There are so many great docs on the various institutions, characters, fans and businessmen that make up professional wrestling. Stories about Hulk Hogan, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, Bret Hart, and even the feature film "The Wrestler" have not only stocked festivals like TIFF and Hot Docs, they have also been very successful in theatres and on television. "The Sheik" is yet another tale from this so-called sport, but this time it features one of the most disliked heels to ever enter the ring. Lucky for us, the story of Khosrow Vaziri and his roller-coaster of a life is just as compelling as fake wrestling.
The Iron Sheik is one of the most memorable and iconic characters to ever come out of Vince McMahon's WWF/E machine. In a time when caricature (or maybe even racism) was something a little more up-front in the culture, the Sheik and his 'camel clutch' was how the World Wrestling Federation decided to deal with America's disdain for Iran and the Middle East in the 1980s. For the better part of a decade, Vaziri was ubiquitous in the wrestling world, adorned by his trademark Arabian keffiyeh. He fought greats like Hulk Hogan, Tito Santana, Bob Backlund, Sgt Slaughter and Hacksaw Jim Duggan, but unlike most of his WWF alumni, The Iron Sheik was more than a trumped-up muscle man. Vaziri was the real deal.
The Sheik started wrestling in Iran at age 14. He competed while in the army, tried out for the Olympics, and worked hard to become like his idol, Iranian national treasure, Gholamreza Takhti. Takhti was a celebrated Olympian, but was found dead in his hotel room in the late '60s. Vaziri new that the suspicious death of his hero meant Iran was the wrong place to live, so he made his way to the States. For years he helped Americans learn to wrestle and compete, working with top-tier national contenders. Vaziri was a success, taking full advantage of the American dream, but it would be his willingness to be hated as The Iron Sheik that would make him into a household name.
Vaziri's rise and fall is well-told in the film, with Vaziri telling much of the story himself in interviews. If you were brought up on weekend wrestling and Saturday Night's Main Event, you will love to journey back to the great WWF matches, but this doc doesn't stop there. The film documents the Sheik's fall from grace in the ring, his struggles with addiction, and the sad realities a wrestler must face after the big show is finished. The story includes a Canadian connection too. The filmmakers behind "The Sheik" initially met Vaziri in Toronto where he was wrestling for a few dozen people in a dive bar, and befriended him.
For fans of '80s wrestling, get ready to be dazzled, if not a little shocked, at the roster and condition of wrestlers who show up in this doc. Director Igal Hecht uses detailed interviews with Jake 'The Snake' Roberts, Bruce 'Brother Love' Prichard, and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson. He juices up the rest of the film with cameos from Hulk Hogan, King Kong Bundy, Brett Hart, Koko B. Ware, Mick Foley, Jimmy Hart, The Nasty Boys, Hacksaw Jim Duggan and even The Sheik's former tag-team partner, a very weary looking Nikolai Volkoff.
"The Sheik" adds texture and colour to the bigger story of the WWE as we understand it today. His willingness to be a despised Arab in a boiled-down cartoon version of world politics made him a star. His hubris, lifestyle and the fickle relationship between a wrestler and his bosses left him with an ocean of problems. "The Sheik" succeeds in showing us that there are real men in a fake sport.
Hot Docs runs from April 24 - May 4 at various venues in Toronto.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Sat., Apr. 26, 9:15 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox, 1 Sun., Apr. 27, 4:30 p.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Sat., May 3, 6:30 p.m.