Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Drawing the right kind of heat

Now this is something I wanted to touch on eventually, but I feel like with the readings we've done, ie. Meltzer's piece on him along with Drawing Heat, it'd be a good time to bring it up. The man I'm thinking about right now is The Iron Sheik. He was a success in what he did, no doubt about it, with Dory Funk Jr. I believe saying that he drew the most heat out of anyone, ever - maybe matched by Fritz Von Erich, but that's a pretty high opinion nonetheless. And from everything we've read and everything I've heard about him, he seems like a perfect heel, but I just wanted to dig in a little bit as to the reason for his success.

I believe the thing that made him was playing up the ethnical angles and the real-life hostilities that existed at the time. This might come across as extremely obvious, but I think it's worthy to note that this formula doesn't always define success. If it did, it'd be pretty easy to slap on an offensive ethnical storyline/character to a wrestler and just wait for the fans to flock to the arena to boo/cheer them. Thing is, I don't think it's that easy, which makes the success of The Sheik all the more impressive.

The thing I'm wondering though is what made it so different when he used it? I remember Muhammad Hassan from a year or two ago, a Middle Eastern character (although I believe he was from Detroit) who came out and insulted the American crowds at every chance he'd get. Wasn't this the exact same recipe that The Sheik made popular in his prime? Isn't this what the WWE shoots for every time with guys like The Mexicools, The Unamericans, the various Canadian teams, Cryme Tyme, etc? If that's the case though, how come it's rarely successful? I've been around a lot of wrestling fans and the reaction I see (and share) when I see a race centered storyline usually consists of groans and wondering why - why are they putting this on TV, why are we wasting our time watching this, etc etc. Hassan had the misfortune of being booked into one of these storylines and I believe it cost him his job, and I couldn't help but wonder how much say he had in doing the storyline in the first place.

Drawing heat is good - it works and it brings the people back for more. But is there a such thing as bad heat, when the hatred or disgust is so much that you turn off the TV and/or question why you're a fan in the beginning? In my opinion, there definitely is, and it's just curious to see that what made The Sheik could also turn around and kill what could've been a good career for someone else like Hassan.


Anonymous said...

I think the Sheik's gimmick worked as opposed to other characters based on racial stereotypes is that the crowds hater him not only because he supposedly from Iran and there were troubles with Iran at the time, but because he was truly a good heel on his own. He was a cheater, he was a coward, he was a dirty fighter, and he always seemed to get away with either a win or a DQ. That in itself is sufficient to draw heat from a crowd. Then throw in the Iran angle, the praying beside the ring, the costuming, and so forth, and you have an automatic spark to kick off heat for an already decent heel.
The negative ethnic angle has been tried many times with mixed results, and I think this is mostly due to relying too much on the stereotype, and not actually developing the character to go achieve the ends. For example, the Unamericans were heels, and they did ok, but eventually faded away. What did we know about them? They were French-Canadian, and didn't like America. Ok, well at the time cultural wisdom in the US didn't like France much either, so that's your easy heat right there. But what else? They were good wrestlers, not exactly cheaters, or cowards, but decent enough, who were cocky and antagonistic, and that's about it. They were able to get the cheap heat due to their ethnic angle, but they couldn't sustain it, as their heel characters just were not sufficiently developed to last long as heels. This may explain why such stereotypes tend to have a hit-or-miss record over the years.

Rob said...

Largely I agree with Deirdre on this -- that The Sheik manages to be a fantastic heel with his "cheating" angle by itself.

I think the ethnic angle serves to enhance his character, but doesn't stand by itself.

In other words, if you just show someone a character of some race associated with trouble right now, and have them start badmouthing America, they haven't really demonstrated that they're actually a bad person. However, by adding in a seperate gimmick (the cheating) you know they're already bad, and then you can associate that with the race.

In short: ethnic boundaries alone doesn't make someone bad, but adding ethnic boundaries to an already bad character makes them badder.

Sam Ford said...

I think you have all made some important points here, but I am going to make a clear distinction...

I think everyone here is writing about The Sheik, uncle of Sabu, who is just "The Sheik." He was the owner of the Detroit territory and was the villain who used weapons in almost every situation, the star of I Like to Hurt People, etc. Sheik is supposedly from Lebanon, perhaps, since his manger said in one of the clips he had returned to Beirut on business.

The Iron Sheik is a former WWE Champion, from Tehran, Iran, with the big moustache. We saw a clip of him when watching the early WWE stuff, with manager Classy Freddie Blassie, when The Iron Sheik had won the title from Bob Backlund. Hulk Hogan defeated him for the title. The Iron Sheik is another legendary figure in wrestling and makes an appearance early in Drawing Heat on the Tunney card.

While most of you are talking about THE Sheik, some of the comments seem to be directed at The Iron Sheik. But the two are very different, although both important, figures in wrestling history.