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Violence Personified: The Career Of The Original Sheik



Last week marked the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Eddie Farhart, known around the globe as The Original Sheik. Despite a career that spanned five decades as one of the most well-known grapplers in the world, few details of his personal life have surfaced. He never spoke to the audience, other than yelling in a language the crowd didn’t understand, and even after he retired, he never did a real-life interview of any type to discuss his life outside of the ring. Legitimately of Arabian descent, Farhat built a legacy on bloodshed and believability. He might’ve played the classic role of the foreign villain that was a staple of the golden era, but the fire-throwing heel was anything but typical. In a genre where the acts of violence were called entertainment and that later was revealed to be a choreographed performance, The Sheik made people believe.

Starting his career in 1949, Farhart was more of a “special attraction” than a cornerstone of any particular territory. While he had wrestling skills that he would later teach to others as a trainer, technical contests would’ve seemed odd for the persona he projected to the audience. Announced as hailing from Syria, The Sheik was attired in traditional middle eastern head wear, pointed boots, and sometimes a lengthy jacket. Since he never did interviews, he was often accompanied to the ring by a manager to address the live audience or to collect his accessories. One of his managers during his early career was his wife Joyce, who played the role of “The Princess” in front of the fans, but would also be a key figure behind the scenes for Farhat’s Big Time Wrestling territory in Detroit years later.

To properly and credibly project the role of a foreign madman, Farhat often aggressively attacked his opponents before the bell, and without the ref’s awareness, reached into his boots to retrieve a pencil. The Sheik stabbed his foes in the head, arms, or chest with a deranged look in his eyes. The portrayal of this unstable persona was done so realistically during the majority of his career that fans truly believed that he was as dangerous as he appeared to be in the ring. During his prime in the kayfabe era, Farhat always stayed in character so that fans never saw the real-life person behind the character. If he was recognized in public, he wouldn’t speak English and went to extreme measures to protect the integrity of the wild image he presented in the ring.

During the early stages of his career, Farhat worked the NWA territories primarily, traveling from city to city for short stints of hardcore matches that always drew money at the box office. Since his formula was fairly simply, his appearances within a promotion were used as special events rather than to build long-term angles. After he became established, he worked title matches with Bruno Sammartino in the late-60s at Madison Square Garden. The believability of his character translated to legitimate heat that sent fans to arenas around the country to see the wild spectacle live. In many ways, the work that The Sheik did in the golden era of professional wrestling generated the blue print for the hardcore genre that would revolutionize the presentation of the industry in the United States in the late 90s.

Around the same time that he battled Bruno at MSG, Farhat bought the Detroit territory in his hometown and promoted shows successful there for almost two decades. As the United States champion, Sheik drew crowds that hoped to see him lose the title to one of the heroes. Perhaps the greatest rival of his extensive career was Bobo Brazil, the charismatic fan favorite that paved the way for other African-American stars in the business. Bobo feuded with the Sheik for decades, drawing several sell out crowds at the Cobo Hall in Detroit. After nearly a decade of big crowds at the Cobo, Sheik was booked for a match against Andre The Giant in 1974. Andre, still a rookie at that point, had made his way to North America the previous year and quickly became a major draw for his mythical presence. Those in attendance thought they would finally see Sheik dethroned as US champion. Roughly three minutes into the bout, the villain threw one of his trademark fire balls, causing the giant to fall to the floor where he was counted out. This was a situation where the terrifying gimmick became too much of a good thing and fans had seen the act too often. The disappointment of the brief Andre match led to a steady decline in business until the Sheik sold the territory in 1980.

Post-Detroit, the aging Farhat began to work more often in Japan, where his wild style had earned him legendary status during the prime of his career. The short blood baths Farhat performed suited the All Japan booking well, as names like Abdullah The Butcher and Bruiser Brody drew huge crowds with brawls that sent the Japanese fans scattering to avoid the chaos. As All Japan transformed into the strong style era of the 90s with names like Misawa, Kobashi, and Kawada, Farhat shifted to a promotion that better fit his style. In his 60s at the time, he began working for Onita’s Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling group, a smaller, but wildly popular company that cemented the foundation for death match wrestling in Japan, in the early 1990s. One of the most infamous matches in the extensive history of Japanese wrestling was a “fire death match” in 1992. Sheik and his nephew, Sabu were booked against Onita and Goto for a match that had flaming barbed wire ropes around the ring. Less than two minutes into the contest, the flames were uncontrollable and the performers were forced to jump from the ring. Sheik received serious burns, and the ring itself completely burned down.

When he wasn’t wielding fire in Japan, Farhat trained wrestlers, most notably Sabu and eventually Rob Van Dam. During the mid-90s, Farhat worked occasional matches in the US, including a one-off appearance in ECW in 1994, but much of his later career was spent in FMW, as the fans there embraced the tradition and history of his legacy, even at his advanced age. It speaks volumes to his ability to maintain a mystic and aura, as he still generated a crowd reaction and was perceived as dangerous when he was in his 70s. By 1995, he worked his final matches, but was honored with a respectable retirement ceremony by FMW in 1998. At 74, Farhat was frail, but still had an ability to work the crowd as he wielded a sworn in the ring, and accepted retirement gifts through Sabu. In an extremely rare moment, Sheik hugged some of his Japanese contemporaries, and even took the mic briefly to rant in an inaudible language before he yelled, “Ichiban!” as a sign of respect to those that honored him during the event.

Eddie Farhat passed away in 2003 at the age of 78. Despite a nearly 50-year career in the spotlight around the globe, he maintained the mystic of his persona. He was so revolutionary that he stayed relevant for five decades and he did that without ever cutting an interview to promote a match. His presence and the aura he brought to the table were enough to sell tickets. His influence on the industry inspired a generation, which did the same for the current generation so the ripple effect of the impact he had on the industry is still seen today. Interestingly, he generated legitimate heat as a foreign villain, but it was revealed after his death when photos of his tombstone surfaced online that he was actually a World War II veteran.

In 2007, he took his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame when he was inducted by Sabu and Rob Van Dam. His wife Joyce, former manager and important figure within the business side of Detroit wrestling accepted the honor. Mrs. Farhat passed away in 2013, and most fans are still unaware of her role as an administrator during the heyday of pro wrestling at Cobo Hall. Even years after his death, Ed Farhat maintains a mystic around his career and certainly carved a legacy within the industry as one of the greatest performers of all time.

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Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

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