Some people just like a challenge, Brian Solomon is one of those people. Back in 2019, pre lockdown, earth he pitched the idea of an in-depth biography of The Original Sheik, one of the most famous but also illusive wrestlers of the ‘60s and ’70s. That would become Blood and Fire: The Unbelievable Real Life Story of Wrestling’s Original Sheik. SteelChair’s James Truepenny talked to him, in part one of this exclusive interview, about the project, wrestling in general, and most of all, about the man himself, Ed Farhat, the one and only, Original Sheik. 

“I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid actually,” says Brian, as I ask him about his wrestling writing career. “I first became a wrestling fan when I was about 12 years old. And I was interested in doing something with it because I knew I wanted to be a writer, so even as early as college I was writing about it in my college paper and writing in my neighbourhood paper covering local shows. I was even sending clips out to the magazines back then to try to break in.” The break did come in the biggest way – he would hire on with the WWE in 2000 as a writer for their magazine. 

The subject of the Sheik was an easy pick in one sense, it had never been done before, but it was also daunting. Farhat famously kept kayfabe up to the nth degree and would only be himself around his family. “But I think part of it also is that so much of the wrestling biography field is made up of autobiographies that the wrestlers themselves chose to do about themselves and might hire people to help them, and so the independent outside biography, like a true journalistic biography, are few and far between. So it really takes somebody, Tim Hornbaker did it with the Buddy Rogers book, it takes independent writers and journalists to go, “Oh, I am gonna take this project on,” and that is what I did with the Sheik.” 

And so began a meticulous research program that found Brian digging deep into resources and interviewing long-term associates. “For me, the more fascinating things were actually what had to do with his personal life, just because it was the most difficult to uncover, and it was the most guarded. It’s stuff that you can’t just go on the internet and dig around and find him.  I found a lot of amazing things. Like, I tell people the story of his running away from home as a child, which is a story that opens the book. That is something you will only read in the book unless you were willing to go for hours and hours on like I was. There is learning about his military career and what he did in the Second World War, and also getting into his marriage to Joyce and trying to learn what I could about that and the way he would mentor people like Rob Van Dam and Sabu. I was trying to get inside his head the best way I possibly could, so that by the time I got to the end of his story, and I’m setting the scene on his deathbed and he’s being visited by Rude Hill, a wrestler associated with ICP, it is very emotionally powerful for me to even write that scene because at that point it felt like I knew him in this weird way. That personal kinda stuff was what interested me the most honestly.” 

However, always lurking close to the surface was the subject of an intense and unique wrestling style that drew thousands upon thousands of dollars and who was the biggest attraction in the wrestling world for a sustained period of time. “There were years where he was the top draw in the entire business for years on end. And in other years, where you would say Bruno Sammartino was the top babyface draw, he’d be the top heel draw in a lot of those years, and you know, I think he created an aura for a lot of people who wondered, “What is this all about? Is it real? Is it fake? What parts of it are real? Are some of the guys real? Are some of the matches real?” He fed into that because a lot of people would look at him and see him in magazines. I can remember seeing pictures of the referee Ronnie Red Shoes Dougan with his face burned, like actually burned, and thinking, what is the deal? I thought this was all pretend! You get pulled in by that, and then, of course, he was this touring attraction when you read or see on TV: “Hey folks, next week at the Armory The Sheik is coming to town!” Well, damn it, I mean, you are gonna go down there. He didn’t need an angle, he didn’t need a build-up, he could come in cold to a territory, and all they had to say was, “At our next event, The Sheik will be here.” And that is all you needed to say, just based on that. That’s drawing power, you know?” 

Brian is right, of course, The Sheik drew on an unpredictable performance based on the otherworldly character so far entrenched into his life, that he was never out of it except with his close family during his heyday. A huge draw in Toronto and the North East especially, but anywhere he went, a hugely successful draw in Japan as well, whose sports-like presentation was a world away from Cobo Hall in Detroit, the place The Sheik called home. Wherever you go in the world, working-class industrial centres have an attraction for the dark arts of pro wrestling, whether it’s Shoot Wrestling in Wigan, FMW style Ultraviolence in Kawasaki, or the car plant workers of Detroit wanting a hard-nosed story to match their hard-nosed lives, and the Sheik tapped into that mentality as Brian explains, “Well, I don’t think that he sort of invented the kind of like Detroit being this wild and woolly wrestling town, because, before him, the biggest star of Detroit wrestling had been Wild Bill Curry. In the ’30s and ’40s, Wild Bill Curry was kind of the guy who invented hardcore wrestling even before The Sheik. It was guys like him and Irish Danny McShane, they were doing chair shots, and they were bleeding and brawling at a time when most wrestlers didn’t brawl at all or very little, but I think the Sheik perfected it.”

And on the success rolled. “There is no doubt that he became the biggest star in the history of Detroit wrestling, no question, because from about the mid-60s to the early ’70s, he was the absolute King, and even afterwards, though the problem then became that he also killed wrestling in Detroit. It was that ark. He brought wrestling in Detroit to its highest levels of success where you could say from about 1967 to 1973, it may have been the hottest territory in North America, or at least among the very, very tip-top. You could look at some of those Cobo Arena shows, and you could put them up against any Madison Square Garden show and say how incredible the star power and the match quality was on those shows, but it didn’t last long, that’s the thing. For a promotion to really succeed, you’ve got to be able to maintain a certain level, so even if it’s not that high, so it kind of burned out. It went really, really high and then just died.” Even the WWE, on its steamroller course, could not fill halls in Detroit in the ’80s. It took a long time until a certain WrestleMania III in the Pontiac Silverdome with the two biggest stars of the industry ever on top of the card to make people interested again. 

There will be more to come in Part 2 as we discuss the ongoing legacy of the Original Sheik.

“Blood and Fire” is available from Amazon. More information is available from Brian’s website. You can also find him on Twitter.

Feature image courtesy of its owner – Video courtesy of Classics of Japan and WWE

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