Much like with hip-hop or viral content, professional wrestling is all about self-promotion. In pro wrestling, you don’t necessarily have to be the best, you just have to convince your audience that you’re the best. Just ask Hulk Hogan. As the 80s era’s choice for the face of the company (that company being the WWE, of course), Hogan seemingly tore through every formidable opponent tossed his way, from Andre the Giant to “Macho Man” Randy Savage to Zeus. His rapid rise in popularity caused a version of mild cultural hysteria that was even afforded its own name. The Hulkster was smartly branded as not only a single wrestler, but an entire movement. Hulkamania was an 80s phenomenon that gave birth to both the annual cultural juggernaut WrestleMania and the lesser, round-the-year spectacle of WWE as a household sport. Hulk Hogan’s shameless self-promotion in the 1980s built that empire, supported with major backing from the multi-million dollar company pulling the strings, of course.
Last year’s profile documentary The Sheik’s most ambitious (and yet still believable) claim is that the success of Hulkamania (and, by extension, WrestleMania) was largely dependent on the appeal of Hogan’s main opponent, The Iron Sheik. Playing off of Americans’ Islamophobic prejudices during the Carter era Iranian hostage crisis, The Iron Sheik is credited here for being the ideal heel for Hogan, essentially single-handedly putting him over with the crowd. Born in Iran in the 1940s, Hossein Khosrow “The Sheik” Ali Vaziri was raised in a culture where traditional wrestling was a national obsession, where a healthy body meant a healthy state. Describing his teenage life in The Sheik, Ali Vaziri says “I was married to the wrestling mat. I didn’t care about girls; I cared about wrestling.” It was this dedication that landed him the position as bodyguard for the Iranian shah and, after emigration, an all-American coach for the Olympic wrestling team. The Iron Sheik was a mild-mannered American hero with an exceedingly sweet Midwestern wife & three adorable daughters before he found his true calling as a pro wrestling heel (a “bad guy”) that perfectly counteracted The Hulkster’s “I am a real American” persona simply by being a foreigner (nevermind that he has a depthless love for the country that he adopted).
The Sheik is not only credited in this flattering profile as contributing to the success of Hulkamania, but also for creating the priceless term “jabroni” (later popularized by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, of course) as well as the arguably-more-important public revelation that pro wrestling is, in fact, rigged. Once upon a time the ultra-macho ballet known as pro wrestling was assumed to be a true-to-life physical competition until (as this doc tells it) The Iron Sheik & supposed opponent “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan were arrested together on a beer & drug binge. It was the first time a face & a heel were ever proven to be hanging out as buds outside the squared circle. This “revelation” eventually lead to WWE magnate Vince McMahon seeking (and achieving) the tax breaks that come with being classified as a form of entertainment and not a professional sport.
If The Sheik is to be believed its subject would be credited as the sole launching pad for the very existence of modern pro wrestling itself and not just as the highly effective, very much timely heel that’s most likely closer to the truth. However, it isn’t until the film relaxes on the revisionist history lesson and profiles The Sheik’s more recent transition from drug addict with a broken body & a heart of gold to reformed family man that it loses a good deal of its credibility. It’s true that The Iron Sheik has a truly fascinating Twitter, YouTube and Howard Stern presence, but the movie conveniently sidesteps the racist & homophobic tendencies of his statements in those forums. As a journalistic, documentary endeavor, The Sheik fails to uncover answers that doesn’t support its central thesis that The Iron Sheik is 100% awesome, no faults. As a rose-colored profile of a very storied man who calls everyone “Bubba”, never says anything offensive about minorities, and most definitely quit mountains of crack cocaine, it’s much more effective. Supporting interviews with pro wrestling staples like Jim Ross, The Rock (who was apparently babysat by The Sheik’s wife as a child), Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Mick “Mankind” Foley, Brett “The Hitman” Hart, Jimmy Hart, and King Kong Bundy are sure to please any “sports entertainment” fan who are looking for a collection of anecdotes and not a controversial expose. The Sheik may be an exercise in shameless self-promotion, but that’s far from a new concept in the world of pro wrestling and (much like with the “sport” it covers) it’s a much more satisfactory proposition if you know what you’re in for before you arrive.