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The Iron Sheik Is Trapped In A Character He Created
(Originally posted in AND Magazine)
One of my best friends, Chris, is commonly referred to as a “shock jock”, although everyone referred to as a “shock jock” quickly and dismissively rolls their eyes at such a clichéd label. Since before we even became friends, Chris has hosted successful and controversial radio shows in places such as Syracuse, Wichita, Sacramento, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and, currently,
Portland, Oregon Atlanta, Georgia.
The KiddChris Show is not for everyone. It is brutal, straightforward, random, offensive, and, more often than not, a four-hour-long inside joke. Since late-2001, I have been involved with Chris’s radio show on various levels, alternating between being intensely involved on a daily basis (in Sacramento), making infrequent appearances and/or helping behind-the-scenes (in San Antonio, Philadelphia/Pittsburgh), and not being involved on pretty much any level whatsoever (my current status). Through the radio show, I’ve met some very interesting people, found myself in unusual situations, and experienced some very surreal things, but nothing was as unusual or surreal and no one was as interesting of a character as the man who I spent the better part of three days talking to, listening to, and helping out in May 2006 — a man who many people know as the Iron Sheik.
In May 2006, I caught a flight for a trip to Philadelphia thanks to my friends at CBS Radio and the legendary rock station that Chris worked at, WYSP. Chris’s show was wildly successful in Philadelphia and had a bigger, more fervent fanbase in the Philly area than it had experienced in any other city it had been broadcast in. Philadelphia fans are viciously loyal as many people who follow sports know quite well (Philly is where Santa Claus was once heckled with boos and then pummeled by a barrage of batteries thrown by Eagles fans). When it comes to radio, the fans are just as loyal and crazy and, to be honest, kind of creepy. They are so loyal and crazy and, to be honest, kind of creepy that Chris’s Philly listeners became known as simply “The Underbelly”. The Underbelly helped make Chris’s show one of the top talk shows on-the-air in Philly, and I headed back to the City of Brotherly Love for Chris’s big birthday celebration at a local bar that would feature a live broadcast of the show, comedy, music, and the Iron Sheik.
As a little kid, I remembered the Iron Sheik as the terrible Iranian bad guy on WWF television with wrestling boots which curled into sharp points and made him look like he stole the shoes of a violent, sadistic elf. I remembered that prior to his matches, the Sheik would proudly wave the Iranian flag and stand at attention with his manager, Classy Freddie Blassie, while his tag team partner Nikolai Volkoff sang the Soviet national anthem. After Volkoff’s rendition of the Soviet anthem was finished, the Sheik would inevitably take the microphone and amid a chorus of boos, yell, “Iran: number one! Russia: number one! USA: Hack-poot!” as he spit with disdain. I don’t remember how Iran and Russia could both be number one, but I wasn’t going to argue with the Iron Sheik in the 1980’s because he had pointy boots and he beat Bob Backlund with the Camel Clutch to win the WWF Championship in Madison Square Garden. I remember that detail because the Iron Sheik mentions it. Constantly. Each and every day, over twenty years later, the Iron Sheik seems to have an internal clock which prompts him every half-hour to say in his eternally broken English: “Madison Square Garden! Most famous arena in the world! I beat the Bob Backlund, the Howdy-Doody look-a-like Bob Backlund, with the Camel Clutch! I humbled him and won the Double-yoo Double-yoo Heff Championship! Most famous arena in the world, New York City!”.
Some people abuse the exclamation point when writing, and I do my best not to use that form of punctuation unless absolutely necessary. In the case of the Iron Sheik, it is constantly necessary. The Iron Sheik speaks in capital letters and exclamation points. Even now — long after his glory days — he is always speaking in sound bites, as if he is cutting one more big promotional monologue for one last big match. The Sheik has likely wrestled his last match. He is still a draw to wrestling fans on the minor league independent wrestling circuit, but it is because of his appearances on radio shows like those belonging to my friend or to Howard Stern, or because of the viral videos on YouTube of an intoxicated or otherwise under-the-influence Sheik profanely insulting and threatening former pro wrestling colleagues. The sad truth is that the Iron Sheik is comic relief, and probably never was much more than that to wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans. He was, and is, a real-life cartoon character. And, today — much like he was when I spent time with him in 2006 — the Iron Sheik is a man in his mid-60’s who can barely walk but who is shuttled around from one place to the next to make a dollar for himself and five dollars for the people who take advantage of him; a man who lives paycheck-to-paycheck despite always working; a man who is best known for his long career in a fake sport despite the fact that he was an accomplished real athlete; and a man who people laugh at even though they think they are laughing with him.
In just three days, I realized that he is all of those things, but he is most importantly a man. He is not a cartoon character and there is nothing funny about the man behind the Iron Sheik character. The guy I watched on TV waving an Iranian flag as professional wrestling’s “evil foreigner” of the 1980’s — the symbolic Ayatollah Khomeini to Hulk Hogan’s Ronald Reagan — is a patriotic U.S. citizen who loves his adopted country, a country he immigrated to forty years ago. In the process, he embarked upon the quintessential American journey: he found a calling, he became rich, he became famous, and, of course, he lost everything. He lost his money, he lost his fame, he lost his family, and, somewhere along the way, he lost himself.
The Iron Sheik really seems to believe that he always has to be the Iron Sheik. I think that he forgot how to be Khosrow Vaziri, the man born in 1943 in Tehran. The Sheik gets paid to be the Sheik, but beneath the crazy, surreal surface that gets on the radio or on YouTube and calls Hulk Hogan a “Hollywood blonde jobroni” and threatens to “humble” former wrestling colleagues by raping them is an old man who is sad and tired and who nobody truly knows. He doesn’t wave an Iranian flag; he wears a gold medal that he legitimately won at the 1971 U.S. Amateur Athletic Union Greco-Roman wrestling tournament. He doesn’t praise the Ayatollah Khomeini while calling Iran the “greatest country in world”; he talks about guarding the Shah of Iran, praying for his family after the Iranian Revolution and working as an assistant coach to the U.S. Olympic team in 1972 and 1976. He doesn’t wear curly, pointy boots or talk about breaking someone’s back with the Camel Clutch; he walks gingerly with the assistance of a cane in his New Balance sneakers and on knees and hips that need to be replaced due to decades of punishment. Most of all, he doesn’t yell non-sensically about humbling his enemies or talk with disdain about the United States (“hack-poot!”); he quietly talks about being a Muslim, being tired, about wanting to be back home in Atlanta, and, he sadly reminisces about his daughter, who was brutally murdered by her boyfriend in 2003.
And, yes, even when reflecting quietly and trying to remember about life as Khosrow, the man behind the Iron Sheik also still reminds us about beating Bob Backlund for the “Double-yoo Double-yoo Heff” championship in “Madison Square Garden! Most famous arena in the world!”. And when that happens, he is back to being the Iron Sheik.
I don’t know if he loses himself in his character because he wants to escape, or if he loses himself in his character because that’s the only place he can find himself. Either way, I think that the Iron Sheik character is pretty much the furthest thing away from who Khosrow Vaziri truly is, and that is exactly why he spends so much time there.
I already knew that I was going to meet the Iron Sheik when I flew to Philadelphia in May 2006. It was the first time I had been on an airplane in quite some time, and as my flight flew into darkness and we headed from day-to-night all I could think about was how it seems like the sun sets more quickly when you’re above the clouds.
There was a lot of excitement about my trip because I was visiting friends, seeing Philadelphia (a city I had always wanted to visit) for the first time, and looking forward to doing a couple of days of good radio before partying at my friend Chris’s big birthday celebration. I didn’t think much about the Iron Sheik. Like many people, I had largely forgotten about the Sheik until Chris recently began having him call-in to the radio show as a guest. The Sheik was entertaining, but also seemed completely out of his mind 88% of the time. The other 12% of the time, I just couldn’t understand what he was saying. I figured that meeting the Iron Sheik would be memorable, but for all of the wrong reasons.
My flight arrived in Philadelphia just before 10:00 PM, and I quickly claimed my luggage and turned my cell phone on to find out where another friend of mine, Thomas, was waiting for me. Thomas answered and said that he was at a restaurant and that there weren’t any interns from WYSP available to pick me up from the airport, either. Thomas said that I could just catch a cab and WYSP would reimburse me, so I said I would do that and asked where I should go. He said, “We’re at a restaurant called LaScala’s on Chestnut with the Iron Sheik. Meet us here — and hurry up, the Sheik is waiting for you.”
I assured Thomas that I would hurry and after hanging up, I thought, “The Sheik is waiting for you”? That sounded almost ominous, as if I were late for a meeting with Osama bin Laden. “The Sheik is waiting for you”. I definitely hoped that the NSA wasn’t listening in to cell phone conversations at Philadelphia International Airport at that very moment. I also wondered why the hell the Iron Sheik was waiting for me — a guy he had never met, spoken to, or heard of. I found a cab driver and told him where I needed to get to, and that I needed to get there quickly. I had been looking forward to taking in some of the sights of Philadelphia — one of the most history-filled cities in the United States and the birthplace of the Constitution — but not like the tour I got from my taxi ride from airport to the center city district. I’m not sure if the lights and sights of the city were racing past us, or if we were racing past the lights and sights of the city, but the cab driver followed through on his promise to get me to LaScala’s quickly despite Philadelphia’s old, narrow streets. The impact of seeing Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell is certainly diminished when you drive past them in a cab at 50 mph over cobblestone. Nonetheless, the cab driver got me to LaScala’s as quickly as possible and after giving him a nice tip for taking me on a rocket ride through Philly, I headed inside.
LaScala’s looks like the last place you would meet a professional wrestler. It is a nice upscale Italian restaurant in the Center City neighborhood of downtown Philadelphia and they were nice enough to stay open later than usual for our visit that night. When I walked in, I saw Chris and Thomas at a big table with some people from the radio station WYSP, an avid listener/friend of the show named Constantine, our friend “the Reverend” Bob Levy, and, of course, the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was accompanied by his “business manager” whose name was “Double P”. Double P was, as you might imagine, somewhat shady, very sweaty, and nearly bursting through his button-up shirt with a large stomach.
The Iron Sheik was finishing up a large plate of pasta and drinking beer. He had a prominent beer-belly that seemed to be working against him as he attacked his food, and he had a replica of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt draped over his shoulder. Around his neck was a necklace with a medal attached to what looked like a cross made out of yellow electrical tape. The medal was dull and tarnished by age and years of handling, but when I looked at it later I realized that it was a gold medal from the 1971 AAU Greco-Roman Wrestling Championship. That’s not professional wrestling, by the way. That is real, amateur, Olympic-style wrestling. In the United States in 1971, there were no better Greco-Roman wrestlers in the 180.5 pound weight class than Khosrow Vaziri.
Oddly, the Sheik also seemed to think he was in Pittsburgh. Not just at the dinner, either. Over the next couple of days, he either forgot he was in Philadelphia, thought he was in Pittsburgh, or just didn’t care. At dinner, the Sheik wore a Pittsburgh Steelers beanie and a shirt paying tribute to Pittsburgh’s Kurt Angle, a former Olympic gold medalist and WWE wrestler. Many times throughout the next few days, the Sheik mentioned how much he loved Pittsburgh and Kurt Angle and Bruno Sammartino (another wrestling legend and Pittsburgh native). People corrected him many times over the next few days or pointed out that he was in Philadelphia, not Pittsburgh, but the Sheik kept mentioning Pittsburgh and I could never figure out why. He was in Philly at that moment, currently lives in Atlanta, spent most of his years in the U.S. in Minneapolis, and was born in Tehran, but the Iron Sheik just seemed to love Pittsburgh.
The Sheik could have left the dinner earlier, but Chris had told him that I wanted to meet him, so he said he would stay until I arrived. When I walked in to LaScala’s, the Sheik stood up and said, “This must be An-TONEE!”. He never called me “Anthony”; it was always “An-TONEE!”, and always with the exclamation point. When there are a lot of people around, the Iron Sheik still speaks as if he is trying to be heard over the boos of 23,000 in Madison Square Garden. I laughed and walked over to greet the Sheik before I even said hello to my friends because this poor guy was 63 years old — 50 years of which were spent beating his own body up in amateur and professional wrestling — had spent all day traveling, and yet was nice enough to hang out a little longer because Chris said I wanted to meet him.
When I shook his hand, I expected him to give me some tough-guy handshake. I knew he had a legitimate background in amateur wrestling and spent years wrestling professionally, so I figured he would give me a strong handshake like my grandfather used to give me. The kind of handshake that makes you wish you had just gone for the fist-bump. Instead, I was greeted with a soft, gentle handshake. He barely even squeezed my hand. I thought that maybe he had an injury or some sort of arthritic condition from years in the ring, but he told me later that the gentle handshake is kind of like a secret handshake of sorts amongst professional wrestlers. It’s called a “worker’s handshake”. In professional wrestling, the wrestlers basically put their safety in the hands of the people they work with and trust them to take care of them and not hurt them in the ring. With the gentle “worker’s handshake”, one wrestler or “worker” is telling his colleague “I work gently. I will not hurt you. You can trust that I will take care of you and protect your body in the ring.” I found that very interesting.
I also found it interesting that the Iron Sheik is very famous. People walking by LaScala’s would do a double-take when looking into the restaurant and knock on the window when they realized that they were looking at the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was definitely big in professional wrestling in the 1980’s and even appeared on Saturday morning cartoons, but I was surprised by how many people almost instantly recognized him. He would wave happily when he was recognized by fans, as if their recognition of him validated every silly thing he ever had to do in the ring. I think the Sheik was genuinely excited to be back in the spotlight, even if it was a much smaller spotlight than he was used to in the 1980’s.
Although I’d like to think that the Iron Sheik waited at LaScala’s later than he intended in order to meet me, that ended up not being completely true. It turns out that the Sheik likes beer, and at LaScala’s the radio station was paying for the beer. The Sheik also likes “medicine”, as he calls it. This love of “medicine” actually got him fired from the World Wrestling Federation in 1987 when he was arrested on drug charges along with on-screen rival Jim Duggan. The Sheik has struggled throughout the years with substance abuse problems, and this is why I started feeling sorry for him after I met him.
As funny as he could be, and as outrageous as the things are that he says, the truth is that he is under the influence of a lot of things when he says them. He is not Khosrow Vaziri, the quiet, proud Muslim. He is the Iron Sheik. He is the guy with the pointy boots and the curly mustache and the Iranian flag. He goes into character and cuts promos and gets lost in these random, hysterical, bizarre monologues because it is what the fans have always expected him to do. The Iron Sheik is never very far away from Khosrow Vaziri, but Khosrow is definitely still there, too. You can see it in his eyes when he starts to get lost in the Iron Sheik character. You can see that he would be ready to retire the gimmick and quit being a cartoon character if he knew how to be Khosrow all the time. You can see that he just doesn’t know how to do that.
And that’s why he needs his “medicine”, which is why he was still at LaScala’s when I arrived. Because someone was tracking down some “medicine” for him. So, until then, he was part-Khosrow, part-Sheik, and drank his beer and ate his pasta and took photos with us while regaling us with stories about life on the road.
When the “medicine man” arrived with his “medicine”, he got lost in the “medicine” and then got lost in the Sheik character again. Then he left. Dinner with the Sheik was over and I was mesmerized by this man and this character with all these stories and who had been all these different places. In the short time I spent with him that night, he seemed to be so many different people that I was fascinated.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he thought he was in Pittsburgh. If I didn’t know who I was, I wouldn’t know where I am, either.
Attempt for a moment to imagine this: You are standing on a 20’ x 20’ stage surrounded by 23,000 people screaming at you, booing you, reacting to who you are and what you are doing. You are wearing spandex tights and shiny boots, but you are not wearing a shirt. A spotlight is shining on you and you are inciting this crowd, eliciting exactly the type of reaction that you want to receive from them. You are the ringmaster in your own personal circus and the people who have their eyes on you have paid to see you pretend to fight another person dressed in gaudy underwear for anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes.
You are in control. You hold 23,000 people in your hand in the most famous arena in the world, Madison Square Garden. You are on the stage in the biggest city in the United States. At that moment, more people are watching you wave an Iranian flag and curse their hero than in any musical theater on Broadway. You are in control and it is addictive. It is a drug that you love, that you seek, that you need. It defines you and always will, no matter what you’ve done in the past, and no matter what you’ll do in the future. But, for that moment, in that arena, in that city, you are in control.
Your job is to lie to people and to trick people. You are surrounded by real-life cartoon characters. Some of them wear masks, some of them wear facepaint, some of them are incredibly muscular specimens, some of them are just freakishly fat. Some are great actors, some are great athletes, and some are neither actors nor athletes. These are your co-workers. These are your colleagues. When you work with them, though, they are considered your opponent.
Your job is to make it appear as if you are trying to hurt your opponent as badly as possible at the exact same time that you are actually trying to protect your opponent from getting hurt. Your goal is to pin the opponent for three seconds or make him submit to a referee that isn’t sanctioned by any athletic commission anywhere in the world. Your goal is to win every match, yet there are no standings and nobody keeps a record of who wins and loses.
Your job is to make people believe that you are solving a problem that you have with someone else in a 20’ x 20’ wrestling ring, breaking numerous criminal laws while your body somehow breaks the laws of physics in the process. You bounce off of ropes that are not actually ropes, but steel cables wrapped in rubber which have no give. You jump off turnbuckles that have no springs. You land flat on your back on a thick piece of plywood covered with a thin piece of canvas which is only there for aesthetic purposes. The plywood hurts and it has no give; it is constructed on top of steel beams which are supported by steel columns.
You wear a championship belt that you didn’t really win. You don’t get paid less money for losing. You sometimes have a manager who doesn’t actually manage anything, but might help you cheat at something that has no legitimate rulebook. There is a formula that you rarely deviate from. You will spend your match pretending that your left leg or left arm or left something is injured. You will try to injure something on the left side of your opponent’s body. You and your co-workers never hurt the right sides of your bodies for some reason, but no one really notices that.
You “sell” your apparent injury to the fans because selling results in money. You tell a story every night that builds up to a big conclusion because good storytelling results in money. Sometimes, if the situation calls for it, you will bleed because bleeding equals money, red equals green. Your blood is not fake. It is not ketchup, it is not red paint, it is not corn syrup and red food coloring. Your blood is real. Your cut is self-inflicted with a sliver of a razor blade that you hide somewhere on your body and use to slice across your forehead. You will have scars on your forehead for the rest of your life, but those scars equaled money, so those scars are not regrets.
When you are in that ring, you are in control and you are experiencing a rush, a high, a feeling that cannot be replicated. You perform before packed houses and live crowds and you are an artist. Your profession is ridiculed, people think you are silly or cartoonish, but you are an artist. You and your colleagues are actors and athletes and stunt men. You are masters of improvisation and you are storytellers and you feel like you are on top of the world from the moment you enter the arena to the moment you leave the ring and return backstage. You head back to the dressing room and shake the hand of the man you just pretended to fight, you get congratulatory slaps on the back by your colleagues, you get complimented on your match or your performance by your supervisors. You are in control.
Then you go back to your hotel, in a city you’ve been to dozens of times; a city that is familiar, yet not home; a city that is distant even while you are present. You are in your hotel room and there are no more screaming fans, no more colleagues, no more noises. You are surrounded by a crippling silence — a silence which amplifies all of your other senses, spotlights your thoughts, magnifies your demons. You are confronted by fear — a fear about who you are and what you might become, a fear that scares the blood into rushing through your veins at abnormal speeds, a fear that forces your heart to race, your brain to get lost. You are losing control.
You are a professional wrestler and you make a lot of money, but you travel 350 days out of the year. You have a show each day where you put your body on the line and do indeed get hurt and then you travel to the next town and do it again. You have to do this 350 times a year in order to get paid. There is no vacation time, no off-season.
There is no employee’s union in professional wrestling. There are no healthcare benefits in professional wrestling. There is no pension plan in professional wrestling. You are an independent contractor. You pay for your own air travel, you rent your own car, you pay for your own hotel room, you pay for your own meals, and you do this 350 times a year because it is what you have to do — what you need to do — in order to get paid. You do not have a guaranteed contract. You could get hurt and get fired. You could get boring and get fired. You could simply not look as good as you used to look or be as entertaining as you used to be and get fired.
You love it, though. You need it. It is a drug. The adrenaline rush of performing without a net in front of thousands of people wearing your merchandise or your opponent’s merchandise cannot be replicated by anything synthetic or substantive. It is an experience you have to seek out every night and wake up seeking again the next morning.
You are hurting constantly, so you take pills to mask the pain. You are hyped up on adrenaline after your show, which usually ends late at night, so you find something to do while you come down. You go eat, you go to the gym, you might travel to the next town, and when you get into your hotel, you take more pills or smoke marijuana or drink alcohol to calm down and sleep. You struggle to wake up, so you take pills or snort cocaine to awaken. Once you are awake, you realize that you are hurting once again and it’s back to the pain pills. This happens every day and every night for the remainder of your career, probably for the rest of your life.
Your job is to lie to people. Your job is to be someone you are not, to convince people of things that are not real, to do things that are seemingly impossible. When you are trying to be this other person who does these strange things, you are in control. When it is time to be yourself and live life normally, you lose control. You don’t know who you are. You don’t even know who you want to be.
This is the Iron Sheik’s dilemma. As he has aged, his ability to wrestle has diminished, if not completely evaporated. Physically, he is unable to perform in a wrestling ring because his body is broken-down from decades of punishment. In 2001, the Sheik participated in a battle royal at WrestleMania in Houston’s Astrodome with other retired or semi-retired wrestlers. The goal of a battle royal is to be the last man standing in the ring after every other wrestler has been thrown over the top rope and eliminated from the match. Winning the match was probably the last wrestling highlight of the Iron Sheik’s career and he stood victorious with a smile on his face after the match in front of 70,000 fans. However, the Sheik won the match for one reason only — because he was physically unable to be thrown over the top rope and to the arena floor due to his many injuries. The Iron Sheik could barely walk in 2001. When I met him in 2006, he was forced to get around using a cane.
Today, the Iron Sheik is still booked by independent wrestling companies throughout the United States. He is featured on radio shows and internet sites. He is arguably a bigger star in 2010 than he was in 1985. Yet, this is because he is a spectacle — a train-wreck at times. He gets drunk and curses former colleagues, threatens people, says outlandish things that are either belligerent rants or warning signs. There are more videos on YouTube of the Iron Sheik doing and saying something outrageous than there are of the Iron Sheik wrestling.
The thing is, I don’t know how much of that Iron Sheik is Khosrow Vaziri losing control and succumbing to his demons and how much of it is Khosrow Vaziri giving people what they want. Is he crazy or is he just compensating for his inability to wrestle to earn money by saying such insane things that people want to pay him in order to hear what he might say? In professional wrestling, “working” is the act of tricking a “mark” or fan into believing something or suspending their disbelief enough to be entertained by something. Is the Iron Sheik still just “working” everyone after all these years?
I didn’t spend enough time with him to figure it out, but I do know this. When I met the Iron Sheik, he was kind and generous, soft-spoken and quiet. When I spoke to him during commercial breaks, he wasn’t yelling about putting people in the Camel Clutch or calling Hulk Hogan a “faggot”. When I spoke to him during commercial breaks, he told me about his daughter, who was strangled by her boyfriend in 2003. He was sad while talking about it, obviously affected, and stated that he wished nothing more than to get revenge for his daughter’s murder. I expected him to rant about grabbing his daughter’s murderer and detailing everything he wanted to do to the man, but instead, the Sheik quietly pointed out that he knows he can’t do what he hoped to do, but that he is a Muslim and that he truly believed in an eye for an eye. It wasn’t bluster or bravado; it was a grieving father wanting revenge.
And, then, the “ON-AIR” light brightened and the Sheik entered the radio studio and he was the loud, wild, frantic Iron Sheik yelling about beating Bob Backlund for the “double-yoo-double-yoo-heff” championship in the “Madison Square Garden. Most famous arena in world!”. It was fascinating and unusual, and I don’t know which side of the Sheik was the character. If he was “working” us, he was a magician.
On the night of my friend Chris’s birthday party, over 1,000 people packed a bar in Philadelphia for a live broadcast, comedy show, musical performance, and special appearance by the Iron Sheik. The Sheik was positioned at a table near the stage and he sold t-shirts and photographs to a rabid crowd of radio show listeners. I was roaming the bar with a wireless microphone throughout the night, but one of my main responsibilities was interviewing the Sheik every once in a while and making sure he was doing okay.
I had taken a cab to the bar with the Sheik and his manager and he was quiet, thoughtful Khosrow during the ride. The Sheik was obviously tired and obviously not looking forward to four hours inside a packed bar with rabid Philadelphians surrounding him. Twenty years earlier, a sold-out Philadelphia Spectrum would have excited him, but this was a bar gig with people who weren’t even old enough to know what the Iron Sheik was before he was a punchline. In the cab, the Sheik told me about his home in Atlanta and how he didn’t get to spend enough time there. He gave me one of his t-shirts. I was grateful for his generosity and was nice enough to resist telling him that I couldn’t imagine a situation where I would willingly wear a white shirt with a giant photo of the Iron Sheik in wrestling tights, an open robe and a kaffiyeh.
I thought it would be rough for the Sheik at the birthday party, and it was, but no one who met him or listened to him or watched him ever knew this. Throughout the night, Sheik signed hundreds of autographs and took scores of photographs. He would grab the microphone from me and rally the crowd or get the fans to make noise. He seemed energized and capable of being ringmaster for as long as he was needed. He was — without a doubt — the Iron Sheik.
As the night drew to a close, the crowds did not get any smaller, but the Sheik was exhausted. He continued signing autographs and greeting fans, but whispered to me at one point, “Sheik needs to get sleep, brother.” When he left after four hours at the party, I helped clear a path for him through the crowd of alcohol-soaked listeners and the Sheik looked just like he did when he’d enter an arena in the early-1980’s and interact with fans. He shook hands and commented to people and kept the act going, but would whisper every few seconds “I follow you, brother.”
When we finally got backstage, the Sheik sat down on a couch and said, “I am getting too old for the shows” and at that moment, he looked every moment of his 63 years. He leaned his scarred forehead against the handle of his cane. He pulled on the ends of his famous mustache. He looked weary and grandfatherly, lonely and lost. He didn’t look like a cartoon character. He looked every part that he had ever played all rolled into one elderly, broken-down, exhausted man.
I knew then that he was Khosrow Vaziri. Whatever he might say, whomever he might pretend to be, he knew who he was and wanted to be. He had “worked” everyone. He made them believe that he was the crazy Iron Sheik because that was his job and his job was to trick people. Really, though, he was Khosrow Vaziri and, for the first time, I called him by that name.
“Khosrow,” I said, “are you ready to go back to the hotel?”
He looked at me with tired eyes, his body language shifted upright, his head bolted upwards from the handle of his can, and he started to stand.
“Sheik needs his medicine,” he said. “Can you find a medicine man, brother?”
I could only laugh. Just when I thought I had figured him out, the Iron Sheik had “worked” me. I guess I should have known better. After all, the man is in a Hall of Fame devoted to the best tricksters in a business known for trickery. If he can’t figure himself out, I have no hope for doing so. My only hope is that he finds the answer someday, even if he makes us believe otherwise.