An Afternoon with the Man Who Defeated Backlund, by Matthew Humphries

Matthew Humphries
An Afternoon With the Man Who Defeated Backlund

There may be no city better suited for witnessing the saddening spectacle of aging celebrity than Las Vegas. In addition to being the last American city to care about boxing, Vegas props up the lonely, final relevant acts of many one-time stars. To leave the airport means being bombarded by billboards by half forgotten figures, all now with their new Vegas Act. These are the acts have long been parodied as extravagant and campy, with at least some part of the show taking place on a stool, and they are quintessentially Vegas-ian. As a town where a kid-friendly environment can mix with bare asses on billboards, strict age restrictions and teams of Mexican men passing out baseball card-style ads for prostitutes, no one stops being famous. The big casinos and hotels get the once-huge-and-now-still-pretty-big stars and that magician you once saw on Comedy Central at like 4 in the morning, but the outskirts embrace their celebrity fetish as well. Caeser’s Palace might have Celine Dion, but the casino with the dollar roulette and well-hidden sanitation score isn’t going to miss the chance to wow patrons with celebrity either. Someone is going to sit beside that buffet line at Slots-A-Fun or El Cortez, because in the business of spending money, few things help more than, “Hey, remember that time I was watching you on tv” nostalgia.

This Las Vegas trip got off to a bad start. I flew out with six of my friends, all male and now mostly married. We had gone the year before at roughly the same time (over half of us are public school teachers, to give some idea of the level of debauchery we’re talking about) and now returned savvy pros. Vegas is a place that makes a killing on people overestimating themselves, and now that we knew that, we planned to upend the whole thing with our ten dollar bets and conservative raises. Only we couldn’t get out of the airport.

Our plane to Atlanta was temporarily grounded, which meant we would miss our connecting flight. This would eventually mean spending the night in an Atlanta hotel, armed with absolutely worthless hotel vouchers that apparently were only redeemable at a hotel run by the gate manager’s brother. Despite calling ahead to book two rooms, when we arrived the woman behind the counter told us they had only one room and it had no air conditioner.

“But we do have a fan,” she told us.

These were the final moments of our first leg, ones spent huddled in a hotel lobby at 3 in the morning, ignoring the magician on the hotel’s tv and wondering what the cot situation was and how cool a fan could keep a room of seven guys. We assumed these concerns were anomalies, small bumps at the beginning of an otherwise easy trip, but looking back, it is clear they merely served as preamble.

Long after learning that ‘gambling’ is Frank Luntz-style spin on the term ‘donating’ I found myself waiting in the Las Vegas airport. Literally all of the money I brought with me was gone, and I was once again cursing whatever minor god controlled the airlines. This time, with a clear sky taunting through the giant gate windows, we had been told that our plane had been delayed. My friend Dustin, the only one of us who worked the following morning, found a seat on an earlier flight, but the rest of us were looking at a long wait.

All told, our spirits were not particularly low. Losing in Vegas gives you something to talk about – mistakes made, future strategies, etc. – so my friends and I spent our down time recalling our PG-rated wickedness and failings as our plane landed.

When that finally happened one of the eternally fatigued desk clerks came on his speaker to tell us that after the current passengers deplaned and the workers did a check, we would be able to board. This wouldn’t help any of us who had connecting flights, but it did give everybody some sense of movement.

Now that airline regulations don’t allow anyone without a ticket beyond the security screeners, when people get off a plane that has others waiting to get on, it generally consists of one group of strangers staring at another. No one looks excited or welcoming, and the faces of the first few off typically give some indication of what type of flight. This one did not look good.

The first person off the plane rushed out of the hanger, or rushed as much as his body would allow. He looked hurried, but a mixture of age, ailment, and body kept him from gathering any speed. The man, who had light brown skin, an American flag skullcap, and a sport coat over a t-shirt, looked to be in his 60s, and had the body of an ex-athlete. My first thought was how a man this large could fit in an airplane seat. The man, while no taller, was much larger than me, and I sometimes feel cramped in my cheap seat.

The man moved with stiff limbs, his body leaning into a cane, and a frustrated stewardess came behind him. As he walked ahead of her, I, along with everyone at the gate, began to learn why her face looked so tired.

“Where is my bag?” he shouted. “You will not steal from me.”

(Obviously, memory being what it is, this dialogue is approximate, and truthfully all of what he says should be peppered with as many expletives as you would like. Go ahead and put in 5 or 6, particularly the F-word and its variations. There is really no way to include too many.)

A wheelchair waited on the man, and he continued to shout at the stewardess as he sat.

“You think you can treat me this way? You don’t know who I am. I’m not Osama Bin Laden.” Never a good name to bring up in an airport. “I’m not a terrorist. I don’t deserve this.”

With the volume of his voice, the red-flag words he used, and the fact we stood around together anyway, the man had everyone’s attention. Waiting on a plane can be dreadfully boring, but now we had the chance to befriend our neighbors with snide comments and raised eyebrows.

For at least five minutes, as other passengers slowly emerged from the plane, the man sat in his wheelchair, cursing the airline, its staff, the basic idea of flying. It wasn’t clear why he waited, presumably for his bag or maybe due to a love of shouting, but the more uncomfortable he made people, the louder he became.

Not surprisingly, as the tirade started off on a profane note, it did not take long for homophobia to creep in. While throwing around every variation of the F-word imaginable, he also started loudly commenting on the vest the airline workers wore, the wings on the pilot’s lapel, the tiny Coke cans, all with a homophobic vocabulary that would make a middleschooler proud.

As the rant went on and the crowd grew, some became fed up with the man. One guy, envisioning the kinds of questions his young daughter would ask him later, stepped from the crowd and asked the man to calm down.

The man in the wheelchair swung his cane at him, moving it slowly, like a bat with too many doughnut weights on it, and said one of the two quotes I know I remember correctly.

“Fuck you, buddy,” he shouted and the man retreated, resigned to complain to those around him and hold his hands over his daughter’s ear.

The man’s ranting continued, now with references to Concerned Dad. After another minute or so, perhaps sensing the staleness of his act, everything took a strange turn.

Then he said the second quote I am 100% on.

“And Hulk Hogan is gay.”

My friends and I looked at each other. Hulk Hogan is gay?

The man made sure we did not mistake his words either. He continued on about Hogan, making claims about him, other men, and his daughter, when my friends and I started realizing something.

The age. The size. The hatred of Hulk Hogan. The way he rolled his R’s. Suddenly it hit us.

The Iron Sheik had landed in Las Vegas.

The Iron Sheik, for those who might not know, is perhaps the quintessential pre-Attitude World Wrestling Entertainment villain. Before the days of anti-heroes and what passes for characters, back when one-dimensional caricatures ruled the day, the Iron Sheik angered like few others. He was the anti-Hulk Hogan, at least for a time, before he came down the card to become the anti-Hacksaw Jim Duggan and anti-Sergeant Slaughter. He taught many a young child of the 80s more about the evils of Islamic extremism than any action movie or jingoistic history teacher ever could. That had to be him that Earnest ‘The Cat’ Miller played in The Wrestler, and typically he led the team of villains on Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling. Many remember Andre the Giant, but it was a victory over the Sheik that prompted Gorilla Monsoon to declare “Hulkamania is here!”

The Sheik may not have ushered in the age of racially stereotyped wrestling villains, but you couldn’t have asked for a better example. The Sheik came out with the Iranian flag, berated the American audience, and often teamed with Nikolai Volkoff, a Russian who wore a ushanka and the yellow sword and sickle Communist emblem on his red panties. The Sheik rose to prominence during the Reagan years, when the Ayatollah represented a major enemy in American minds. Along with Homer Simpsons’ ‘Ayatollah Ass-a-holah’ shirt, the Sheik taught me more about US views on Iran than anyone or anything else, and it was only natural for him to clear the way for Hulk Hogan.

In a match that showed Hogan’s mastery of the crowd and limited wrestling skill set, Hogan defeated the Sheik in something like two minutes, Hulking up out of the Camel Clutch and dropping the big leg to take the championship belt.

This still irks the Iron Sheik.

“Who was the champion before Hogan? Who beat Backlund?” the Sheik shouted in the Vegas airport, and we could tell that was something he shouted many times before, sometimes with an audience, sometimes not. That feud stayed with him, shaping his identity to the point that if no one said anything, we likely still would have thought about it. This man, who actually did come from Iran (unlike the Original Sheik, who was from Michigan), could not be seen as anything other than the foil and fool, something that could elicit sympathy, were he not swinging his cane at people and calling them jabronis.

As it were. . .“I am a real American. Fight for the rights of every man…”

Apparently the Iron Sheik has a drinking problem. Surely anyone who has seen his performances on Howard Stern or Opie & Anthony would snicker, “Obviously,” but I had no idea. See, it turns out that on his flight to Las Vegas, the Sheik drank too much, spit on a stewardess, and vomited all over his seat and the one in front of him. He’s a big man. It was a lot of vomit.

Once we finally did get to board I found that I actually had the seat beside the Sheik’s. Dustin would have had the Sheik’s spot, but as it were, the seat remained empty, a tiny flying shrine WWE Hall of Famer.

I don’t know what the nature of his beef with the AirTran people was, but judging from the dozen or so tiny and empty bottles laying beside the escape guide and in-flight magazine in the seat in front of his, I doubt any airline security guy was going to get to the bottom of it.

Wrestling, in its own weird way, works as a perfect proving ground for all sorts of existential questions and ideas. So much of it revolves around definition. To take a step back and try to understand why the spectacle of watching two massive, nearly nude adult men spout soap opera dialogue and then pretend to fight is difficult enough, but to come of age in that world means to address difficult questions in a very real way. What is ‘real’? What is ‘not real’? Is ‘not real’ the same as ‘fake’? Was it fake when the Model Rick Martel sprayed Arrogance in Jake the Snake’s Face? Did the Genius read fake poems? It is because of Ted Dibiasi that I can’t entirely embrace the Occupy Movement: The Million Dollar Man, with his leer jets and Robin Leach associations, is the 1% and his Money Inc. stable remains one of my all-time favorite wrestling factions. I cheered when Irwin R. Shyster tried to repossess the Undertaker’s urn and gasped at the insolence when the valet Virgil slapped Dibiasi. Was that not real?

I don’t know that I ever necessarily thought of wrestling as ‘real,’ and I don’t know that later I thought of it as ‘fake.’ Thinking ‘real’ never entered into my mind until someone posed that it might not be. No one said matches were fixed, at least in the way that some more conspiracy theory minded friends claim the NBA or the Super Bowl is fixed. Because wrestling was fake, not fixed, and once that possibility was raised I skipped over ever consciously believing it was real into some other realm.

But is it fake? Is that word any less wrong than real? Was the Iron Sheik faking it when he fought Hogan? Was he faking it when he shouted at the crowd in the Las Vegas airport?

The truth is that if the Sheik faked it, I participated in the fraud, and in Vegas I wished it could go on. The pathetic sight of him pulling out Olympic medals and cursing Hulk Hogan, Vince McMahan, Bob Backlund and all the people around him almost 30 years after the fact made it all the more apparent that all the faking involved real people in a real world.

Look at them: Doink the Clown is 54 and sometimes still has to put on clown makeup and pretend to fight guys in middle school gyms. The Honkytonk Man still dresses like Elvis. Ravishing Rick Rude, The Bastion Booger, and Bam Bam Bigelow are dead.

And a clearly drunk Iron Sheik shouts homophobic slurs at a group of people who only laugh at him. Someone would stop him at some point, because he did have some place to be. He had autographs to sign, pictures to take. I know. I saw them online when I looked him up later. There he was, sitting by the buffet table at one of the cheap casinos, holding up one finger, never free of the fictions he lived with or realities that interrupted.

BIO: Matthew Humphries lives in Shelby, North Carolina where he teaches American literature and English composition at Gardner-Webb University. In addition to his background in literary studies, he is enrolled in UNC-Charlotte’s Religious Studies graduate program. When Matthew isn’t studying, writing, or teaching, he likes to spend time in his hammock, debating with his dog, Winston, or going on road trips with his wife.

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