#41 The Sheik
Born Ed Farhat and operating forever out of the Motor City, nobody was synonymous with Detroit wrestling like The Sheik, who operated his own promotion in the city throughout the 60s and 70s, and eventually earned the nickname "King of Detroit." Although he was known for Detroit, The Sheik enjoyed success in other wrestling meccas such as New York, Montreal and Japan.
The Sheik is probably best known for being one of the innovators behind hardcore wrestling. Matches involving The Sheik were never complete without chairs, pencils being carved into their foreheads, blood everywhere and of course the use of the fireball prop, which The Sheik allegedly invented. The Sheik matches were never very long, hardly any of them lasted longer than ten minutes, but they were always violent and always intense. In wrestling today the idea of the hardcore match (or the street fight, or the No Disqualification match, or any of the various names the match goes by now) seems overdone, with most of the big spots having been done to death in the past. When The Sheik was doing all of this, nobody else in the industry was doing anything close, which turned The Sheik into one of the biggest draws of the 1970s.
While still looking to get his career off of the ground, The Sheik was able to secure an NWA World Heavyweight Championship match against then champion Lou Thesz. Thesz was a noted shooter who had the reputation of not cooperating with gimmick wrestlers who were not the classic "worker" that Thesz was. Afraid of being tied into a knot by Thesz, The Sheik left the arena before the event and reportedly hid from Thesz and the promoter by hiding under a truck in the parking lot of the arena. Despite surrendering a chance to contend for the most prestigious championship in wrestling, the incident helped establish The Sheik as a national name, and actually was a launching point for the rest of his career.
In addition to being a hardcore star, The Sheik is also one of the greatest gimmick men of all-time. Playing off racial stereotypes during the 60s and 70s, The Sheik came to the ring accompanied by a harem of women, and would refuse to wrestle until he was allowed to roll out his prayer mat and pray to Allah. Eventually he would be escorted to the ring by a lone woman, The Princess, his real-life wife who he would remain married to for over 50 years. The Sheik couldn't speak a word of English, whenever he was on the microphone he just growled gibberish into the microphone that most fans assumed must have been Arabic. The combination of his over-the-top violence and his personality turned him into the biggest heat magnet in wrestling during his prime.
By the late 1960s The Sheik was one of the most in-demand heels in wrestling, and he was a top challenger to stars like Bruno Sammartino in New York and Freddie Blassie in Los Angeles. In 1969 he made his debut in Toronto and went on a famous 127 match undefeated streak at the famed Maple Leaf Gardens where he defeated a hall of fame of top names, including Thesz, Gene Kiniski, Sammartino, Whipper Billy Watson and even Andre the Giant. It was Andre who ended the streak in 1974.
The Sheik was not a good worker by any means, and a lot of wrestlers complained about how his style was insulting to the tradition of professional wrestling. Despite those complaints, nobody could argue that The Sheik was good for business. According to research conducted by The Wrestling Observer, The Sheik was the biggest box office draw in wrestling from 1969-1973. Bigger than Sammartino, bigger than the Funks, bigger than anybody.
The Sheik's most notable individual feud was with his Detroit counterpart, Bobo Brazil. While The Sheik was billed as a wealthy member of some Arabian royal family, Brazil was a former steel-mill worker, billed from Benton Harbor, Michigan, who connected with fans on a natural level. While they were based out of Detroit, they took their feud all over the continent, showcasing wild, bloody matches on each coast.
A notable moment took place in Texas between The Sheik and Brazil. During the time period, black fans at the arena were separated from white fans, and a small, chicken wire fence was the wall between the two. Disgusted by this show of racism (which is ironic considering The Sheik's gimmick was built on the racial insensitivities of the fans) when their brawl escalated into the stands (and The Sheik matches always ended up in the stands) The Sheik purposely destroyed the fence, letting the black fans enter the lower area of the arena. Of course, since The Sheik was a bad guy, nothing was more threating to some Texas fans than the civil rights movement, so this was a genius move. Talk about being a heel!
The Sheik also became a big star in Japan, working with Abdullah the Butcher and the two teamed up and set new standards for violence in wrestling. One of their most notable feuds was in All-Japan Pro Wrestling against Dory Funk Jr. and his brother Terry. This was one of the first feuds between two gaijin teams in Japan, and it ended up turning the nasty Funk brothers into huge babyfaces in Japan, to the point that they eventually became the most popular foreign wrestlers in the history of wrestling in Japan.
By 1980 The Sheik was slowing down. He closed his company and began wrestling only for smaller independent promotions in the United States and in Japan. He wrestled forever, eventually finding his was to the Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling promotion in Japan, a promotion that embraced the hardcore style that The Sheik helped found. There he teamed up with his nephew, Sabu, who of course mimicked The Sheik's style and gimmick and became one of the top stars in ECW history. In 1992, The Sheik and Sabu teamed up against FMW founder Atsushi Onita and Tarzan Goto in match where the ring ropes were replaced with barbed wire. But not just any barbed wire mind you, this was barbed wire that was lit on fire! In a totally unsurprising moment, The Sheik suffered third-degree burns, putting a damper on the rest of his career. Of course, it didn't help that The Sheik was 67 years old at the time of this match.
The Sheik certainly has the legacy to justify ranking higher on this list, and during his prime he was as big of a star as anybody in the industry. What holds him back is his limited ability as a performer. He was never capable of playing a babyface and he was limited in the ring. He had a great gimmick and he worked that character to great success, but even though he wrestled forever, he was still in a lot of ways a one-trick pony. However, that one trick was pretty damn great, and he ran with it for as long as he could and left a legacy of scarred foreheads and blood soaked canvases behind him.
Next week, #40 will be revealed, a charismatic star who became one of the biggest babyfaces of the 1990s.
The Top 50 so far:
50.Ted DiBiase (click link for description of the qualifications of the list)
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik