How A Pro Wrestler Found Acceptance In A Sport Defined By MachismoPlay
I first met Sam Khandaghabadi in 2014 at the Victory Warehouse. It’s a sprawling, beat-up building that looks more auto shop than home, surrounded by a fenced-in concrete yard, in a tough part of Oakland. I’d arrived to cover Hoodslam, the ultra-popular indie Oakland wrestling show and to meet the wrestlers who lived there ahead of that Friday’s event. Sam, skinny but strong, with a mess of dark curly hair, was more than happy to play my Vice Magazine story’s leading man.
Seated on a couch, chain-smoking cigarettes in a leather jacket, Sam ran through a list of skills and credits that served as a kind of resume to start Hoodslam.
“I’ve done theater. I’ve done high school wrestling. I did martial arts. I’ve done short films. I’ve done adult film,” Sam says. “I’ve done a lot of things.”
Sam took a pull from a cigarette, probably to hide a grin, as I excitedly scratched the quote into my notebook.
Last November, I met Sam again for a profile in the San Francisco Chronicle. As we walked to grab dinner, the wrestler admitted that the character I had written about a half decade earlier was an illusion. The person Sam showed me now was different: less anxious, more open and far from a leading man.
Escaping To Fantasy Worlds
Sam was born in Alpharetta, Georgia, the youngest of two brothers in a white Southern town. It was a place where an Iranian American last name like Khandaghabadi was commented upon by students and teachers alike. Sam had a cousin who wore a cross every day. He said he liked the way it looked.
"But it was for protection. Not from the devil, but from people around him," Sam says. "He knew that — being how he looked — if he wore a cross, people would give him less grief. You know, much of my family around then would change their names from 'Mahmoud' to 'Mike.' From 'Freidoun' to 'David.' From 'Farokh' to 'Frank.' "
That feeling of being other was accentuated when Sam’s mother passed away from cancer when Sam was just 10. Sam retreated inward, in a home now overflowing with grief.
"There were three bodies in there: me, my brother and my father. But there might as well have been no one, as far as the feelings going on inside those walls," Sam says. "You know, I usually wouldn't tell people my mother had passed. Once they knew, like, OK, but it wasn't information I'd give up freely. Because I thought, once I did, people would pity me.
"And that was something I was afraid of. I thought it was more important for me to look tough, or look fierce, or for someone to think I'm a jerk, or a clown or anything other than someone that needed help. But that's what I was. I was all of those things, but I was also, deep down, someone that needed some help. And I didn't want anyone to know that."
"I went into these fantasy worlds, where people had problems, but they were able to beat them in 30 pages or in a 15-minute match."Sam Khandaghabadi
So Sam turned elsewhere:
“I went into comic books. I went into wrestling," Sam says. "I went into these fantasy worlds, where people had problems, but they were able to beat them in 30 pages or in a 15-minute match."
When Sam was in eighth grade, the Khandaghabadis moved to Northern California’s East Bay. Sam found there was a value in seeming like you didn’t care and got tough and wild — sunglasses, baseball hats, a beard, and whatever drugs were in reach.
“I was shaving my head, I was wearing shirts and jeans every day. Not a lot of color, that's for sure," Sam says. "But it was very masculine, hyper masculine, because it's what people were starting to like about me ... my aggressive tendencies, my chest hair, my physical capabilities, they all geared themselves towards more of a masculine persona."
Living Anti-Arab Racism
At age 14, after years of watching pro wrestling and attending local shows, Sam started to train to be a pro wrestler. At 16, Sam got to perform for the first time in the ring.
"They told me on day one that I would be a sheik character," Sam says. "I would be a Middle Eastern villain.”
For decades, Middle Eastern wrestlers — or even wrestlers that could pass as Middle Eastern — had been cast as sheiks: cartoonish, America-hating villains.
“And they actually had all these creative names like 'Sheik Osama,' or 'Sim Sim Salabim.' I'll never forget that one," Sam says. "All kinds of fun ideas of what my name should be. But I, luckily, put my foot down on there and was able to choose a name I was not so embarrassed by: Sheik Khan Abadi, which is a play off of my last name, Khandaghabadi.”
As a young wrestling fan attending shows, Sam remembers pulling a hat low when Sheik characters would perform. After 9/11, it felt unsafe to be Middle Eastern at the events. Now, right at the start of a career, Sam was being asked to speak in Farsi during matches, to rile up the crowd, and even once to use the back of a burqa-wearing female wrestler as a step into the ring. Sam refused.
But Sam played the heel, the villain, and the crowd’s anti-Arab racism curdled jeers into something darker.
“Any time I tried to watch someone like me, I got to watch thousands of people boo them, throw trash at them," Sam says. "And then I got to live it. They tried to fight me, they followed me to my car after the show.”
Traditional wrestling was never going to be the right fit.
A Risky Idea
Sam graduated high school in 2003 and worked odd jobs to make rent for nearly a decade, picking up shifts at cannabis clubs, the North Face outlet, and as a pizza delivery driver. It was seven years in limbo — working to pay rent and wrestling on the side.
“I found a warehouse," Sam says. "I ate beef jerky and tiny snacks. I had more cigarettes than food.”
Then, in April 2010, Sam borrowed a wrestling ring from a friend and hosted the first Hoodslam. This would be a show where anything went — where wrestlers could lean into their inner nerd, or their inner stoner, or their inner weirdo. It would be vulgar, oddball, transgressive wrestling, just as likely to feature a cocaine-fueled character named "Drugz Bunny" as grown men wrestling as Super Nintendo characters. The first few Hoodslams were free.
"It went from maybe 20 people the first few shows, to over 200 people and, like, overflowing out of that venue within a year," Sam says.
Once they started charging for tickets, the crowds only grew. These days, the wrestlers jokingly refer to it as “The Accidental Phenomenon.”
"There was a lot of word of mouth that we were doing something different, and it wasn't the wrestling that people thought they knew," Sam says.
"Any time I tried to watch someone like me, I got to watch thousands of people boo them, throw trash at them. And then I got to live it."Sam Khandaghabadi
Hoodslam events filled with ideas that would never survive the WWE writing room. There were Iron Lung matches, where a wrestler had to finish a blunt before the other got up off the mat. There were strange cosplay fantasies ripped from wrestlers’ favorite '80s movies or from video games. But at the end of 2014, Sam had an idea that felt transgressive and scary, even for Hoodslam. Sam knew it felt risky; it must be good.
Sam had been wrestling as female characters more and more often during Hoodslam shows and had heard some other wrestlers mention they were interested in trying it as well. What if they did a drag wrestling night?
Sam wanted a night of wrestling — a sport defined by over-the-top performative masculinity — where fans and wrestlers alike would be their most feminine selves. So, Sam pitched the idea to the locker room of wrestlers. It would be called “Femmed Out.”
“I wanted them to all step out of their comfort zone and do something different that, one, would be fun for us," Sam says. "But, two, would let all of our audience know that we want people to come however they are, and this was a big part of that.”
During the run-up to the first Femmed Out, Sam went out on the town in drag for the first time.
"You know, at the time, I considered it research," Sam says.
But questions about gender had been present for as long as Sam could remember. There were many days spent looking in the mirror and thinking. There was a childhood dream about a rainbow you could walk under and come out the other gender.
A few months later, Sam was asked to perform at a burlesque show in Alameda in drag and came along with a handful of wrestling friends. Later in the night, Sam was working the Hoodslam merch booth. A man stared from across the room. He’d been aggressive with some of the other wrestlers earlier at the event.
“Eventually, I told the person I was dating at the time, like, 'I'm just gonna go outside,' " Sam recalls. "And, as we turned to leave, he followed me, he grabbed the wig off my head. Him and a bunch of friends kind of surrounded me. And, as I kind of cocked back to unload a punch on him, security grabbed me in a chokehold and dragged me outside. I didn't understand what had gone wrong."
Decision, And Announcement
For three years, the thoughts about gender had gotten louder and louder. But this violence, Sam admits, worked to quiet them. Then, at the beginning of 2018, Sam spoke with a trans friend, trying to stay vague to keep some cover. Sam wanted to know how you know for certain that you’re trans.
"And what he said to me was, 'If you feel like you can't live in this body another moment, like you would rather die than be who you are, then that's how you know. And if otherwise, you're probably not.' And I did not feel that way," Sam says. "So, I kind of put it back to the side and ignored it for a little bit. And, you know, I had all these other things I wanted to kill myself about, so that one hadn't made its way to the front yet."
But those looks in the mirror and the thoughts that never seemed to go away were getting impossible to ignore.
Last March, Sam, wearing a crop top, tights and an orange wig, had just finished a match in front of a packed crowd at the Oakland Metro Operahouse. The wrestler was 10 years into running one of the most successful indie shows on the West Coast, and it was International Women’s Day. It felt as good a time as any, so Sam grabbed the mic.
Sam had started hormone replacement therapy in December 2018. Now, under the stage lighting, standing along the edge of the ring, she came out publicly as trans.
'Broken People Can Be Right Sometimes, Too'
When Sam wrestles these days at shows other than Hoodslam, especially outside of Oakland, she now hears the insults, gay slurs and more. She hears the whispers in locker rooms.
Some promoters make fans come up and apologize, but Sam says she doesn’t need it. She’s had a lifetime of playing the heel — in Alpharetta, in the East Bay and then in the ring.
She knows some people hate her for what she is. But she also feels like herself, maybe for the first time.
"You know, it washed over me," Sam says. "I can't really say. But there was a light and I finally stepped into it."
“If you could talk to yourself as a 17-year-old, 16-year-old starting out in wrestling, what advice would you give?" I ask. "What have you learned?"
“I’d tell myself to trust myself,” Sam answers. “It's hard when you think you're broken, and you don't trust your own decisions. But broken people can be right sometimes, too. And they can heal, more importantly.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hoodslam hasn’t held a live event since March. Sam Khandaghabadi says she's not sure what the future holds for her wrestling series, but she hopes that her days in the ring are not over.
This segment aired on May 30, 2020.