As a child, I was terrified by many things: The old man in Poltergeist II, the clown in It, Large Marge's transforming face, the singing career of Bruce Willis…and, of course, the Iron Sheik.
Don't laugh. During my formative years, I was a huge wrestling fan. I watched WWF every Saturday morning, cheered good guys like Hulk Hogan and Koko B. Ware, and damned the existence of bad guys like Andre the Giant and Rick "the Model" Martel. The Undertaker frightened some of my classmates, but his undead shtick seemed cheap. It was almost too easy to be afraid of him. Within the crowd of heels, only the Sheik truly scared me. He was a monster in the geopolitical sense.
Born in Tehran, Iran, the Sheik was the embodiment of American Fear in the decade. Depending on our nation's level of xenophobia, he would enter the ring waving the Iranian flag (during the first Gulf War, he seamlessly transitioned into the role of Iraqi sympathizer). His character touched on real-life events like the Iran Hostage Crisis and capitalized on the fears of U.S. audiences perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that he instilled a constant panic in this young child that at any moment Iran would bomb our country, all while Russia – and Nikolai Volkoff, his sometime tag team partner – laughed maniacally.
Thankfully, that never happened.
In the 2000s, the Iron Sheik retired from wrestling and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. But since his time in the squared circle, his career has taken a sharp turn towards the absurd. The outspoken Sheik became a favorite guest of Howard Stern, ranting about his time in the wrestling biz, spewing hatred towards some of his former co-workers, most notably "Killer Bee" Brian Blair and Hulk Hogan. His profanity laced (and somewhat homophobic) monologues developed their own cult audience, and tales of his hard-living ways have become the stuff of legend. Sheik then joined Twitter and became a vulgar must-follow for almost 450,000 people, including comedian Andy Richter and model Chrissy Teigen.
While many wrestlers become shells of their former selves (or worse) once they leave the business, the Sheik has flourished during his second act. And he owes it all to twin Bar Mitzvah kings from Toronto: Jian and Page Magen, owners of Magen Boys Entertainment.
As kids, the Magen twins met the Sheik when their father, a top Iranian Ping-Pong player, would have him over for dinner. Decades later, when the Sheik was battling addiction and spiraling downward, they managed him back to health and success, molding the offensive Twitter account and turning his outlandish radio appearances into a second career. So when the Magens brought the Iron Sheik to Los Angeles this past week for a comedy event called "Iron Sheik's Roast Rumble," I wanted to see what they had lined up for the wrestling legend now. And much like his career, the night took a lot of unexpected turns.
Held at Hollywood's legendary Comedy Store, the concept seemed simple enough. Loosely inspired by the WWE's annual Royal Rumble, a handful of comedians would take the stage to roast a host of former pro wrestlers, including the Sheik. Before the show started, Sheik sat near the stage selling T-shirts and posing for photos at $20 a pop, while Buff Bagwell, a WCW wrestler turned male gigolo, did the same with less success. Fans yelled their favorite curse-laden rants at the Sheik as he quietly signed away, smiling with humility. Then, he was helped to the back (I'd learn later that he uses a wheelchair these days), and the show began.
The warm-up comedian quickly found the night's wheelhouse, focusing on jokes about pro wrestling and Middle Easterners, an ethnicity that made up about 65 percent of the audience. As his set hit the ten-minute mark, I noticed the Magens running around backstage, motioning for the comedian to stretch things out, in a desperate attempt to extinguish what was presumably the first of the night's many wildfires. Eventually, the comedians were introduced, and before the bashing began, the Sheik kicked off the festivities not with his signature obscenity and anger, but rather, a very kind "God bless you guys, have a good time."
The first comedian, Sam Tripoli, took rapid swipes at every wrestler on the dais, which included former WWE superstar John Morrison, Bagwell, tag team Cryme Tyme, vampire grappler Gangrel, Tiny "Zeus" Lister, an unknown local named Hobo, the "original Mr. Wonderful" Rock Riddle, who was so obscure jokes were difficult to muster, and…Mr. Belding.
In reality, Dennis Haskins' bit may have been one of the most effective, as he just read Sheik tweets aloud and got a steady run of laughs for doing so. Tripoli's biggest hit was aimed at the man of the hour, when he admitted to loving Sheik, but was frustrated that he "keeps fucking up my celebrity death pool." Other comedians like Brody Stevens, Tony Hinchcliffe and Matty Goldberg pummeled the retired wrestlers with jokes, but nothing seemed to embarrass them more than themselves.
Speaking of which, Buff Bagwell was at a level of intoxication that would've killed a bear. He stumbled around the stage, talked to comedians mid-set and stood in front of the podium for no particular reason. At one point, he got the mic and told a story about a promoter in the '80s asking him to get the crowd pumped. He explained that his response was to walk up to a girl, pull down her bikini bottoms in front of the whole audience and yell "Who wants some pussy?" There wasn't a ton of laughter as he finished the story, since most in attendance realized they had just heard a man admit to assault, a fact a few comedians brought up later.
When each wrestler got their own few minutes to roast the stage, most were just unfocused and hardly prepared. Morrison got out what could've been the joke of the night – "The Iron Sheik is in worse shape than Mitzi Shore" – a taboo subject since Shore owns the Comedy Store and is allegedly suffering from Alzheimer's in private. Rock Riddle cut a promo that was straight out of a 1950's Midwest territory, which didn't roast anything but his age, and Cryme Tyme pantsed a comedian (pantsing is obviously still a theme amongst bullies) who made a pro-Donald Sterling joke, exposing his penis. Keep in mind this is the room where Richard Pryor once tested material.
The night's star, however, was comedian Mike Lawrence, who has been a regular on Comedy Central's @Midnight and was clearly a wrestling fan. He commended Sheik for doing "things to the English language that Chris Benoit did to his family" and commented on Cryme Tyme's appearance by saying "Apparently black don't crack, unless under the extreme pressures of the wrestling industry."
But chaos was the real headliner. At one point, Bagwell left the stage, only to return 20 minutes later with a pizza. There were sound issues through the whole show, blasting feedback over a decent-and-endearing set from Chavo Guerrero, and music cues were largely an afterthought. But anyone expecting a smooth operation when the Iron Sheik's name is attached to an event is a real jabroni.
The night's festivities ended early, possibly because most of announced talent – including comedian Ron Funches and porn star Ron Jeremy – didn't show. After all was said and done, with help from the Magens, Iron Sheik once again thanked the audience and comedians, and received a standing ovation from the crowd. Right then, I made the decision to remove him from my list of intolerable childhood bogeymen. These days, he just seems like a sweet man, a notion that I'm sure will be seconded by the Sheik documentary to be released later this year, produced and promoted (of course) by the twins.
And with that, the night ended the same way it began: With Sheik selling shirts and photos, while Buff Bagwell tripped near the stage.