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Tragic Details About The Iron Sheik

Whether it's his classic match with Hulk Hogan, his outlandish appearances on talk shows like the ones hosted by Jerry Springer and Howard Stern, or just the many entertaining observations, claims, and outright threats found on his phenomenal Twitter feed, the Iron Sheik has been one of the most visible and popular wrestlers of the past four decades. His Twitter feed in particular has done a great job opening him up to new generations, making fans out of people who are too young to have seen him wrestle but old enough to enjoy watching a man threaten to put awful people in the camel clutch and make them humble.

Aside from being consistently compelling as an entertainer, the Iron Sheik is also one of wrestling's more tragic figures, so much so that it's almost a miracle he's still alive. Between personal tragedy, bad decisions, and just flat out pain, he's lived a rough life. Some of that was his own making, but much of it was him being a victim of forces beyond his control. He's such a tragic, complex figure that there's a whole documentary about him, fittingly titled The Sheik. There's also us, and we're here to walk you through some of the most tragic details of his life.

He grew up poor and his hero was possibly killed

The Iron Sheik, birth name Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, was born in Iran in 1942. He grew up poor, with much of his family's meager income coming from his father's business growing pistachios. Some parts of his life were normal — mandatory military service, walking the local bazaars. Other less so, including his time as a bodyguard for the Shah.

Like many young Iranians of his generation, the Iron Sheik's hero growing up was Olympic wrestler Gholamreza Takhti. A four-time Olympian and three-time medalist, including gold at the 1956 summer games in Melbourne, he inspired the Sheik to take up wrestling. Sheik recalled to Bidoun that at age 15 "I wanted to show my parents I could be big just like him." By the time he was 18, Sheik won the national high school championship in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. He later won the army wrestling championship during his mandatory military service.

In 1968, Takhti was found dead in a hotel room. His death was officially ruled a suicide, but many believe that he was murdered by the Iranian government for his work against the existing regime. The death served as a wake-up call for the Sheik. "I knew I had to leave. If Iran was not good for Takhti, it was not good for me."

His beef with Hogan

Even if his Twitter feed gets Eternal Sunshine'd from our collective memories, Iron Sheik will always be primarily remembered for his bout with Hulk Hogan. Sheik taking the leg drop, dropping the title, and kicking off Hulkamania is one of the most important moments in wrestling history — perhaps even the most important moment. Since then, Sheik has had a running public feud with Hogan. A simple search through his Twitter will find gems like "HULK HOGAN YOU ARE WORSE THAN THE KARS FOR KIDS SONG" — a worthwhile use of your time, dear reader, when you're done here. Sheik claims he has a reason for the hatred, and it's one of wrestling's most persistent rumors.

After a brief run in the WWF, Hogan spent the first few years of the '80s working American Wrestling Association (AWA) out of Minnesota under owner Verne Gagne. Hogan returned to the WWF in 1983, with Vince McMahon planning to make Hogan the new face of his company with the Iron Sheik bout. The longstanding rumor is that a bitter Gagne offered Sheik $100,000 to break Hogan's leg and take the WWF World Heavyweight Championship back to Minnesota, an offer Sheik turned down after informing McMahon.

It's a story Sheik has told for decades, further specifying to Vice that "HULK HOGAN SAYS 'I OWE YOU ONE,' AND HE NEVER REPAY ME. I COULD HAVE RUINED HIS LIFE." Hogan himself claimed the story of the bribe was true on The Steve Austin Show. Longtime wrestling personality Bruce Pritchard confirmed on his own podcast, Something to Wrestle, that "the story made the rounds, big time, at the time."

As for its veracity, Verne's son Greg told Sportskeeda "Sheik made that thing up. A couple of months ago, my brother and I, he said, 'You gotta watch this thing on YouTube.' I never knew he said it. So when [my brother] had told me, I said, 'That was never said. Verne never did that.'" Of course, this is wrestling — Sheik making this up and Gagne keeping it secret are about equally likely. Pick whichever scenario seems more fun.

He was such a good heel he was often in danger

Playing a heel in an era when kayfabe was very much alive didn't just mean beating up heroes, it meant making the audience believe you were a terrible person. Wrestlers and managers from the '70s and '80s often tell stories of death threats, with many taking pride in them — it meant they were doing their job. Manager Jim Cornette framed many of the death threats he received, showing them off in an episode of Dark Side of the Ring. The Iron Sheik was no different — and he had the added level of danger, given that he was representing one of America's national enemies.

He proudly told Vice "I MOST-HATED MAN IN THE AMERICA. I HAVE THE REAL, REAL HEAT WHERE THE FAN TRY TO KILL ME IN THE RING AND ON THE STREET." He related that security had to sneak him out of the arena in ambulances because fans would try to attack him at his own car. He was often grabbed by fans mid-match and stabbed on several occasions. It was a dangerous enough situation that he forbade his family from traveling with him. "I SWEAR TO THE JESUS I SO SCARED."

He was arrested with a face wrestler, which caused many problems

In 1987, Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik were pulled over on the Jersey Turnpike while headed to a show. The cops found a small amount of weed on Duggan and an eight ball of coke in the Sheik's bag. This arrest caused two problems: one professionally, and one personally. It was also a harbinger of things to come.

Professionally, it hurt both Sheik and Duggan because the two were feuding at the time — and sharing a car while kayfabe was still a critical part of the business was bad all around. Why would two mortal enemies carpool, much less party together? The event infuriated Vince McMahon, declaring in a locker room meeting that the two would never work for him again. In typical wrestling fashion, both were eventually rehired — but not before taking a big hit to their careers.

Personally, it hurt because the news eventually made its way down to his home in Atlanta. It wasn't just a small news piece, either — it was picked up by the AP and also appeared on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sheik's wife Caryl pulled their daughters out of school for three days.

The event was also a preview of the drug problems that would haunt him for a few more decades.

He had a hard time getting help because he was too charming

During the lowest point of the Iron Sheik's life in the early-to-mid 2000s, he was unable to stay out of trouble. This, in and of itself, isn't all that surprising. What made it tough was that his celebrity and natural charisma made it hard for him to face the consequences necessary for change. As an example: in 2005, his family forced him into rehab, saying he was a danger to himself and others. While in rehab, an employee — likely a fan — snuck an eight ball of coke in for the wrestler.

Tanya, one of the Sheik's daughters, explained her frustrations from this era to Bleacher Report: "People were taken by his celebrity, and they wanted him to like them. When the cops would arrest him, they'd drive him home instead of bringing him to jail. Every time we'd try to help him, he'd charm these fans, and they'd push back against us."

Iron Sheik's daughter was killed

The most tragic moment of the Iron Sheik's life happened outside of the wrestling ring. He faced the worst pain a parent can imagine: the murder of his daughter. Marissa Vaziri, a mere 27 years old, was strangled to death by her boyfriend Charles Warren Reynolds on May 2, 2003. He killed her after a party, telling police that "she wouldn't calm down."

The Sheik was already vulnerable, having recently come out of knee surgery, and this pushed him over the edge. The murder sent him into a spiral, often called the lowest point in his life. His wife Caryl told Yahoo! Sports how much the death hurt him: "He was this big strong guy that everyone had relied on for so long. And in this situation, there was nothing he could do to save her. It devastated him that he couldn't have been there and tried to save her."

He planned to kill his daughter's murderer

As tragic as the death of Marissa was, a depressed and furious Iron Sheik almost made it worse. He had a plan: he was going to kill Charles Warren Reynolds during his court hearing. This wasn't just the grim fantasies of a grieving father — Sheik hid a razor blade in his cheek and sat in the gallery. The plan was to wait for an opportune moment, barrel past the guards, spit out the razor, and cut Reynolds's throat.

His wife Caryl got wind of the plan, and his family colluded to make sure the wrestler couldn't pull it off. They boxed him in near a wall and all sat around him, forcing the immobile Sheik to have less of a chance to spring. During this time, his daughter Tanya (via Bleacher Report) whispered "You can't kill him 'cause they'll put you in prison. I lost my sister and I don't want to lose my father." This was enough to keep Sheik calm during the hearing, and he pledged to quit drugs as a tribute to his deceased daughter.

He was heavily addicted to drugs

The Iron Sheik grew up avoiding drugs and alcohol, consistent with the Shiite Islam beliefs he grew up with, but that changed after entering the wrestling industry. He claimed to Bleacher Report that he first started using drugs after fellow wrestler Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka offered him a joint. The industry's loose attitude towards partying saw Sheik abuse just about every substance imaginable.

It's easy to get caught up in all the legendary stories of what he did during the height of his addictions. It's fun to think about him belly-to-belly suplexing fellow wrestlers through hotel beds, or stashing his cocaine in someone else's clothing while trying to get across the Canadian border. But all of this overlooks the fact that he was a very sick man who kept getting fired from his job and putting himself and others in danger.

His drug addiction only got worse after he stopped wrestling. There were regular reports of him acting aggressive and violent towards others, even at conventions. His home life was a mess, with his family both worrying for his life and living in fear. He managed to quit several times, but often came back. His hardest relapse came after his daughter's death, when he started calling his drugs "medicine."

His wife moved out for two years

In 2007, Caryl couldn't handle her husband's addictions and erratic behavior anymore, and when the Sheik was out of town, she moved out. "I could no longer beg him to quit," she recalled to Bleacher Report. "We had lost our daughter. We were all sad and depressed. But enough was enough." The separation lasted for two years, and ended only after agreed to sever ties with the man who'd accompany him to drug purchases. Don't assume that's flippant — according to Sheik's daughter Tanya, this man had become her father's best friend. "But he cared about my mother more."

Severing this friendship was tough, but it was also the best thing that happened to him. He was forced to take sobriety seriously and moved back in with his wife. He still drinks beer, often speaking highly of "cold beer" via Twitter, but claims to have been cocaine free since 2009. "It was pretty hard. But I don't miss it anymore."

He was used as a 'political football' during the 2014 Toronto mayoral race

The Sheik had beef with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford after the mayor's crack scandal. In November 2013, Sheiky Baby showed up at Toronto City Hall and challenged Ford to an arm wrestling match. When asked for his feelings toward Ford, the Sheik told the Ottawa Sun "The man eats a cheeseburger and smokes crack. What kind of role model is that for the city? I just want to know if he is a real man or not."

In April 2014, with the Toronto mayoral race gearing up, the Iron Sheik was in the city promoting his documentary. He arranged a meeting at a local eatery with Olivia Chow, a politician with the left-wing New Democratic Party and — at that time — the leading candidate to win the race. (He claims to have invited Ford, whose chief of staff says never got the invite.) At the meeting, Sheik proclaimed "God bless her, and I want all the people in Toronto to vote for Olivia Chow to become the mayor of Toronto!"

Not long after the meeting, the right-wing apparatus in Canada came gunning for Chow. The National Post ran a column titled "Olivia Chow meets with, is endorsed by, ranting homophobe who encourages rape," using the Iron Sheik's twitter outbursts as proof that he held vile views rather than him playing a heel. Chow apologized. 

The producers of The Sheik released a statement (via Digital Journal) saying "we are not amused by an agenda-driven newspaper's transparent attempt to use [the movie]... as a political football to embarrass a Mayoral Candidate the paper does not editorially support." Chow ended up finishing third, though it's a stretch to say the Sheik had anything to do with that.

He has debilitating knee injuries

There's a reason you should never call wrestling "fake" around actual wrestlers, especially old timers: the damage to their body was real. Many deal with back pain, heart issues, and all sorts of assorted health issues. The Iron Sheik is no different — he's spent years suffering from knee and ankle injuries that bother him even in peaceful moments.

It's hard to find a picture of the Iron Sheik from the past decade or so where he isn't walking with a cane or getting carted in a wheelchair. When Yahoo! Sports went to interview him, he initially told them to come back later because he was in too much pain to answer questions. When asked during a Reddit AMA if he'd ever come back for a guest appearance in WWE, he said "No because I'm handicapped — my knee bother me, I wrestle all my life, lot of damage my body, so no."

The Sheik had surgery on both his knees in the mid-2000s, a surgery that both he and his wife say didn't work. His wife says that his bones are out of alignment and walking is painful. Some of the proceeds from The Sheik documentary were used to pay for his double knee and ankle surgery.