Friday, May 9, 2014

The Sheik Movie

I would like to share a bit of personal history before I talk about The Sheik , the Iron Sheik documentary.

I was pretty stupid regarding wrestling growing up. Of course, I wasn’t alone thinking it was real. (I also thought Star Wars was real.) It wasn’t just the fact that I was a child. Watching footage from the 80s confirms that adults thought the matches were legitimate.

Despite Jerry Lawler and Vince McMahon breaking kayfabe and admitting that the outcomes are predetermined, I would hazard a guess that many still believe in the authenticity of pro wrestling.

I realized that the WWF, the Memphis wrestling, and the Atlanta wrestling that I would watch were different – they certainly had different production values. However, on occasion, the wrestlers would jump ship and appear on the other shows. I really thought that they were all under one umbrella organization – a National Wrestling Association or Alliance – just like boxing, which has thousands of belts all sanctioned under one governing body.

To sum it up: I thought wrestling was real, and I thought it was all one big organization - just on different television stations. I mention these two important factors because they play a role in my memories of the Iron Sheik.

I am barely cognizant of the Iron Sheik as the WWF World Champion. I vaguely remember the Iron Sheik before he joined Nikolai Volkoff and formed the tag team The Foreign Legion. I have no memory of his WWF battles with Bob Backlund, Bruno Sammartino, or Jay Strongbow. It’s likely these matches were unavailable in my area. The possibility of seeing the Iron Sheik was greater after he left the WWF the first time and went to the NWA. I probably saw him on television for the first time as he passed through the NWA territories.

I watched Ric Flair, The Road Warriors, and Jerry Lawler before I knew anything about Hulk Hogan. However, due to his rub from Rocky III, Hogan was a main-event property before he even stepped in the ring. When the time came for Hulkamania to begin, it was the Iron Sheik that was offered up as the sacrificial lamb.

As the story goes, Backlund had the belt but refused to turn it over to a non-skilled wrestler like Hogan. Backlund felt it would make him look weak and dishonor the title; however, Backlund was okay with dropping the belt to the Iron Sheik, a real grappler and former Olympian.

An Olympic Pose

On January 23, 1984 the Iron Sheik made Hulk Hogan and Hulk Hogan made the Iron Sheik. The world needed a hero, and every hero needs a villain. As The Sheik documentary points out, the Iron Sheik was one of the greatest villains of all time. What, however, does that make the man, Khosrow Vaziri?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Sheik. As a child, like every good red-blooded American, I hated the Iron Sheik. I wasn’t sure why I hated the Iron Sheik, but Sgt. Slaughter and Hacksaw Jim Duggan couldn’t be wrong… So I booed and jeered and waited for the Sheik to receive his comeuppance. In the last few years, the Iron Sheik has become more known for his outlandish, vulgarity-filled rants against fellow wrestlers and other celebrities. Also, I knew that Khosrow Vaziri was suffering from substance abuse. The buzz in the wrestling world was that Vaziri was in bad shape and he was reluctant to perform in the movie because of his condition.

The Camel Clutch on Hogan
After watching the movie, I can say one thing about Khosrow Vaziri… he is an amazing man.

In many ways it would be hard to consider the Iron Sheik a role model. Khosrow Vaziri, however, is a fine example of a person who makes mistakes but has the gumption and sense of honor to reverse self-destructive behavior and come out on the correct side of Hell.

The documentary was directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Igal Hecht. His previous films, A Universal Language (2013) and The Hilltops (2011), were documentaries with Middle Eastern themes. He appears to have been a perfect choice to guide Vaziri down a path of honor, glory, failure, and redemption. The movie allows a one-dimensional entertainer like the Iron Sheik, someone who was literally once made into a cartoon character, to transform into a human being before your eyes.
Igal Hecht

The documentary materialized thanks to the efforts of Page and Jian Magen. The Magen brothers are Iranian Canadian twins who had a connection to Khosrow Vaziri through their father. The senior Magen was part of the Sheik’s 1968 Iranian Olympic contingent. Growing up, the brothers idolized the Sheik. To them, he was not a villain, but a representation of their strong heritage in Iran. When they sought him out in 2006, they found a man spiraling out of control. Over the eight-year span it took to bring The Sheik to life, Vaziri reached the bottom of his world. The twin brothers decided to help Vaziri.

The Sheik exposes the roots of a vulnerable man. It is obvious that Khosrow has been bent by life but not broken. He is a man who attempts to hold on to old-fashioned honor and dignity. When he can. He is willing to do what he must to earn money. Like many wrestlers, he would prefer to be able to earn in the ring, but at 72, Vaziri is no longer able to compete in the squared circle… The truth of it is that he is hard-pressed to even enter the ring. When a man can no longer earn in the ring, he must try to think of ways to earn by taking advantage of his time in the ring. Is his legend enough?

Every documentary has a goal. The reasons vary: to change or influence society by bringing light to a cause, to uncover or expose a hidden truth, to observe and allow the audience to make their own opinions, to educate, or to simply entertain. I believe The Sheik documentary is part of the Magen brothers attempt to monetize the Iron Sheik. While some would hope to capitalize from the Sheik and take the profits for themselves, I believe the Magen brothers have a genuine love for Khosrow Vaziri. They want him to be able to make money playing the character of the Iron Sheik. It is what Vaziri does best. To give a man this simple dignity. To allow him to earn and provide. It is an enormous thing.

The Sheik has become a personality beyond wrestling. His popularity has given him access to the Howard Stern Show and brought him in contact with main stream media. To quote The Sheik’s press release:

“Page and Jian created his new role as a Twitter superstar with an account and an unending variety of #teamsheikie goods and services (including a personalized abuse tweet for anyone willing to pay $30).”

Vaziri is a man who cherishes his friends, and it is obvious that he has many, many friends. The wrestlers whom he has threatened to maim and rape obviously understand the business. You make money however you can. If you have to talk smack about another wrestler… well, they are free to step up and return the gesture. The fact that this small documentary, eight years in the making, features Dwayne Johnson, Mick Foley, Seth Green, and over twenty-five celebrities, is a statement that in the world of wrestling, there are no permanent hard feelings.

The Sheik was selected as a Hot Docs International Film Festival’s 2014 Special Presentation collection. Hopefully, it will continue to win awards and allow the masses to appreciate the man behind the Camel Clutch.

Many thanks to Daniela Ponce at GAT Public Relations for allowing me access to The Sheik Movie.

The Sheik - Trailer from The Sheik on Vimeo .
The Sheik Movie is available now to own for a $9.99 download via the film’s website: .

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