Day -1 (Oakland, CA)/Miles Driven: 0/Price of Gas: $9.60 in Mendocino, CA (thank you ex-WWF wrestlers for not settling in Mendocino)
Before you get too excited, the Iron Sheik will not be driving the 16,000 miles with me over the next nine weeks. The real-life Khosrow Vaziri is settled comfortably at his home in Fayetteville, Georgia, with his lovely wife Caryl.
But the 8" rubber version of him you see above, the very same doll I smacked against others during invented matches on my bedroom floor in the mid-80s (if you look closely you can see traces of Tito Santana and Hulk Hogan on his torso) will be strapped in for the journey.
Some of you may recall a line from The Wax Pack when I mentioned a failed project with the Iron Sheik in my youth, dating back 21 years when I was still in college. Below is the autographed photo he signed the day I met him (I have a feeling he may have more than one best friend :)
When I discovered wrestling at age five, the Iron Sheik was my instant favorite. Rooting is involuntary, and the moment I saw his bushy handlebar mustache and keffiyeh on my Saturday morning TV, I was hooked. Not only did he have that cartoonish look, but he was also the guy that nobody liked, the ultimate underdog because he was the ultimate bad guy. While my friends flocked to Andre the Giant or “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka, I was all-in on the master of the camel clutch.
Years later, I got to know the Sheik personally. In 2005 we had plans to work on a biography together; I was backstage at his Hall of Fame induction at Wrestlemania 21, where I shook hands with Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan. But behind the curtain, the Sheik was in a lot of pain, the unspeakable horror of his eldest daughter’s murder still fresh on his mind and the grip of addiction still holding him tightly. The timing wasn’t right, and we parted ways.
While it was a major setback personally and professionally (I had quit my magazine job to go work on the project), and while I witnessed a lot of the ugliness of the professional wrestling industry, the Sheik never stopped being one of my heroes. He was an inextricable part of my childhood, and so no matter how bad things got in watching him struggle with his demons, I always believed in the best side of him. Perhaps I was too taken by the Iron Sheik character to objectively evaluate Khosrow Vaziri, or more likely, the character had taken over Vaziri to the extent that his real identity was being obscured.
As I head out on this monster road trip in search of wrestling’s appeal and afterlife, I’ll be taking the Iron Sheik with me. Wrestling is a fascinating subculture that blurs myth with reality and plays with identity in a way unlike any other form of entertainment. Who is the Iron Sheik and who is Khosrow Vaziri? Who is Hulk Hogan, and who is Terry Bollea? Sgt. Slaughter and Bob Remus? Where does fantasy end and reality begin when one’s entire livelihood depends on never stepping out of costume?
Tomorrow morning, bright and early, I will slip into my Ford Fusion and drive back into the past in order to better understand our present.