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The Iron Sheik, pro wrestling legend with MN ties, dies at 81

The former WWE legend got his start in Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association (AWA) and learned the sport from local great Verne Gagne.

MINNEAPOLIS — Editor's Note: The KARE 11 Classic video above on legends of the AWA first aired in November of 2004.

The Iron Sheik, known by one generation as the professional wrestler who helped usher in "Hulkamania" by losing to Hulk Hogan in a championship match in 1984, and recognized by another generation as a vulgar comedic figure on Twitter and The Howard Stern Show, has died at the age of 81.

The wrestling legend, real name Khosrow Vaziri, was a skilled Greco-Roman amateur grappler who nearly made it to the 1968 Olympics and moved to Minnesota to help coach the 1972 Olympic team.

Following those 1972 Games Vaziri expressed interest in a career in professional wrestling, and Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association owner and promoter Verne Gagne agreed to help.

Vaziri was part of a group that would eventually achieve wrestling stardom, along with Ric Flair, Ken Patera, Jim Brunzell, and Greg Gagne. They all trained together in the fall of 1972 to spring of 1973 at Verne Gagne's farm in Chanhassen, according to Verne's son Greg.

Greg remembers watching a television taping with Vaziri in which the Iranian kept expressing doubt about the sport.

"He kept saying, 'No one can do that to me.' Then we watch a drop-kick and he says, 'No one could ever drop-kick me. This is bull****,'" Gagne recalled.

The younger Gagne said word got back to Verne at the camp, and the next time they were gathered in the ring, Verne -- dressed in slacks and wing-tipped shoes -- drop-kicked Vaziri in the chin through the ropes, knocking him unconscious.

"What do you think about wrestling now?" Verne asked Vaziri.

"OK, I understand people can take my head off," he responded.

Greg's mother Mary Gagne would feed the wrestling trainees at least once a week with a big family dinner, and at one of those dinners she said to Vaziri, "Khosrow, you know, your name should be The Iron Sheik."

And that's where the famous wrestling villain was born, Greg said.

Despite his incredible upper body strength, being able to swing two 75-pound "Persian Clubs" over his head - and his background as a sound and talented Greco-Roman wrestler - Vaziri's skills didn't transfer as well into the professional sport in the 1970s.

So in 1979, Greg Gagne says, his father sent The Iron Sheik to New York where Vincent J. McMahon ran the World Wrestling Federation, an organization that put a premium on big guys with outlandish gimmicks who utilized more of a "punching and kicking" style.

In December of 1983 The Iron Sheik became the WWF champion after defeating Bob Backlund. One month later, in a changing of the guard that would change professional wrestling and catapult the WWF to nationwide success, the Sheik was pinned by Hulk Hogan.

Hogan had just left the AWA for the WWF, much to the chagrin of Verne Gagne. For many years Sheik told a story that Verne offered him $100,000 to break Hogan's leg in that match, which would have derailed Hogan's career and prevented the rival WWF from benefitting.

According to Greg, that is just another of The Iron Sheik's embellishments.

"That's just The Sheik being The Sheik," Greg said. "He always liked to make himself look bigger than he was."

When it came to The Iron Sheik's boisterous, vulgar persona that persisted in the public realm long after his retirement from pro wrestling, Greg Gagne said it wasn't an act.

"That's how he really was," Gagne said.

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