I find myself thinking about the stereotypical “foreign menace” wrestlers that the WWF used in the 1980s. Mr. Fuji and Mr. Saito. Nikolai Volkoff. Boris Zhukov. Iron Sheik.
I realize that the Iron Sheik these days comes across like a drunken fool every time he’s put in front of a microphone, so it’s hard to explain the difference in the man from what he once was. Back in 1983, he touched a nerve in people and was believable in the ring when he threw people around with suplexes.
The Sheik, an Iranian by birth, was a transitional WWF champion, defeating Bob Backlund in December 1983 before losing it about a month later to Hulk Hogan. The Sheik’s reign came a little less than three years after the real-life saga ended involving U.S. hostages held by Iran for 444 days, so the Sheik playing an Iranian heel exploited real life.
Fast forward to 1991, when Sgt. Slaughter played the role of an Iraqi sympathizer in the midst of the Gulf War between Iraq and the U.S. Fans were up in arms that the WWF would have such bad taste to script this angle. And it was in poor taste, no doubt.
But why did Slaughter’s character get such bad press compared to the Sheik’s? In 1983, the WWF was under the radar of mainstream American, whereas in 1991, the organization enjoyed wider appeal. And while Iran was a sore spot with America in 1983 (and continues to be today), there was no active war as compared to 1991, when American troops were putting their lives on the line during Slaughter’s reign.
The Sheik defended the WWF title once in Boston, losing by DQ to ex-champ Backlund on January 14, 1984 (nine days before Hogan won it).
Ironically, the Sheik’s biggest run in the WWF would happen later in 1984 in a feud with Slaughter, but that’s a topic for another post.