Few cities have as rich a cultural and sporting history as Detroit. From the ’80s Pistons to Bob Seger, Eminem to Miguel Cabrera, the Motor City is a rich tapestry of compelling figures, unbelievable moments, and uniquely American ingenuity.
On April 17, ESPN premiered 30 for 30: Bad Boys, a documentary about those unforgettable Pistons teams. To celebrate, Grantland will devote an entire week, from April 11 through April 18, to the various stories of this wholly original place.
“The roof of the Silverdome about to explode here!” yelled Gorilla Monsoon, pointing skyward, as Hulk Hogan stomped to the ring at WrestleMania 3. It wasn’t much of a match in terms of work rate, or length, or even psychology, but it was epic. Hogan stared down Andre the Giant — the first true threat to Hogan’s cartoon immortality. Then the Hulk yoked him for a body slam, and failed. Hogan crumbled, Andre fell on top of him, and the champ spent the rest of the match trying to forget the pain in his back and regain his senses.1 When Hogan did finally reassert himself, he hit his foe with a big boot, and then finally lifted him up and slammed him. A trademark Hogan leg drop sealed the deal, but that was just decoration; the body slam, the untethering of Andre’s colossal mass from the mat — that was cutting Samson’s hair. Hogan had triumphed over greed and envy, over physical dominion, over pure pantomimed evil.
On that night, in front of a somewhat apocryphal 93,173 fans,2 the WWF reached its modern apex, and with its ascendance rendered a system of semi-connected territorial wrestling promotions obsolete. Pro wrestling became a national concern, and the regional outfits could see the writing on the wall; even those that didn’t have their rosters raided by Vince McMahon had been exposed as small potatoes compared with the WWF’s pageantry, immensity, and pop culture relevance.
Watching the crowd through the ringside cameras, one marvels at the gathered masses cheering for their hero. Their response when Hogan won was exultant and totally justifiable. On one hand, the WWF had done a masterful job convincing us that Hogan was vulnerable. On the other, those wrestling fans who filled the Silverdome had spent 30 years waiting for that kind of release, that kind of clear-cut trouncing of malevolence. They were relieved to finally get it — to see the good guy prevail in such triumphant fashion.
Detroit, after all, was the land of the Sheik — the place where the villain ran the show.
Elmore Leonard gave us many of the best-ever descriptions of Detroit. Here’s one of them: “There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living.” Hogan was the sort of wrestling icon who got by on his looks. Knight Ridder’s Neal Rubin wrote in the days before WrestleMania 3: “To hear the story from the World Wrestling Federation … Hogan was born weighing 300 pounds and immediately began body-slamming.” The real story of Detroit wrestling is more hard-nosed and workmanlike.
“The greatest heel in the history of pro wrestling,” as longtime wrestling writer Greg Oliver put it, was Ed Farhat, born in Lansing in 1924, one of 10 children of Lebanese immigrants. Farhat first turned up in Chicago in the ’50s, in the DuMont Network days of wrestling on national television, calling himself the Sheik of Araby. In the early ’60s, he returned to Detroit and bought a chunk of Jim Barnett’s Midwestern NWA fiefdom. He named it Big Time Wrestling, and although the moniker seemed aspirational for a promotion that ran only in Detroit, Montreal, and Ohio, the results were real. Farhat ushered in a genre of wrestling that would change the business.
According to his obit in the New York Times, Farhat “more or less single-handedly escalated the violence and commercial appeal of professional wrestling in the early years of television.” Note how those ideas complement each other — violence and commercial appeal. That might seem natural today, but rest assured at the time it was not. Blood was not uncommon in those days — especially compared to the modern, sanitized world of WWE — but Farhat’s innovation was turning violence into a main attraction.
Before there would be blood, however, the crowd needed to be offended. The Sheik would come to the ring, already in a murderous trance, accompanied by his manager — either the guttural Eddie Creatchman or “Supermouth” Dave Drason or the greasepainted, fez-and-sunglasses-wearing Abdullah Farouk (known to WWF audiences as the turban-clad Grand Wizard of Wrestling). Clad in his keffiyeh, the Sheik would kneel on a prayer rug and pray to Allah, a sure way to draw the crowd’s ire. Sometimes he’d bring a snake with him to up the ante. (Farhat wasn’t the first wrestler to use a stereotypical Arab gimmick, but he took the routine to new extremes, and established new norms: the curl-toed boots, the Camel Clutch. The WWF didn’t just co-opt territorial wrestling, it co-opted Farhat’s gimmick in the form of Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, the Iron Sheik.) But the real fun started when the bell rang. The Sheik would bite and claw and gouge with almost no regard for the rules and even less regard for pacing. He would often start gashing his opponent with a foreign object as soon as the match got under way. According to the narration of a documentary produced by Big Time Wrestling: “Though many of us do not like the various tactics that the Sheik from Syria uses in the ring, he has got to be one of the world’s greatest wrestlers, one of the world’s greatest fan attractions.”
The Sheik’s favorite tool was a simple, stubby pencil, the kind you fill out your bowling scorecard with. He would wrap masking tape around the base — presumably for greater grip. His second favorite weapon was fire, which he could control with astonishing accuracy. (From the documentary: “Chemists, scientists, physicists, still do not know how the man from Syria is able to throw fire from an open hand.”) Everyone who entered the ring with the Sheik left bloody, either from the forehead or the arm or from some indiscernible place obscured by the volume of red. And Farhat had his share of head wounds opened up, too; by the latter days of his career, his forehead was tracked as if somebody had used a hot poker to draw bangs on him.
In his book Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George?, Joe Jares recalls a chair death match between the Sheik and Tex McKenzie:
The chairs were soon broken and the two rivals used the remaining sticks and splinters to cut and jab. McKenzie even stretched those elastic rules and used the press table as a giant bludgeon. Nero would have loved being at ringside, except he would have been annoyed at the blood splattered on his toga.
A post on the Wrestling Classics message board recalls a match between the Sheik and his protégé, Abdullah the Butcher, in Birmingham, Alabama. The match “ended up in them battling out of Boutwell Auditorium, and outside onto 8th Ave. where they held up traffic until the police broke it up. Just classic, bloody mayhem.”
It wasn’t uncommon for the Detroit fans to join in. They would assault the Sheik on his way to the ring — he wore razor blades taped to his fingers to get the blood flowing in the ring, as well as for self-defense when he was stalking up the aisle. As Jim Cornette recalled:
In one of the most memorable Sheik matches I ever saw on TV, he was in Indianapolis savaging longtime favorite Sailor Art Thomas, and the fans were so enraged Creachman [sic] was standing on the ring apron, afraid for his own safety. A fan dove up from the floor and tried to drag Creachman down to Earth. There were at least a dozen police officers around the ring holding the other fans back, and THEY dove on this guy, creating a riot scene you didn’t see every day. All the while, Sheik was in the middle of the ring, ripping Thomas apart, then throwing his “magic fireball” in his face for good measure.
When the audience members weren’t attacking the Sheik and his managers, they were throwing fists at one another with showmanlike glee. Wrestling historian Percival Friend writes of the brawls that would break out in the stands: “Excitement was so thick in anticipation of the main event that a few fights broke out over who would be the winner. Fans in Detroit were a special breed; they loved to show their violence in a special way. They called it LOVE … I never did understand Motor City fans.” Being ringside at a Sheik bout was a mix of terror and joy. It was an interactive death match, a grizzly Roman Coliseum in an American industrial mecca.
Detroit fans hated the Sheik not for his curl-toed boots or the camel on his tights, but for his dirty tactics. These were fans whose code was that of an honest day’s hard work and the American way. The cheating Sheik was everything Detroit despised.
You can tell a lot about a wrestling promotion by the movie about it. The Wrestler (1974) was the old Hollywood version of life in Verne Gagne’s AWA — respectable, earnest, and with a script a couple decades out of date. No Holds Barred is the perfect distillation of the late-’80s WWF — an over-the-top mixture of explosions, poop jokes, and growled lines. Ready to Rumble was precisely as inane and misguided as the WCW at the turn of the 21st century.
And then there’s I Like to Hurt People, a cross-eyed, campy pseudo-snuff film that can’t decide if it’s a documentary or a Monty Python sketch. Yet, despite its faults, I Like to Hurt People still manages to shine a light on the core of Detroit wrestling. Behind Dusty Rhodes’s soliloquies and beneath the silly subplot of stuffy fan protest, there is a layer of fury, violence, and struggle that is drawn straight from the fabric of the Motor City, and from the man who was its wrestling icon. That man, of course, was the Sheik, the most violent, most abhorrent man in professional wrestling.
Originally intended to be a horror film titled Ringside in Hell, the film portrays more than just Detroit. It becomes about the entire Territorial Era. Dusty Rhodes is the protagonist early in the film, determined to stop the Sheik’s reign of terror, but he was just passing through and didn’t see out the filming. He’s not the only itinerant: Andre the Giant pops up long enough to harass some fans, and Ox Baker — a legendary in-ring butcher in his own right — takes a turn on the Sheik, too. When the WWF ascended to national power, many called it the end of the territories and cast Vince McMahon as a tyrannical conqueror. But there on celluloid you can see exactly why the territories died out — the Sheik’s overreliance on his never-ending bloodthirsty shtick, and on the questionable charisma of Captain Ed George, a dopey everyman who was, in reality, Farhat’s son. Which is to say nothing of the film itself. Shot mostly in the ’70s but retrofitted for release in 1985, it laid bare the ridiculous nature of the enterprise. One subplot revolved around a “Stop the Sheik” movement bent on ending the champion’s gruesome reign, and this diversion reduced the otherwise earnest fisticuffs to the same trivial level.
But the Sheik’s charisma is felt every time he’s onscreen. Of course, his kind of power could exist only in a world as intentionally absurd as pro wrestling — a bloodthirsty Arab with mystical powers would have hardly passed muster in Hollywood — but it was a grim brand of absurdity. What the movie fails to capture is the power of the Sheik’s silence, which made audiences feel the looming terror of a fully alien monster. The Sheik never spoke in his career outside of a gibberish version of Arabic, and Farhat himself was mostly silent in public. One notable exception was on Rich Little’s show You Asked for It, which profiled the Sheik in 1981 and interviewed “promoter Ed Farhat” — as a separate person — off camera. He spoke in a surprisingly soft voice: “The guy that goes into the ring with the Sheik has to first of all fear for his life, because he’s gonna hit you with the fire, or he’s going to boot you to death, or he’s going to pull out that little object he has always hidden away and poke away at you. I mean, he doesn’t like anyone, and he doesn’t want anyone to like him.”
That’s the key to the Sheik’s magic. His violence had crowds lining up. According to the Times: “One of his opponents, Dory Funk, recalled that during a bout in Lubbock, Tex., the Sheik pulled some sulfurous substance out of his tights and threw an ‘orange ball of fire’ at him, scalding his face. On that occasion the fans protested and the Sheik was disqualified, but every future appearance of the Sheik in Texas was sold out.”
As a referee in I Like to Hurt People puts it: “The most dangerous wrestlers I’ve ever officiated — well, there’s no question at all it’s got to be the Sheik. As far as I’m concerned, there’s never been a man in professional wrestling, there will never be a man in professional wrestling, that is a wild — this man’s a brute, he’s an animal.” He was so despised that he could turn an opponent into a hero, and a big-name opponent into a god.
Cobo Arena was the Sheik’s kingdom, the seat of his nefarious power and the site of two decades of bloodletting. And his greatest opponent in that realm, the only brawler who went toe to toe with the Sheik on a regular basis, was Bobo Brazil.
Bob Brazil was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, but called Benton Harbor, Michigan, home — he migrated to Michigan like so many African Americans before him, and he was always welcomed as a hometown hero in Detroit. In his day, he was one of the most famous black athletes in America. In the February 6, 1970, issue of the New York Times, a young Joe Frazier discussed his early sports idols: “I was about 17 when I got interested in boxing, and the guys I remember hearing about were Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Hurricane Jackson and Bobo Brazil.”
“Bobo Brazil,” said Frazier’s manager, Yancey Durham, “he’s a rassler.”
Brazil was the opposite of the Sheik in every way. He was native, he was human, and above all else, he was a fair competitor. According to the documentary: “Bobo Brazil does not mean to injure or maim his opponents as the Sheik most often does. Bobo Brazil likes to congratulate his opponents at the end of matches whether he wins or loses, and give them a pat on the back and say, ‘A job well done.’” WWE.com notes that he’s often referred to “as the ‘Jackie Robinson of sports-entertainment’ in response to the way Brazil and Robinson similarly broke down racial barriers in their respective sports.”3
Brazil, for the record, was not such a Boy Scout that he wouldn’t retaliate against the Sheik’s lacerating ways. Again from WWE: “Brazil and The Sheik drew each other’s blood for decades, often times trading a version of the United States Championship back and forth in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.” The reference to blood is as unavoidable as the Sheik’s vile tactics were inevitable.
In 1971, Brazil finally managed to deliver the Sheik the comeuppance the latter had so long deserved, and it came via Farhat’s own devilish pencil. With 15,000 fans crammed into Cobo Arena, Brazil’s career on the line, and special referee Joe Louis there to keep the Sheik and his manager in check, Bobo won the first fall after breaking out of the Sheik’s Camel Clutch. He lost the second after being illegally gored by the Sheik. (Although, as Farhat points out on You Asked for It: “It’s only legal if he gets away with it without the referee seeing it.”) In the third round, Brazil head-butted him until the Sheik bled, which gave Louis time to find the pencil hidden in the Sheik’s boot. Louis handed it to Bobo and then, in a marvelous bit of selective officiating, walked to the far corner of the ring, leaned against the ropes, and comically covered his eyes. Bobo took the mighty no. 2 and set about gouging the Sheik’s forehead and — as Friend put it — “blood flowed like the mighty Detroit River just outside the confines of Cobo Arena.”
The crowd went wild. The charisma of wrestlers like Junkyard Dog is often credited with helping allay racial tensions in the South. This is appropriate, but the social good of the Sheik’s villainy is overlooked just as often. The Sheik’s match with Brazil occurred in 1971, just four years after the Detroit riots of 1967, and the entire city celebrated together when Bobo Brazil beat the Sheik for the United States Championship.
It was a blessed reprieve. For 15 years, the Sheik had held the title and subjected Detroit to his bullying ways. But Brazil’s time at the top was short-lived. The Sheik regained the title a year later4 and resumed his reign of bloody terror. Prior to Brazil’s big win, Lord Athol Layton, a British wrestler turned commentator for the Sheik’s promotion, pleaded for a title change: “I think you’ll agree with me that the fellow’s reign must be brought to an end as champion if only to elevate professional wrestling again in eyes of fans.” He was right — the fans wanted to see the Sheik lose. But he was wrong to imply they hadn’t enjoyed the ride.
The Sheik finally retired, after a series of false retirements, in 1998. He was 72. His last appearances were brutally violent death matches in Japan. During one of them, he suffered third-degree burns and slipped into a coma. The idea had been to feature him as a tribute to the man who created the hard-core style, and, in a cruelly ironic sort of way, it was. There’s a strangely poignant sequence in I Like to Hurt People that revolves around a huge female wrestler named Heather Feather, whose goal it is to wrestle a man. When a reporter asks how long she thinks she can last in her chosen profession, Feather answers: “A girl can only last as long as she looks young. As soon as she starts looking old, she’s done for. A man could do this until he dropped, until he died in the ring.”
Farhat didn’t quite make it that far, but he came close. He appeared in 1988, at the age of 60, in the NWA’s Great American Bash tour when it passed through Detroit, teaming with fan favorite Dusty Rhodes against Kevin Sullivan and Dick Murdoch. It took him almost 40 years, but he was finally a fan favorite in his hometown. Maybe it was that everybody appreciated what Ed Farhat had done for wrestling there. Or maybe it was that the Sheik had endured so much for so long. That more than any of his contemporaries, he really understood the meaning of a hard day’s work.
According to Cornette, the Sheik “drew more fans and sold more tickets in more places for a longer period of time than anyone else in the sport’s history.” He earned this reputation with blood and sweat and more blood. To some, the Sheik’s act surely seemed gratuitous — offensiveness for its own sake, lunacy for profit. But years before Vince McMahon sold out the Silverdome on the back of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, Ed Farhat was selling out Cobo Arena with little more than his crazy stare and a no. 2 pencil.
Just as with Hogan and Andre, it wasn’t the contents of the match or technical mastery that filled the seats. It was the anticipation of something amazing. It was about hope, and it was about fear. And in Detroit, it was about punching the guy sitting next to you and about maybe going home with a splatter of the Sheik’s blood on your lapel.
As a young Terry Funk explains in I Like to Hurt People: “If you could guarantee someone that on a Saturday night at eight at the Cobo Arena in Detroit or the Los Angeles Coliseum — if you could guarantee a man’s getting gored to death, you’d sit there with a complete sellout.”
Illustration by Gluekit.