If the appeal of professional wrestling for a young child is a cartoon come to life, there was no better villain than the Iron Sheik.
As the flag-waving and mustache-twirling foreigner with curled boots and broken English, he was the epitome of the prototypical heel of the era – built on a foundation of xenophobia that the performer amplified and took to absurdist levels that it was hard to view the character under a political lens.
Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri lived a rich and troublesome life that took the Iranian native across the world to the heights of professional wrestling in its largest market while accidentally becoming an icon for Iranian youth that were desperate for any type of representation.
Writing the story of Vaziri is an act of mining fact from fiction about a man that often pivoted between both to create his own tall tales. A simple fact as his birth date has been disputed over the years with the accepted date of March 15, 1942, as his origin but a wider net has been cast regarding when he entered this world.
What we do know is that he left the world this week and it cast an indelible print among fans that grew up in the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling era during the World Wrestling Federation’s national expansion where the attachment to these larger-than-life figures to one’s childhood has cemented their nostalgia among today’s adult audience.
Vaziri was born in Damghan – about 200 miles west of Tehran, where he was billed throughout his career.
He was drawn to amateur wrestling from a young age. He idolized the country’s star Gholamreza Takhti – a gold medalist in freestyle wrestling at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne and earned silver at the 1952 and 1960 games and won two world championships at 192 pounds.
Takhti was an outspoken voice against the government of Iran during the Pahlavi dynasty that ruled the country between 1925 and 1979. In January 1968, Takhti was found dead in a hotel room and the official ruling on his death was by suicide but due to his political actions, others suspected he could have been murdered.
This included Vaziri, who was affected to the degree that he fled the country for fear that if a national hero like Takhti could be killed, so could he.
He left his family and his life in Iran for the dream of pursuing his amateur wrestling dreams and left for St. Paul, Minnesota seeking out famed coach Alan Rice.
Rice was a pillar in Greco-Roman wrestling’s growth in the U.S., representing the country in the 1956 Olympics and founding the Minnesota Amateur Wrestling Club in 1966.
Vaziri competed at 180.5 pounds and would become an AAU National Champion in 1971 and while never competing at the Olympics (nor medaling as he would claim), he did become an assistant coach with Rice at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
The men’s Olympic team in 1972 sought out sponsors, one of which was Minnesota celebrity and AWA owner Verne Gagne who created the bridge for Vaziri’s next act beyond the amateur style of wrestling.
In 1972, Vaziri plunged into the daunting training under Gagne, a man that churned out countless headliners and stars. Vaziri’s class included Greg Gagne, Jim Brunzell, Bob Bruggers, and a young Richard Fliehr, who quit the camp several times and was convinced to return, finding his calling as Ric Flair.
The class was taught by Verne Gagne and Billy Robinson with the latter leaving a negative impression on Vaziri, who felt he was tougher than the teacher. Vaziri would be vocal about his opinion of his toughness and Robinson decided to put his student to the test.
Robinson had him get down, spread-eagle, in amateur position. He got on top but didn’t have the leverage to turn Khosrow over and pin him. But Robinson was an expert on “hook” style, which was illegal in the amateur ranks, and after about ten minutes, he brought the point of his knee down into Khosrow’s thigh, f—king up his hip. Khosrow was in agony as Robinson turned him over and pinned him. “See? I told you I could do it,” he crowed.
Vaziri would wrestle under his own name, Ali Vaziri, and The Great Hossein Arab in incarnations that preceded his most famous one.
One early stop in his career was a 12-week stay in Mid-South.
It was believed that Mary Gagne, the wife of Verne, came up with the name of the Iron Sheik and an extension of the popular moniker by Ed Farhat, who would later bill himself as ‘The Original Sheik’ to differentiate the two after Vaziri rose to national fame.
Vaziri made his debut at Madison Square Garden on June 4, 1979, winning a 20-man battle royal for a $10,000 prize and an immediate WWWF title shot against Bob Backlund. Wrestling as The Great Hossein, Vaziri lost to Backlund that night in front of approximately 17,000 fans but their paths would cross again.
From Bob Backlund:
I always loved wrestling Khos (Khosrow Vaziri) because we could do a lot of interesting amateur moves in the ring and mix them in with pro moves. We could almost anticipate each other, and we had a very easy time putting on entertaining matches in the ring for the fans.
Given the diplomatic tensions between the US and Iran at the time, Vince Sr. was nervous about promoting and advertising a world title match between me and the Sheik at the Garden, or in any of the major urban arenas, for fear of riots. At the time of the match, the United States, which had supported the Shah, had just evacuated most of its people from Iran, and even though the hostage crisis would not begin for a few months, relations between our two countries were rapidly worsening. So this was a creative way that Vince Sr. opted to give Khosrow the match he deserved at the Garden without advertising it in advance and risking a riot or danger to Khosrow’s well being.
But this match with Khosrow was one of the best wrestling matches I had as WWF champion, right up there with Harley (Race), Greg (Valentine), Pat Patterson, and Don Muraco. I wish we could have had a two-or-three match series at the Garden, as there was certainly a lot that we could have done to entertain the fans.
Hossein would wrestle at The Garden several times over the next year including a December 17 match with Antonio Inoki for the NWF Championship and had one final appearance as The Great Hossein in February 1980.
Later that year, he won the NWA Canadian Heavyweight Championship in Toronto from Dewey Robertson and flipped the title back and forth with Angelo Mosca.
Vaziri made his way to Mid-Atlantic that same year where he won its version of the heavyweight championship on May 11, 1980, from Jim Brunzell and lost it to Ricky Steamboat on November 1 while remaining in the territory until the summer of 1981.
His travels took him back to Mid-South, Florida Championship Wrestling, and Georgia Championship Wrestling where he won the NWA Television Championship in a tournament besting Ron Garvin in the final on May 28, 1983. After dropping the title to Garvin in July, he was ready to return to New York and the biggest push of his career.
Returning as The Iron Sheik, Vaziri worked the November 21, 1983, show at MSG beating Tony Garea and instantly set himself up for a rematch with rival Bob Backlund for the next month’s card.
Backlund was informed three weeks in advance that he would be dropping the title to Vaziri with the date set for December 26, 1983.
If I had to lose the belt to someone, I was pleased that it was going to be Khosrow – a real athlete, and someone that I had known for so long. I tried to stay positive and make the best of it – but it was definitely not an easy thing.
In front of 24,592 (including the adjacent Felt Forum), Sheik ended the lengthy five-plus-year reign (with an interruption in 1979) of Backlund with Arnold Skaaland throwing in the towel as Sheik had the champion locked in the camel clutch.
An angle was shot in advance where Backlund was going into the match injured as a result of a Persian club attack, which the announcers emphasized and was an ‘out’ for Backlund. In fact, a rematch between the two was advertised for the following month, although a change would be announced.
The day after Iron Sheik’s win was a seismic day for the WWF as the year wound down with a show at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis with several arrivals to the company including a returning Hulk Hogan, defecting from the AWA, and inserted as Iron Sheik’s challenger on January 23, 1984, and truly kicking off the company’s national expansion.
Vaziri held the title for four weeks and was the transition from one babyface pillar to the next while garnering immense heat as the evil foreigner that had beaten the All-American Backlund and would fall to the next American hero.
In the post-title run, Sheik was involved in one of his most memorable programs a natural opponent, Sgt. Slaughter when Bob Remus was considered the second or third top babyface in the company underneath Hulk Hogan and alongside Jimmy Snuka.
After matches with Eddie Gilbert and Ivan Putski in February and March of 1984, he had his first of three matches with Slaughter at The Garden on April 23 ending with Slaughter being disqualified. The next month, the two fought to a no-contest and set up the climactic match.
In the first Garden show after the passing of Vince McMahon Sr., Slaughter and Sheik headlined on June 16 with a Bootcamp Match that was a wild and bloody brawl, won by Slaughter often remembered among Sheik’s best matches.
Later in the year, Sheik would embark on his new chapter – teaming with Nikolai Volkoff and setting the two up for the inaugural WrestleMania in March 1985 where the duo became its tag team champions. The two unseated Barry Windham & Mike Rotunda underneath Hogan & Mr. T against Roddy Piper & Paul Orndorff with the show airing on closed circuit locations throughout the country.
The title reign lasted less than three months with Windham & Rotunda regaining the belts in June.
He gained added fame with his likeness being included in Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling cartoon on CBS where his character was voiced by Aron Kincaid.
In late 1986, The British Bulldogs held the titles when Tom “Dynamite Kid” Billington suffered a debilitating back injury while wrestling in Hamilton, Ontario and hospitalized the influential performer, putting the belts on ice. Vince McMahon was adamant about getting the titles back into circulation and was eyeing Sheik & Volkoff as the ones to dethrone the champions with Billington’s health a question mark. Billington refused to lose to the two and only had one team in mind if he was going to drag himself to the ring to do the honors:
From Pure Dynamite:
On the spot shows, Davey Boy Smith was either wrestling singles or tagging with nobodies. But I knew, sooner or later, we would lose those belts because of my condition.
What Vince (McMahon) really wanted was for Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik to be the champions, but I told him, “No chance.” The only team I would defend the belts against was The Hart Foundation, which he agreed to.
Billington’s unwillingness was a blessing in disguise as Vaziri would be the source of a major public embarrassment months later when he was caught with drugs inside a vehicle with Jim Duggan.
On May 26, 1987, Sheik and Duggan opted to ride together for a show in Asbury Park that night and were pulled over by Garden State Police with Duggan was spotted drinking and driving. The troopers discovered marijuana and cocaine inside the vehicle. Both were arrested and both faced possession charges. The two still managed to make the show that might – squaring off in a tag match on opposite teams.
While Sheik would face probation and see the charges dropped, the greater humiliation during this era was the company having a lead babyface and heel spotted traveling together while feuding on television.
Sheik lost his job with the company but had more lives than a cat with the company and would resurface many times over the next decade.
He was back for a six-month run with the WWF in 1988, although at a lower level, then he was gone again and doing shots with the AWA before joining WCW in March 1989.
It was the tail end of George Scott’s run as the booker for WCW, who had been one of the architects with Vince McMahon during the company’s national expansion. Sheik was less mobile and closer to fifty than forty. He was largely reserved for house shows and the occasional television taping.
He was not used in early 1990 but got brought back in June when Ole Anderson had become the booker and was looking for stars from the past and Sheik checked those boxes. He ended his run with WCW in 1991 losing to Junkyard Dog on live events around the country.
His last major run was another with the WWF, but he would not use the Iron Sheik moniker this time. The U.S. was at war with Iraq and he was positioned with Sgt. Slaughter and General Adnan (Adnan Al-Kaissie) as Col. Mustafa as a group of Iraqi sympathizers during the Gulf War, which ended in February but the WWF had programmed that year’s WrestleMania around Slaughter as champion and kept the tactless story going. It generated a lot of negative coverage for the company including NBC personality Bob Costas withdrawing from his role at that year’s WrestleMania over the angle.
The three headlined SummerSlam in a handicap match losing to Hulk Hogan & Ultimate Warrior with Sid Eudy as the special referee in the “Match Made in Hell” at Madison Square Garden.
The only option left was turning Slaughter back to an American-loving babyface and aligning him with Duggan for his endorsement. Slaughter and Mustafa were on opposite teams at the Survivor Series in 1991 with Slaughter, Duggan, Tito Santana & Texas Tornado (Kerry Von Erich) defeating Mustafa, Hercules, Skinner & The Berzerker.
As Col. Mustafa, he rode out the character beyond its timeliness. He wrapped up his latest WWF run in the spring of 1992 by putting over Tatanka (Chris Chavis) on the way out, who was being pushed as an undefeated Native American babyface.
Sheik was extremely limited with his ability to wrestle and aside from a short stint in Puerto Rico, his remaining wrestling days were spent on the independent circuit and using his prior fame to gain bookings around the country and hit the convention circuit.
In 1996, he got the call to return to the WWF and was paired with Bob Backlund as the heel manager for The Sultan (Solofa Fatu Jr., the future Rikishi), which was a character that never got over and peaked with a match against The Rock at WrestleMania 13 in March 1997.
In 2001, he was invited to participate in the Gimmick Battle Royal at WrestleMania X-Seven at the Astrodome. It was a collection of bygone characters from the company’s past with Gene Okerlund and Bobby Heenan utilized on commentary. Sheik was so slow walking down the long ramp that Heenan noted it would be WrestleMania 38 by the time he reached the ring. Sheik won the match by default as he was unable to take the over-the-top-rope bump and thus, eliminated Sgt. Slaughter to win the match.
There were mounting personal problems for Sheik, who came to America as a clean-living athlete and fell into drug addiction that included crack cocaine and was hardly shy about his usage. There was a joke he would tell where he pulled out a crack pipe stating the pipe should be in the Hall of Fame because of all the stars that have smoked from it.
He was also draining himself financially and in dire straits at various points in his life. This led to Sheik becoming a caricature in the media who would cut profane promos on Hulk Hogan, B. Brian Blair, and others and being trotted onto programs like Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, and countless others to rant and rave for everyone’s amusement. It sprung Sheik into an early adopter on Twitter (which was run by close family friends Jian & Page Magen, who were very tight with him) and crafted his image online. The Magens also helped produce the 2014 documentary on his life, which included Dwayne Johnson being interviewed for the project.
His greatest tragedy occurred in May 2003 when his oldest daughter Marissa was murdered by her boyfriend, Charles Warren Reynolds, who strangled her to death. He turned himself in and was sentenced to life in prison and died while behind bars in 2016.
As described in the A&E Legends Biography, Vaziri plotted to murder Reynolds in the courthouse while sneaking a razorblade into the courthouse and hiding it inside his mouth (a common trick where wrestlers would hide their blade during a match). He was talked out of the murder plot by his family, who impressed upon Vaziri that murdering Reynolds would not bring his daughter back and would take him away from the surviving family members.
From all accounts, Vaziri never got over this loss, and was a devastating blow that no parent could comprehend.
His final night under the spotlight for a WWE audience was in April 2005 when he was part of the Hall of Fame class in Los Angeles. The theme of the class was a nod to the inaugural WrestleMania with Sheik being inducted alongside Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, Jimmy Hart, Cowboy Bob Orton Jr., and Nikolai Volkoff.
Slaughter inducted Sheik, who provided one of the most entertaining speeches in the history of the event. It was equally off the rails as it was entertaining with Sheik telling story after story and seemed like the happiest man in the room to be receiving the honor.
In his final years, he reportedly cleaned himself up with the A&E documentary stating that his ‘rock bottom’ moment was his wife Caryl leaving him due to the drug abuse.
Vaziri leaves behind his wife, two surviving children – Nikki and Tanya, and five grandchildren.
He will be forever seen as a memorable character that was mimicked as often as any performer of that era. To some, he was a representative for an underserved part of the world on television, to others he was the hustler that tried to use his 8x10s to buy drinks at the airport, a heated villain at the peak of his run that drew at the world’s most famous arena, and to a select few, he was a father and husband that had to live with the most tragic of circumstances with the loss of a child in cold blood.
There is no easy summary of Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri – much like his disputed birth date, it is often difficult to know where the story began and when the fantasy ended.