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FOUNDING FATHER OF HARDCORE: MEMORIES OF THE SHEIK IN MONTREAL

If you mention the name "The Sheik" to most younger wrestling fans, they'll probably think you're referring to The Iron Sheik of WWF(E) fame. Best known for his great run in the mid-1980's during Vince McMahon's big company expansion, the Iranian, while an accomplished wrestler and box office draw in his own right, would have need several lifetimes in order to even approach the fame and notoriety of the man who truly made the "crazed Arab heel" characterization such an enormous international success.

Ed Farhat, the original Sheik and one of the founding fathers of the ultra-violent "hardcore" grappling style, passed away last January 18th in Williamston, Michigan of heart failure. He was 78 years old. To say that he was a pro wrestling superstar in his heyday of the 1960's and 1970's would be a gross understatement. During the era of the territorial system, within which it was extremely difficult to achieve major status on a national level, perhaps only Andre The Giant was as big a draw in as many markets as Farhat was. Even though his most consistent box office success took place in Toronto and Detroit (a territory he would eventually own), he also had many tremendous runs in Montreal spanning through several decades.

Since definitive records are spotty from the era, I'm not exactly certain whether or not The Sheik ever made his way into town under Eddie Quinn in the 1950's, but I think it's safe to assume that he did. After all, anybody who was anybody in wrestling at the time was booked by Quinn for the Montreal Forum. However, Farhat's persona during the early days of his career was quite different than what was to evolve later on down the road. Back then, the mysterious and exotic aesthetics of the Arabian "Sheik" gimmick (loosely based on the characterization made famous by actor Rudolph Valentino during the silent film era of the 1920's) appeared to suffice. Much like Gorgeous George before him, it wasn't so much what he did but how he looked in doing it, so to speak. The gimmick proved moderately successful, but it didn't snag Farhat much real notoriety nor many main events.

By the time the 1960's were well underway, perceptions of the Arab persona, as held by North Americans, had changed. The old "romantic" elements left over from the Valentino days gave way to the more militaristic pan-Arab nationalist image that Western citizens were growing more accustomed to - personified most strongly in then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The elements of fear and danger became associated with this image which, of course, provided an excellent opportunity for a fresh new ethnic-based heel character in a pro wrestling universe already overflowing with un-reconstructed Nazis and Cold War Russians.

Montrealers got our first taste of what was to come at the Paul Sauve Centre on October 23rd, 1967 when The Sheik defeated Gino Brito for his first International belt in a run-off bout after the two had tied for the lead in a championship tournament the previous week. This all came about because Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon had been forced to vacate the title following a very bad automobile accident. Promoter Johnny Rougeau planned to use the tournament concept as a temporary draw while deciding upon a new babyface champion to carry the company. Sure enough, two weeks later in the same building on November 6th, The Sheik dropped the belt to old mainstay Edouard Carpentier. It was a brief reign, but it firmly established Farhat's reputation as a main event player on the Montreal scene thereafter.

Although Farhat's characterization was still evolving even at that stage, several key elements were already firmly in place. Held over from his 50's image were the traditional Arab robes and "prayer ritual" he utilized to incite the fans before every match. What was markedly different about Farhat's character at this point, however, was the fear factor. Simply put, The Sheik behaved like a complete lunatic once the bell rang, and it was those elements of psychotic and unpredictable behaviour which really got people to sit up (or run for cover, if they happened to be near him at ringside) and take notice.  More...

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