Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Freddie Blassie and the Sheik

Professional wrestling has always been inhabited by a host of the most villainous characters you are ever going to see. The maniacal heel that promises to inflict ungodly punishment on the fans’ noble heroes has been a staple of pro wrestling for decades. This week, as Inside the Squared Circle re-opens its Hall of Fame, it recognizes two of the very best, or worst, bad guys in pro wrestling history: The Sheik and Freddie Blassie.

Freddie Blassie and the Sheik lived parallel lives. Both served in World War II as youths, and first rose to stardom in the 50s. They achieved their greatest fame in the 60s and early 70s, by dominating their respective regions. They used their local success to become international stars, and feuded with many of the same wrestlers. They continued to stay involved in the business until very late in life, and had lasting impacts on professional wrestling. They ended up dying within six months of each other in 2003. But their greatest link was the images they projected, which allowed them to become arguably the two most feared wrestlers in history.

Before there was Ed Farhat, there were Sheiks. But before there was The Sheik, there was Ed Farhat. Sheiks had existed in wrestling long before Farhat broke into the business, but it was Farhat that came to embody the role of the crazy middle eastern evil doer. While he was announced as being from Syria, he was actually born in Lansing, Michigan in 1926, of Lebanese parents. He played football at Michigan State and served for the United States in World War II. However, this past would quickly become forgotten as the notorious Sheik rose to prominence.

The Sheik first became a major national figure while wrestling for the Dumont Network out of Chicago in the 1950s. Known as the Sheik of Araby, he was not yet at his most wild. After purchasing the rights to be the NWA promoter for Detroit, Sheik quickly turned the area into one of wrestling’s hotbeds, and himself into one of wrestling’s biggest stars.

Sheik’s stomping grounds in the mid 60s to mid 70s were Detroit and Toronto. He ran the shows at Cobo Hall in Detroit while Frank Tunney promoted the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Sheik’s reign of terror began in 1965 when he defeated Johnny Valentine for the NWA United States Title. For over a decade fans would come to shows hoping to see one of wrestling’s top good guys stop the evil Sheik. They were usually disappointed. Sheik’s style was completely out of control, and his hardcore matches were unique to their time. His matches would be short, and bloody. He would use pencils, throw fireballs, and perpetrate all sorts of heinous acts of violence against his opponents. Increasing his heat was the presence of Abdullah Farouk as his first manager. Farouk’s real name as Ernie Roth, and he went on to greater fame as the Grand Wizard of wrestling. The crowds despised the Sheik to the brink of riot. He was in no way a cool figure like today’s heels.

Year after year, every major good guy in pro wrestling would come to Detroit and Toronto to try to stop the Sheik. The best would come close, but he would always find a way to escape his comeuppance. After Sheik would cheat his way out of one predicament, a rematch would be booked with stipulations that seemed to guarantee a fair fight. Sheik would still find a dastardly way out. Sheik feuded with a who’s who of professional wrestling, and won most of the time. His opponents included Andre the Giant, Giant Baba, Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes, Terry Funk, Dory Funk, Jr., Lou Thesz, Bruno Sammartino, Jack Brisco, Buddy Rogers, Antonino Rocca, Dick the Bruiser and Johnny Valentine. At one point he had a feud with Jewish wrestler Mark Lewin playing off the Six Day War in the Middle East. At his peak Sheik would almost always draw over 10,000 fans, and business would drop off when Sheik wasn’t there. Sheik actually went unbeaten in 109 straight matches in Toronto, an amazing record for a bad guy.

Unfortunately, the fans eventually realized that nobody was going to stop the evil Sheik, and the crowds started going down in the mid 70s. Sheik was older, he had survived every conceivable challenge, and fans were frustrated. The Sheik’s rare losses, like those to long time rival Bobo Brazil at Cobo Hall in 1971 and Maple Leaf Gardens in 1977, were major events but did got give way to major changes. Sheik’s promotion eventually closed on a larger scale, and Sheik traveled more frequently into other territories, where people came to see Sheik based on reputation alone.

Sheik became particularly famous in Japan, where he was initially brought in as a featured attraction in the dying days of the JWA promotion. He did good business but the promotion was on its last legs. He would end up wrestling for both All Japan and New Japan in the 70s and 80s. He even wrestled regularly for Atsushi Onita’s ultra-violent FMW promotion in the 90s. In 1995 he had a heart attack after a match, bringing to an end his wrestling career.

Sheik was a wrestler that stuck to the rules of kayfabe very closely. Since he was portraying a villain from far away but was actually a local football and war hero, it was important to separate fiction from reality. He was a private man, but was well liked by those who knew him. He was a family man, and helped to train a number of wrestlers including Rob Van Dam, Scott Steiner and his nephew Sabu. He had the respect of his contemporaries, such as Lou Thesz, who labeled him “a great guy.” Rob Van Dam told the Ottawa Sun of his experiences with the Sheik, “I got to see his soft side, but he’s still very intimidating. He would tell stories and teach me. It was an honor and a privilege very few have.” Ed “The Sheik” Farhat passed away January 19, 2003.

While Freddie Blassie was as hated as the Sheik, he was hated for different reasons. Like the Sheik, Blassie was known for his violent tendencies and even nicknamed the Vampire. However, unlike the silent Sheik, Blassie was also a great talker. It was Blassie’s ability to talk that made him a cocky bad guy, and even brought him success as a babyface. While the Sheik died a mythical and feared unknown, Blassie passed away a beloved symbol of what makes professional wrestling great.

Fred Blassie was born in St. Louis on February 8, 1918. He played sports at a young age, and did some professional wrestling prior to World War II. After serving for the United States in World War II, he returned to wrestling billed as Sailor Fred Blassie. He traveled to a number of territories and learned about the business. The biggest match of his early career was a world title loss to Lou Thesz in Louisville on August 29, 1950.

Blassie wrestled primarily in the south in the early 50s. He held the Southern Title 14 times, and was a prominent regional babyface. That all changed in 1956, when he turned into an over the top villain. He died his hair blond, started biting opponents, filing his teeth, and became known as the Vampire. This was when he really started to gain recognition, and he was given a very strong push when he went to the southern California based WWA promotion in the early 1960s.

Freddie Blassie won the WWA Title shortly after joining the promotion, defeating Edouard Carpentier on June 12, 1961. The next month he defeated the legendary Lou Thesz. He would continue to rack up major wins, defeating Gorgeous George, Nick Bockwinkel, Giant Baba, Antonino Rocca and others. He quickly became the biggest and most hated star in Los Angeles, and business was booming.

Blassie’s profile would rise in his feud with Japan’s most legendary wrestler, Rikidozan. Blassie lost the WWA Title in 1962 to Rikidozan, and he lost a rematch for the belt in Japan. People had never seen anyone like Blassie in Japan, and his Vampire persona made him Japan’s greatest villain almost instantaneously. Legend has it that people had heart attacks watching Blassie bite a bloodied Rikidozan on national television. Blassie ended up marrying a Japanese woman named Miyako, who recalled her mother’s reaction upon finding out she was to wed Blassie: “my mother started to cry. “Freddie Blassie? What the matter with you? He’s very, very bad.” Along with Lou Thesz and the Destroyer, Blassie was one of the only people to ever defeat the beloved Rikidozan when he regained his WWA Title.

Done with Rikidozan, Blassie feuded with all of the territory’s biggest stars. He had a major feud with the Destroyer, who told John Molinaro, Blassie “could get more heat than anybody without doing anything.” In May of 1964, Blassie lost a loser leaves town match to Dick the Bruiser, and went to the WWWF. Just like Sheik, Blassie drew big crowds feuding with WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino. They drew sellout crowds to shows at Madison Square Garden on July 11, 1964 and August 1, 1964. However, after a trip to Japan, Blassie was diagnosed with hepatitis and needed a blood transfusion. He had one of his kidneys removed, and was told his career was over. Little did doctors know that Blassie’s wrestling peak was still yet to come.

Following a several year retirement, Blassie decided he was healthy enough to make a comeback and returned to Los Angeles in 1967. He feuded with old Sheik nemeses Bobo Brazil and Mark Lewin, as well as some of the biggest Hispanic stars of the day: Mil Mascaras, Pedro Morales and Pepper Gomez. In 1969, the promotion decided to turn Blassie into a good guy. As an anti-hero he had begun to receive cheers, like Superstar Billy Graham or Stone Cold Steve Austin. Blassie’s babyface turn did not mark a pronounced change in personality, rather he simply starting feuding with bad guys rather than good guys.

Blassie had two major feuds as a babyface. His first was against the Sheik, with Blassie using Sheik’s underhanded tactics against him. The feud culminated in the Blassie cage match, a predecessor to the WWF style cage match. In 1971, Blassie reached his greatest peak in a feud with John Tolos. They ran an angle where Tolos used Monsel powder to blind Blassie in May of 1971. They teased a Blassie retirement, and his return against Tolos on August 27, 1971 drew a California record crowd of 25,847 and record gate of $142,000. This was perhaps the most famous match in the history of the region, but Blassie was past his physical peak and couldn’t continue much longer.

Blassie traveled to the WWWF for a brief feud with WWWF champion Pedro Morales that did good business. In 1973 he announced his retirement from the ring and began managing. He managed Muhammad Ali in his famous match with Antonio Inoki and managed Iron Sheik to his WWF Title win over Bob Backlund. “Classy” Freddie Blassie became the heel nemesis of many of the WWF’s top stars, managing Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura among others. He had the right philosophy towards managing, noting in his book, “my goal was never adding to Freddie Blassie’s notoriety-I had plenty of that already-it was making someone else into a superstar.”

Blassie was always very loyal to the WWF, and he worked for them in a variety of capacities over the years. He was very close to both Vince McMahon, Sr. and Vince McMahon, Jr. The younger McMahon showed more of his real self in the introduction to Blassie’s book “Listen You Pencil Neck Geeks” than he has in years, saying “this book is very special to me because Freddie Blassie is very special to me,” “to a certain extent, Freddie represents my father to me,” “I love Freddie very much and it touches me to think now millions of readers will know him the way I have.” “Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks” is one of the very best books on wrestling, and Blassie passed away shortly after its publication on June 2, 2003 at the age of 85. Inside the Squared Circle is proud to induct The Sheik and Fred Blassie into its Hall of Fame.

Still to Come: Verne Gagne, Giant Baba, Antonio Inoki, Gorgeous George.


Blogger AdamAnnapolis said...

Damn, I love the history stuff!


7:40 PM  
Anonymous NelsonG said...

I still remember the Fred Blassie/Pedro Morales series, especially how they set it up on WWWF All Star Wrestling.

I wish someone would upload that on YouTube.

4:34 PM  
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7:23 PM  

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