A Book by Brian R. Solomon
The Original Sheik was one of those notorious wrestling characters that existed slightly outside of my timeframe as a wrestling fan, but nerveless had his fingerprints all over what I would consider the peak of wrestling popularity in the late 1990’s. Many have clamored for a book on the legendary grappler, and Blood and Fire: The Unbelievable Real-Life Story of Wrestling’s Original Sheik by Brian R. Solomon is a solid tribute to the man. As a fan of ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling), he undoubtedly made his mark through a number of his trainees including the legendary Sabu (his nephew) and Rob Van Dam, just to name a few. I think some of my first memories of seeing him wrestle were old tapes from FMW (Frontier martial Arts Wrestling), where he still wrestled in crazy deathmatches despite nearing 70 years old at the time. The one that most sticks out to me was an ill-advised “fire deathmatch” with Sabu against Atsushi Onita and Tarzan Goto. In this match, which lasted a few minutes, the ring ropes were replaced with flaming rags wrapped around barbed wire that escalated into a raging inferno almost immediately due to the wind. Anyone crazy enough to willingly enter a match like that is a madman for sure, and that’s exactly what Ed Farhat wanted the fans to believe.
Many wrestling fans today are not used to how wrestling used to be in the past. For example, Kayfabe is/was a wrestling practice wherein the performers tried to keep the actual nature of “the business” secret from fans and sometimes even other wrestlers. Scripted matches, allegiances, injuries etc. were all treated as honest fact and VERY real no matter what was really going on. Fans would never see anyone “expose the business”, or break character, in public in most circumstances, which led to constant crusades by people to try to show how fake wrestling actually was. In a TV interview, Jon Stossel once famously found out the hard way how important the practice was to wrestlers of the time, losing hearing in one ear as a payment for angering an entire industry.
Instead of the assumption that Farhat was essentially an actor playing a role, fans saw him as an insane Syrian madman screaming to “Allah!” and thirsting for the blood of anyone too stupid to enter the ring with him. Little did they know that he was actually a Catholic World War II veteran and a family man, the son of Lebanese (Syrian at the time) immigrants. Almost nobody realized that Farhat was actually the brains behind Detroit’s Big Time Wrestling, as Detroit’s primary wrestling promoter.
Farhat wrestled as The Sheik for most of his career (or noble Sheik, Original Sheik etc.), and was easily the most despised man of his time in the Midwest. The book opens with an elaborate retelling of a bout between Farhat and Tony Marino for Big Time Wrestling. After coming to the ring and assailing the crown with threats, he carved Marino up like a Thanksgiving turkey on live TV using a pencil of all things. The crowd was furious, hurling trash into the ring, with the match finally ending as a no-contest draw. Brian R. Solomon is an expert of taking what I assumed was a four minute video clip and giving it the gravitas of an epic battle scene in a fantasy film. I knew right from the get-go that this book was something special and not your usual dictated wrestling memoir that generally devolves into tedium. Solomon takes a journalistic slant and does for this book what masters of historical non-fiction books do for their subjects, making every page exciting and accessible without it reading like a text-book.
“He was the most vicious, bloodthirsty, reviled villain in the history of the ring. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, he drew record crowds everywhere he went and left a trail of burned and bloody opponents in his wake. He was The Sheik: the mysterious and terrifying madman from Syria whose wanton destruction and mayhem are the stuff of wrestling legend. But what those legions of fans screaming for his head never knew was that The Sheik was really Eddie Farhat.
From Lansing, Michigan, and the son of Arab immigrants, Farhat served his country proudly in World War II and was fulfilling the American dream through hard work and tireless dedication to his craft. And when he wasn’t screaming unintelligibly and attacking his enemies with sharp objects, he was busy being the owner and operator of World Wide Sports, one of the most successful wrestling companies in North America.”
I was actually surprised I was able to learn a little bit of world history in this book, especially regarding the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire leading eventually to Lebanese Independence about twenty years later. Until then Lebanon was part of Syria, thus why the character was always billed as being from Syria. Aside from his origin story, I’m always a sucker for war stories, and we get a tad bit of what The Sheik’s World War II military service was like. Finally, one of the more interesting parts of the beginning of the book was a bit of a socio-economic look at what happened during the Great Depression in Michigan and how that generally affected immigrants, with the most “Americanized” ones weathering the storm more easily. Farhat’s family was VERY patriotic for their new home country, a fact that they all took pride in. The Farhat’s were able to largely escape the racisms and prejudices of the Jim Crow Era by appearing “just white enough” to be considered white, or perhaps they were confused for Italian?
The book looks at the seeds of why Farhat wanted to enter some form of show business, owing a lot to one of his favorite films, “Sabu the Elephant Boy” which his nephew would take his name and attire from in the beginning of his career. In those days, people like him were not represented too much in films or TV, and by having a young, brown skinned boy going on adventures was unheard of. Although The Sheik was not the hero his inspiration was, it’s interesting to see where it all came from.
Those small asides are not the meat an potatoes of the book, and the majority is entirely based on The Sheik’s wrestling career starting with his time in the military. I had never heard that The Army apparently had some sort of a wrestling league in the final days of World War II, with Farhat holding numerous championships. apparently guys from different divisions would go against each other and even wrestle locals. It honestly sounds like the same set-up that one would hear from “The Carnival days” of professional wrestling, where locals would challenge a champion at travelling Circuses and carnivals for a shot at a cash prize. It’s crazy to think that The Sheik’s wrestling career started much in the same way as former US president Abraham Lincoln!
In many ways, this book is as much a book on the overall history of Detroit wrestling as a whole, as it is a book on The Sheik, considering the massive amount of time that he was a fixture in the scene. The Sheik was brought in by Harold Lecht and given a prime spot in a time when colorful, larger-than-life characters were VERY popular on television, much to the chagrin of wrestling purists of the time. He exploded in popularity until he nearly became THE promoter in Detroit, but the call to perform was too great. Farhat would go on to wrestle well into his older years in Japan where he became a superstar-tier heel performer. This is the era I was most familiar with, as discussed before, and perhaps my favorite part of the book.
Blood and Fire: The Unbelievable Real-Life Story of Wrestling’s Original Sheik by Brian R. Solomon is a standout book in the field of wrestling biographies. It never gets boring, nor does it relish in weird tangents that many self-written books tend to go in. It’s a concise history of one of the moist influential wrestlers of the twentieth century, and Detroit wrestling in general. As a fan that truly “got into” wrestling when I was in high school, during the run up to the so-called “Monday Night wars”, I feel like most of the modern wrestling companies (with a few exceptions) ignore the past, so a fan will come out not understanding where the industry came from. It’s books like this that I absolutely love, as they not only show me things I had never known, but give me a foundation for the fandom moving forward. ECW Press ALWAYS makes great wrestling books, including The Wrestlers’ Wrestlers: The Masters of the Craft of Professional Wrestling, Wreslecrap, and the classic The Death of WCW, just to name a few. I have always looked to them as the best way to get books like this without the bias and revisionism found in books published by actual wrestling companies. Brian R. Solomon has really impressed me here, and I can’t wait to see what else he does moving forward.
Note: I was provided a free copy of this book by ECW Press in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks to them for the consideration.