Despite villainous reputation, Iron Sheik was a beloved wrestling figure that made his mark

Tim Walters
Florida Today
The Iron Sheik was one of the most hated wrestling villains of the 1980s.

There are very few dates in wrestling history more historic than Jan. 23, 1984.

That was the day Hulk Hogan broke out of the unbreakable “Camel Clutch” to defeat the Iron Sheik and win the then-WWF World Heavyweight Championship in front of 20,000 fans at Madison Square Garden.

It was the classic battle of good vs. evil.

The Iron Sheik, from Iran, had won the title just a month prior from Bob Backlund, ending a roughly six-year reign.

Hogan, who was just coming into his own as the All-American persona after his successful movie debut in Rocky III, wearing his signature yellow tights, landed the boot to the face and big leg drop to pin the Sheik, 1-2-3.

It set off the phenomenon known as Hulkamania, changing sports entertainment forever.

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For me, a 7-year-old boy, it spawned a love for professional wrestling that blossomed from that day forward.

The Iron Sheik died Wednesday at the age of 81. For me, it feels like another piece of my childhood passing away.

The Sheik was always one of my favorites. I remember getting his action figure in 1985 — it was a non-posable rubber figure that I still have to this day.

It featured his signature curled mustache and matching curly-toed boots that were mismatched in color.

I remember how cool I thought it was that the Sheik was featured briefly during the credits to “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” during a montage at the end of the movie. As the credits rolled, a song titled “Back in America” plays, and as several iconic U.S. images are shown, one is of Hulk Hogan fighting out of a full Nelson applied by the Sheik during that famed 1984 match.

The Sheik, who rose to prominence as a heel character in the early 1980s because of the Iranian hostage crisis, continued to have a successful career after his loss to Hulk Hogan.

He was always a heel — soon teaming with Russian Nikolai Volkoff and winning the tag team titles during the first Wrestlemania.

He was a true legend, and while he was loathed as a character, he was actually a goofy and well-liked person in the locker room.

You can find hilarious videos on YouTube of him trying to stay in character while cutting promos with “Mean” Gene Okerlund, only to lose it laughing when he messed up a line.

During his early life, the Sheik, whose real name was Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, was a soldier in the Iranian Imperial Army and an accomplished amateur wrestler who left Iran and came to the U.S. in the 1970s.

After becoming a professional wrestler, the Sheik developed himself into the most hated man in wrestling by coming to the ring and verbally assaulting the crowd, often ending his speeches with a disrespectful spit after the mention of the United States.

In recent years, he became a beloved social media figure, garnering more than 600,000 fans.

For a professional wrestler, especially one who had substance abuse problems during much of his life, living 81 years is a good run.

He may not have had the type of success enjoyed by Hulk Hogan, the Undertaker or Stone cold Steve Austin, but if you mention the Iron Sheik, everyone’s heard of him.

If there was a wresting villain Mount Rushmore, I’d put him as one of the four faces.

A true icon, may he rest in peace.

Walters can be reached at