“If this be play-acting, then it is play-acting of the highest order and comes close to being the best entertainment in town. To cavil at it for being play-acting is to cavil at a Booth or a Barrymore for getting up off the floor and putting on his street clothes after the final curtain has been lowered on ‘Hamlet.’”
- Joel Sayre, “The Pullman Theseus,” The New Yorker, March 5, 1932
Over the past century, the world of professional wrestling has been defined by its cast of sinister heels (that’s grappler lingo for “bad guys”), the most notable of which have often been classic villains with a foreigner gimmick – an exotic menace from a faraway land meant to provoke the crowd and stir up both sympathy and motivation for an All-American babyface hero.
In the earliest years of the sport, as the deft wrestling analyst and aficionado David Shoemaker recently wrote in The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling, “The wrestling matches mythologized the athletes and wrote the stories themselves. The audiences need only watch the shows to see the symbolism. The promoters were putting on morality plays filtered though the lens of nationalism, with heroes constructed specifically to appeal to the ethnic origins of the fans.”
From the turn of the century’s “Russian Lion” George Hackenschmidt to the Cold War’s “Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff (born Oreal Perras in Montreal, Canada) and Nikolai Volkoff (really Josip Peruzović from Croatia), anti-American baddies have long sold the spectacle to the public.
German characters like Hans Schmidt, Karl Von Hess, and Fritz Von Erich (Guy Lerose, Frank Fakety, and Jack Adkisson, respectively) were ubiquitous in the decades following World War II, as were devious Japanese heels like Toru Tanaka, Mr. Fuji, and the Great Kabuki. Even an “Ultra Australian” tag team by the name of The Fabulous Kangeroos riled up crowds across the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. There’s also Colonel DeBeers, the mid-1980s pro-Apartheid Afrikaner wrestler. Yes, really.
Perhaps the most fearsome and sublimely Orientalist gimmick, however, has been that of the evil Middle Easterner donning a dastardly, oversized mustache, shaved head, and stereotypically ethnic garb from keffiyehs to pointy boots. But before there was Ed Farhat’s The Sheik, Sheik (or, alternatively, General) Adnan Al-Kaissey, Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri’s The Iron Sheik, and Solofa Fatu Jr.’s masked Sultan, there was Harry Ekizian, known in the annals of wrestling history as Ali Baba.
In a magnificent new profile of Ekizian, published by the independent, online Armenian Diaspora news, commentary, and culture outlet Ianyan Magazine, journalist Liana Aghajanian recounts the harrowing adventures – both tragic and inspiring – of a survivor of genocide and slavery turned world wrestling champion.
Harry was born Arteen Ekizian in the Black sea port town of Samsun in 1901 to a wealthy Armenian tobacco merchant who worked for the American Tobacco Company. His father Krikor traveled back and forth to America from Turkey, eventually earning American citizenship – a crucial precedent which later contributed to Ekizian’s safe passage to the U.S.
When the systematic attempt orchestrated by the Ottoman government to wipe out its Armenian, Assyrian and Greek populations began, Ekizian was only 14 years old.
Ekizian lost most of his immediate family in horrors that followed; his father hanged, brother starved, mother and younger sister disappeared. Then things got worse. Ekizian was caught and sold into slavery, languishing in captivity and forced to do hard labor for four years until he miraculously escaped and reunited with an older sister in Constantinople. From there, with the help of an uncle in Massachusetts, Ekizian managed to make his way to the United States in 1920.
After working in his uncle’s fish market, he joined the U.S. Navy, serving two terms during the Roaring Twenties. During Ekizian’s active military service, Aghajanian writes, “he passionately took up the sport that forever changed the course of his life.” After winning several Fleet Championship titles, Ekizian earned the title of World Champion Navy Wrestler after an international bout in Copenhagen and was “honored at a White House Reception in 1927 by President Calvin Coolidge.”
Ekizian relocated to Pasadena, California, where he worked in an auto body shop, and married and started a family. In 1932, a promoter in Phoenix gave him his first professional wrestling match. His athleticism and swarthy Middle Eastern looks led inevitably to a short-lived career in nearby Hollywood, playing monstrous, uncredited roles in Erle Kenton’s “Island of Lost Souls” (starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi) in 1932 and W.C. Fields’ “Man of the Flying Trapeze” in 1935. In a little known film called “Registered Nurse,” Ekizian portrayed a character known as “El Humid the Bone Crushing Turk.”
At the same time, the combination of sport and performance – from the squared circle to the big screen, and back again – helped Ekizian establish himself as a undeniable force in the Trust Era of professional wrestling, when opportunistic and ambitious promoters like Jack Curley, Billy Sandow, Toots Mondt, Joe Stecher, “Strangler” Ed Lewis, Jack Pfefer, Paul Bowser, Rudy Miller, Wladek Zbyszko, and Earl Caddock formed various profit-sharing consortia, dominated the industry, and expanded wrestling’s popularity from coast to coast. Ekizian wrestled under various names, including the Terrible Turk, Break ‘Em Neck Harry, and the Krushing Kurd.
Following a bout in Greeley, Colorado on March 11, 1935, where he wrestled under the moniker Ali Yumed, Ekizian’s opponent Tex Wright dropped dead. A report in the Colorado Springs Gazette two days later noted, however, “The Weld County coroner, who performed an autopsy, said Wright was suffering chronic myocarditis, and should have not engaged in wrestling because of his heart condition.”
Ekizians’ star continued to rise. In 1936, he began wrestling for Adam Weissmuller (cousin of Olympian and Hollywood Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller), adopted a menacing Arab gimmick, and changed his ring name to Ali Baba. His instant popularity around Detroit, with its large Middle Eastern immigrant community, ensured his success and it was there, on April 25, 1936, that Ali Baba defeated reigning World Heavyweight Champion Dick Shikat for the title in an infamous shoot match (that is, the outcome was not predetermined). He repeated the feat in an 53-minute long bout before 7,000 screaming fans the following month at Madison Square Garden in New York City, thus gaining official recognition as undisputed World Champion by the notorious New York State Athletic Commission.
“The Armenian Assassin makes Poor Shikat Bleed,” screamed a headline in the Pittsburgh Press, while the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described Baba as weighing in at 212 pounds (compared to Shikat’s 227), “190 lbs of which is said to be stored in his angry mustache.”
Though Ali Baba lost by disqualification to Dave Levin in Newark, New Jersey on June 12, 1936 (in a purported double-cross by promoter Toots Mondt), he officially dropped his title to Everette Marshall later that month in Columbus, Ohio. He lost to Marshall again on November 20 of that year in Chicago, consequently losing all claim to the championship.
His story, however, does not end there, and not just because Ekizian continued to main event wrestling cards across the country and around the world for years to come. Aghajanian writes,
But while his persona helped define an era of professional character wrestling that eventually permeated pop culture, it was only part of who Ekizian was. A seasoned rancher, doting family man and steadfast Christian who always credited God with his survival from slave to “strong man,” Ekizian’s agile hands once used to “crush” his opponents became legendary in California’s Central Valley as he reinvented himself into a masseur, healing the aches and pains of migrant workers and business men alike.
Retiring to a citrus ranch in Dinuba, California after years on the road (and a divorce and second marriage to his beloved Henrietta), Ekizian lived out his days surrounded by family and friends. He died of a stroke on November 16, 1981 in San Luis Obispo. Against all odds – from genocide to slavery to the outrageous excesses of life in pro wrestling – Ekizian had made it to 80 years old, a life full of unspeakable sorrow and improbable success, from bondage to belt-holder.
Writes Aghajanian in her touching tribute to the Armenian titan, “It wasn’t just Ekizian’s strength, but an unflinching tenacity for life through both tragedy and triumph that truly made him a survivor.”
While many still question the authenticity of professional wrestling, there can be no disputing that Harry Ekizian, the legendary Ali Baba, was – as current wrestling tycoon Vince McMahon would say – the real deal.
 An alternative history compiled by wrestling researcher Steve Yohe for his 2002 self-published “Ali Baba Record Book” claims Ekizian was a Pasadena native, having graduated from Pasadena High School in 1917 and attended Pasadena Junior College as a wrestler in 1919 before relocating across the country to Boston in 1920 to work in his uncle’s fish store. After struggling to make name for himself on the wrestling circuit, mostly due to his relatively small stature, he joined the U.S. Navy in 1923 and wrestled his inaugural Navy match against “Tarzan” Knight of Delaware on July 1, 1924.
Naturally, when discussing the larger-than-life personalities and mythologized personas of professional wrestling, one general rule applies: “Print the legend.”