Friday, May 30, 2008

THE ORIGINAL SHEIK



In 1921, Don Albert and his Orchestra released the pop song, “The Sheik of Araby,” using the colloquial reference to all things Arabic. The tune was the very first to be banned from commercial radio, a form of mass communication that had only hit the airwaves one year before. Why was the song suddenly yanked? For the simple reason it contained a repetition of the line “with no pants on,” a playful jab at the type of clothing supposedly worn by Middle Easterners.

Five years after the song’s release, Ed Farhat was born in Lansing, Michigan, one of 10 children who would be raised by parents originally from Lebanon. Although no one could have predicted it at the time, he would begin training to enter the world of professional wrestling in 1949, making his debut as “The Sheik of Araby” in 1950. And just like the song itself, he would face banishment (along with fines and disciplinary action) during the course of his career. Minor setbacks aside, the penalties he incurred worked in his favor, for the controversies served to elevate his status as one of the uncontrollable wild men of the mat. Along with other early hardcore advocates Bull Curry and Abdullah the Butcher, (see Two Wild Men of Wrestling), The Sheik provided a reason to wonder if perhaps the mayhem he spawned was on the level.

Ed Farhat took his career as The Sheik very seriously. (He dropped the “from Araby” attribute after a few years). In looking back, it’s possible to trace a direct link between his behavior, both in the ring and behind the scenes, with the eventual rise of an ultra-violent style of ersatz combat. What made a handful of wrestlers from the 50s through the 70s, like The Sheik, Dick the Bruiser, Abdullah the Butcher and Bull Curry so menacing and frightening to both children and adults, is that they remained in character and were believable at all times. Never did they drop the pretense of their respective gimmicks. By incorporating acts of violence that went far beyond the pale, they scared the living hell out of wrestling fans, including those watching on television from the safety of their homes. Interestingly, the more honest viewers admitted that they got a special thrill out of seeing those “crazy bastards” cross the line without restraint. Reprehensible as their actions were, there was something appealing about men who knew no boundaries and wouldn’t hesitate to go the extra mile to achieve the appearance of all-out warfare.

Of course, when a heel successfully makes a strong visceral impression by taking excessive liberties, attendance will grow as fans anticipate the day when good finally triumphs over evil. There’s an art to successful storytelling, and Ed Farhat recognized that the best way to create interest in The Sheik was to go beyond the standard heel conduct of merely cheating. By brandishing sharp objects secreted in his trunks to carve up the foreheads of hapless opponents, he outraged the paying customer. The majority of Sheik matches were gory affairs; and while some would loudly disapprove of the liberties he would take, the man himself would just as frequently finish his matches every bit as bloody and maimed as his opponents.

When he first entered the business, The Sheik was an instant heel. His actions were that of a bad guy, to be sure, but nothing too far beyond that of other baddies of the day. It’s also worth noting that in the 1920s, the first wrestling sheiks were presented as babyfaces. Then, as now, promoters capitalized on just about anything that was at the forefront of entertainment, regardless of where the source originated. In the case of wrestlers that were portrayed as having arrived from Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, they originally came into being to exploit the dynamic Rudolph Valentino and his movie “The Sheik.” The silent epic had swept the continent and captivated the movie-going public, especially women. 30 years later, the flipside of the sexy Sheik would emerge.

Another important factor that determined the direction Ed Farhat would take was by virtue of the fact that he knew his wrestling skills were somewhat limited. Never one to challenge the masterful technical manipulations of the elite grapplers, The Sheik resorted to brawling. As he honed his style over the years, Farhat added bits of business that were to push him beyond the typical villain, until he comfortably resided in the “will-do-just-about-anything” category.

Without a doubt, the most hair-raising stunt that shocked the fans was when The Sheik would rub his fingertips together and shoot an honest-to-goodness fireball into an adversary’s face. The story goes that Farhat learned how to perform that “trick” from a professional magician. Again, because he may well have been the very first to utilize that conceit, it was powerful. Seeing the flaming fireball strike his opponent right square in the face horrified and infuriated the fans, especially when the recipient did his job by selling his “injury” for all it was worth.
As The Sheik developed his brand of ferocity through the 50s, he advanced the crazy quotient as he traveled around the country. Before the decade ended, he would add his wife, Joyce, who appeared as Princess Fatima. In some instances, the jabbering Sheik would pace and babble his gibberish before television cameras and, in moments of unbridled insanity, strike her numerous times. Wrestling fans of both genders found themselves choking back their rage at the display of an uncontrollable madman’s cruelty.

As the 60s came into focus, Joyce began appearing less and less. Eventually, Fatima faded out of the picture in favor of a male manager. Initially, it was Ernie Roth who adopted the persona of the excitable Abdullah Farouk. Again, it was a wise move on Farhat’s part, as The Sheik spoke no English (or any known language, for that matter). To make the verbal point, Farouk would issue threats and register complaints on behalf of his charge. It was also not unusual for the manager to get physically involved in a match by distracting a referee or passing a weapon to The Sheik; yet, he would loudly proclaim they were the wronged parties, having been the victims of unfair persecution. (In later years, the same Ernie Roth would be known as The Grand Wizard).

Still, a perceptible buzz would quickly spread around town as word circulated that the Sheik was on his way. Supported by magazine stories and photos that spotlighted his barbaric behavior, and aided by carefully chosen clips from his matches on local TV wrestling shows, box office sales would pick up with the news of his impending arrival. Surely, the fans thought, our top favorites would be able to handle this certifiable lunatic, just as they had other characters that strayed from the straight and narrow.

While that was the usual scenario with an invading heel, The Sheik was an entirely different matter. As time passed, his matches became increasingly wilder, frequently ending with he and his rival counted out of the ring or disqualified, sometimes under near-riot conditions. Only a very small number of Sheik encounters concluded in a clean decision. And again, that made sense from a business standpoint; it kept babyface and heel strong and hot, setting the stage for a rematch. Each successive bout added a new stipulation that upped the ante, stoking great anticipation that this, finally, would be the one to finish off the despised foreigner.

Once Ed Farhat took control of the Detroit office in 1964, he focused on building his own wrestling empire in the Motor City. The opponent that The Sheik faced more often than any other was the iconic Bobo Brazil. The two would come into conflict over and over again, many times with the United States Heavyweight title on the line. Each man won his fair share of matches. As was the case with most of The Sheik’s encounters, a DQ was the typical outcome. And so was the ever-increasing intensity, to the point that new attendance records were set in cities everywhere The Sheik and Brazil were scheduled to meet.

Meanwhile, The Sheik continued to work all around the U.S. and Canada. (Later, in the 1970s, he enjoyed an amazing winning streak in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens that exceeded 120 matches). Prior to that, he went to Japan. The Japanese fans had never seen anyone so out-of-control, as The Sheik utilized his hardcore style before such a thing had been given a name. While fans in the Land of the Rising Sun had reacted strongly to “Vampire” Freddie Blassie’s assaults on their heroes, The Sheik took their shock and disbelief to a whole new level. By the time he departed, Japanese puroresu would be changed forever.

In 1968, The Sheik had a good run in the WWWF, fighting Bruno Sammartino for the title and, predictably, losing by disqualification. Here, he employed the services of Eddie “The Brain” Creatchman as his manager, who fulfilled the same duties as Abdullah Farouk had before him. It was during this stay that he was banned from the territory for his savage conduct. Taking virtually the same stance as Dick the Bruiser when he was suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission in 1958, The Sheik never contested the decision. Being highly in demand everywhere and with his own company to run, he never believed he needed to break kayfabe to meet with the officials that could reinstate him.

The truth is, this was something he might not have been able to bring himself to do, even if he’d needed New York desperately. Ed Farhat lived his gimmick to the extreme. He WAS the wild man, the crazy Middle Easterner whenever he appeared in public, and even beyond that. Stories handed down through the years (and they may well be more than apocryphal) suggest that when anyone called him at home and asked for “Ed,” he would yammer away in gibberish and hang up. Some have claimed he would speak a pigeon English, intoning, “No Ed here” before slamming down the receiver.

Unfortunately, while Ed Farhat was a good businessman that was at the helm of a healthy territory for nearly two decades, he ultimately ran it into the ground. Because The Sheik would virtually never lose a match except by disqualification, fans became disgruntled with the product and drifted away. Years of frustration had been building; in essence, the faithful got tired of waiting for a babyface victory that never came. And so, in 1980, The Sheik’s Detroit office shut down, although he continued to work anywhere in North America that would meet his price.

In 1994, at the age of 68, he made an appearance for the upstart ECW organization. In an odd sense it was a homecoming for him, as the independent company headquartered in Philadelphia was in the process of adopting hardcore wrestling as its primary style. The use of weaponry, the broadening of violence that included leaps out of the balcony through tables below, barbed wire ring ropes and baseball bats … all of it had a direct lineage to what The Sheik had been doing his entire career. Finally having his last match in Japan at the age of 72, Ed Farhat returned home and officially retired.

But he still wasn’t done. He trained numerous wrestlers-to-be, the most well-known being Rob Van Dam and Farhat’s own nephew, Terry Brunk (Sabu). Both developed a cult following in ECW and beyond, with Sabu especially being an advocate and an innovator of the hardcore style. Even though he himself no longer appeared in the ring, The Sheik took personal pride in what his charges were doing. They had followed in his pioneering footsteps and kept the “crazy wild man” aura alive.

In 2003, Ed Farhat passed away from heart failure. His legacy is assured of continuing for years to come, and it can be seen every time a wrestler uses a table, a chair or any otherwise innocent object for a violent purpose. Whether that wrestler knows it or not, he is paying homage to The Original Sheik.

Richard Berger is a freelance writer and editor with an extensive background in professional wrestling. His career includes media production for Stampede Wrestling, ring announcing, regular columns for WOW Magazine and IGN.com, and special feature work for other publications. Between June, 2007 and June, 2008, he wrote a weekly column for The Fight Network and Live Audio Wrestling. To discuss Richard’s articles or just about anything else, contact him at: WriterGuy1A@hotmail.com.

The small sampling of his work found here was originally published at The Fight Network and Live Audio Wrestling. The majority will appear in a soon-to-be-released book along with new material. Stay tuned for information as it becomes available!

3 comments:

Jo Jo said...

Fascinating story. There was an attorney in Lansing in the 70's named Leo Farhat -- was probably a brother -- but people thought HE was the Sheik and I don't recall him disabusing them of the notion.

Barking Spider Productions said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barking Spider Productions said...

Thanks for the positive review, JoJo.

Ha! I can see how someone also named Farhat might carry on the charade if he could get away with it. Hadn't heard that one about Farhat before.

Thanks!

= Richard Berger =