US Olympic Wrestling Teams. It was his forays into the professional wrestling world that caught the attention of others.
A technical and exact wrestler, Vaziri scared other wrestlers and some were afraid to wrestle him. So when it was suggested that he turn into a heel, or a villain in the wrestling world, the Sheik adopted his signature look – the shaved head, mustache, head garb and carrying the Iranian flag. This couldn’t have come at a better time since the Islamic Revolution was beginning and tensions between the US and Iran were incredibly high. So he made the perfect villain. So as the popularity of wrestling as entertainment grew and grew, The Iron Sheik‘s status as top villain also grew. When he was added to the WWF by the McMahons, they used The Sheik (and his later tag team partner Nikolai Volkov, a Russian) to help build tensions between the American wrestlers and him. When The Sheik eventually won the WWF Heavyweight Championship, it wasn’t long before the WWF came knocking to bring Hulk Hogan into the fold and give him the championship. And the rest, they say, is history.
What Hecht gives us is a special insight into Vaziri‘s life in and out of wrestling, time with his family, his own battles with drugs and alcohol that nearly cost him everything and his return to prominence in the most unexpected of ways. To say The Sheik‘s story is incredibly interesting is an understatement. While he loves his native Iran, and counter to his persona in the wrestling ring, Vaziri adamant about his love for America and how his example is one of the American dream coming true. Also, his persona in the ring and on Twitter as a ruthless and crude man has the curtain pulled back as we see how much he loves his family, how kind he is to people and also how much people love him. There are many testimonials from wrestlers of days past and present that give the Sheik credit for helping them become who they are, including Hulk Hogan and Dewayne “The Rock” Johnson and quite tenderly so.
Where this film could easily stray into territory like Barry Blaustein‘s Beyond the Mat, which gives frank portraits of wrestling stars in the “where they are now” phase of their lives, many in unpretty ways (reference the Jake “The Snake” Roberts portions of the film), especially given Vaziri‘s struggles with drugs. Hecht uses restraint in the telling of this portion of Vaziri‘s life, although he doesn’t dance around it. We hear from Vaziri‘s wife, Caryl, and two daughters about the effect his addictions have had on the family, but ultimately this film is a story of triumph – both in the private and professional arenas of his life.
It’s very clear that The Sheik has been lucky to come out ahead in many ways. He had help when we was down from friends, most notably Jian and Page Magen, who have helped lift him out of the depths of some pretty dark places. This is a story that has color and character coming out of its ears. It’s fun and enlightening and touches on many human qualities we can all relate to, be they highs or lows. This is a surprisingly touching film and an interesting portrait of a wrestling legend. If you dig the WWE or like The Sheik‘s Twitter feed, this is the movie for you. Even if you don’t know who he is, this film is interesting enough to capture your attention. Check it out, jabronis.
Next showing at the Hot Docs Film Festival next April.