Friday, April 25, 2014

The strange and sordid tale of The Iron Sheik is told in documentary

Even if you weren't a wrestling fan in the 1980s, you were almost no doubt aware of Hulk Hogan. But "Hulkamania" probably wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for the pivotal role played by Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri.

Before you wear your finger nails down too much from the head scratching that will accompany your puzzlement from that name, Vaziri was -- and somehow still is -- better known as The Iron Sheik. And a new documentary illustrates that this man has a story to tell, and the creators have even provided subtitles in case you have difficulty understanding his sometimes broken English.

Vaziri was born poor in Iran in 1942 and became an amateur wrestling champion and a bodyguard to the Shah before, fearing for his life due to the complicated political and social situations in his homeland, he moved to the United States. He was the Amateur Athletic Union Greco-Roman wrestling champion in 1971 and went on to become an assistant coach for two U.S. Olympic teams later that decade.

Professional wrestling legend Vern Gagne invited Vaziri to turn pro, but he was also forced to train other wrestlers, drive trucks from city to city, referee and set up and tear down the ring in addition to grappling. It wasn't easy, but things started taking an upward turn when he adapted the Iron Sheik persona and became a hated heel -- which wasn't difficult considering the Iran hostage crisis of the era and Vaziri's constant insults of the stars and stripes.

Vaziri defeated Bob Backlund, who had held the World Wrestling Federation title for six years, to capture the championship belt. He lost it a short time later to Hogan. "Hulkamania" was born, pro wrestling became a phenomenon, and stars like Vaziri lived like rock stars.

While Vaziri continued to fight on his own, he increased his villain status by teaming up with "Russian" Nikolai Volkoff under the tutelage of manager "Classy" Freddie Blassie. Waving Iranian and Soviet flags, and Volkoff singing the Soviet national anthem before bouts, raised the heat against them and death threats from overzealous fans weren't unheard of.

Things came crashing down in 1987 when Vaziri and "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan were pulled over by New Jersey police, who discovered that they were drinking and high on cocaine, and marijuana and coke was found in the car. But the drugs didn't seem to be the primary concern of WWF president Vince McMahon. He was more upset that the public now knew that these two in-ring enemies were actually friends. The curtain had been removed from the heavily scripted world of pro wrestling.

Vaziri was dropped from the WWF and while he later made a brief comeback with the organization (as Colonel Mustafa) and continued to wrestle wherever he could, his days of Iron Sheik action figures and stardom had passed. The same couldn't be said for his drug and drinking habits.

Vaziri used his "medication" to ease the pain from his many ring injuries and the murder of his oldest daughter, but it also put a huge drain on his finances and relationships with his wife, two remaining daughters and many others.

It's around this point that Toronto twins Page and Jian Magen enter the picture. Their father and Vaziri had been friends in Iran and the boys were big Iron Sheik fans. When they found out how troubled their hero was, they travelled to his home in Atlanta, Ga. to try and help him. It was hard to break through to the stubborn wrestler but, even if they couldn't completely free him from his demons, the two entertainment promoters were able to launch another career for him.

Vaziri became a social media favourite with a variety of YouTube videos and outrageous tweets that have attracted 419,000 Twitter followers. He's become a popular guest on Howard Stern's radio show, makes a variety of personal appearances and even made headlines by appearing at Toronto City Hall to mock Mayor Rob Ford last year.

The next step in re-establishing Vaziri's place in the public's mind is The Sheik, which deserves credit for showing the man's dark side and doesn't just act as a promotional tool even though it was produced by the Magen brothers. A crowd-sourcing campaign raised more than $40,000 for the film, which includes interviews with wrestlers Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Mick Foley, The Road Warriors, Bret Hart, Koko B. Ware, "King Kong" Bundy, The Nasty Boys, Sunny, Bob Orton, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Hogan and Duggan, as well as managers Brother Love and Jimmy Hart and WWF announcer Jim Ross. Actors Jack Black, Mos Def, Seth Green and Ron Jeremy also make appearances.

While familiarity with pro wrestling from the '80s will give you a good background on The Iron Sheik, I don't think it's necessary to enjoy this film about the up and down life of a man who can, in turns, be hated, appreciated and pitied.

Here's the trailer for The Sheik

The Sheik will make its world premiere in Toronto and be screened as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at: 9:15 p.m. on April 26 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema; 4:30 p.m. on April 27 at TIFF Bell Lightbox; and 6:30 p.m. on May 3 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

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