I first met Sam Khandaghabadi in 2014, at Oakland’s Victory Warehouse. It’s a sprawling, beat-up building that looks more auto shop than home, surrounded by a fenced-in concrete yard, on a tough stretch of San Pablo Avenue. But the ragged facade hid within it a teenage dream: two vintage arcade games, a Sega Genesis and a wrestling ring. I’d arrived to cover Hoodslam, the indie Oakland wrestling show, for Vice, and meet the wrestlers who lived there. Khandaghabadi, skinny but strong, with a mess of dark curly hair, was more than happy to play the story’s leading man.

Khandaghabadi, who founded the vulgar, nerdy, transgressive wrestling show in 2010, wore a leather jacket and chain-smoked cigarettes on a couch. It was pitch-perfect for Hoodslam: dirtbag rock ’n’ roll mixed with more than a dash of nerd-culture ephemera.

The wrestling event, which begins with Joe “Broseph” Brody pouring booze in fans’ mouths and telling everyone to “check your f— at the door,” is just as likely to feature a cocaine-fueled character named Drugz Bunny as grown men wrestling as Super Nintendo characters. At one point, while trying to explain the resume needed to start Hoodslam, Khandaghabadi told me, “I’ve done theater, I’ve done high school wrestling, I’ve done martial arts, I was in an erotic film — I’ve done a lot of things.” Khandaghabadi took a pull from a cigarette, perhaps to hide a grin, as I scratched the quote into my notebook.

In November of 2019, I meet Khandaghabadi again, at an apartment a few blocks north of the warehouse. “It’s a bit embarrassing now, but that was exactly how I wanted you to see me,” Khandagabadi says of that first meeting, as we walk to a nearby deli to grab dinner. A half decade later, the person Khandaghabadi shows me is different: less anxious, more open — and far from a leading man. The wrestler now lives openly as a trans woman.

Sam Khandaghabadi, known in the ring as Dark Sheik, bodyslams D-Rogue while facing off during a Hoodslam event at the Oakland Metro Operahouse. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019

Sam Khandaghabadi, known in the ring as Dark Sheik, bodyslams D-Rogue while facing off during a Hoodslam event at the Oakland Metro Operahouse.

(Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019 | San Francisco Chronicle)

About a year ago, Khandaghabadi began hormone treatment. In February 2019, she came out to a locker room full of Hoodslam wrestlers before their weekly event. “It was very matter of fact, just, ‘Here’s what’s up,’” recalls A.J. Kirsch, who wrestles as Broseph. When Khandaghabadi finished speaking, the wrestlers broke into a round of applause.

To those familiar with the mainstream wrestling world, that may come as something of a surprise. The sport — with its strange brew of hyper-masculinity, makeup, masks and tights — is traditionally unfriendly to queerness. With rural roots and a certain amount of misogyny and homophobia seemingly baked in, much of the wrestling circuit is a dangerous place to be trans.

But the show Khandaghabadi built has space for a trans wrestler. Hoodslam took off as a part of the bizarro Oakland variety show “Tourette’s Without Regrets.” It has a recurring drag event that’s a fan favorite. It was conceived and has gestated in an Oakland where everything but boring is welcome.

Sam Khandaghabadi (center), known in the ring as Dark Sheik, goes over her routine with wrestler HBKen (right) backstage before the start of a Hoodslam event at Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Sam Khandaghabadi (center), known in the ring as Dark Sheik, goes over her routine with wrestler HBKen (right) backstage before the start of a Hoodslam event at Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland.

(Jessica Christian / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Khandaghabadi — who works for herself and lives in the Bay Area — feels her transition has been easier than most. But she still exists in a male-dominated industry where machismo is currency. She’s had to enter locker rooms full of whispers, and she’s gotten stared down by airport security far too many times. She’s had fans yell at her and well-intentioned colleagues tell her they thought the whole cross-dressing thing “was a stunt.” She’s had to stand under a spotlight and announce herself to the world again and again.

“I thought I might have to stop wrestling. That I’d take some years off and come back when it was done,” Khandaghabadi says. “But then I kind of was like, ‘Nope! We’re just gonna do this in front of everybody week to week. Real time. Watch a transition happen.’ So, that’s been fun ...”

The wrestling ring is public, exposed and sometimes hostile. And yet, as it turns out, it’s the perfect arena for Khandaghabadi to transition. Because she’s an entertainer. She’s a wrestler. This is what she does.

Sam Khandaghabadi (second left), known in the ring as Dark Sheik, chats with fellow wrestlers backstage while handing out paychecks before the start of a Hoodslam event at Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Sam Khandaghabadi (second left), known in the ring as Dark Sheik, chats with fellow wrestlers backstage while handing out paychecks before the start of a Hoodslam event at Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland.

(Jessica Christian / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Khandaghabadi started wrestling on the independent circuit while she was still a student at Albany High School. She graduated in 2003, and worked odd jobs to make rent for nearly a decade. She wrestled as Persian Tiger and then the Shadow and then, as so often is the case for Iranian American wrestlers, as a villainous sheik.

After a rough year in Florida trying to “make it,” Khandaghabadi returned to the Bay Area. In April 2010, she borrowed a ring from a friend and hosted the first Hoodslam during an underground metal show at the Victory Warehouse. From there, the show — in wrestling terms, the promotion — grew steadily. Perhaps too steadily: A year in, the landlord told her the crowds and after-parties were attracting police attention and had to stop. But soon after, in June 2011, Khandaghabadi brought Hoodslam to “Tourette’s Without Regrets.” The wrestlers performed for 20 minutes during the four-hour show, but it was enough to catch the eye of the Oakland Metro Opera House’s owner. He asked if Khandaghabadi would want to host a Hoodslam event monthly, as part of Oakland’s First Friday block party.

The ring is cast in shadow against a projected poster before the start of an ’80s-theme Hoodslam event at the Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019

The ring is cast in shadow against a projected poster before the start of an ’80s-theme Hoodslam event at the Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland.

(Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019 | San Francisco Chronicle)

Almost a decade later, Khandaghabadi’s beloved wrestling shows are held once a week at the 6,000-square-foot theater in Oakland’s downtown entertainment district. Now, Khandaghabadi is best known as the fan-favorite Dark Sheik. Her last non-wrestling gig was delivering pizzas in 2012. Since then, she’s made enough from Hoodslam to wrestle full time.

At our dinner in November, Khandaghabadi tells me she’s nervous about that week’s performance. The theme is “’80s for the Ladies,” and she’ll be wrestling as Alex Owens from “Flashdance.” But come Friday, the nerves are gone. Khandaghabadi struts to the ring in an oversize sweatshirt, leg warmers and long curls. She enters to “She’s a Maniac,” does the splits, shakes her hair while running in place and then takes a hit from the referee’s joint. Then she roundhouse kicks Jack Burton from “Big Trouble in Little China” in the face before pinning him for a three-count.

Sam Khandaghabadi (center), known in the ring as Dark Sheik, designates which wrestlers will match up before an ’80s theme Hoodslam event at Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019

Sam Khandaghabadi (center), known in the ring as Dark Sheik, designates which wrestlers will match up before an ’80s theme Hoodslam event at Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland.

(Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019 | San Francisco Chronicle)

If mainstream wrestling exists in the space between sport, soap opera and action movie, Hoodslam lives between the circus, a bong rip and an inside joke. It could only have happened in the Oakland of the 2010s; it’s hard to imagine another space where Khandaghabadi could transition in the ring.

“I don’t know that any other promotion would accept it and would celebrate it as much as Hoodslam does,” says Kirsch, a.k.a. Broseph. “Oakland is queer and kinky, and in an era when thinking outside the box is completely cliche, Oakland has completely thrown the box out the window and is, like, inventing a shape that doesn’t even exist yet. It’s like, ‘F— the box!’”

Sam Khandaghabadi, a.k.a. Dark Sheik, sits in the center of the ring after defeating Johnny Drinko Butabi during an ’80s-theme Hoodslam event at Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland.

(Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019 | San Francisco Chronicle)

Khandaghabadi sits on a computer chair in her living room, in a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks north of the Victory Warehouse. She wears a green sweater, jeans, boots and heavy eyeshadow. Her nails alternate colors — blue, black, silver — but the paint’s begun to chip. She’s 34 and has lived alone for half a decade. In the Victory Warehouse, the months blurred together in a cloud of smoke, liquor and video games. But moving here, with a consistent source of income for the first time, she’s had the emotional and physical space to grow.

Khandaghabadi has known instability for as long as she can remember. When she was 5, a quiet Iranian American kid in the majority-white town of Alpharetta, Ga., her mother was diagnosed with cancer. “Even before she passed, things were so tenuous. She was sick more than she was healthy in my memory,” Khandaghabadi tells me. “To look at it now, it was like the rest of my life: tiptoeing chaos, ready to fall apart at any time.”

When she died, Khandaghabadi was 9, a fourth-grader in a home now filled with testosterone and grief. It was just three of them then: Khandaghabadi, her older brother, and a heartbroken father. She was shattered and felt like she wore it like a scarlet letter. “I tried to hide the hurt feelings so people wouldn’t pity me. I didn’t want to be seen as weak or pitiable,” she says. “I didn’t want people to see I was broken. I wanted them to think I was just like them.”

Wrestler Drugz Bunny prepares to enter the ring during a Hoodslam event at Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019

Wrestler Drugz Bunny prepares to enter the ring during a Hoodslam event at Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland.

(Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019 | San Francisco Chronicle)

Every time Khandaghabadi opened up, it seemed as if people would misunderstand her grief or laugh at her interests. So she became quiet and she became tough. In eighth grade, her family moved to the East Bay. In her new home, she learned there was social currency in acting like you didn’t give a shit.

As a preteen, she’d been teased about her strange Iranian last name. But by the time she reached high school, she says, her grief and her heritage were no longer the things that made her stand out. “People, at that point, didn’t see me as Middle Eastern. I was doing a lot of drugs then. I was wild. I had other personality traits that were kind of overpowering,” she says, starting to grin. “I was a bit of a character in high school. Is it obvious?”

After graduating, Khandabadi started meeting kindred spirits in the independent wrestling scene. By 2010, she’d convinced a handful of her wrestling friends to move to a warehouse in Oakland and start an underground show. She’d finally found her people. She’d yet to find herself.

At the end of 2014, Khandaghabadi had an idea. She’d been wrestling as female characters 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?

“I felt like it was good and it was time. Sometimes I like to do things that scare me like that specifically,” she says. “I knew it was a good idea because I had never seen it done before.”

Khandaghabadi called the night Femmed Out, and invited fans “to get ‘femmed out’ with us, whatever that means to you.” She wanted to create a show that was inconceivable to the conventional wrestling world. She also hoped it’d be a space where queer and questioning fans could explore.

But it also served another purpose, one that even she wasn’t fully cognizant of at the time. During the runup to the first Femmed Out, she went out on the town in drag for the first time, casting it as something like research. She headed out alone to a rock show in Alameda. It was thrilling and terrifying. “I don’t know how much was going through my head at the time, but I knew it was exciting,” she says. “I got a high from it, like a jittery high.”

She started exploring with cross-dressing more over the next couple years. There were rewards, and consequences: One night, while working a merch table at a burlesque show in Oakland, she felt someone giving her the evil eye from across the room. Eventually, Khandaghabadi turned to her girlfriend and they decided to leave. “I was just like, ‘Whatever, let’s go. I’m sick of this guy staring at me,’” Khandaghabadi says, “And then he jumped and ripped the wig off me. Another of his friends grabbed me. There were like four of them.”

A security guard broke up the fight by putting Khandaghabadi in a chokehold and bringing her outside. Khandaghabadi has always been a fighter — she’d built a tough exterior in middle school and had burnished it ever since. But the violence frightened her. She says it may have slowed down her transition.

It wasn’t until 2018 that she started to let herself really consider that she might be trans. She’d floated the question to trans friends throughout the years. One responded, “If you think you’ll kill yourself if you’d have to be a man anymore, then you’re trans. But otherwise you’re not,” which made her doubt she was. For Khandaghabadi, it was more gradual — she knew she felt anxious and uncomfortable and a step removed from her life. She knew something was missing, that she wasn’t happy, and that the person in the mirror wasn’t her. She’d felt suicidal at times, sure, but she didn’t hate everything about her male body.

Finally, in June of 2018, she just stopped fighting what she’d known for a while. She started hormone replacement therapy at the end of that year. At a Hoodslam event in March 2019, she came out publicly, in the ring.


Wrestler Sam Khandaghabadi (right), known in the ring as Dark Sheik, slaps Johnny Drinko Butabi during an ’80s-theme Hoodslam event at Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019

Wrestler Sam Khandaghabadi (right), known in the ring as Dark Sheik, slaps Johnny Drinko Butabi during an ’80s-theme Hoodslam event at Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland.

(Jessica Christian / The Chronicle 2019 | San Francisco Chronicle)

The thing that strikes me most about Khandaghabadi when I meet her again in November 2019, five years later, is her calm. The first time, chain-smoking in that warehouse, the wrestler before me was a tightly wound coil. But in her apartment, she crosses and uncrosses her feet at the ankles. She makes eye contact and spins on her chair. She’s willing to think, to feel, to explore.

“I felt like I was in extremes. Now I feel better all the time,” she says. “Sometimes I still have negative feelings, you know, I’m not blind to life. But just my ability to live — I have so much more of it. It’s not like it’s new. It’s just more easily accessible. Before it was buried under all these other things.”

The ring is a space where wrestlers don masks, costumes and makeup, where they disappear into an act. And yet, it’s also a place where they have to be completely exposed. The performance doesn’t work unless the wrestler is fully present. When she wrestles these days, especially outside of Oakland, Khandaghabadi now hears the insults — “kick that thing’s ass,” gay slurs and more. She hears the whispers in locker rooms. She knows some people hate her for who she is. But she also feels like herself, maybe for the first time.

Every once in a while, she wonders what her mom would’ve thought about her transition. “She might hate it. But I think she probably would like it. I don’t know. I’ll never know,” she says, blotting a tear with a napkin to keep it from ruining her makeup. “But I can’t live for the dead. Or even for the living — other than myself.”

Joseph Bien-Kahn is a freelance writer. Email: [email protected].