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    The Iron Sheik threatened to kill him. Years later, a road trip would reunite them.
    • May 2, 2024

    On the day after Christmas in 1983, the wrestler known as The Iron Sheik won the World Wrestling Federation belt, beating the champion Bob Backlund in a classic “heel” vs “babyface” match at Madison Square Garden.

    Brad Balukjian, a gangly, socially awkward elementary schooler, loved the Iron Sheik, a villainous character known to wave an Ayatollah Khomeini flag while screaming “Death to America” at matches. So in 2005, Balukjian was set to become the official biographer of his Iranian idol – whose given name was Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, or “Khos” for short – until the project, in spectacular fashion, melted down. (This wasn’t what’s known in wrestling as kayfabe – the term for pro wrestling’s blending of real/fake culture – either; the breakdown between hero and fan was a real one).

    Balukjian went on to get a Ph.D. in entomology and became a science writer and a professor of natural history and sustainability at Merritt College in Oakland, but he never fully gave up on turning his Iron Sheik material into something.

    So he did. Coming out of peak Omicron, Balukjian set out on a 12,525-mile journey to meet up with a handful of wrestlers who appeared at MSG that night like “Mr. USA” Tony Atlas, The Masked Superstar, Tito Santana, and the man who would claim the belt from Iron Sheik a month later, Hulk Hogan. The author would even reconnect with the Sheik himself.  

    Balukjian’s new work “The Six Pack: On the Road to Wrestlemania” is a spiritual sequel to 2020’s surprise hit  “The Wax Pack,” in which he opened a pack of baseball cards from 1986 and went in search of what the players were doing now. For this book, Balukjian spent 62 days on the road seeking out his heroes from the WWF (now known as the WWE). The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

    Q: “The Wax Pack” was such an ingenious way to frame a book that I’m curious if you knew you wanted to tell “The Six Pack” in a similar fashion? 

    The best answer is, sort of? “The Wax Pack” was rejected 38 times and it took years to get published. People in the industry didn’t get what I was trying to do, which is take readers along on a personal quest, part sports history, part present-day reporting, part memoir, and not just a straightforward biography of baseball players or wrestlers. Once the book got out there and sold pretty well, I knew I had some leverage, but I didn’t want to write a straight sequel where I, say, open a pack of 1991 hockey cards or whatever. Even though it would’ve been fun and an easier book deal to secure, I wanted to push myself creatively but recognized that if I could somehow link the books thematically it could become my personal stamp. 

    I have a background in science writing, and an inspiration is Mary Roach, who’s created a cottage industry of books with one-word titles, “Stiff,” “Bonk,” “Gulp,” etc. Using the word “Pack” twice as part of the framework was a conscious choice, but “Six Pack” works in the WWF world for: The number of guys I caught up with from that 1983 lineup; the many, many beers they drank; and their ripped ab muscles. I’ve done some interviews with the WWE world where I’ve gotten a little pushback for putting myself in the book – some fans just want the war stories – but I think it’s a much more interesting approach. So the two books definitely have that road trip in common. 

    The Iron Sheik, born Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, plays a role in Brad Balukjian’s book, “The Six Pack: On the Road to Wrestlemania.” Here, the wrestler is seen arriving at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles on July 15, 2009. (Photo credit: Matt Sayles/AP Photo)

    Q: “The Six Pack” also grew out of a book project with your WWF hero, The Iron Sheik, which you abandoned some 20 years ago because, as you write, he threatened to murder you? 

    That is the absolutely true story that serves as the “The Six Pack” prologue. He was my favorite wrestler when I was a young 1980s kid, and in 2005, I took a gamble and left a job as a magazine fact-checker in California, moving to suburban Atlanta to write a biography with him. We set off on this path together but the whole thing went sideways because he was too addled by substance abuse. On one occasion, I drove Khos to his crack dealer, so needless to say, the collaboration didn’t work out as I envisioned. 

    Q: And then Khos threatened to kill you by dealer’s choice: gun, knife, or broken leg? You went with the “.38 Magnum for my fate,” as it’s the quickest option, but I think a snapped femur would have a higher chance of survival, no? 

    Fair point, but I wasn’t thinking too clearly at that moment. To be honest, Khos was in his 60s and had the threat lingered and become truly menacing, I would’ve bolted and run away as fast as I could. 

    Q: The Iron Sheik isn’t the only character in the book with a host of problems. Was it surprising how far down stars like Tony Atlas had spiraled? You write that Atlas was basically living on the street due to severe drug addiction because as you declare in the book, “The Road ate people alive…”

    There’s a show and podcast beloved by wrestling fans called the “Dark Side of the Ring,” which details what so many of these guys went through with drugs, sex, violence, steroids, and burning through money with no real health benefits.

    What I try to add to the mix in “The Six Pack” is a way of looking at these aging men and how they view their lives now, their vulnerabilities and emotions as they look back. These stories hit on real-life issues we all deal with, fathers and sons come up repeatedly, so it’s as much a reflection on the humanity behind the kayfabe as it is ‘Wild Tales of the WWF.’  

    Q: As an interviewer, even after all these years, was it hard to portray them, or even just talk to them about their careers, as both human beings and their characters simultaneously? The all-encompassing 24/7 role is its own animal…

    Professional wrestling is a totally unique art form and profession. When they sign an autograph, they sign their character name. Actors and musicians don’t do that, they might change their name for professional reasons, but it’s not a character. If you go to a convention today and wait in line to meet Sgt. Slaughter, that’s the name he’s signing, not Bob Remus. These guys inhabited these characters for the majority of their lives.

    The whole point of “The Six Pack” is digging into to what extent did they actually become their characters? And once they were done wrestling, could they go back to their real selves? How does that work? So yes, when interviewing them it’s a Jekyll and Hyde dance you’re doing, trying to figure out the line between the man and the alter ego.

    Q: You and the Iron Sheik ended on good terms before he died last June, was that the full circle of life piece you needed for “The Six Pack?” 

    Meeting up with Khos gives the book a driving narrative tension. What’s it going to be like seeing the man who threatened to kill me 17 years later? I knew he’d cleaned up, quit cocaine, and in working on the book, I had filled in all these gaps – like finding the now-94-year-old wrestling coach who welcomed Khos to the U.S. in 1969 – so I knew we had plenty of ground to cover. Over the years, I called him here and there, so there was some contact but I didn’t go see him in person until 2022. We spent a wonderful evening together, dinner with his family, and catching up. 

    He died less than a year later and the family invited me to attend his services. The Iron Sheik and I had a long history together. It was quite a journey from where it started to where it ended, but it marks a new beginning for me. The experiences I had in writing and reporting these two books has convinced me to leave academia and give full-time writing a go. There are plenty of old-school sports stories to be told. Pro wrestling will certainly be a part of it, the WWF left quite an imprint on my babyface childhood.  

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