“Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff Confirms Fanfest Appearance
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Ivan Koloff! Few performers have left more of a mark on Mid-Atlantic wrestling than “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff. For decades the menacing Muscovite mat terror drew the wrath of frenzied fans as he 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. The beard, shaved dome and jagged forehead all served as a testament to his rugged brand of wrestling.
Koloff will be a featured guest at this summer’s Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest Weekend August 1-4 at Hilton University Place Hotel in Charlotte. He has attended a number of previous Fanfests where he is always a big favorite.
“It’s always an exciting event. I still consider myself a fan,” says Koloff. “I’ve loved wrestling since I was 8 years old. I was a fan then and still am to this day. The fans at Fanfest are the same way. They’re thrilled to be able to meet some of the old-timers and fans they’ve met over the years. In many cases they’ve ended up becoming friends. It’s the same with the boys. Some of the boys I haven’t seen in years and years. Fanfest has made up for that. It’s wonderful to see my old friends again.”
Koloff’s ring career, which spanned nearly half a century, is a storied one.
Perhaps his biggest accomplishment occurred in January 1971 at Madison Square Garden when he ended Bruno Sammartino’s record 7 1/2-year run as WWWF heavyweight champion and permanently etched his name in wrestling history.
It would mark the real start of the Canadian-born Koloff’s illustrious career as one of the most convincing and notorious heels in the business.
Koloff admits he was still quite green for such a high-profile program with the legendary Italian strongman. It didn’t take long, though, for Sammartino to smarten up his younger opponent.
“Ivan, do you realize as the heel, you’re supposed to be the general in the ring?” he asked Koloff.
“Bruno was my hero, and asking me to be the leader in the ring was something,” says Koloff. “He could have told me to jump, and I would have asked how high. It was such an honor just to work with him.”
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 the Garden.
“I’m still a mark when it comes to Bruno,” he laughs.
Koloff began his wrestling career in 1961. His trainer suggested that the then- curly, red-haired youngster wrestle as a one-eyed Irish rogue named Red McNulty.
“That Irishman did all right, but he ended up dying on the snowbank in Calgary,” jokes Koloff, who went through Stu Hart’s Stampede promotion en route to Johnny Rougeau’s Montreal-based outfit. It was Rougeau who gave him the name Ivan Koloff, and the rest is history.
Koloff played the Russian heel to the hilt. He admits he didn’t learn much Russian at first, and instead always kept managers close by to do the talking while he made nasty faces.
“I had a lot of good teachers who gave me a lot of good advice. But it was a slow process. It was a combination of a French accent, like one of my other heroes, Mad Dog Vachon, and what I thought a Russian would talk like. I would also stand on the right when I was interviewed so I’d look bigger, keep my arms folded and my chin up high.”
He began embellishing his new evil Cold War persona by running around the ring prior to his matches and attacking his opponents.
“Just like a mad, crazy Russian would,” says Koloff, who shaved his head, put on 50 pounds of muscle and looked ominous in his new role.
“It caught on.”
Among Koloff’s many titles: the WWWF heavyweight title, the IWA tag team title with Mad Dog Vachon in Japan, the Canadian 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. Koloff would become one of the top draws for Crockett Promotions during successful stints in the ’70s and ’80s. One of his biggest runs was during the mid-’80s when Koloff, along with “nephew” Nikita Koloff , was leader of a Soviet contingent that included Krusher Khruschev and Vladimir Pietrov. None, of course, were actually Russian, but the gimmick was an unqualified success.
Koloff, who lives near Greenville, N.C., with his wife Renae, has many fond memories of his time in the Carolinas and Virginia.
“We’d travel 250, 300 miles a night going from town to town, and sometimes we’d have a little party after the match. Fights, tearing up hotels, crazy stuff. You’d be put in jail for that kind of thing today. But we had some good, exciting times.”
“It was all such an adventure, but it went so fast since you’re wrestling every night and there were such long trips,” he adds. “Every night, whether it was in a car or staying over, it was like a get-together with the boys talking about the past and their matches. It was just a good time.”
That’s one of the reasons Koloff enjoys attending Fanfest Weekend.
“I really enjoy going there and bringing back memories of those bygone years.”
The once-hated “evil Russian” is now spreading a much kinder, gentler message.
Koloff, who became a born-again Christian in 1996, is active in a number of charitable organizations, and is an ordained minister who travels to churches and prisons to share his testimony and spread the message of the gospel.
He still makes occasional appearances at independent wrestling shows in the area, shaking his steel Russian chain and mugging for an audience that still fondly remembers him all these years later.
The soft-spoken man with the gentle soul maintains the shaved pate and beard for effect.
“People come up to me and ask me if I’m really Ivan Koloff. They eye me up and down. Especially old ladies. They’re not sure if they’ve forgiven me or not.”
-Mike Mooneyham, a writer and editor with Charleston’s The Post and Courier since 1979, is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on professional wrestling, and his weekly wrestling column has been in continuous publication longer than any other in the country.