The Iron Sheik threatened to kill him. Years later, a road trip would reunite them. – Whittier Daily News

Brad Balukjian is the author of “The Six Pack: On the Road to Wrestlemania.” (Photo credit: Amber Shepp / Courtesy of Hachette)

On the day after Christmas in 1983, the wrestler known as The Iron Sheik won the World Wrestling Federation title, defeating champion Bob Backlund in a classic heel versus babyface match at Madison Square Garden.

Brad Balukjian, a lanky, socially awkward elementary school student, loved the Iron Sheik, an evil character known to wave the Ayatollah Khomeini flag while shouting “Death to America” ​​during 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 collapsed in spectacular fashion. (This was not what is known in wrestling as kayfabe – the term for the mixing of real/fake culture in professional wrestling – neither; the rift between hero and fan was real).

Balukjian went on to earn a Ph.D. in entomology and became a scientific writer and a professor of natural history and sustainability at Merritt College in Oakland, but he never quite gave up trying to make something out of his Iron Sheik material.

So he did. Coming out of Omicron’s top ranks, Balukjian set out on a 20,525-mile journey to meet a handful of wrestlers who showed up at MSG that night as “Mr. USA” Tony Atlas, The masked superstar, Tito Santanaand the man who would claim the Iron Sheik belt a month later, Hulk Hogan. The author would even reconnect with the sheikh himself.

Balukjian’s new work “The Six Pack: On the Road to Wrestlemania” is a spiritual sequel to the surprise hit of 2020 “The laundry package,” in which he opened a pack of baseball cards from 1986 and looked for what the players were doing now. For this book, Balukjian spent 62 days on the road searching for 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 way?

The best answer is: sort of? “The Wax Pack” was rejected 38 times and took years to be published. People in the industry didn’t understand what I was trying to do, which was take readers on a personal quest, part sports history, part contemporary reporting, part memoir, and not just a simple biography of baseball players or wrestlers. Once the book came out and sold pretty well, I knew I had some influence, but I didn’t want to write a straight sequel where, like, I opened a pack of 1991 hockey cards or something. While it would have been fun and easier to get a book deal, I wanted to challenge myself creatively, but realized that if I could somehow connect the books thematically, this could become my personal stamp .

I have a background in scientific writing, and that is a source of inspiration Maria Roach, which has 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’ve met from the 1983 lineup; the many, many beers they drank; and their ripped abs. I’ve done a number of interviews with the WWE world where I got a bit of backlash 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 certainly 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 we see the wrestler arriving at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles on July 15, 2009. (Photo credit: Matt Sayles/AP Photo)
The Iron Sheik, born Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, stars in Brad Balukjian’s book, “The Six Pack: On the Road to Wrestlemania.” Here we see the wrestler 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 about twenty years ago because, as you wrote this, he threatened to kill you?

That’s the absolute true story that serves as the prologue to “The Six Pack.” He was my favorite wrestler when I was a young boy in the 1980s, and in 2005 I took a chance and left a job as a fact-checker for magazines in California and moved to suburban Atlanta to write a biography with him. We started down this path together, but the whole thing fell by the wayside because he was too messed up with substance abuse. On one occasion I drove Khos to his crack dealer, so needless to say the collaboration didn’t go as I envisioned.

Q: And then Khos threatened to kill you by the dealer’s choice: gun, knife or broken leg? You chose the ‘.38 Magnum for my destiny’ because it’s the fastest option, but I think a broken femur would have a better chance of survival, right?

Good point, but I wasn’t thinking very clearly at the time. To be honest, Khos was in his sixties and if the threat had lingered and become truly threatening, I would have run away as quickly as possible and walked away.

Q: The Iron Sheik isn’t the only character in the book with a host of problems. Was it surprising how deep down stars are? Tony Atlas had been spiral? You write that Atlas was actually living on the streets due to a serious drug addiction, because as you claim in the book: “The Road ate people alive…”

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

What I’m trying 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 deal with real life issues that we all face, fathers and sons are brought up repeatedly, so it’s as much a reflection on the humanity behind the kayfabe as ‘Wild Tales of the WWF’.

Q: As an interviewer, even after all these years, was it difficult to portray them, or even talk to them about their careers, as both people and their characters at the same time? The all-encompassing 24/7 role is its own animal…

Professional wrestling is a completely unique art form and profession. When they sign an autograph, they sign their character’s name. Actors and musicians don’t do that, they can change their name for professional reasons, but it’s not a character. If you go to a conference today and stand in line to meet each other Sergeant Slaughter, that’s the name he signs, not Bob Remus. These guys inhabited these characters for most of their lives.

The whole point of “The Six Pack” is to explore the extent to which they actually became their characters? And once they were done struggling, could they return to their real selves? How does that work? So yeah, when you interview them, it’s a Jekyll and Hyde dance you do, 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 passed away last Junewas that the full circle of life piece you needed for “The Six Pack?”

The meeting with Khos gives the book a driving narrative tension. What will it be like to see the man who threatened to kill me 17 years later? I knew he had recovered, had quit cocaine, and while I was 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 US in 1969 – so I knew we had plenty of ground to cover. Over the years I’ve called him here and there, so there was some contact, but I didn’t go see him in person until 2022. We had a wonderful evening together, had dinner with his family and caught 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’s been quite a journey from where it started to where it ended, but it marks a new beginning for me. The experiences I had writing and reporting on these two books convinced me to leave academia and pursue writing full-time. There are plenty of old-fashioned sports stories to tell. Pro wrestling will definitely be a part of it, the WWF left quite an impression on my babyface childhood.