Boris “The Great” Malenko: Master Heel
An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published Sept. 5, 1994
His name was Larry Simon. But to thousands of wrestling fans across the country, “The Great” Malenko was one of the most notorious “bad guys” to ever step inside the squared circle.
The master of the Russian Chain Match, Boris Malenko personified the Cold War image of the Soviet menace during the ’60s and drew sellout crowds in the Carolinas and Florida as fans packed arenas to see their local favorites attempt to stop him. His bouts with the late Eddie Graham throughout the Sunshine State during the ’60s are legendary, and many of the angles involving Malenko are among the most remembered in wrestling history.
But on Sept. 1, after a battle with leukemia, the final three count tolled for this multi-dimensional star and trainer of such performers as Bill Eadie (The Masked Superstar), Bob Orton Jr., Sean Waltman (1-2-3 Kid), Mark Mero (Johnny B. Badd), Fred Ottman (Typhoon) and Buddy Landell. Chemotherapy had weakened Malenko’s immune system, and he died of a viral infection four months after he was diagnosed with leukemia. He had turned 61 two months before his death.
During his ring career, Malenko, who was billed as being from Moscow, represented the “red threat” from the north. Outside the squared circle, though, Malenko was a New Jersey native and Florida resident who was soft-spoken, well-versed and respected by his peers throughout the industry.“He was probably the most giving person I’ve ever met,” son Dean Malenko told The Wrestling Observer newsletter. “Sometimes he was too good-hearted. My dad was like a father figure to a lot of kids in the school. He not only trained them, he was a father-figure type to them. He liked helping others, and he wasn’t into material things.”
Boris “The Great” Malenko was a longtime advocate of a more realistic approach to wrestling known as “shooting” and “hooking,” and along with fellow “shooter” Karl Gotch, trained many young grapplers for action in the more demanding Japanese wrestling promotions. Having hung up his tights in 1980, Malenko spent the past 15 years training aspiring young grapplers at his wrestling school in Tampa. Sons Dean and Joe, both highly regarded scientific wrestlers, learned the ropes from their father, as did Paul Diamond, Al and Lou Perez, Barry Horowitz, Bob Cook, Jumbo Baretta and a host of other Florida locals.
Malenko was a top draw in the Carolinas and Virginia for the late Jim Crockett Sr. in the mid-’60s and was a major attraction for longtime Charleston promoter Henry Marcus. His brutal chain matches with local favorites George and Sandy Scott drew sellout crowds at County Hall (now King Street Palace).
“He was a great performer,” recalled NWA promoter Jim Crockett Jr. “I can remember the days when he hung out with The Mauler and Homer O’Dell. Now that was quite a trio. But he was as polished as they come.”
“Boris was from the old school,” recalled Marcus. “He was a big draw here. Everyone remembers the time when Wahoo McDaniel knocked his false teeth out. He was a real star. Those guys were wrestlers back then.”
Malenko, one of the top interviews in the business who was noted for ranting with one eye shut, held the Southern tag-team title with Bob Orton Sr. and The Missouri Mauler (Larry “Rocky” Hamilton) during his stint in the Carolinas. The fact that Orton was from Kansas and Hamilton was from Missouri put further heat on the red-hot Malenko.
“I was a hayseed from Kansas with a blond crewcut as Southern heavyweight champion,” Orton told The Observer. “I was teaming up with a Russian. You talk about heat. The fans thought I was a traitor teaming with a Russian. We went into Raleigh. George Becker was the booker. They were running a building and doing one-quarter houses. He (Malenko) got on television one time and all he did was smash a chain onto a chair. We almost sold out. But we had too much heat. Tom Renesto wanted us to hold it down. We tried to calm things down but the more we tried, the hotter it got.”
Malenko was eventually stabbed by a knife-wielding fan in Richmond, Va., and took 33 stitches in his abdomen. Orton, who was knocked out by a chair and trampled on by fans, quickly left the area and returned to Florida as a good guy. Malenko stayed and continued to terrorize the territory as its top heel.
“Back in his day he was one of the first `Mad Russians,’ and he personified the image of the Russian bad guy,” recalled former NWA star and current WWF promoter Jerry Brisco. “When you went into the ring with him, you knew you had a battle. He and Eddie Graham were just unbelievable down here in Florida. The man’s psychology in the ring was second to no one. He did a lot of good things around this area. He’ll be missed.”
Malenko also leaves behind many vivid memories: his grueling chain matches with such grapplers as Eddie Graham, The Scotts, Joe Scarpa (Chief Jay Strongbow), Wahoo McDaniel, Johhny Valentine, Ronnie Garvin, Danny Miller and Jose Lothario; a match with Sam Steamboat in which he tried to bite his opponent’s ear off, only to have Graham jump into the ring and smash his dentures; and his classic interviews with announcer Gordon Solie.
Malenko, in the twilight of his active ring career, returned to the Carolinas in the late ’70s as Prof. Boris Maximilianovich Malenko (he claimed he was a professor of “hard knocks”) and managed The Masked Superstar and Kim Duk. A money-making feud between The Superstar (who was later to become Demolition Ax) and area favorite The Mighty Igor was ignited when Malenko temporarily “blinded” Igor by smashing a lit cigar into the Polish strongman’s eyes.
A New Jersey native, Malenko began his career under his real name for the late Vince McMahon Sr. in the early ’50s. He later became a top heel in Nebraska under the name Otto Von Krupp – this time as a post World War II German villain even though Malenko was actually Jewish. McMahon, father of current WWF owner Vince McMahon Jr., later suggested the Malenko gimmick, and he took it with him down South.
Malenko became a good guy inside the ring in 1971 after being turned on by partners Dick Murdoch and Rene Goulet. Malenko drew more sellouts when he offered longtime rival Graham $5,000 to be his partner in a feud with Murdoch and Goulet.
Malenko and Graham bitterly parted ways in 1974, with Malenko promoting his own shows opposite Graham’s Championship Wrestling from Florida group. Malenko was eventually blacklisted by Graham and other NWA promoters, even though it was widely acknowledged in the business that Malenko had played a major role in the success of Graham’s Florida promotion.
Among the several hundred people attending the funeral of Larry Malenko were Don Curtis, Gordon Solie, Hiro Matsuda, George Scott, Cyclone Negro, Randy Savage (Poffo), Lanny and Angelo Poffo, Karl Gotch and 1-2-3 Kid. Hans (The Great) Mortier had flown in from Holland to spend several weeks with his longtime friend during his first round of chemotherapy.