The Real Innovator Of Violence
June 16, 2005 by Langdon Beck
Since the successes of Hardcore Homecoming and One Night Stand, debates have been appearing amongst wrestling fans; who is the greatest hardcore wrestler of all time" Tommy Dreamer, Sabu, Rob Van Dam, Mick Foley, Raven, Terry Funk...all of them great. They all share a common characteristic; they make hardcore about more than weapons. Their extreme actions benefit and add to their matches. Most importantly, they incorporate hardcore into the stories they are telling - they have psychology. However, the greatest hardcore wrestler ever may be the original hardcore legend, the original hardcore icon, the original innovator of violence...The Sheik.
(NB: he was also known as the Original Sheik to distinguish him from the Iron Sheik, but I will refer to him simply as The Sheik)
Edward George Farhat was born into a Lebanese immigrant family in Lansing, Michigan in the mid 1920s, one of 10 children. He was a star football player in high school, before lying about his age by using his brother's birth certificate to join the army and serve in World War II at 17 years old. After returning from the war he worked as a labourer before being noticed and recruited by Burt Ruby, a Detroit promoter. Ruby called Farhat "The Sheik Of Araby", and during the 1950s he appeared regularly on television in Chicago, and teamed with the likes of the Crusher.
Early in his career, Farhat realised he wasn't the greatest technical wrestler, so focused on his good attributes, such as brawling, and became one of the originators of the style now known as hardcore. It was a new and unique style to American fans. With his combination of brawling, foreign object use and a large amount of blood, the wrestler now known simply as The Sheik came into his own in the early 60s. He also added a twist; the infamous fireball that came to be his most feared desperation tactic. His throwing of fire would make the people go crazy.
Nowadays, fireballs in wrestling are created with flash paper, but there are two ways The Sheik apparently accomplished it. One method was reportedly taught to him by a magician; he rubbed diluted phosphoric acid and rubbed his fingers together to create the fireball. The second method was shown to Mike LeBell, a close friend, by The Sheik himself; he had a small object like a flint that he struck before throwing his hand forward so flame shot out.
Either way, the fireball would only work once, like lighting a match. The Sheik would throw fire at his opponent, who would go down - opponents rarely recovered from the fire - and Sheik would go to the first-row fans and throw out his hand as if to do it again. Nothing could happen, but the people were terrified.
The effectiveness of The Sheik's fireballs was proven in a match in Toronto in 1974; Sheik threw fire at, and subsequently defeated, Andre the Giant, over a decade before Hulk Hogan supposedly ended Andre's winning streak.
Unfortunately for The Sheik, he had to resort to using flash paper to create fireballs after one hit a ringside fan in St. Louis and she sued.
Back in his early days, Sheik was accompanied to the ring by his manager, The Princess. Sheik would undoubtedly abuse Princess before each match, hitting, kicking, spitting and yelling at her as she knelt before him holding incense. She would often be physically kicked out of the ring, much to the disgust of fans in attendance and on television. This was decades before the Dudley Boyz smashing women through tables and Rhino piledriving The Sandman's wife.
Soon The Princess would be replaced by The Sheik's most famous - or infamous - manager, the future Grand Wizard of Wrestling and WWE Hall of Famer, Abdullah Farouk. Since The Sheik was announced as coming from the Deserts of Syria, he was true to character and never spoke on camera, so someone like Farouk who could insult Sheik's opponent and the local fans in the same breath was a perfect fit.
As the flamboyant Farouk berated the fans and talked about what evil deeds the Sheik would get up to in the ring, Sheik would often address the line of harem girls who would come to the ring with him (he could afford them - the Sheik character was from a wealthy, aristocratic family).
The fans were terrified of The Sheik. Even his entrance, where he would come out with an Arabian headdress, rolling his eyes into his head, sticking out his tongue, and generally looking like a lunatic making wild facial expressions would make audiences fear what would happen to his opponent. There are stories of the first six rows of fans moving back during Sheik's entrance.
His entrance coupled with his explosive, violent tactics made fans truly hate him, and gave the character universal appeal.
Farhat mostly wrestled in the Detroit, Los Angeles and Toronto territories, but travelled constantly to as many places as possible. This way, nearly every wrestling fan in North America had seen their favourite wrestler busted open by the Syrian madman, which guaranteed sold-out arenas whenever the Sheik returned and solidifed him as one of the top draws of his day. His reputation preceded him, even with regional divisions between territories. Other notable areas include Michigan and Ohio, where he fought Bobo Brazil in what is now thought of as Bobo's most famous rivalry.
Unfortunately, The Sheik was suspended from wrestling in New York. After being disqualified in a Madison Square Garden match against Haystacks Calhoun for attacking Calhoun with a woman's purse he took from a fan. Before the ring announcer could finish declaring the decision, Sheik pulled the microphone out of its mooring in the ceiling. He never appealed the suspension.
He had few signature moves. He would often lock in a hold that would normally be considered uninteresting, but would refuse to let go, which forced the opponent to submit. Camel Clutches and chokes were also favourites, but mostly, The Sheik would use sharp objects. His weapon of choice was a pencil that he would conceal in his trunks, then use to carve open his opponent, but he could and would use anything he could get his hands on, such as forks. This use of weapons added to his unpredictability and hatred among the fans, and was a large factor in making him one of wrestling's top heels for over twenty years, not to mention the major influence for following generations of hardcore wrestlers.
Arguably one of the greatest wrestling angles ever involved Farhat. In the summer of 1967, the Six Day War between Israel and Palestine had broken out, so in Detroit, Jewish babyface Mark Lewin - who wore the Star of David on his trunks - was brought in to wrestle The Sheik. Match after match after match sold out.
The Sheik was so despised he could even get audiences behind wrestlers they had previously hated. In 1969, Sheik attacked the detested Gorilla Monsoon on television, showing no mercy. Coming to Monsoon's rescue was none other than the beloved Bruno Sammartino; and thus Gorilla became a babyface, and remained so for the rest of his career.
Many wrestling legends have expressed respect for The Sheik; Bobby 'the Brain' Heenan has repeatedly shown his admiration, and even those with a distaste for hardcore wrestling such as Jim Cornette respect the ability of The Sheik to get heat from any fan. However, not everyone was of the same opinion - Lou Thesz was not fond of any pro wrestler that couldn't wrestle 'for real'. Thesz promised to break The Sheik's legs during a match between the two, so Sheik quickly left the ring, into a blizzard outside, where he decided to hide under a bus until police and firemen were able to talk him out.
Bruno Sammartino wasn't too keen on Sheik's style of wrestling either. When talking about their series of WWWF matches in 1968, Sammartino said, "He was always poking me with something. In one match, I finally grabbed him in a headlock and asked if we were going to wrestle, or what. Our matches were always the same, me trying to grab him and him poking me."
Praise has been more forthcoming. In his book, Freddie Blassie said "among heels, perhaps no one was more consistently hated than The Sheik." Coming from the man many believe to be the greatest heel of all time, that's praise indeed.
When in the ring with someone like Blassie, fans were often riled up to the point of rioting. Their most famous matches took place in a steel cage. The cage match was rare at the time, adding to excitement among fans who longed to see The Sheik get his come-uppance from Blassie (who at this time was a babyface). In their first match inside the steel, Blassie was heading to victory before Abdullah Farouk threw a liquid (later revealed to fans as iodine) in his face, allowing Sheik to pick up the win. Blassie soon demanded a return bout, also in a cage. The rematch was one-sided to say the least, Blassie kicking, punching and biting The Sheik before throwing pepper in his face for the win. Whenever the two met, fans could expect a bloodbath and a great brawl.
Sheik became the promoter and owner of the Detroit territory in the late 1960s, and went on to hold their United States Title 12 times before the promotion closed down in 1980. Following this, he found a new following of fans while touring in Japan, wrestled until he was in his seventies, and trained people to wrestle, including nephew Sabu, Rob Van Dam, and the Steiner Brothers.
During his career, The Sheik locked horns with some of the most famous wrestlers of the twentieth century, including WWE Hall Of Famers Antonino Rocca, Harley Race and Johnny Valentine, as well as the likes of Mil Mascaras, Abdullah the Butcher, Terry Funk, and Tiger Jeet Singh. As well as the 12 Detroit US Title wins, he was Toronto's US Champion three times, and won several NWA belts, including the International Heavyweight title and Heavyweight titles for NWA Americas, Hawaii and Texas. Also, his gory style and universal hatred among fans was featured in the movie 'I Like To Hurt People'.
But away from the pencils, blood and fire, Sheik was known as an extremely generous man. He and his family shared meals and often their home with his wrestling students, and when Harley Race was injured in a car accident, The Sheik sent him money every week until he recovered. To this day, Harley has a photo tribute to Farhat on his website. Also outside the ring, he was known for high stakes gambling in Las Vegas and treating his friends to meals at fine restaurants.
Ed Farhat died of heart failure in January 2003, but his legacy and influence lives on in Sabu and Van Dam, who paid tribute to him as recently as One Night Stand, and in his trailblazing style - mocked in his day as mere "brawling" but now known as hardcore. And The Sheik wa most certainly hardcore.
(sources: Dave Meltzer's Tributes II, Freddie Blassie, Mike LeBell, Online World of Wrestling, WWE Hall Of Fame, Wikipedia, Sheik fansite, Wrestling Classics, Wrestling Digest, Detroit Free Press, Sheik fansite, Bobby Heenan & Jim Cornette, HarleyRace.com)
by Langdon Beck --- [View Langdon Beck's Column Index]..
Kevin Kelly wrote:
Great article. Not many people realize that the sheik invented hardcore wrestling. I knew that but the way he wrestled I did not know. I didn't know he used fire to hurt his opponents. And I also didn't know that he beat Andre the giant. And you know I don't get why people hated him. I mean I'd love to see someone mercilessly hurting people. And that entrance he had sounds awesome too.
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