BOOK REVIEW: “Blood & Fire: The Unbelievable Real-Life Story of Wrestling’s Original Sheik” by Brian R. Solomon
By: Brandon Sears
In an episode of the third season of Vice’s critically acclaimed series, The Dark Side of the Ring, Atsushi Onita’s hyper-violent Japanese promotion FMW is profiled. In that particular episode, ECW alumni Sabu tells of a match where he teamed alongside his uncle, Ed “The Sheik” Farhat, against the promotion’s founder, Atsushi Onita and Tarzan Goto. During the match, things took a horrific turn resulting in The Sheik barely escaping with his life having suffered third-degree burns.
This match took place nearly forty-three years after The Sheik’s debut. So, why was one of wrestling’s most successful performers risking life and limb at sixty-six years of age? Author Brian Solomon looks at the totality of the career of one of wrestling’s most legendary promoters and wrestlers both inside and outside of the ring in BLOOD AND FIRE: The Unbelievable True Story of Wrestling’s Original Sheik.
Before getting into the meat and potatoes of The Sheik’s career, Solomon gives the reader a detailed history of what would become The Sheik’s home turf during the bulk of his career, Detroit, Michigan. I’d like to consider myself somewhat knowledgeable when it comes to the territory system but Detroit has remained a blind spot throughout my time as a wrestling fan. Promoter Nick Londes is discussed as he controlled Olympia Stadium – the 15,000+ seat arena in Detroit that housed the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. But he had a rival in Adam Weissmuller – a former welterweight wrestler who after a long career, transitioned into pro-wrestling promotional work. While Weissmuller would ultimately win the war, his victory would be short-lived as he would pass away shortly thereafter. His successor would lose to another adversary in Harold Lecht who would go on to create Big Time Wrestling, a name that would be synonymous with the Motor City.
Solomon gives a lot of background into Sheik’s life before wrestling by spotlighting his brief time as a member of the armed forces. Sheik had been drafted into the US Army during the Second World War shortly after turning eighteen (although he did try enlisting earlier but had been rebuked). While he saw action in Europe, he arrived shortly before Germany’s surrender and had been sent home during the US bombing of Japan. However, during his time in the Forces, Farhat dabbled in amateur wrestling making quite the name for himself by winning several tournaments.
Ed would be discovered by one of the aforementioned Harold Lecht’s right-hand men in Bert Ruby – an active performer and talent booker. While he was able to get experience working on the undercard, it wasn’t until pro wrestling and television went hand-in-hand that Farhat exploded in popularity. The demand for over-the-top colorful characters went hand-in-hand with the advent of pro wrestling on television. Through several iterations, Farhat came up with The Sheik of Araby.
Around the same time, the NWA had been founded, which made talent exchanges easier than ever. Through the NWA’s territory system, Farhat was able to travel all over the United States to work in several of the nation’s top promotions, thus expanding his reach as an in-demand performer as well as gaining experience by working different styles with a wide variety of opponents producing legendary rivalries with Bruno Sammartino in New York, Dory Funk in Texas, Billy Watson in Toronto and Freddie Blassie in California just to name a few.
As this book is as much a biography of The Sheik as it is a history of the Detroit territory, you get the inside story of the battle between Lecht and upstarts Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle. Barnett and Doyle would eventually wrestle control of the territory away from Lecht but a scandal would soon drive Barnett halfway around the world to Australia. This allowed Farhat to strike a deal with the pair and take over ownership of the territory for a tidy sum of $50,000. Solomon goes on to explain how Farhat managed to be the exception to the rule in how heels were commonly presented in the 1950s and 1960s. Given that he was his own top draw, Farhat would book himself over any top star that began to pick up steam in the territory, keeping all the heat and glory for himself. Unfortunately, this would lead to irreversible damage to both his brand as both a performer and promoter down the road.
Although Sheik could easily have rested on his laurels and become a full-time promoter, the lure of the spotlight became too much as he would find himself in Japan. Brought over by Giant Baba in 1973, Sheik would work for All Japan as a challenger for Baba’s Pacific Wrestling Championship. In the years that followed, Sheik would work in All Japan’s Tag League teaming with a variety of partners – most notably Abdullah the Butcher. Abby and Sheik would have an on-screen falling out that led to a match so violent, that it would not air on Japanese TV.
While success was rising in Japan, business was dwindling in the US. Many of Sheik’s poor business practices were beginning to catch up with him. A prolonged run on top where he would extinguish the heat garnered by any other performer coupled with his reluctance to ever lose and relinquish the top spot would eventually hurt attendance. He also did himself no favors with the other wrestlers by continuing to offer laughable payoffs leading to drying out the talent pool from which to book performers. A gallbladder surgery led to a reliance on pain pills, a growing addiction that would spiral out of control into harder drugs like cocaine and heroin. If that wasn’t bad enough, Sheik would find himself in the grips of a gambling addiction that would obliterate his personal savings. Coupling drug dependency with business being down, Farhat would end up wrestling far longer than required. Given that he could not do what he once could as a younger man, Farhat would rely on smoke and mirrors and ultra-violent matches taking the place of athleticism, leading to close calls like the no-ropes, barbwire fire match mentioned earlier.
Author Brian Solomon notes that Farhat was known for keeping the true nature of the wrestling business incredibly close to the vest. Much of what he told others was in keeping with kayfabe, so it was difficult at times to know what was and what wasn’t true. Solomon also noted that while he did not have a lot of help from The Sheik’s immediate family, he goes to great lengths to explain how he came across certain information and where the waters were more or less muddy.
Like many biographies of those from this era, BLOOD AND FIRE tells of both the types of soaring highs and crushing lows that can seemingly only go hand in hand with the wrestling business. While many fans may only know of The Sheik as the trainer for both Sabu and Rob Van Dam, he has a fascinating story all his own.
BLOOD & FIRE: The Unbelievable Real-Life Story of Wrestling’s Original Sheik is available through ECW Press now.