Iron Sheik Death – Undisclosed

1942-2023 (81)

iron sheik death
The Iron Sheik, a gifted amateur wrestler whose Iranian nationality made him an instant heel. His antics outside the ring made him very popular in his later years. Indeed, he proved adept at keeping his act fresh throughout the years.

While professional wrestling has had some hated foreign heels who were in fact born in the United States, the Iron Sheik’s nationality was the real deal. Later, real-life geopolitical events transformed him into one of wrestling’s most hated figures.

A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma

Many are the stories regarding the early life of Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, the man who would go on to become the Iron Sheik. One is that he competed in the Olympics, winning a gold medal. Another is that he helped train aspiring wrestlers for American Wrestling Association (AWA) owner and promoter Verne Gagne.

The reality is somewhat different—at least according to the book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels. The book states that Vaziri was a talented Olympic-level Greco-Roman wrestler and at one point served as a guard for the Shah of Iran.

Vaziri emigrated to the U.S. due to political tensions in Iran. He helped coach amateur wrestlers and met Verne Gagne. There, Vaziri saw the potential to make money in pro wrestling and he asked to train with Verne Gagne. Vaziri trained with future stars such as Ric Flair, Ken Patera, and Bob Bruggers. Subsequently, he worked in Gagne’s AWA as a mid-card talent.

America Held Hostage

In 1979, Iranian revolutionaries captured the United States embassy in Tehran, taking many embassy personnel hostage. The crisis dragged on for over a year and promoters couldn’t have a better foreign heel than Vaziri.

Now working as Hussein Arab, he worked in the WWWF and southern territories such as Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, feuding with the babyfaces and drawing considerable heat.

Hussein Arab developed two catchy gimmicks to antagonize fans. The first was his Persian boots, which featured curved toes. The Sheik would load the boot when he wanted to give an opponent an extra added something, cheating to win the match.

The Sheik’s bag of tricks also included his famed Persian Clubs. The Sheik would lift and balance the clubs (no easy feat at that) to demonstrate his great strength. He’d often challenge other wrestlers to try and work them, usually ending in failure or a sneak attack when the wrestler looked close to lifting them correctly.

One such wrestler was Blackjack Mulligan, who fell victim to The Iron Sheik’s Persian Club Challenge. This led to a brutal feud in Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling.

Perfecting His Act: Becoming The Iron Sheik

Portraying an anti-American heel proved lucrative for Hussein Arab, who eventually began calling himself The Iron Sheik. While the Iranian hostage crisis was over, the Sheik proved the perfect villain as fans did not soon forgive the hostage-taking. The Iron Sheik was by proxy, the target of fans who still resented the actions of Iran’s revolutionary government.

The Iron Sheik shocked the world when he defeated Bob Backlund for the WWF Championship in Madison Square Garden on December 26, 1983. The Sheik had previously injured Backlund’s shoulder in a sneak attack involving the Persian Club Challenge. The champion fought hard until The Iron Sheik locked him in his feared submission hold, the Camel Clutch.

The champion refused to give up. His manager Arnold Skaaland knew Backlund would never quit. Skaaland threw in the towel rather than see his charge permanently injured. This meant that the Iron Sheik was now WWF Champion.

Fans were furious but fortunately, Hulk Hogan captured the belt from the Iron Sheik on January 21, 1984. Wrestling lore has it that promoter Verne Gagne offered the Sheik $100,000 to break Hogan’s legs during the match (Gagne was furious over Hogan leaving the AWA for the WWF). The Sheik passed on the offer.

Hulkamania was now running wild in the WWF but what remained for the ex-champion? There was still much more money to make from the Iron Sheik. Manager Freddie Blassie (who wore a turban and dubbed himself “Ayatollah Blassie”) continued guiding the Sheik’s career, including a bloody feud with Sgt. Slaughter that led to a highly-regarded Boot Camp Match.

Championship gold was next as The Iron Sheik teamed with Nikolai Volkoff, a wrestler who portrayed a heel from the Soviet Union. The two defeated the U.S. Express (Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda) at WrestleMania before dropping the belts back to them a few months later.

Although the tag team reign would be the Sheik’s last run with championship gold in the WWF, he continued his team with Volkoff and also feuded with the promotion’s patriotic babyfaces including “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. Unfortunately, real-world events would once again affect Sheik’s career.

Getting into “The Goodies”

Unfortunately, the Iron Sheik found himself tempted by “the goodies” all too present on the road for wrestlers. According to wrestler “Jumping” Jim Brunzell:

“He sort of sampled various products and it completely changed him. He was like a Dr. Jekyll and My. Hyde.”

In 1987, the Iron Sheik was riding with fellow wrestler “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan when the two were pulled over by police. A search revealed drugs on both men (including cocaine on the Sheik) but perhaps worse,  they were caught traveling together (the two were supposed to be bitter enemies in the ring). WWF kingpin Vince McMahon blew his top, promptly firing both wrestlers.

Thankfully, work was never hard to find. The Iron Sheik wrestled in World Class Championship Wrestling, the AWA, the World Wrestling Council, and later in WCW where the company reportedly forgot he was on the payroll and renewed his contract without using him.

The Iron Sheik’s Last Years in the Ring

The Iron Sheik returned to the WWF, participating in the shocking angle where former babyface Sgt. Slaughter turned his back on America and showed sympathy towards Iraq, which at the time had invaded Kuwait. The Iron Sheik played Colonel Mustafa, one of Slaughter’s fellow villains. During the mid-90s he co-managed The Sultan (aka Rikishi).

In 2001 the Iron Sheik had one last hurrah in the ring when he won “The Gimmick Battle Royal” at WrestleMania X-Seven. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005.

Later Life and Personal Struggles

The Iron Sheik’s drug problems worsened over the years, as documented in the film, The Sheik. The murder of his daughter Marissa devastated him as well. However, he began the road to sobriety.

Thankfully, The Iron Sheik’s later years found more peace for him as he devoted his time to interacting with his fans and blowing up social media with his outrageous comments.

Sports Illustrated noted the Iron Sheik’s post-wrestling popularity:

In his later years, Sheik found revitalized fame as a pop culture personality. He made appearances on The Howard Stern Show and had a popular Twitter account with jokes ghostwritten by his management team.

On June 7, the Iron Sheik’s Twitter account announced the Iron Sheik had died at age 81. He is survived by his wife, two daughters, and five grandchildren.

Other pro wrestlers who died in 2023 include “Superstar” Billy Graham, Butch Miller, Jay Briscoe, Jerry Jarrett, and “Leaping” Lanny Poffo.

What are your memories of the Iron Sheik in or out of the ring? Be sure to leave them in the comments section below.