Madison Square Garden, “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” hosted countless of events that showcased countless legends in a variety of genres. Bruno stomped the competition, Muhammad Ali gracefully landed combinations on his opponents, and Shawn Michaels dove from the top of a ladder in a revolutionary exhibition. Those moments, along with many others, generated thunderous cheers from the jam-packed crowds in attendance.
However, there was only one man who silenced “The Garden,” Ivan Koloff, who passed away last week at the age 74 after battling liver cancer.
Before he became “The Russian Bear,” Oreal Perras grew up in Montreal, Canada where he watched the sport on television during his childhood. An avid weight lifter during his youth, Perras quit school at the age of just 17 to pursue wrestling, enrolling at the training center of Jack Wentworth, a grizzled veteran that trained dozens of athletes in Ontario.
Not quite Russian yet, Perras spent a year to learn the craft before he began to work pro bouts in 1961 as a dastardly Irishman, Red McNulty. He appeared around the Canadian leagues for the next few years, a valuable learning experience that paid off when he worked a tour of Japan in 1967, which elevated his profile in his native country.
Now as the villainous Ivan Koloff, he debuted in the WWWF in 1969, and the Russian character in the mist of the cold war in front of the ethnic crowds of the northeast territory generated major heat from the audience. It should be noted that Ivan’s primary run in the New York market was during a time when the kayfabe aspect of the business was taken very seriously and the fans didn’t truly know if pro wrestling was a performance strictly for their entertainment or a legitimate competition so there was very real danger for a hated heel at the time.
The Russian Bear quickly became one of the most despised grapplers in the organization, smashing opponents with a power-based style. Perhaps the event that Ivan is most known for occurred less than two years later when he challenged longtime champion, Bruno Sammartino for the belt on January, 18 1971. The charismatic Italian strongman was the champion for a record-setting nine years, drawing crowds for the duration of his time as the featured star on the card, and had already reached legendary status. The humbled champion was beloved by his fan base and often made a point to take his possible responsibility as a role model very seriously, even when the cameras weren’t recording his battles in the squared circle.
But, that night in MSG, the extensive schedule of the traveling champion finally overcame his iron will, and after a top rope knee drop, the referee counted three, declaring Ivan Koloff the new WWWF champion. According to those in attendance, when the bell rang and Koloff displayed the title, the crowd was hushed in a stunned silence. The passionate fans of the market couldn’t believe that Bruno was actually defeated. Ivan was quickly escorted from the ring to avoid any fan altercations. As Sammartino made his way to the dressing room, there were fans crying and telling him that he was still their hero.
Just three weeks later, Koloff dropped the title to the next ethnic champion, Pedro Morales, following the traditional WWWF formula of the baby face champion. On the surface, it might seem like Ivan as champion wasn’t a success, but the length of the tenture wasn’t the point, because as mentioned the organization simply didn’t feature any long-term heel champions during that era. In reality, the more important accomplishment was that Koloff was the one chosen to dethrone Bruno, and it speaks volumes to his ability as a villain. Only a performer that was truly despised could’ve been seen as a credible threat to Sammartino’s championship, and Ivan had enough heat to make it believable.
The defeat of Bruno put Ivan on a different level, but considering that the world championship was the pinnacle of the territory, he knew he had to work elsewhere to maintain the elevated status that went along with the moniker of former WWWF champion. He worked several regional and international tours throughout the 70s, and reemerged in the title picture on a few occasions during Sammartino’s second title reign, drawing from the history of the two previously. In 1983, he had a final run in the WWF as a more moderately featured star before he rejuvenated his career soon after when he became a fixture in the National Wrestling Alliance.
During the start of the wrestling boom of the 80s, Jim Crockett Promotions became known for its gritty style of in ring action as opposed to Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment genre. In retrospect, the NWA style probably suited Ivan better, and he brought veteran experience to matches with some of the young stars that just began to make their name. With over 20 years of wrestling experience, Ivan was paired with his “nephew” Nikita, and the combination helped make the younger Russian one of the most recognizable athletes on the card. There’s no doubt that the association with “Uncle Ivan” gave the rookie Nikita the credibility to work believable feuds with some of the biggest stars of JCP. The Russians had notable matches with The Rock n’ Roll Express, The Road Warriors, and others. Throughout the remainder of the 80s, he worked the NWA territories, often winning regional titles during different stints at each promotion.
At the start of the 90s, the notoriety of his 30 year career allowed Koloff to work many international tours across many countries and continents. He still appeared on the independent scene in the United States, working a short run in ECW and Smokey Mountain Wrestling in 1992. After wrestling for over three decades, Ivan retired from the ring in 1994.
The perils of industry had taken a toll on Ivan and he struggled with drug addiction during the latter stages of his career. In 1995, he found peace for himself through religion and eventually became an ordained minister, spreading a word of positivity in an effort to help others. Along with preaching, Ivan wrote several books about his career and religion, while often appearing at conventions to greet fans.
I had the chance to meet Ivan Koloff in 2011 at a “Pittsburgh Studio Wrestling” reunion event, where he attended because of his well known run in the northeast. In a direct contrast to “The Russian Bear” of the squared circle, Ivan was very polite and a gentleman to meet in person. As he sat next to his former rival Bruno, he seemed to truly enjoy and appreciate that fans wanted to meet him.
Ivan Koloff in the ring was a hated villain that generated a tremendous amount of heat from the fans and defeated one of the most popular champions of all time at Madison Square Garden. Koloff outside of the heel persona was a humble man who appreciated the support for his thirty year career. “The Russian Bear” will undoubtedly be known as one of the classic heels in pro wrestling history.
Sincere condolences to Ivan Koloff’s friends and family at this difficult time.
Until next week