Unlike the pro wrestling legend, it was a one-off on March 28, 1998, in Jackson, Michigan.
I was a University of Michigan student then, moonlighting in pro wrestling for fun. I had experience in the ring as a referee-turned-bad guy manager, in both the San Francisco Bay Area — where I grew up — and in Michigan.
I had worked as “Snowy Bear,” a name bestowed upon me by a tag team called the Westside Playaz — Jay Smooth and Kuame Kamoze. It was an allusion to the Starsky & Hutch character “Huggy Bear.”
And, no, I didn’t look like I belonged with a tag team called the Westside Playaz, but that’s pro wrestling for you.
Wrestling on the indie circuit is about hustling. Find a show. Find a phone number. Call the promoter. Exaggerate your credentials. Get booked. And hope the pay at least covers your gas.
That’s where I found myself on a spring evening in Jackson, about 40 miles west of the campus in Ann Arbor. When I learned I would be paired with the Sheik that night, I knew it would be the biggest night of my career.
And, one heckuva a story to tell.
The Iron Sheik: A Brief Bio
The Iron Sheik passed away on Wednesday, incredibly living until the age of 81 despite all the stresses and injuries that come with being a pro wrestler.
It is true that he was from Iran; it is true he was an amateur wrestling champion; it is true he worked as a bodyguard for the Shah’s family.
But, the over-the-top anti-American personality was all pro wrestling. He escaped Iran, fearing for his safety, and helped train American Olympic wrestlers. He transitioned to pro wrestling, spending his first years as a good guy, obeying the rules, glad to be there.
He transitioned to the foreign heel, and his career was jumpstarted by real-life events — the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran. From there, Sheik was one of the most hated bad guys.
He became the main event in some territories. Then, with his handlebar mustache, bald head, curled boots, and the dreaded “Camel Clutch” finishing hold, he emerged as one of the most recognized names and faces in 1980s pro wrestling.
In 1983, he became WWF champion, holding the belt before losing it to Hulk Hogan — the birth of “Hulkamania” and the WWF’s Golden Era. Sheik stuck around, with his bombastic anti-Americanism.
“Iran No. 1. Russia No. 1. America, hock-poot (spitting on the mat),” was the Sheik’s pre-match routine to rile the fans. He waved an Iranian flag, adorned by the visage of the Ayatollah.
There was the Sheik action figure — netting him hundreds of thousands of dollars. After all, kids like me needed a bad guy for Hulk Hogan to play with.
There was the Saturday morning cartoon. The Iron Sheik was ingrained in American pop culture.
Unfortunately, the trappings of fame and the pro wrestling lifestyle led to substance abuse that he spent the rest of his life trying to beat.
By the mid-1990s, Sheik was out of the mainstream and making a living with small independent wrestling shows.
Jalapenos, not the Other Green Organic Substance
When it came to working with Sheik that night, there wasn’t much to discuss. My interaction with him was limited.
First, he really did talk with that thick accent. It was hard to understand him. Second, this was a small indie show at some college gym. I just seconded him to the ring, pointed, postured then get my butt kicked in the end.
The opponent that night was Michigan indie wrestler Skull Ganz. In the locker room, Sheik saw Ganz had a small baggie of a green substance. Ganz popped it into his mouth.
Sheik asked for some and also put it into his mouth. Then he made a face. It wasn’t the marijuana Sheik was hoping for but jalapenos!
Before the bout, Sheik held the Persian Club challenge, a holdover from his days in the national spotlight with the WWF.
And yes, those clubs were legit. They were weights with a long handle attached. The challenge was to swing them in a circle over your head. It takes strength and skill to perform.
The Iron Sheik, even at his advanced age and physical condition, did so with ease. I couldn’t. And neither could Skull Ganz. He accepted the challenge, I distracted him, and Sheik attacked him to start the match.
I can’t remember what actually happened, but the match listing says Ganz won by DQ. I probably interfered.
I Got Powerbombed and Barely Felt a Thing
I do remember Ganz giving me a powerbomb, and dropping me on my back. He did the violent-looking move so smoothly, I barely felt a thing.
My pro wrestling career waned after that. I pursued my studies and eventually journalism. But, I’ll always have the Iron Sheik and that one night in Jackson.
That and a naked Bushwhacker. That’s a story for another day.
I haven’t been able to locate a video of the Iron Sheik match — if one even exists. But, here is an example of Snowy Bear’s ring presence — my appearance with the Westside Playaz from All Pro Wrestling in Hayward, California, in December 1997.
Update: Video Found
Since the publication of this story, the video of my night with the Iron Sheik has been found, thanks to Michigan wrestling historian Nate Krug.
And, it’s worse than I remembered. I was just referred to on commentary as “The Iron Sheik’s Protege.” Fortunately, he didn’t teach me any of his bad habits.
Not only did I wear a keffiyeh — the traditional Arab head scarf — I carried the Iron Sheik’s Ayatollah-adorned flag. Not bad for a Jewish kid from the Bay Area.
The bout did start with the Persian Club challenge. “Fans” tried and failed, while Iron Sheik did it with ease. Sheik attacked Ganz to start the match.
I freely interfered in the match. I jumped into the ring and held Ganz for Sheik to hit him with a foreign object. Skull Ganz ducked and I got nailed.
Sheik bailed at the finish. Ganz power bombed me (boy, I got a lot higher than I remembered), and pinned me to end the match. Sure it made no sense, but the Iron Sheik was taking no bumps, so I stepped in.