The Iron Sheik's self-reflective documentary, The Sheik, reveals layers of himself as he traces his journey from Iran to the WWE and lets us see down to the bone.
The former WWE champ lets the camera point at his scars, both physical and emotional. He shows viewers the damage wrestling did to his legs, what crack use did to his family life.
His honesty in the crowd-sourced film should come as no surprise to his fans; Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri has become famous for being forthright. His raw, untreated thoughts often spill out in interviews and on Twitter.
Vaziri had a story to tell, one that went beyond what we saw of him in the ring.
It's a story that took eight years to shape into movie form. Family friends Jian and Page Magen, along with director Igal Hecht, helped Vaziri do that shaping. But it's The Iron Sheik who is the heart of the film, a funny, blunt man taking us back to his birthplace.
On what inspired him to play the subject of this documentary, he said:
My life have a lot of the up and down. I am Olympic coach, world class wrestler, have to leave my home country of Iran to come to the America to live America dream. Most people only know Iron Sheik the wrestler. Nobody know how I become most hated man on the TV and how I become the legend of the Earth. This way my job to teach them how to become the real Iron Sheik class. My movie show people this.
Rather than make The Sheik some glossed-over retelling of his life, Vaziri wanted to inspire people with both his triumphs and his stumbles. Of his movie, he says, "It show everything in my life. It show people that you need to live in the good and the bad to have full life."
Vaziri's life, though, has been much fuller than most. He was once a bodyguard for the Shah in Iran, won the WWE title and helped launch pro wrestling's boom period. His American-dream tale is an extraordinary one.
Before he began to wear his trademark curled mustache and don a keffiyeh on his way to the ring, The Iron Sheik was a young man wrestling in Tehran, Iran. He was a handsome, sleek, hard-bodied athlete and one of the best at the Greco-Roman game.
The Sheik shows Vaziri at this stage in his life through grainy footage where one sees him take men down like a gator lurking in the water.
Vaziri was chasing a legend at the time. No wrestler was more famous and beloved in Iran than Gholamreza Takhti. Takhti died in 1968. The government called it a suicide, but Vaziri didn't believe that story.
Takhti was too strong, too popular to end his life like that. Fearful of what might happen to him, Vaziri soon left for the United States.
The wrestling mat offered a kind transition. In the '70s, he served as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic wrestling squad. Verne Gagne soon invited him to help train out potential pros.
Ric Flair was one of Gagne's recruits. Vaziri wasn't impressed with the early work of a man who would later become a Hall of Famer.
Vaziri says of The Nature Boy, "God bless him. When he and with me in the training, he nothing special. He 180 pound and he green."
While Flair had plenty of work to do in terms of the physical side of the business, Vaziri's amateur background had him much further ahead in the process. Being such an adept grappler aided Vaziri in going from Greco-Roman wrestling to the world of spandex and steel chairs.
He trained hard, wrestlers telling stories of him doing squats while his peers were just standing around. He said, "I live my life on the mat" and "because I love my sport I was ready to give 1,000 percent to pro wrestling."
For him, the hardest part of the pro version of wrestling was learning the psychology, how to control fans through the story he was telling in the ring. The chinlocks, takedowns and flesh grinding that took place on the canvas was his specialty from the get-go.
His reputation was that he could take anyone if the match ever devolved into a shoot. "I beat the [expletive] out of everybody in the locker room any time," he explains.
Was there a wrestler who could manhandle him? Not in his mind. He says that Bob Backlund and Brad Rheingans were "both excellent, but never be Iron Sheik class." It'd likely be two stars that came after him that would offer him a true test.
"Only few people have same level as Iron Sheik—the Brock Lesnar and the Kurt Angle. Back in the day, they both be good opponent for me. They know I could break their ankle if I want," Vaziri says.
No Hulkamania Without The Iron Sheik
The story of wrestling's rise in the '80s so often centers around Hulk Hogan, Vince McMahon and WrestleMania. The Iron Sheik was pivotal in WWE's growth from territorial to global powerhouse as well, though.
The Iran hostage crisis strained American/Iranian relations. Several wrestling promotions took advantage of that, parading the villainous Iron Sheik around. McMahon exploited that tension better than anyone: He used it as the launchpad for Hulkamania.
As Vaziri sees it, "Mr. McMahon had the vision better than any promoter."
Hogan was positioned as the all-American hero. As a cocky outsider, The Iron Sheik was the ideal foil. Rather than have Hogan defeat longtime champ Bob Backlund for the WWE title, McMahon arranged a classic battle of good versus evil, patriot versus foreigner.
The Hulkster's win was a case of perfect timing against the perfect opponent.
Had Vaziri accepted an offer from Gagne, that victory would never have happened. Gagne, for whom Vaziri had worked in the AWA, wanted to break up Hulkamania before it was fully constructed. He told Vaziri if he broke Hogan's leg rather than lie down for him, there would be thousands of dollars waiting for him.
Vaziri fully believes he would have no trouble carrying out the plan. He says, "I very easily could have broke Hulk Hogan leg because I was the real shooter. Hulk was the bodybuilder guitar player."
But even though he liked Gagne and he had come to his wedding, Vaziri didn't want to betray McMahon. "I never turn my back on the people and I help make the history in wrestling," he explains.
The Iron Sheik did just that. Had he destroyed Hogan's aura, taken the WWE title with him to Gagne's company, pro wrestling's timeline would look vastly different.
Few men have mastered the art of churning up hatred from the crowd like The Iron Sheik. Audiences rumbled in rage as he walked to the ring. He spat when he mentioned America's name and stood alongside Nikolai Volkoff as he sang the Russian national anthem.
During The Sheik, men like Jim Ross, Jake Roberts and Mick Foley talk of Vaziri's mastery of heeldom. Vaziri himself seems most proud of how well he did in that role.
It's a role to which he was dedicated, well beyond the ropes. He says, "The heel have to carry himself in everywhere he go to be the real heel. Me and the Nikolai we loved our fans, but we never showed them. On the street, in the restaurant, we had to be the real heel."
Today, with kayfabe long shattered, it's a much more difficult process to rile up fans. Present-day wrestling villains don't have to worry about mobs of people waiting to attack them at the arena's exit. There is little concern about a fan stabbing a wrestler for what they did in the ring.
Vaziri worked in an era where real heat like that existed, but his career stretched on into the '90s when the curtain began to get pulled back more than ever before.
His advice on being a heel is simple and applies to both today and kayfabe-shrouded yesteryear: "Your body look good, you speak excellent on the mic and you let the psychology of heel always be real. Cheat and be troublemaker; this way the heat always come to you."
Current United States champ Rusev has been doing well to follow that advice. The powerhouse's gimmick feels like a tribute to The Iron Sheik. He's anti-American, an unbearable braggart and has borrowed Vaziri's trademark hold—The Camel Clutch.
Vaziri has been watching Rusev's work. He praises him, but barbs accompany his compliments:
Rusev do great job. He look good, he believable. But he not Iron Sheik. He not the real shooter. He wear the jabroni flip flips and he don't have anything new. He use my finisher and this way I respect him. He respect me, but I wish for he do his own finisher, so people respect him more. You need to be your own heel.
After covering Vaziri's career and early history, The Sheik takes a hard turn. Being that it was his own movie, he could have steered away from his addiction to drugs, but instead he faces it head-on.
In the film, his wife describes this period as Vaziri "half-existing." One sees him arguing with the Magen brothers and hears of the splinters his habit created between him and his family.
At times, it gets uncomfortable. In one scene, he waits alone in a hotel restaurant hoping someone recognizes him so he can sell them a glossy photo so that he can buy more drugs. In another, he is in denial of the hold the drugs have on him.
"I'm a master. I control my medicine. The medicine doesn't control me," he says.
This part of his life is no secret. But it's especially powerful seeing it firsthand, seeing him tell the camera directly about his demons.
Vaziri's story heads back to happiness eventually. His post-wrestling career has seen his celebrity grow. He regularly appeared on The Howard Stern Show. He has become famous for his curse-rich rants on Twitter.
He's grateful to come out of everything he's gone though alive. "Every day I live above the ground, I happy," he says.
He now gets to share more than just what the confines of a tweet offer. His movie is the product of fan support, the guidance of the Magen brothers and Vaziri's willingness to share. It's a film he is more than happy with.
Vaziri explains, "I work, I train and my movie take over eight years to it become done to perfection. I don't waste my time with jabroni movies. I only put my heart into everything I love."
That's what he did on the mat for years. When his body slowed, he was forced to look back on a Hall of Fame career. Twitter, appearances at wrestling conventions and his movie are where he puts his heart these days.
"Everywhere I go, people love my Twitter and my appearances so as long as they want me, I make them happy. Otherwise they can go [expletive] themselves. USA No. 1!"
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.