You know how you knew Ivan Koloff was legitimately an agent of the Soviet Union working to undermine America during the Cold War? He had a tattoo of a hammer and sickle with the sickle piercing the head of a bald eagle. Now tell me, would he do that if wrestling were fake?
Of course he would. And did. But that was part of the genius of Ivan Koloff, a former WWWF champion who passed away today at 74 from complications of liver cancer. Koloff was not from Russia but rather from Montreal, although with his Leninist looks, ferocious tactics, and heavy, vaguely foreign accent, there might never have been a heel of fake provenance any better or more believable.
Koloff was tiny by the in-ring standards of the 1970s. Not even 5' 8" tall, he compensated by developing a powerlifter’s physique that put him near 270 pounds. He earned the nickname “The Russian Bear” as a result, and even when he slimmed down to a leaner 215, 220 Koloff still seemed so much larger than he really was.
I first knew of him through Georgia Championship Wrestling, where he was a top heel through much of the early 80s, ceding the spotlight to his “nephew,” the ferocious (and largely untalented) Nikita Koloff. Hailing from Minnesota, Nikita was friendly with the Road Warriors, and indeed, was brought into the Georgia territory as kind of a Road Warriors version of the Russian heel — unbelievably strong and overwhelmingly intense. But Nikita couldn’t work, which everyone knew, so Ivan not only mentored him but teamed with him to take full advantage of his own in-ring and on-mic skills and to hide Nikita’s weaknesses. As Ric Flair said on Steve Austin’s podcast, Nikita had two moves: “The sickle...and the sickle.”
But Ivan’s landmark moment had come more than a decade earlier, when he pinned Bruno Sammartino, cleanly, to win the WWWF title. The legend of that night became how quiet the arena was when Koloff won. For years, pro-Bruno crowds were believed to have the capacity to riot if their champion lost, but they were so shocked in Baltimore, they didn’t know how to take it. Riots actually did happen when Koloff’s successor, Pedro Morales, was WWWF champion. In fact, one night, Blackjack Mulligan, grandfather to new WWE title holder Bray Wyatt, was stabbed after a match with Pedro. So it was a different and more dangerous era.
There was no thought given to keeping Koloff champion, of course. He was a classic transitional champion, which in the old days of the WWWF/WWF, only happened three times: Koloff, Stan Stasiak (the bridge between Pedro’s only and Bruno’s second reign), and The Iron Shiek, who held the title for a month or whatever before Hulkamania. There surely has to be some thought process to why these guys and not others were picked to be the champions. They never were major main event factors after their championships and none of them ever held a world title again.
“Democracy is good for the world,” Koloff quipped post-retirement. “But it was bad for business.” Indeed, he was the quintessential Russian bad guy, even more so than Nikolai Volkoff — who was at least Yugoslavian — because he just seemed so evil and conniving. By the time he was partnered with Nikita, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia was warming and there wasn’t a strong need for a Soviet character. With Nikita’s popularity skyrocketing, the Russians soon turned babyface and more or less lost their heat. Ivan, of course, was nearing 50 by that point and his small size and grueling style were catching up with him.
He gave the business all he could, and that should be recognized with a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame. This would have been an ideal year for it, but perhaps next year he’ll go in posthumously. Nobody really gets how Vince McMahon makes those decisions. Bruce Prichard, who portrayed Brother Love on TV and was a writer and producer for a couple decades with the company, recently said there were a few names everyone would suggest every year. Sometimes there would be discussions with Vince, other times he’d just put his own list together.
On the subject of giving all he could, here’s a decidedly non-hall of fame bout with Antonio Mosca, Jr., son of King Kong Mosca. It was for the Mid-Atlantic title, arguably the most prestigious regional belt in the late 1970s and early 1980s NWA. Koloff was champion but, for some reason, the decision was made to give the younger Mosca the title. He actually won it three times, which is all the more shocking when you watch this and see how truly awful he is. He legitimately does not know how to work a figure four, and yet, there’s Ivan Koloff selling it to the point that he can’t stand up after it’s “applied.”
But then, from the hammer and sickle tattoo on down, Ivan Koloff sold everything his entire career.