The Iron Sheik, a standout Greco-Roman wrestler from Iran who gained global fame in professional wrestling with his 1980s rivalries against the likes of Hulk Hogan, died Wednesday at the age of 81, according to his official Twitter account.
Sheik, whose real name was Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, was a former WWF World Heavyweight champion and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005. As a hated heel, he had legendary battles in the 1980s against Hogan, Bob Backlund and Sgt. Slaughter. Vaziri beat Backlund for the WWF title in December 1983, and, one month later, Hogan defeated Vaziri in front of more than 20,000 at New York’s Madison Square Garden to win the belt for the first time. The match helped catapult Hulkamania into a phenomenon, leading into the first WrestleMania one year later.
“With his larger than life persona, incredible charisma, and unparalleled in-ring skills, he captivated audiences around the globe,” said the statement from his Twitter account. “He was a trailblazer, breaking barriers and paving the way for a diverse range of wrestlers who followed in his footsteps.”
Before starting in professional wrestling, Vaziri was a bodyguard for the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He was a Greco-Roman wrestler in his home country, nearly making the 1968 Olympic team. Vaziri then moved to the United States, where he won an AAU Greco-Roman wrestling championship at 180.5 pounds and became an assistant coach for the U.S. wrestling team, including its Olympic team in 1972.
Around that time, he broke into professional wrestling in Minnesota with AWA promoter Verne Gagne under coach and catch wrestling legend Billy Robinson. Vaziri was given a character based on his Iranian heritage (inspired by the outset of the Iranian Revolution) and he leaned into it, shaving his head, growing a handlebar mustache and wearing shoes curled at the toes, which went on to be an iconic look. He joined the WWF for the first time in 1979, winning Madison Square Garden’s first battle royal match and having matches with the likes of Bruno Sammartino and Chief Jay Strongbow.
After dropping the WWF title to Hogan in 1984, Vaziri had a memorable host of matches with Sgt. Slaughter, a U.S. military-based character. The feud played off the real-life tensions between the U.S. and Vaziri’s Iranian homeland. Vaziri and Slaughter had a violent, bloody “boot camp” match in June 1984 at Madison Square Garden that was highly acclaimed and still holds up today.
In recent years, Vaziri developed a cult fan following on Twitter, even from people who never watched his legendary battles inside the squared circle.
Vaziri is survived by his wife, Caryl, to whom he was married for 47 years; his children, Tanya and Nikki; and his son-in-law, Eddie, according to his Twitter account.
“Beyond the glitz and glamour of the squared circle, The Iron Sheik was a man of immense passion and dedication,” the Twitter statement read. “He embodied resilience. He overcame countless challenges in his life, both inside and outside the wrestling ring. His journey from a small village in Iran to becoming one of the most recognized figures in the world of wrestling is a testament to his unwavering dedication.”