The Iron Sheik

Call it the golden age of professional wrestling. In January 1984, thousands of people packed into Madison Square Garden in New York to see a blond-haired muscleman named Hulk Hogan take on one of the most universally despised "bad guy" wrestlers ever created.

The Iron Sheik — a wrestler who was actually born in Iran, served in the Iranian Army for two years and won the '68 Olympic gold medal for his country in Greco-Roman wrestling — had seized the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) title from long-time champion Bob Backlund less than two months before his fabled match with the Hulkster.

Considering the volatile political climate between Iran and the United States at the time, the Sheik's wrestling persona was designed to draw a chorus of boos from the crowd. He'd often appear wearing huge metal spikes on his shoes, carrying an Iranian flag in one hand and leading a harnessed camel with the other.

For his finishing move, he forced his opponents to submit with the dreaded Camel Clutch. "Hulk Hogan was 275 pounds, and I was only 220, "says the Iron Sheik, reflecting on one of the biggest matches of his professional wrestling career. The Sheik still wrestles professionally, with frequent appearances on televised pay-per-view events, but also makes appearances for a number of smaller wrestling organizations. He'll be at the Montgomery Middle School Gymnasium on Nov. 20 for a match organized by the West Paterson-based Independent Superstars of Professional Wrestling (ISPW).

"Hulk was a big man. Strong man. I didn't feel good. I was sick, and I lost my belt," he says. "Wrestling is entertainment. But also, we have to be tough. And I was Iranian. I speak Farsi. They tell me, 'Come to the ring with the Iranian flag.' That was a
part of the entertainment. But also, wrestling is not easy to be WWF champion. They have to pay their dues. They have to work hard. A lot of training. My point is, 90 percent is real. 10 percent is show business." While the action may be scripted, the response it draws from fans is real enough. When Hulk Hogan took the title from the Sheik, it marked the birth of a new
era in wrestling's popularity. "Hulkamania" became a household word.

The Iron Sheik poses with fellow wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin. "To me, it is a sport," says the Sheik. "Whether it
is a soap opera or not, people love professional wrestling, and it's one of the most popular sports on TV. The only thing I did all my life — wrestling. I cannot eat my gold medal. I have to make a living. That's why I turned professional. Amateur, we don't make money."

Working for the ISPW, the Sheik serves as the organization's commissioner. He still wrestles occasionally, but ISPW owner and founder Tommy Fierro says the Sheik's role is largely theatrical. "He's the on-air boss — 'Special appearance by the
Iron Sheik,' " says Mr. Fierro, a 22-year-old West Paterson native who began doing ISPW events as fund-raisers at a number of high schools. "He might be wrestling. You never know. I basically just book him to do the commissioner thing. He's the bad guy commissioner. He always sticks up for the bad guys and talks down to the good guys.

"We're an independent promoter. Basically, what we do is we have many of the up-and-coming stars who are going to be in the WWF, and we also have some of the old-time guys that were in the WWF, like King Kong Bundy, the Iron Sheik. We're the crossroads of wrestling, with the older guys coming down and the newer guys coming up."

Since booking his first ISPW match about a year ago, Mr. Fierro has organized more than 30 events, drawing crowds ranging anywhere from 200 to 3,000 people. He has anywhere between 15 and 30 wrestlers working for his company at one time.
This upcoming match features the current ISPW Champion, "Mr. Main Event" Ace Darling, accompanied by Chastity, his manager, as he takes on ECW Superstar Mikey Whipwreck. Also on the card, "Samoan Storm" defends the ISPW light heavyweight title against Judas Young, plus matches with "The Head Skrinkers" — Samu and L.A. Smooth — and an appearance from Corporal Punishment and Derek Domino.

"Ace Darling, he's the champion, and he's doing a gimmick right now where he refuses to wrestle anyone who hasn't been in the WWF or WCW," Mr. Fierro says. "So all these ISPW wrestlers, he refuses to defend the title against them because they're not stars. "And it's gonna come down to it after a couple of months where he's gonna have to wrestle one of these
local guys and these guys are gonna be mad at him because for months he's been snobbing him off. It's a kind of cool little angle that you don't see really often."

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