This post got away from me after I began writing, so it’s a little off the intended topic of the MartyrMade blog. Times like this make me thankful I don’t actually have an audience.
For most Americans, looking back on pop culture portrayals of minority groups and foreigners is always a mixed bag filled with shame and guilty humor. We might experience unqualified outrage when we realize that Bugs Bunny was an unapologetic racist, but anyone who doesn’t admit to feeling a bit of morally-ambivalent nostalgia when they remember Transformers villain Abdul Fakkadi (Supreme Military Commander, President-for-Life, and King of Kings of the Socialist Democratic Federated Republic of Carbombya) is a repressed liar.
The squared circle has more than its share of racial not-giving-a-shit (anyone who doesn’t laugh at Roddy Piper trolling Chavo Guerrero and his Mexican fans by playing La Cucaracha on his ‘pipes can go hate freedom with the Carbombya whiners), especially since it is the job of half the roster to offend and enrage the audience. As with portrayals in the broader culture, racial stereotypes in pro wrestling come in different flavors and levels of severity. Some are unforgivable gaffes that even committed racists try to forget, while others get us going through our friends list trying to decide who it’s safe to share with. The Iron Sheik has always been a tough one for me to place on that spectrum.
But why should it be hard? He’s a hostile caricature of a Arab who hates America and is regularly trotted out for archetypal American faces like Hulk Hogan, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, and Sgt. Slaughter to pummel. His finishing move is the goddamn Camel Clutch. If it was 2015 he would be walking out in a suicide vest and be finishing opponents with the Cold As ISIS piledriver. So why the ambivalence? I struggled with this for awhile (staying up nights, wandering the streets, mumbling in my bathrobe to strangers…), until one day I got an idea while arguing with a friend over the question. He made the easy case that Sheik was a classic example of an ethnic stereotype positing the Other as… well, whatever. My friend hates freedom, is the point. Put him on the list. Anyway, some time during his cross-examination of my moral ambiguity, he mentioned in passing, “You know, he’s not even an Arab, he’s Iranian.”
Maybe this shouldn’t have been news to me, but Iron Sheik’s heyday was a bit before my time. I came up as part of the lucky generation that straddled the end of the Golden Age and the inauguration of the Attitude Era. So I checked Wikipedia and, sure enough, underneath that Jordanian keffiyeh, hides a man from Tehran, Persian to the bone. Why the switch, I wondered? My friend and I were having this debate around the time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to denounce President Obama’s ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Why, I wondered, would an arch-heel like Iron Sheik feel the need to switch over to playing an Arab in the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis? A quick Google search turned into two hours of my employer’s wasted money, and what I discovered would serve as decent bedrock for a halfway decent Pynchon novel.
The easiest way to do this is probably to just lay it out as a timeline.
Early 1979 – For starters, the Iron Sheik didn’t start out as the Iron Sheik. The Shah, a US ally, is still in power in Iran, and Americans generally have more negative feelings toward Arabs due to the ’73 oil embargo after the Yom Kippur War. Capitalizing on this, Sheik debuts as anti-American heel The Great Hussein Arab. He has some success and fights for a title, but in November the American embassy in Iran is overrun and dozens of hostages are taken by radicals sanctioned by the Iranian Revolutionary government.
Nov ’79 – Americans are outraged at the hostage situation in Iran, and both official policy and general feelings toward the Middle East begin to shift accordingly. The US had cut off relations with Iraq in 1967, during the Six Day War between Israel and the Arab states, but Iran’s move had us scrambling for new allies. Saddam Hussein had taken power in July 1979, a month after The Great Hussein Arab had made his debut. As the Ayatollah returns to Iran, the US reopens lines with Saddam’s Iraq as a counterweight. This is a disaster for The Great Hussein Arab. The last thing he needs is the US government telling the country that Arabs are our friends, and that an Arab named Hussein is our best friend of all. A few months after the Iranian Revolution, he leaves the WWF to wrestle in Japan and consider his options.
Sep ’80 – Ten months after the Iranians seize our embassy, and two months before Reagan is elected president, our new besties in Iraq launch a full-scale invasion of Iran.
Feb ’80-Mar ’82 – While in Japan, The Great Hussein Arab swaps back to being Iranian and took on the moniker Iron Sheik. See, this was the source of my initial confusion. There are no sheiks in Iran. “Sheik” is an Arab honorific, so between that and the keffiyeh, I had always just assumed he was supposed to be an Arab. Sheik was from the Middle East, so he had to have known this perfectly well, but I guess no one ever lost money betting on American apathy toward the trifling details of foreign cultures. The new Iranian Iron Sheik returns to showers of American boos, doing his level best to make sure people who don’t read the newspaper still have a reason to hate the Iranians.
1982 – Vince McMahon buys Capitol Wrestling with a grand plan to take it from a regional to national promotion. Central to his plan is the creation of a new champ, Hulk Hogan. But Bob Backlund was the current champion, and it wouldn’t do to have the Hulkster make his entrance to the grand stage by beating up on a fellow all-American like Backlund. To put Hogan over on the national stage, McMahon needed an ideal and unambiguous enemy… enter the Iron Sheik.
It was first Reagan term and all the Morning in America stuff was being laid on thick. Carter’s administration had been all about malaise, impotence, and a general lack of confidence. The economy was stuck in the mud. We couldn’t deter USSR from invading Afghanistan. We couldn’t even get Iran to give our hostages back. In 1980, Reagan came in with a campaign designed to lift spirits and, despite continued economic trouble, that narrative was still hanging in the air in the early 80s. McMahon’s sense of the historical moment compares favorably to that of Caesar and Napoleon, and he knew what had to be done. Hulk Hogan’s original theme song was Eye of the Tiger, but it wouldn’t be long before he was rocking his epoch-defining “Real American”, with lyrics you know by heart, but are still worth quoting at length:
When it comes crashing down, and it hurts inside,
ya’ gotta take a stand, it don’t help to hide,
Well, you hurt my friends, and you hurt my pride,
I gotta be a man; I can’t let it slide,
I am a real American, Fight for the rights of every man,
I am a real American, fight for what’s right, fight for your life!
Take a minute to wipe your tears. Ready? OK, so:
McMahon and his promotion planned to jump into Reagan’s inspirational wake. Soon, Hogan would be coming out with American flags and acting as a one-man self-esteem workshop for an entire nation. The first step to helping with America’s collective therapy session would be to show that America can kick an Iranian’s ass any time it wants!
Dec ’83 – Iraq’s initial offensive has bogged down after making early headway into Iran. The war has devolved into brutal reprisal attacks and even trench warfare, but American policy still firmly backs Iraq. Remember the Rumseld/Saddam handshake pic? It was taken in early December ’83, when Rummy was dispatched on a visit to express support and discuss strategy. At this crucial moment, just as the Iranians mount a counterattack, the villainous Iranian Sheik seizes the WWF title from champion Bob Backlund. Backlund was a good man, but didn’t have a look, build, or style that was going to intimidate anyone. After getting caught in the infamous Camel Clutch by the Iron Sheik, Backlund refused to give in, like any good American, but his manager threw in the towel and cost him the match. Just like the scrappy American people would never give up, but were betrayed by the cautious and cowardly leadership of Jimmy Carter!
Jan ’84 – After a month of unbearable mockery and badgering by the apparently unbeatable Iranian, Backlund is scheduled for a rematch, but no one is feeling very confident. Let’s face it, the American just doesn’t have what it takes… but wait! Backlund is replaced at the last minute by an up-and-comer calling himself Hulk Hogan! Still, as the match begins, the Iron Sheik seems to be too much even for the strapping newcomer, and eventually Hogan is lying prostrate in the same death grip that defeated Backlund. No one has ever escaped the Camel Clutch – to even imagine it would be ridiculous – and the dejected and demoralized crowd hangs its collective head over yet another defeat by a foreign… No. It can’t be. Hulk’s not giving up? How is it possible? The pain! His vertebrae must be cracking under the pressure! Somehow, Hulk is getting to his feet, with a desperate Sheik still clinging to the hold from Hogan’s back! What power, what will! He’s up, and he drives the Sheik backward into the steel turnbuckle! Hulk is onto the ropes like a house afire, and flies through the air with a devastating leg drop, finishing the Sheik and winning the title!!! USA USA USA!!!11oneone
The message was clear: The good-natured but overwhelmed Carter/Backlund administration was out, the proud and patriotic Reagan/Hogan administration was in. The American economy was on the rise and the once-threatening Iranians were now having enough trouble in their horrifying war with Iraq that Americans were finally starting to feel that it was safe to stop caring again. Iron Sheik’s subsequent attempts to challenge the American hero directly were brushed off by the powerful Hogan. Duly chastened, the Sheik avoided the Hulkster, instead picking a fight with Sgt. Slaughter that lasted through ’84 and into ’85. After Slaughter once again proved American dominance over the duplicitous Persians, the Iron Sheik realized needed help. America was starting to feel pretty good about itself again, and a shit-talking native of a Muslim country locked in a provincial border war with Iraq was becoming less threatening than comical. Enter the sneaky fucking Russians…
Mar ’85 – The Soviet Union was a supplier of military hardware for Iraq throughout the war, an inconvenient fact our government was content to ignore as long as our interests remained aligned. With his deep understanding of geopolitics, the Iron Sheik knew that his best chance to help the Iranian war effort was to undermine this relationship by forming his own alliance with the Russians. He teamed up with Nikolai Volkoff to form the tag-team Foreign Legion, and in no time they had smashed the US Express to claim the title.
Sep ’85 – Perhaps fearing that the Sheik-Volkoff connection would give Moscow ideas about helping Iran, the Reagan administration seizes the initiative and begins sending its own weapons to Iran as part of what would become the Iran-Contra scandal. This was highly illegal since Iran had been under an arms embargo since the Revolution.
Nov ’86 – The illegal Iranian weapons program becomes public. The Hulkster takes full responsibility, but denies having had any knowledge of illegal activities. Very disappointing.
1987 – Embarrassed by our illicit relationship with Iran, the US government determines that the best strategy is to emphasize Iran’s relationship with the Soviet Union, so Sheik mostly sticks with Volkoff in tag-team battles. He’s occasionally pitted in singles matches against flag-toting Hacksaw Jim Duggan, losing them all, proving that America is more interested in beating up Iranians than selling them weapons. This strategy is a failure because it turns out Americans never really knew the difference between an Arab and a Persian, and always thought that either Iraq or Iran was a typo, not sure which one. The scandal hangs in the air like a day-old falafel fart.
Mar ’87 – Vince McMahon hatches a plan to free both himself and America from the trap they’ve fallen into. He throws the kitchen sink into an upcoming live event, hoping a spectacular new standard in panem et circenses Americanum will distract attention from the Middle East. After Ricky Steamboat and Macho Man Randy Savage wrestle one of the most unforgettable matches in history, the Iron Sheik and his Russian partner stomp into the ring for a tag-team match. The Russian silences the crowd and begins to sing the Soviet national anthem, but it wasn’t long before Hacksaw Jim Duggan, raising an American flag attached to a two-by-four, snatches the microphone and announces that Volkoff “won’t be singing that Russian song, as this is the land of the free and the home of the brave!” The match proceeded as confusingly and chaotically as it began, and the American Duggan ended up hitting the Iranian Sheik with his lumber and getting disqualified, giving an unearned victory to the foreigners. Well, fair is fair. After all, this is America. Sure, the Iron Sheik had it coming, and yes, it can be tempting to break the rules in defense of freedom, but the rule of law must prevail. Hacksaw was a patriot, but, like Colonel Oliver North, his love of America momentarily got the better of him. Perhaps his heart was in the right place, but justice demanded he that pay the price. Just as Colonel North was the man on the ground for the American president, Hacksaw was an assistant patriot to great American himself, the Hulkster. Once Hacksaw-North is shuffled out of the ring, it’s up to Hogan-Reagan to remind everyone what being a real, law-abiding American is all about. In front of the largest indoor crowd, and the first pay-per-view wrestling event, in American history, Hulkamania runs wild when Hogan does the unthinkable. After an initial attempt is thwarted, Hogan hulks up, scooping 520-pound Andre the Giant into the air and body slamming him. Hulk wins. America wins. Inspired by his ally’s performance and knowing that the time was right, President Reagan booked a flight for Berlin where, a few months later, he would deliver his famous line to the Soviet leader, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
May ’87 – Iraq, apparently still upset about discovering the secret relationship between Reagan and the Iron Sheik, fucks up the program by launching a missile at an American frigate. Fortunately, the American public is still not completely clear on which country is which, and after seeing President Reagan body slam the Giant, no one questions him when he insists that Iraq is still on our side, and it’s the Iranians we should be worrying about. To avoid confusing anyone, the Iron Sheik is disappeared and shuffled off to another promotion.
Oct ’87 – The Reagan administration is in full-on “what Contra scandal?”, kicking-Iranian-ass mode, interdicting aircraft, shipping, and oil rigs. We keep beating on them into ’88 as Saddam takes the opportunity to regain lost territory and kill as many Iranians as possible. Saddam’s brutality during this offensive combined with his earlier attack on the American frigate are beginning to raise questions in some quarters. Election season is ramping up and Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, as a former Director of Central Intelligence, was widely suspected of knowing more than he let on about the double-dealing.
Apr ’88 – Thankfully, an Iranian mine obligingly runs into an American warship, retroactively justifying all the shots we’d been firing at them for most of the last year, and ensuring that no one sheds a tear when in:
Jul ’88 – American guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes shoots down Iranian Air Flight 655 because it totally looked like a flock of seagulls. I mean a flying gun. Or something.
Aug ’88 – Ceasefire announced. The Soviets had stepped up active support for Iraq during the last years of the war to build relations, and America is already thinking that the Mesopotamian desert looks like a great place to try out all these shiny new weapons Reagan bought.
Feb ’91 – Believing that the United States would not try to stop him, Saddam Hussein orders his forces to invade Kuwait. America declares war and mops up what’s left of the Iraqi military. A new era of American dominance and imperial overreach begins. USA USA USA!!! Hundreds of thousands of our Kurdish and Shi’ite allies are slaughtered, but no one at the party can be bothered to put their drink down.
Mar ’91 – The Iron Sheik uses the time off to rework his identity, returning to the WWF days after the Gulf War ends as Colonel Mustafa, hailing from… Baghdad, Iraq!!! He goes on a huge winning streak, demonstrating that Iraq really was a serious threat that merited the level of force we brought to bear in the Gulf War. After pushing around a bunch of small-time players and intimidating some mid-level guys, President Bush sends out the big guns, calling in the tag team of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior – potent symbol of a united America, the native warrior and American hero having transcended their differences as the new world order is inaugurated, the end of history begins, and the last man finally take his place in the center of the ring. The unstoppable post-modern duo finally put an end to Sheik’s run, and to an age. The WWF, and the nation, were sliding into a period where they will struggle to define themselves in a world without enemies. The fever of former days fades, and reflection brings the combination of embarrassment and longing that by now is so ubiquitous and familiar that it’s become transparent to us.
I meant to write about something else entirely, but I learned a lot as I chased this down. I learned a lot about myself, about the Iron Sheik, and about the complexities of America’s role in the world. I learned that Vince McMahon is almost certainly an Executive Service employee at the CIA, and Sheik is 100% a field agent in the ops directorate. Either that or Reagan was a huge wrestling fan, which wouldn’t surprise me a bit.