Wednesday, December 3, 2014



By Don Stradley

While Watching The Sheik  I was reminded of Budd Schulberg's old novels and movies, titles like The Harder they Fall, and A Face in the Crowd.  In the world Schulberg chronicled, bumpkins from other countries or small towns would be sucked into the seedy world of American sports or entertainment; they'd learn that the American dream is often an unforgiving nightmare. I don’t know if director   Igal Hecht  had this in mind for his documentary about Khosrow Vaziri, an athlete from Iran who became a wrestling star known as "The Iron Sheik."  Hecht probably thinks it’s a story of survival and redemption, for Vaziri has gone through the usual highs and lows associated with wrestling, but stubbornly hangs on.  I saw it as just another pathetic chapter in a long running saga that could be called The Stupidity of American Entertainment.

I remember The Iron Sheik. He was a burly character with a droopy mustache who waved an Iranian flag before his matches, and shouted in broken English about the superiority of Iran.  There’d been other sheik characters before him, men in turbans and pointy shoes, but Vaziri seemed to be more rugged, more dangerous, and certainly more committed to his cause.   American wrestling fans tended to hate any foreign character in those days, and with American-Iran relations at a boiling point in the  1980s, Vaziri  could work crowds into incredible frenzies.  At one point he was so reviled that he had to sneak out of arenas in an ambulance, for fear that someone in the parking lot might shoot him.

The old clips of Vaziri badgering crowds are priceless,  but Hecht stumbles in describing how Vaziri got to that stage. As a young man, Vaziri was an amateur wrestling star in Iran, and then a bodyguard for the Shah. When another wrestling star said something in opposition to the Shah and was found dead, Vaziri came to America to avoid the hostilities in his own country. After several years as a successful amateur coach, he entered the world of pro wrestling, spending his early days as a handsome, but not too compelling, ‘baby face’.  But Hecht doesn't explore how Vaziri adapted to the circus world of pro grappling. Was there no anxiety or embarrassment  about entering such a buffoonish field? Vaziri mentions that other wrestlers were sometimes fearful of him because he had a legit wrestling background and could possibly “damage” someone. He also recounts how a rival promoter once offered him $100,000 to break Hulk Hogan’s leg. This, I imagine, is hubris. From the clips we see,  there’s no indication that Vaziri was anything more than just another geek at the carnival.

Like many wrestlers of the go-go 1980s, Vaziri developed a taste for drugs. When one of his daughters was murdered by a jealous boyfriend, Vaziri submerged himself in full-on drug abuse. Past his prime, constantly stoned, performing in front of tiny crowds on the independent circuit, his body breaking down from age and injuries, he was on the verge of becoming another casualty of the business.  Vaziri reached a point where he’d linger in hotel lobbies until someone recognized him as the once mighty Sheik; then he’d push an 8 X 10 photo of himself on the unsuspecting mark  for 10 bucks.   

Enter: Jian Magen, the son of an old friend who cast himself as The Sheik’s savior, and also serves as a producer of this documentary.  Miagen patiently managed Vaziri, encouraged him to kick his drug habits, and  started putting clips of Vaziri on YouTube. Vaziri, who seems to have a loose screw in his head and will say anything to get a reaction, has a new life as a social media sensation, whatever that is.  As a character in Schulberg’s world would have known, old celebrities are often recycled, and displayed on a cheaper, sillier platform. The Sheik used to act like a jerk in Madison Square Garden. Now he’s a jerk on the internet.  I suppose this is meant to be a happy ending.  Vaziri seems happy, anyway.  He gets bit roles in low budget movies, people in the wrestling world share their warm memories of him as if recalling a crazy old uncle,  and second tier celebs like Jack Black and Seth Green give him hugs in public.

Hecht’s documentary is well-made and never dull, but it occasionally suffers from an almost impossible to follow timeline.  At different times we see Vaziri in a wheelchair, or groping along with a cane.  Then, inexplicably, we see him exercising. We’re not sure how long it took for him to straighten out, or how his health is these days.  All we know is that he’s alive and well on Twitter, and that seems to be enough for Hecht.

The Sheik is currently available on most streaming services.


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