‘Russian Bear’ Embraces New Life

Charleston Post and Courier – April 23, 2000
By Mike Mooneyham

The scenario was a familiar one.

The “Russian Bear,” Ivan Koloff, taking one of his patented bumps, with the “Russian Nightmare,” Nikita Koloff, at his side.

The action, however, wasn’t taking place in front of a packed building of wrestling fans. It was five years ago at a small Assembly of God church in Kannapolis, N.C., where the two former wrestling partners reunited for a different type of occasion.

And, like a good teammate, Nikita was ready to catch Ivan when he fell.

The reunion was set up when Nikita, who became a born-again Christian in 1993, asked Ivan to attend a revival that featured noted evangelist Terrence Rose. Koloff accepted, somewhat reluctantly, but soon found himself at the front of the aisle.

“Actually I don’t remember going up front. I just found myself there,” says Koloff, who was raised Roman Catholic in his native Canada.

“He was praying with the people, and they were being sl

ain in the spirit. I had heard the expression before and I knew you were supposed to be born again, but I was never pushed in the Roman Catholic Church. I had left the church when I was 16 or 17 years old.

“I remember thinking to myself that I hated to disappoint the guy, but there was no way I was going down, even though my heart was telling me that I needed the Lord. He (Rose) came up to me and asked me if he could pray with me. He started praying, and boy, I was on my backside just like that. Nikita caught me. I guess that was the Lord’s way of just letting me know through the Holy Spirit that `I’m for real, man.'”

Ivan Koloff today is a far cry from the menacing Muscovite mat terror who for three decades spoke in a raspy Russian voice, wore heavy stomping boots, toted his trademark Russian chain, and boasted the cross and sickle emblazoned on his ring garb. There’s no mistaking the beard, shaved dome and jagged forehead that serves as a testament to his brand of wrestling. But the inner Koloff has changed.

“God can take the bad and turn it into good,” he says.

Koloff should know. Ivan “The Terrible” was as bad (as in “villainous”) as they came – at least inside the ring. Few performers generated more heel heat than Koloff, who began his pro wrestling career in 1961 and was one of the top draws for Crockett Promotions during stints ranging from 1974-89. One of his biggest runs was during the mid-’80s when Koloff, along with “nephew Nikita,” was leader of a “Soviet” contingent that included Krusher Khruschev (Barry Darsow) and Vladimir Petrov (Al Blake). None, of course, were actually Russian, but the gimmick was an unqualified success.

Koloff, who lives in Greenville, N.C., with his wife and 17-year-old daughter, has unofficially retired several times over the past four years, and wrestles now on an occasional basis.

“Seems like I was the youngest one in the dressing room just a couple of years ago. All of a sudden, I’m not in the dressing room anymore.”

Koloff says he enjoyed his career but feels fortunate to have survived it.

“I feel so very thankful that something serious didn’t happen to me. It sure could have,” says Koloff, who permanently etched his name in wrestling history when he dethroned Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF title 29 years ago.

“I can remember waking up going 70 miles an hour in a ditch. I was in a DWI where I totaled my car, and a telephone pole went through the windshield. Crazy stuff. A lot of us weren’t too smart.”

Koloff also suffered numerous injuries from his time in the ring, the most serious being a back injury that plagued him for most of his career, suffered when he took a back body drop and landed on a bad spot in the ring during a 1973 tag-team match in Minnesota in which he teamed with Ray Stevens against Wahoo McDaniel and Billy Robinson. He’s also suffered broken shoulders, torn biceps, knee injuries and dislocations, and has been attacked by rabid fans on many occasions.

“It’s a wonder I’m alive,” says Koloff. “I’ve suffered a lot of injuries from all the bumps and the matches. I thank God for that because he’s got a purpose for me and for all us all, and I’m glad to be part of it. I’ve had partners who have had knives stuck in their backs by fans just because they were mad. I’ve had huge rocks thrown through the windshield of my car that have nearly knocked me out. I’ve had nails sticking out of my head that were put there by fans. I’ve been in riots where fans filled the ring with flying chairs, and you had to pick up a chair to defend yourself.”

Koloff’s life is much more relaxed now. He has done fund raising for the Children’s Miracle Network on weekends for the past eight years, along with charitable work for other worthy causes. He visits prisons to offer his testimony and encouragement, and, of course, talk about wrestling.

“I found out that whenever you make a commitment like that, that old devil tries to come around,” says Koloff. “You’ve definitely got to stay in the word. He’s a real heel, that guy.”

Koloff readily admits to being no angel himself during his ring heyday. He partied with the best of them, and that included the legendary Horsemen. He even helped 14-time world champ Ric Flair celebrate his 21st birthday in the early ’70s while Koloff was wrestling for the AWA in Minnesota.

“Ric was also working as an insurance agent at the time. He was the type of guy who always wanted to party. We had to drive several hundred miles all the way to Davenport, Iowa, from Minneapolis. It was a long trip, and we had a good time, I guess. All I remember is six bottles of Boone’s Farm wine. We still had the results from it for two or three days after.”

Koloff, who teamed with and headlined against Flair in the Carolinas and Virginia during the late ’70s and ’80s, says it doesn’t surprise him that the native Minnesotan is still a major draw.

“He was an impressive guy with all the bumps even when he first started,” says Koloff. “I guess he’s got to keep proving he can still do it.”

Koloff also recalls many memorable non-wrestling escapades during his run in the Mid-Atlantic area. One of those times, he says, was a DWI following a wedding reception for Tully Blanchard. Koloff had left some of his cohorts in charge of his car keys at a local club, knowing in advance that he didn’t want to be behind the wheel in case he drank too much.

“I got the keys back, but it wasn’t the fault of the person I gave them to,” says Koloff. “It was my fault. I was one of those people that, if I started drinking, I’d get real mean, so they returned my keys when I insisted. One of the guys tried to drive me home about 3 or 4 in the morning, and I threatened to jump out. He’d lock the door, and I’d unlock it. Finally he let me out. I told him I could drive, even though I couldn’t talk. I ended up wrapping my car around a telephone pole.”

Koloff adds that he was fortunate to have come out of the accident with just a couple dozen stitches in his head.

Koloff cites the changes in former partners like Nikita, who is involved in world mission work, and Blanchard, who is an evangelist.

“What a big change in Tully and Nikita. I used to party a lot with with Tully. Nikita – not that he would drink or take drugs – was a real somber type. He looked like he was mad all the time. He didn’t seem very happy. But he made a big change, like night and day, and I’m really happy for the things the Lord has done with Nikita and Tully. All of us.”

Koloff recalls that Nikita was one of the quickest studies he ever encountered in the business.

“He was a very educated guy. And he had a good coach – that ol’ Ivan Koloff. Nikita was one of the fastest learners I ev er saw for a guy who had never got in the ring to learn. He told me he never had any formal type of wrestling training. I’d talk to him in the car and I’d talk to him in the dressing room. His first match was in front of a sellout crowd on Raleigh TV. Jim Crockett came up to me and said, `If he falls down or trips or anything like that, the whole deal’s off.’ I said, `Nikita, I don’t care what you do, just don’t fall.’ We had three things worked out. He did the lock- up, pushed the guy down on his rear end, and he’d pick the guy up and do his finish. That was it.”

Koloff maintained a full-time wrestling schedule until he left WCW in 1989 to spend a couple of years on the independent circuit and run a wrestling school. But he admits the business has changed.

“It’s hard to knock success, at least money-wide, but I don’t like the direction as far as the language, gestures and such. And the kids seem to be picking up more and more. I don’t remember back in my time kids going home and trying it on their little brother. I hear now about kids getting killed and seriously injured from their friends giving them clotheslines and other maneuvers. For that reason I don’t like some of the stuff they’re doing. But it all goes through changes like everything else does.”

Koloff began his Russian gimmick in the late ’60s as a combination of a Mad Dog Vachon-type interview and what he thought a Russian talked like.

“I wasn’t up that much on language or anything like that.” Koloff recalls a match at an ice arena in Quebec where he teamed with “Nazi terror” Hans Schmidt (actually a French-Canadian) against the hometown favorite Rougeau Brothers.

“Hans was doing most of the interviews since he could speak French, and I had Tony Angelo do the interview for me be cause I didn’t know what they were saying. I do know it got to the point where the people hated me. We went up against the Rougeaus in a two-out-of-three-fall match, and the chairs started flying after we won the first fall.”

Koloff’s biggest moment in wrestling came nearly 30 years ago when he ended the legendary Bruno Sammartino’s seven-and-one-half-year run as World Wide Wrestling Federation champion.

“No question. Beating Bruno. He was my hero. I don’t think there was anybody who got over like him. Now they’ve got so many kinds of ways to get a guy exposed in such a larger medium. People really believed Bruno because he looked the part.”

Koloff had first wrestled Sammartino in 1969 in the Montreal territory. He later went to Pittsburgh for a six-month run be fore Sammartino brought him to New York. Koloff impressed promoter Vince McMahon Sr. enough to put him in a main-event program with Sammartino, but it was Bruno who gave Koloff the seal of approval.

“It was strictly Bruno. Had Bruno not suggested me as the guy he’d drop the strap to, I wouldn’t have had it. It was be cause he insisted. Vince wanted to go with somebody else, but Bruno said no.” Koloff served as a transitional champion between Sammartino and Pedro Morales, to whom he dropped the title a month later, but says he’ll never forget when he dethroned Sammartino in front of a packed house at Madison Square Garden in 1971.

“I’m still a mark when it comes to Bruno.”

“Wrestling Andre The Giant also was a great thrill for me,” adds Koloff. “I really felt out of place. Even when I wrestled him the first time and I weighed 300 pounds, I still felt intimidated. He was like twice the size.”

The Rougeaus brought Koloff to Montreal to wrestle Andre in the late ’70s. “I had wrestled him before that – in tag-team matches and even three-on-one. I still couldn’t whip him.”

Koloff’s peak weight of 300 dropped following his back injury in 1973, and fluctuated from 230-250 during later years. His weight dropped to as low as 205 during the early ’80s while teaming with Alexis Smirnov in Georgia. Koloff says he met the late Boris “The Great” Malenko (New Jersey-born Larry Simon), another great “Russian” heel, during his first tour of Japan in 1967.

“I wasn’t wrestling as Koloff then. He was a fanatic about working out. He showed me some stomach workouts that I can remember to this day because of how sore my stomach got from doing them.”

Among Koloff’s many titles: the WWWF heavyweight title, the IWA tag-team title with Mad Dog Vachon in Japan, the Cana dian singles title, the Canadian tag-team belts, the world tag-team title on four different occasions (with Ray Stevens, The Crusher, Don Kernodle and Nikita Koloff), the world’s six-man tag-team title twice, the Florida state championship, the Georgia state championship and the Mid-Atlantic TV title.

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