Wild Life Of ‘Russian Bear’
By Mike Mooneyham
June 16, 2007
Second of two parts
Ivan Koloff will go down in wrestling history as one of the profession’s most hated and feared heels.
What most fans didn’t know during Koloff’s heyday in the ’70s and ’80s is that the menacing Muscovite wasn’t really Russian and had begun his career as an Irish rogue named Red McNulty.
Koloff’s transformation to “The Russian Bear” was a natural. 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 the role. His new accent, he says, was a combination of Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, one of his wrestling idols, and what he thought a Russian would sound like.
“It caught on.”
It also worked wonders for the introverted wrestler’s shyness.
Captain Lou Albano and tag partner Tony Altamore caught Koloff’s act in Montreal, liked what they saw and recommended him to World Wide Wrestling Federation honcho Vince McMahon Sr.
It would mark the real start of Koloff’s illustrious career as one of the most convincing and notorious heels in the business. Koloff permanently etched his name in wrestling history when he ended Bruno Sammartino’s record seven-year run as WWWF heavyweight champion in January 1971 at Madison Square Garden.
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, raised on a Canadian farm with six brothers and three sisters, played the evil Russian character to the hilt. He spoke in a raspy voice, wore heavy stomping boots, toted a chain, and boasted the hammer and sickle emblazoned on his ring garb.
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.”
Price to pay
Koloff, who began his pro wrestling career in the early ’60s, was one of the top draws for Charlotte-based Crockett Promotions during stints ranging from 1974-89.
One of his biggest runs was during the mid-’80s when Koloff, along with “nephew Nikita” (a transplanted Minnesotan named Scott Simpson), 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 was instrumental in training Nikita and making him a star, enjoyed lucrative programs with the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Magnum T.A., Jimmy Valiant, Paul Jones, The Road Warriors and The Rock ‘N Roll Express.
Koloff had weighed in at a career high of 300 pounds during his WWWF run in the early ’70s. But he ended up coming down with a lung infection that initially had been diagnosed as tuberculosis. Doctors kept him on steroid-laced prednisone for 10 years. “They told me at the time to quit smoking and lose 60 pounds. When you quit smoking, you gain. It was a real battle. I thought my career was over. I didn’t even know if I could continue wrestling. I didn’t know if it was contagious.”
Koloff took time off, and after doctors cleared him, he returned to wrestling. His peak weight of 300 had dropped following a 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. “I was running every day and in pretty good shape.”
At the same time, however, he was hard on his body. “I was training hard, wrestling hard and living hard.”
Koloff readily admits he’s not proud of a lot of things that transpired during his career. But he’s candid and graphic in his new autobiography. There were the constant distractions and temptations on the road – alcohol, pot, cocaine – all in ample supply.
“Life will sometimes lead you down that path. It was a struggle even after turning my life over. It’s a process and a journey of faith. It’s one day at a time. I can say to this day I don’t have an urge or craving for the drugs or alcohol. I just lean back on the Lord,” says Koloff, who has been clean and sober for the past decade.
Back then, though, Koloff relied on the substances to provide him relief from physical pain. “Whatever you needed, you did,” he says. He was even addicted to chewing tobacco.
“I did that for 25 years. I had my mouth full of chewing tobacco. But the Lord dealt with me on that nasty thing.” The sheer intensity of the business, says Koloff, was grueling enough.
“Seven days a week, always gone and never having time to heal up.”
Koloff also suffered numerous injuries from his time in the ring, the most serious being a ruptured disc 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 who assaulted him with knives, bent nails, pieces of wood and chairs.
But it was all part of the price to pay.
“You did what you had to do. I feel so fortunate that I’m alive today.”
A new life
The 64-year-old Koloff, the father of four adult children, 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 knew something was missing. He was a champion many times and had made lots of money, he says, but he was “lost.” That all changed 11 years ago.
Koloff’s introduction to his new life occurred when former protege Nikita Koloff, who had left wrestling several years earlier to become a part-time evangelist, asked him to attend a revival at an Assembly of God church in Kannapolis, N.C.
Koloff, who was raised Roman Catholic in his native Canada, had left the church when he was 17 years old and had drifted. But when the preacher asked him to repeat a prayer to accept the Lord, he says, he fell backwards as if he had been knocked down by Andre The Giant. Like a good partner, though, Nikita was there to catch him.
“I guess that was the Lord’s way of just letting me know through the Holy Spirit that `I’m for real, man’ … I realized it was more of a relationship than the action of just going to church.”
Koloff’s life has changed dramatically over the past decade.
For a number of years Koloff, now an ordained minister, has been speaking at church functions and independent wrestling shows, explaining how he was saved by the love of God. 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,” he laughs.
Koloff has come a long way since serving time as in a maximum-security penitentiary as a teen-ager. He had left school at 17 and, with one of his brothers and some friends, began stealing calves from nearby farms to make money. The group was eventually caught and sent to jail as a result of their ill-fated scheme.
“I got into some serious trouble with the law trying to make things happen my way. I wanted to be a wrestler, and the seasonal job I had came to an end. I got impatient and created my own business. I won’t go into too much, but the judge told me he would have hung me 100 years earlier for what I had done.”
Koloff served five months of a six-month sentence. Now he speaks to inmates and shares his testimony in similar prisons.
“I just want people to know that it’s worth walking the straight and narrow. Prison is a scary place. I was 18 years old, a big strapping kid who thought I was tough, and I’m suddenly among 2,500 inmates that include rapists and gang members. I watched a guy get killed by someone just putting the boots to him. Some of the prisoners wanted to be judge and executioner.”
It just goes to show, he says, that anyone can change.
“God can take the bad and turn it into good,” he says.
Koloff’s new book, “Is That Wrestling Fake? The Bear Facts,” is available through Scott Teal’s Crowbar Press Web site at www.crowbarpress.com.
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