Sheik: Flame’s Extinguished, But Memory Lives On
By Mike Mooneyham
Jan. 26, 2003
Just the mention of his name could send chills down the spine of the most discerning believer. His face, framed by wild, piercing eyes and a crazed stare, was among the most recognized in the business. And, if you ever saw him perform, it’s doubtful you’d ever forget him.
The death of Ed Farhat, known to millions of fans around the world as The Sheik, leaves a void in the wrestling business that will never be filled. Farhat, who had been in declining health in recent years, passed away in the early-morning hours of Jan. 18 when his 76-year-old heart finally gave out. The memories of The Sheik, however, will be a part of wrestling lore for many years to come.
Inside the ring, the Michigan native portrayed a menacing Middle Eastern madman who made a living out of carving up the foreheads of opponents from Toronto to Tokyo, and all points in between. Outside the ring, Farhat was a shrewd businessman who built one of wrestling’s most successful regional promotions around his moneymaking character.Few wrestlers in the history of the game could evoke fear and hatred like The Sheik. In wrestling parlance, it’s called “drawing heat,” and no one did it better than the man many consider to be one of wrestling’s greatest all-time heels.
“Before he’d even step into a ring, you’d almost have a riot,” son Edward Farhat Jr. recalled last week. “The very first match he had in Japan was a sellout. All he did was peek through the curtain to see what was going on, and fans went berserk and started throwing chairs. Fans over there are usually very reserved, but they sure weren’t that night. The promoters asked him what he did to cause that kind of reaction. All he could say is that they didn’t like him. He had that charisma. Whatever it was, they bought it.”
The Sheik also had the ability to draw money, a quality that served him well in the wrestling business and made him a millionaire. A world traveler, he performed in nearly country that had a wrestling ring. A top ratings and box-office draw for many regional promotions in addition to his own Michigan-based company, The Sheik would answer the call whenever his fellow NWA promoters were in need of a sure sellout.
“He was always there for them,” said Farhat Jr. “When business would start to get slow in a territory, the promoter would call Dad to pop it again.”
The elder Farhat began his pro career in 1951 and performed until the mid-90s when he was nearly 70 years old. Known in later years as The Original Sheik, partly to avoid confusion with later version The Iron Sheik (Kozrow Vaziri), Farhat was largely responsible for influencing today’s generation of hardcore wrestling, revolutionizing the business as far back as the 1960s with fire, barbed wire and an assortment of foreign objects. What his matches lacked in actual wrestling, they more than made up for in blood and gimmicks.
“Dad was doing hardcore before hardcore was even around,” said Farhat Jr. “He used everything but the kitchen sink. All the promoters used to say he was too wild for them.”
Until, of course, they started checking the gate receipts after the show. Then they realized that they had an instant bonanza on their hands. Farhat also was instrumental in the careers of his nephew, former ECW daredevil Sabu (Terry Brunk), and WWE star Rob Van Dam (Rob Szatkowski), both of whom he personally trained. “He was probably one of the best promoters around,” said his son. “He made so many stars. I look around at kids like Rob Van Dam, Sabu and Scott Steiner. Even Macho Man’ Randy Savage. They all got breaks working for this company. He started a lot of people. Sabu reminds me of my father so much. He’s a legend himself.”
Longtime wrestling photojournalist Dr. Mike Lano, who ran The Sheik’s fan club in the Los Angeles territory during the ’60s, called him the greatest showman and promotional genius of the pre-1984 wrestling era.
“I’ll never forget the riots he caused in the United States, Canada, Japan,” said Lano. “When I got to manage him in the early ’90s, I’ll never forget him eating my $90 Nicole Miller tie in Boston, and throwing fire into the face of the announcer (Chris Cruise) trying to interview us. Or of Sheik barking orders to a then, not-yet-famous Sabu who’d drive us around in Sheik’s old ’70s limo. I cried when I heard the news, and am still crying. He was wrestling’s most colorful performer ever … never breaking character in front of his fans.”
The Sheik boasted a slew of titles during his career, none more important than the Detroit version of the U.S. heavyweight championship, which he held on 12 occasions from 1964-80 while running his Detroit-based Big Time Wrestling promotion. His most famous rival during that period, and for years beyond, was fellow Detroit legend Bobo Brazil, one of pro wrestling’s greatest black performers. The two worked with one another more than a hundred times and recorded a record number of sellouts at Detroit’s storied Cobo Hall. It was an earlier meeting between the two in Texas, though, that The Sheik’s son most fondly remembers.
“Dad and Bobo were the best of buddies,” said Farhat Jr. “Dad was never a racist. He asked Bobo to work with him in Texas years ago, realizing they could make some good money together. They used to seat the black fans in the balcony behind this chicken wire. When Dad got to the ring and saw this seating setup, he got very upset, climbed up 15 feet and ripped the wire down. When he went back to the ring and locked up with Bobo, he asked Dad, What the hell did you do?’ Dad told Bobo that they were racist (blankety-blanks) and to hell with them! Now they’re talking in the ring to each other, and Dad and Bobo are laughing. They ended up working their way into the corner, trying to hide the fact that they were still giggling.”
Born in Lansing, Mich., and one of 10 children of Lebanese immigrants, Ed Farhat brilliantly crafted his mysterious ring persona, becoming perhaps the most colorful character of the post-Gorgeous George era. Known in the early days of his career as The Sheik of Araby and billed as coming from a wealthy, aristocratic Middle Eastern family, his character gradually morphed into the maniacal “madman from Syria” whose stock-in-trade included an assortment of foreign objects and fireballs.
“Sheik,” as he was called even by his closest friends, stayed in character throughout his career, even years after Vincent Kennedy McMahon publicly declared that wrestling was more entertainment than sport. To Farhat, it was an obligation and a duty to the business that had made him a wealthy man.
“He lived his image,” Farhat Jr. said. “All his brothers called him Sheik. Even his grandkids called him Grandpa Sheik. If you called him Ed, he wouldn’t answer you.”
Unbeknownst to the general wrestling public, there was another side to The Sheik, a side rarely seen by those who loved to hate him. The former Michigan State football player was a devoted husband to his wife of 53 years, Joyce, and loving father to his two sons, Edward and Thomas. He also was a generous friend who was always willing to lend a helping hand to those who needed it.
Former NWA world champ Harley Race once told a story of how after his wife died in an automobile accident and he was forced to take time off early in his career, The Sheik mailed him a check every week for a year until he could return to work.
“If anyone needed some money, Dad was there,” said his son. “If they needed a car, he would tell them to take his. He was also a good father, and he went out of his way to be a good father. He did everything he could in spite of his travel schedule. We usually saw him three or four times a week. We lived in Lansing, and when he went to Dayton ( Ohio), it was about a five-hour trip. The next night’s stop would be in Cincinnati, only 50 miles away. But instead of driving straight to Cincinnati, he’d come all the way back home. He’d get home at 4 o’clock in the morning, go to bed, get back up at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and go all the way back where he came from. He really tried to be with us as much as he could.”
Dory Funk Jr., who held the NWA world title from 1969-73, echoed similar sentiments.
“The Sheik meant a lot to us in the Amarillo territory,” said Funk, who first crossed paths with The Sheik in early 1964 after breaking into the business in his father’s Amarillo-based territory. “The Sheik would come in and work for us three weeks out of the month. The reason he took the fourth week off is because he wanted to spend it with his family. He lived his gimmick one hundred percent. He was special. He stayed in separate hotels from the regular run of wrestlers, and he dressed like a million dollars. It was unusual dress; he really looked like a sheik … In real life he was as soft-spoken a person as you could ever find. He was a terrific guy.”
Farhat began his pro career more than a half-century ago. After concealing his age of 17 to join the Army during World War II, he was recruited by wrestling promoter Burt Ruby in Detroit in 1950. It was during the early days of televised wrestling when the Dumont network offered its popular shows at Chicago’s Marigold Gardens to the rest of the country. One of the program’s featured performers, The Sheik looked the part of the anti-American villain, his costume replete with Arabian headgear, flowing robe, boots with pointed toes that opponents claimed were “loaded,” and the design of a camel on his tights. Accompanied by his “servant,” Princess Salima (real-life wife Joyce), Sheik would “abuse” his female slave until she knelt at his feet in submission. His pre-match ritual, which routinely involved snakes and incense, would culminate with Sheik pointing toward the sky and praying to Allah on his handmade rug, further inciting the rabid audiences he played to.
His wife would serve as his valet from 1958 until 1962 when she took an off-camera role raising their children and helping him operate his Big Time Wrestling promotion. When raspy-voiced announcer Ernie Roth turned up as his new manager in 1965, three weeks after being attacked on television by the wildman, The Sheik’s character took on an entirely new dimension. With the impish Farouk as his mouthpiece, Sheik rarely uttered a word. Farouk, who sported dark sunglasses, bright sport jackets, psychedelic ties and a fez, would do all the talking for The Sheik, making the wrestler appear all the more mysterious.
“The promoters always asked him (Sheik) why he didn’t talk. He said he didn’t need to talk to get over,” said Farhat Jr.
When Roth left for the WWWF during the 70s to begin his run as the inimitable Grand Wizard, Sheik enlisted the services of the equally garrulous, cigar-chomping Eddie “The Brain” Creatchman.
Known for spilling buckets of blood wherever he wrestled, Sheik would incorporate several unorthodox elements into a typical match: biting and brawling outside the ring, a foreign object (usually a blade-tipped pencil) with which to cut open his opponent, throwing fire into his victim’s face and the coup de grâce, his trademark camel clutch. No one was out of harm’s way during a typical Sheik match; referees, ring announcers, ringside photographers, timekeepers and even fans often were caught in the crossfire. His notoriety earned him a spot as the central character of a B-movie made in the late 70s, “I Like To Hurt People,” now a wrestling cult classic.
“The Sheik was always good to his word,” noted Funk. “He made lots of money in the wrestling business and spent it where he wanted to, mostly in regards to his family and home. He paid those who were putting people in the house for him very well. He was a first-class guy. When you hired The Sheik, you hired someone who was going to come in, do a helluva job and put people in your house.”
The Sheik enjoyed moneymaking feuds with a virtual “who’s who” of professional wrestling that included names like Abdullah The Butcher (one of wrestling’s widest feuds that spanned three decades and spilled buckets of blood), Brazil, Tiger Jeet Singh, The Funks, Dusty Rhodes, Pampero Firpo, Maniac Mark Lewin, Freddie Blassie, Bruno Sammartino, Buddy Rogers, Johnny Valentine, Antonino Rocca, Dick The Bruiser, Johnny Powers, Ernie Ladd, Tex McKenzie, The Mighty Igor, Sailor Art Thomas, Pedro Morales, Carlos Colon and Ox Baker. Simply put, he was box-office gold.
Farhat, whose face graced the covers of many wrestling magazines during the 60s and 70s, bought the NWA-affiliated Michigan and Ohio territory from Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle in 1965. The once-booming business, however, dropped in the early 80s when Vince McMahon initiated his national expansion and began gobbling up the territories.
The Sheik worked his last match in 1994 before about 30,000 fans in Japan. Age had turned his neatly trimmed, curly black hair white, but the scowl, that deadly look in his eyes, never disappeared.
“He wasn’t in the best condition, but he still got the heat,” recalled his son.
“We shared main events in many places while I was NWA champion,” said Funk. “After I was champion, Terry (Funk) and I got over in Japan and ended up working with The Sheik and (Abdullah) The Butcher, and it was hottest feud we had over there. There was blood everywhere. We loved working with them. It was fun.”
The Sheik’s loyal Japanese fans paid tribute to him with a retirement ceremony in 1995 that drew 56,000 people who wanted to say goodbye to a legend. While in Japan he suffered a heart attack, and he received a triple bypass upon his return to the States.
“Different infections set into his body,” said his son. “Both hips had been replaced. One thing led to another. He was basically bedridden the past two-and-a-half years, with little mobility.” It wasn’t easy, especially in his younger years, being the “son of The Sheik,” said Farhat Jr.
“As a kid going into grade school, everybody always wanted to fight me. They just didn’t understand. When I was around 19 or 20 years ago, I was so sick of being called The Sheik’s son. But when you get older, you realize it’s not a bad thing. When you have a dad who’s famous, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Farhat Jr. turned the situation into a positive one, and began helping his dad out on the promotional end when he turned 19.
“We had a good time. He taught me a lot about this business,” said Farhat Jr., who wrestled briefly during the 70s as Captain Ed George. “I decided I had to find out what it was like to do what he did. I took four years of my life and got in the ring myself. It was a fun experience, but it was just too much. I don’t know how he did the traveling, the wrestling, the booking. I knew when it was time for me to get out of the ring. At the end of my career, people started getting smart to what was going on. I was the babyface, but for the last six months of my career, they started booing me. They knew who I was, so I thought maybe it was time I left.”
Farhat did experience the pleasure of stepping into the ring with his famous father – but only once.
“We were in Toledo. I kept teasing him that we should get in the ring together. He said that too many people knew that I was his son. I told him that he was just afraid that I was going to beat the heck out of him. Bobo (Brazil) and I wrestled Dad and Bulldog Don Kent, and we sold the place out. But the first time we locked up, I potatoed him. I was so scared and so nervous. He said, Tag out, you’re killing me!’ It was the only time I ever got in the ring with him. It was a great experience, but I hurt him so bad he wouldn’t talk to me for days. He was a great guy. He loved the business. He lived it and he had a passion for it.”
Farhat Jr. says that the night his dad wrestled six-time NWA world champion Lou Thesz in Chicago in a snowstorm is the one event that really popped his career. According to Farhat Jr., Thesz, realizing that The Sheik was “on his way,” said, “Boy, I’m going to beat you tonight, and I’m going to break both of your legs.”
The Sheik, boldly replying, “I don’t think so,” rolled out of the ring, and then proceeded to run out of the building and into the middle of a street in a snowstorm. Finding a bus, Sheik ran underneath it and stayed there for three hours, according to his son.
“The police, the fire engines, the newspapers, everybody came,” recalled Farhat Jr. “The next day it was headline news all over the country: The Sheik, wildman from Syria, underneath bus in Chicago.’ He never looked back … About two years later, he met up with Lou again, and they ended up becoming good buddies. Lou said, Boy, you’ve got a lot of guts to do what you did.’ They had about 20 matches together, and they were just phenomenal.”
The Sheik won his first title in 1953 when he and Gypsy Joe won the Midwest tag-team belts. He defeated Johnny Valentine in 1954 to win the Texas heavyweight title, and defeated Valentine again in 1965 for the Detroit version of the U.S. belt, a title he would hold 12 times until his final reign in 1980 when he defeated The Mighty Igor. He also held the Toronto version of that title three times.
The Sheik helped a number of fledgling promotions in their early years, most notably Japan’s FMW. He even answered the call to bail out the WWWF in the late 60s when Vince McMahon Sr. put him in a program with WWWF champion Bruno Sammartino.
“Dad’s first nights in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore were sold out,” said Farhat Jr. “He popped that territory again. Vince Sr. and my dad were very good friends. Junior didn’t like him, and to this day we don’t know why. I guess when you get to be a big shot, you feel like you don’t need people anymore. You forget the past.”
Funk said The Sheik had all the ingredients of a star.
“He had exceptional timing in the business,” said Funk. “He knew how to excite the fans, get the heat, and most importantly, when he was the hottest he knew to climax that story and take those people home. He would step out from underneath them and make them hungry for more. He was our top heel for the better part of two years down there (Amarillo territory) and he led Lubbock to being the No. 1 town in Texas for drawing money. We had a state commission down there. Lubbock, by far, wasn’t the biggest town in Texas, but it was the No. 1 draw for us. We packed it every week.
“During the days when I was NWA world champion, The Sheik was a hot card in wrestling anywhere in the country without a championship belt. He was an attraction in Honolulu, Los Angeles, Toronto, Detroit, Florida, everywhere he went. He was a strong drawing card without an NWA championship. He was box office, which is what our business is all about.”
Farhat recalled that his father generated so much heat in a wrestling ring, he often feared for his life.
“He’s had some close calls. I’ve never seen so much security. We had to call the riot squad once in Dayton.”
One fan pulled a gun on Sheik during a match in Texas in 1967, Farhat Jr. said, and fired it three times. Fortunately the gun didn’t go off, and the fan was immediately arrested. The gun later fired when police tested it at a shooting range.
“We’d have to have extra security for The Sheik,” said Funk. “Fans were fearful of him and mystified by him. They would scatter when he came in and out of the ring. They hated him, and that was his job. But as time went by and everything changed, they loved him for what he did for them.”
Burrhead Jones recalled longtime Tennessee promoter Nick Gulas bringing The Sheik into his territory during the 70s to give that area a pop. Gulas got more than he bargained for, joked Jones.
“The Sheik almost gave Nick Gulas a heart attack one night in Nashville. Mark Lewin had come in as a babyface and suggested that Nick bring in The Sheik because he was so well-known. He and Lewin brawled up in the balcony, into the bleachers, all over the place. Nick got mad, left the building and went home. But that’s what drew the crowd. Mark Lewin and The Sheik didn’t care. They swore to Nick they wouldn’t do it again, but it happened in every town they went to. It drove Nick crazy. But they drew good money.”
Farhat Jr., along with brother Tom, plans to reopen Big Time Wrestling under the All World Wrestling League banner (more information on this promotion can be found on its Web site at www.awwl.cjb.net). “We’ve got television again in Michigan and Ohio, and we’re going to pick it up where we left off 15 or 20 years ago,” said Farhat Jr. “We really never got away from it. We’ve always helped different indy promotions. We decided it’s time to do our own promotion again.”
He says his organization will put the U.S. heavyweight belt, a crown his father retired with, up for grabs.
“It’s sad that he’s gone, but he lived a full life,” said Farhat Jr. “He lived his dream. He met everybody. When we went to California, he’d meet music people and movie stars. They’d be more amazed at him. They were his fans.”
Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected] He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation,” published by Crown. For more wrestling news, check out www.mikemooneyham.com.