In 2015, Brad Balukjian opened a pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards, then he “embarked on a quest to find all the players in the pack.” Balukjian’s journey was documented in the 2020 book The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife, which Bob Costas called, “one of the most interesting and pleasing baseball-themed books I have read in quite some time. An original idea, brought to fruition with graceful prose, a sense of humor, empathy, and insight.”

Being a fan of baseball, and baseball cards, I genuinely enjoyed reading The Wax Pack, so imagine my joy when I learned that Balukjian had written a new book, The Six Pack: On the Open Road in Search of WrestleMania, which I was given an advance copy to review.

With The Wax Pack, Balukjian created a format that he attempts to replicate, to varying degrees, in The Six Pack. This time, instead of a pack of trading cards, Balukjian’s journey is inspired by his connection to The Iron Sheik, Khosrow Vaziri. At one time, Balukjian was determined to write the biography of The Iron Sheik. Balukjian spent a considerable amount of time with The Iron Sheik, or Khos as he is often referred to here, until Balukjian’s life was threatened by him, in Fayetteville, Georgia, in 2005. That is where The Six Pack begins.

But Balukjian writes that he “could never shake the feeling of unfinished business,” and after he wrote The Wax Pack, he started thinking about his original book idea, and then he decided it was “time for a new mission.” And so, rather than a traditional biography of The Iron Sheik, Balukjian decides he wants a “deeper understanding of this cultural phenomenon called professional wrestling,” and decides his focal point of this phenomenon will be the WWF show at Madison Square Garden on December 26, 1983, when The Iron Sheik defeated Bob Backlund for the WWF Heavyweight Championship.

Balukjian states that of the 26 men on the card that night, 16 were still alive at the start of his new project, and he ultimately narrowed his focus to six men to profile: Tony Atlas, Tito Santana, Sgt. Slaughter, The Masked Superstar, Jose Luis Rivera, and The Iron Sheik. Balukjian throws in Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon, for cultural relevance and significance but doesn’t elaborate on why other living wrestlers weren’t selected.

From that point on, each chapter is focused on Balukjian attempting to interview each individual, supplemented with interviews of people with personal experience with and/or knowledge about the subject, as well as good old fashioned research completed by Balukjian, some with greater success than others.

Balukjian begins with chapters focused on The Iron Sheik and himself, providing some background and context for the project at-hand, before he introduces us to the first “Six Packer,” Tony Atlas. The chapter title is “Mr. USA Tony Atlas vs. Anthony White,” and that is how most of the titles are formatted, with the wrestler’s in-ring name(s) juxtaposed with their shoot/birth name. Atlas was a good choice to begin with, because he’s a known talent who’s open to being interviewed, and he has an overall positive life story. Balukjian covers some of Atlas’ darker days, like being addicted to freebase cocaine in the late 1980s. The Atlas of 2022, when Balukjian interviews him, seems to be in a good place. Atlas does ask to be compensated for his time, and Balukjian agrees to pay him $1,000 for two days of access, on the stipulation that Balukjian will disclose the arrangement with his readers. Overall, this is a very digestible chapter.

Perhaps that’s why Balukjian follows it up with “Mr. McMahon vs. Vince McMahon.” Reading this chapter now, in early 2024, McMahon is the name that looms over much of the book. I began reading this book, and specifically this chapter, shortly after Janel Grant accused “the WWE, Vince McMahon and John Laurinaitis of a number of charges including sex trafficking,” and it was admittedly the chapter I had the least interest in reading at the time. Granted, Balukjian wrote this chapter before this lawsuit was filed, but he was writing it recently enough to include details from the Wall Street Journal story about McMahon’s “$3 million nondisclosure agreement with a forty-one-year-old WWE paralegal,” as well as some of McMahon’s prior known scandals. Balukjian makes no attempt to show McMahon in a positive light, but the chapter is grounded in reality and is supported by a wealth of research and interviews, all of which are cited in the back of the book, so I’d say it’s a fair assessment. Balukjian does not have the opportunity to interview McMahon, although not for a lack of trying, but still, I was glad when this chapter came to an end.

The next chapter, however, is a lovely section about a universally loved, respected, and maybe even underrated professional wrestler, “Tito Santana vs. Merced Solis.” In this chapter, Santana seems positioned as a Mexican American superstar, if not a superhero, especially during the peak of his career, when he had a match in each of the first nine WrestleManias. Then, when his career begins to fade, and he is less than pleased with the El Matador gimmick, he turns to his college degree and becomes a teacher. That is when Balukjian really introduces us to the man that is Merced Solis, flaws and all. Balukjian interviews Santana’s son, Michael, who talks about the challenges he experienced when he came out as gay to Santana, who initially had a difficult time accepting him, but has since come around. He also writes about Santana’s daughter, Jenni, a child from a previous relationship his wife and family didn’t know about. Jenni is an accomplished Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter, and an aspiring wrestler. While she and Merced have spoken a number of times, and Santana has met Jenni’s daughter, his granddaughter, he feels it would be too hard on his family to build a relationship right now. Balukjian writes, “Tito Santana is flawless, a perfect babyface … Merced Solis is human. Like the rest of us.”

“Sgt. Slaughter vs. Bob Remus” has a more obvious connection to The Iron Sheik than some of the other chapters, due to their initial feud in 1982, and their unlikely heel alliance in 1990. They also trained together in the early 1970s in Verne Gagne’s Minnesota camp. Unfortunately, though, “Sgt. Slaughter doesn’t want to talk to me,” Balukjian writes, “and I’m not sure why.” Balukjian travels to Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Slaughter’s hometown, where he interviews a number of people who knew a young Bob Remus before he was Sgt. Slaughter, and gets a better sense of his background, and later he goes down to Burlington, North Carolina, to find Slaughter and ask him why he maintains the story that he served in Vietnam, when all sources other than Slaughter clarify that he is not a military veteran. Balukjian visits Slaughter’s North Carolina “home base,” knocks on his door, but no one is there to answer. “Bob is AWOL,” Balukjian writes. He briefly talks to a friendly neighbor, Andy, but then he moves on to his next subject, Bill Eadie.

Eadie may be best known as Demolition Ax, but on the night The Iron Sheik defeated Bob Backlund, and therefore the reason Eadie is written about in this book, he was performing as The Masked Superstar. Balukjian makes the point that, for most of his career, “Bill has enjoyed anonymity,” because his face was typically obscured by either a mask or paint. Balukjian begins “The Masked Superstar/Demolition Ax vs. Bill Eadie ” with a story about Eadie suffering a severe allergic reaction due to ingesting mass quantities of seafood. After this, he gathers some information about Eadie’s Pennsylvania upbring, and how he got into wrestling, before we transition into Balukjian’s interview with Eadie. Similar to Tito Santana, after his wrestling career wound down, Eadie found his way into education and eventually became a teacher at a juvenile detention center. Much of Balukjian’s interview with Eadie focuses on his wrestling career and various gimmicks, until the subject turns to his 1991 lawsuit. On August 6, 1991, Eadie sued Vince McMahon and the WWF. Balukjian writes, “The WWF fought back hard as they always do,” but they eventually settled on May 7, 2001 for an unspecified amount. Eadie obviously can’t say how much he received, but Balukjian asks him if he was happy with the amount, and Eadie replies, “Oh, yes.” Eadie would never again appear on a live WWF/WWE program, but this wouldn’t be the last time Eadie tangled with McMahon and the WWE. Balukjian writes, “On July 18, 2016, Bill and fifty-nine other former WWE superstars filed a lawsuit against Vince and the WWE.” The suit was eventually dismissed in 2018. The Second Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal in 2020, and the Supreme Court “declined to review the case” in 2021, but “despite the failure,” Eadie’s attorney, Konstantine Kyros, who Balukjian interviewed for this chapter, “is proud of the things he did accomplish.” In regard to Eadie’s lawsuits against the WWE, Balukjian states, “It is likely no coincidence that Demolition is not in the WWE Hall of Fame.”

The ninth chapter, featuring the sixth and final “Six Packer,” “Conquistador #1/The Red Demon/Mac Rivera/Jose Luis Rivera/The Black Demon/Shadow #2/Juan Lopez/El Sultan vs. Marcelino Rivera” was the biggest surprise to me, in how much I enjoyed and learned from it, but it was also the subject I knew the least about beforehand. “Things get weird on islands,” Balukjian writes. For this chapter, he flew to Puerto Rico to interview Jose Luis Rivera. Balukjian writes that “very little is known about [Rivera’s] life beyond the matches he wrestled,” but he does a great job in these pages filling the missing pieces. In between the biographical information about Rivera’s upbringing in Puerto Rico and how he started in wrestling (he wanted to be the next Pedro Morales), Balukjian spends a wealth of quality time with Rivera and his family, especially his 11-year-old son, Yahir. Up until this chapter, while Balukjian managed to tell the stories of the other “Six Packers” (and Vince McMahon), and he successfully interviewed most of them (excluding Bob Remus/Sgt. Slaughter), I feel like this is the chapter where he digs in and reveals the most about his subject. Perhaps it was a result of the travel required to meet Rivera, and the isolation of the island of Puerto Rico, but this chapter feels like he spends the most time with Rivera, and it’s a pleasant surprise he did so. Balukjian writes that Rivera wrestled in the WWF for 10 years, under various gimmicks of course, but that’s an admirable feat. Balukjian calls Rivera a “jobber,” but does so like it’s a badge of honor.

The Rivera chapter concludes the body of The Six Pack, Part III: The Highspots, before Balukjian moves on to Part IV: The Finish, featuring Hulk Hogan and The Iron Sheik. Although Hogan didn’t wrestle on the card in which The Iron Sheik defeated Backlund to become the new WWF champion, Balukjian decided to include him in the book because he defeated Sheik to become champion one month later “and carried the WWF to new heights.” Not unlike McMahon, Hogan was essentially omnipresent in the 1980s, so you can’t blame him for giving Hogan his own chapter, and by doing so, Balukjian achieves something I wouldn’t have expected. Balukjian humanizes Hogan. Balukjian empathizes with Hogan, or more accurately, he empathizes with Terry Bollea. In addition to Hogan/Bollea’s biography and wrestling career, Balukjian writes about the scandals, and Hogan’s fall from grace. He doesn’t hide from the ugliness of what happened, and what Hogan did and said, but he also doesn’t wallow in the muck of it, and he also doesn’t ask readers to forgive him. Like the other subjects of the book, Balukjian interviewed a variety of individuals who know (or knew) Hogan/Bollea at different points in his life and career, including the man who currently owns his childhood home, and Balukjian says they were all “enormously helpful,” but he wants to “interview the Hulkster himself.” Although he realizes that won’t be likely. Balukjian states that Brian Blair put in a good word for him, and he received clearance from WWE to talk to him, but still he heard nothing from Hogan, so he heads to Hogan’s karaoke bar on Clearwater Beach, Florida. What follows is a very touching section of the chapter, in which Balukjian observes as fans of Hogan fill his bar, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero. Jimmy Hart is there. And finally, Hogan arrives. Fans can shake Hogan’s hand and get a selfie with him if they sing, and Balukjian considers it, but decides to just sit back and watch, and recognizes a look of peace on Hogan’s face. Balukjian writes, “Hulkamania may not be what it once was, but Bolleamania is running wilder than ever, brother.”

The final chapter, “The Main Event: Javanmardi” (a Farsi word Balukjian introduces early on that roughly translates to “a notion of chivalry, ethics, and humility”) circles back around to where, and to whom, the book began, Fayetteville, Georgia, and The Iron Sheik. It’s been 17 years since Balukjian’s last time here, when the Sheik threatened his life and he lost hope of writing his autobiography. But before they’re reunited, Balukjian meets The Iron Sheik’s daughter, Nikki, who shows them the “shrine” to her father and discusses her relationship with her father, and her two sisters, one of whom, Marissa, was murdered by a boyfriend, Charles Reynolds, who died of a heart attack in prison. Balukjian writes about many of the other personal and public challenges faced by The Iron Sheik since his career peak in 1984, such as his arrest with Hacksaw Jim Duggan, his battles with addiction, and his separation from his wife Caryl. It’s a lot to take, more than many of us have to face in life, and still The Iron Sheik survived. Balukjian writes about the identical twins, Jian and Page Magen, who created a viral Twitter account for the Sheik and eventually completed a documentary about him, titled The Sheik. After this, Balukjian finally comes face-to-face with The Iron Sheik, and it’s a genuinely sweet moment. Balukjian tells The Sheik about his journey, about the people he interviewed, and shows him videos he’s collected of some of the people who know him, and he feels like he’s 20 years old again, and The Sheik makes him comfortable in his home.

Balukjian writes in the Epilogue that “less than a week after I finished writing this book, Khosrow Vaziri died,” and this final brief section covers his funeral. Funny enough, this is where Balukjian finally finds Sgt. Slaughter, who spoke at the service. He thinks for a moment about telling him how hard he worked at trying to get ahold of him, but decides it’s not the right time, although he still introduces himself and shakes his hand and tells him he enjoyed what he had to say about The Iron Sheik. It’s a lovely little moment that provides some closure for the book.

I enjoyed Balukjian’s The Wax Pack when I read it in 2020 and I enjoyed The Six Pack even more. I think this book will definitely appeal more to those with fond memories of WWF’s golden ’80s, when Hulk Hogan and The Iron Sheik were featured in the main event, but it’s an approachable, accessible read that should appeal to casual wrestling fans and diehards alike, without shying away from the harsher aspects of these men’s lives. Some of the details and stories may be familiar territory, but The Six Pack is a well-written and researched document of some of the biggest names in professional wrestling, and where they are now. First Balukjian wrote about baseball cards, then he wrote about professional wrestling, and I greatly look forward to whatever his next project might be.