My Time With “The Iron Sheik”

Rich Mancuso

I watched the latest WWE biography series on A&E Sunday evening and was reintroduced to an old friend, “The Iron Sheik,” Iranian born Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri. The retired WWE Hall of Famer, a classic superstar, who’s remembered for his finishing hold of “The Camel Clutch.”

The submission hold, a clutch that I experienced during my career with roles of a ring announcer, commentator, and writer in the pro wrestling business. And I will admit that clutch came unexpectedly in the middle of the ring, before a thin crowd, at an independent show in a rural town up in Massachusetts.

That clutch was not a part of the script. I felt the pain and never pursued a lawsuit or called for his suspension, a time when the New York State Athletic Commission had diminished their role designating pro wrestling as sports entertainment.

The unexpected clutch was similar to the late “King Kong Bundy” splash, another wrestling giant deviating from the script in the ring at an independent show in my hometown of the Bronx, NY. Bundy would corner me, put those huge hands around my neck, and splashed me to the mat.

There are times at the independent shows when the ring announcer should know to expect the unexpected and wrestlers will go against the script. Bundy was concerned, met me in the back area, another gentle giant heel showing his compassion.

I told that story many times to Vaziri, who was loyal about his heritage. A real Iranian who believed in their principles and culture, also admiring the American lifestyle and everything that goes with it, Though, it was a tense period to be the villain against the Real American, Hulk Hogan.

That feud with Hogan, chronicled on A & E, was vicious. Pro wrestling, the scripted form of sports entertainment made you believe. “The Iron Sheik” spit on the American flag, received threats and had to be escorted out of arenas.

And there was Hogan, the American hero that would halt the hate, and use his patterned leg drop for the pin and win. Reality though, they transcended the “Baby Face,” Good guy that was Hogan, and the heel, “Bad Guy.”

Pro wrestling is best when the feud escalates between the Good Guy versus the Bad Guy, and this was a time of popularity and resurgence. Pro wrestling, attributed to “Hulkamania” and other WWE superstars had a revival. Venues were at capacity, national television owned huge ratings, and pay-per-view revenue was at an all-time high.

But The Iron Sheik, a legitimate bodyguard to the Shah of Iran, a former soldier in the Imperial Iranian Army, and assistant coach of two U.S Olympic wrestling squads, had the charisma, He incited a crowd with his accent and microphone skills, attributes that score points with promoters.

The promoter that noticed was Vince McMahon, who took note. From the beginning, The Iron Sheik epitomized that heel who could generate revenue at the gate and ratings on WWE programming, a time when the television cable industry was also at that explosive stage.

And The Iron Sheik could wrestle, as he was a one time WWE champion. Then, he was a draw, a villain. But with success, as chronicled, there were demons and his addictions to drugs and alcohol.

So allow me to share something here with you and my time with The Iron Sheik, a period when he battled with his addictions, the few years we worked together outside the WWE when the real Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri confronted those demons.

For any number of reasons, perhaps out of the wrestling spectrum and covering real sports, I was never contacted to share some of those moments with A&E.

Regardless, The Iron Sheik and I developed a friendship. He confided with me, talked about his struggles, life in Iran, coming to America with goals of achieving fame as a pro wrestling champion.

Yet as the friendship progressed, I noticed the demons were on his side, He had a tendency of having more than one beer, Budweiser cans by the dozens in the car on road trips and in my apartment where he stayed for a limited time.

Picking him up at the airport, The Iron Sheik said, “Here, have one with me.” And this gentle Iranian, who played the heel, was beginning a severe addiction to pain killers and other forms of substance abuse. Still, though, trying to cope with his first suspension from the WWF because of the addictions.

Regulated to wrestling on the small Independent circuit, struggling financially, and with a supportive wife in Atlanta, the profile life of Hossein Khosrow Ali Vazari, was now in turmoil.

He turned to his friend, yours truly. He said, “I need you, Rich Mancuso.” Then, I realized this was a plea for help, as the addictions continued. He wanted a return to the WWF, and asked me to speak with officials for reinstatement.

The only deal was committing to another rehab facility, with the support of the WWF. The Iron Sheik would continue to put on sideshows in the Bronx and place a challenge on the street, fans wagering him to lift those huge Iranian clubs ten times before succumbing to defeat.

Of course The Iron Sheik would win challenge-after-challenge, earning another income outside the ring, not a hefty contract from another promoter. Though, the biggest challenge was another chance at being the superstar with conditions met of entering a reputed rehabilitation facility in Atlanta.

He listened to my thoughts. He departed New York. This time for one more independent wrestling show, before another minimal crowd in a high school gymnasium venue up in New England, areas where many of the independent promoters took their business. The minimum pay is less than $1,000 for a ten minute match. The Iron Sheik was their draw at the box office and the main event.

Later he said, “Mancuso, I hurt so bad.” The hurt was from the pain of constant traveling, the toll on his body, slammed to the mat often, the grueling and constant punishment to the body that pro wrestlers are accustomed to feeling.

Yes, it took a toll, but The Iron Sheik came out of rehab and was clean. He thanked me, got another opportunity with the WWF, and was still the heated villain, but it was not the same. The Iron Sheik was another superstar on a decline.

We kept in contact years later and met at a lavish hotel in Manhattan, owned by an Iranian friend that assisted him financially. Again, there was that odor of beer and the marijuana. He said it was because of pain that took a toll.

But such is life and we lost our connection. Now at 81, as chronicled on A&E, The Iron Sheik is still a semi-public figure living in Atlanta. He is of course a major part of pro wrestling history and once a strong man who now has difficulty getting off a chair.

He accepted me as a friend, taught me more about the business, a major and significant part of my career in the pro wrestling industry. I relived the memories Sunday evening of the good and the bad.

And it was good to see an old friend at peace with himself. As I always said to The Iron Sheik and others, “Keep It In The Ring.”

Rich Mancuso: Twitter@Ring786 Facebook,.com/Rich Mancuso

About the Author

Rich Mancuso

Rich Mancuso is a regular contributor at NY Sports Day, covering countless New York Mets, Yankees, and MLB teams along with some of the greatest boxing matches over the years. He is an award winning sports journalist and previously worked for The Associated Press, New York Daily News, Gannett, and, in a career that spans almost 40 years.

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