By Mike Mooneyham
March 11, 2007
Second of two parts
Boris Zhukov prays every day for his son.
Wayne Harrell continues to recover, slowly but surely, from a car accident in December that claimed the life of his girlfriend and left him with serious injuries that included second- and third-degree burns, severe head trauma, massive swelling and a blood clot on his brain, along with a broken right collarbone, shattered right leg and a broken femur in his left leg.
Medical bills for Harrell, who didn’t have insurance, have exceeded $800,000 and continue to mount. Harrell, who has been hospitalized for most of the past three months, went back under the knife Thursday at a Pensacola hospital.
Doctors have tried to reduce swelling in his frontal lobe area. He already had two major surgeries in that area, the first of which included the removal of a blood clot.
“He was hurting so bad he didn’t have an appetite and stopped eating. He wasn’t drinking much either, and he started dehydrating. Then he really started going downhill,” says Zhukov.
Harrell’s neurosurgeon decided last week to go back into his patient’s sinus cavity and pack it due to a fluid leakage.
“They had hoped to get by without it because it’s awfully rough surgery,” says Zhukov. “It was a last-resort thing. He’s still recovering from that second surgery. But they had no choice.”
Zhukov says doctors will keep his son “in a coma-like state” for 72 hours as a precautionary measure.
“They don’t won’t him to move at all. But they said they were able to find the leak. I’m hoping this will be it, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Life will be different when Harrell returns home. He was a strapping, athletic 185-pounder before the accident. Now he’s down to 107 pounds. He faces intensive physical therapy and rehab.
Zhukov knows it’s going to be a long haul for his 25-year-old son.
But he’s lucky to be alive,” says the former pro wrestler. “He can only get better from here.”
The accident was surely a tragedy, Zhukov says, but strangely enough, his son’s Christmas wish was granted.
“The day before Wayne’s accident, he had given a list to his mother of things he wanted for Christmas. One of the items on his list was that he wanted all his family together for Christmas.”
Zhukov and his ex-wife, both of whom have remarried, had gone through an ugly divorce in 1997.
“The Christmas before, in 2005, Wayne came up to Virginia and spent a week with me,” says Zhukov. “He wanted us all to get together and try to make things right.”
That thought continued to weigh on his son, says Zhukov, and he pushed it again prior to this past Christmas.
“It was a bad way for us to have to come together. That was a day before the accident, and we all ended up getting together like nothing bad ever happened as far as the divorce goes. Our main concern has been Wayne. He really went to an extreme to get his Christmas wish, to say the least, but he finally got that item a day before the accident. It’s strange how things in life work out.”
A good bad guy
The 48-year-old Zhukov, who was born James Kirk Harrell, spent 20 years in the business working mainly as two distinct characters – a Marine billed as Pvt. Jim Nelson and a hard-line Russian named Boris Zhukov. The latter moniker was so successful that he legally had his name changed in 1987. It gave him rights to the name at a time when WWE owner Vince McMahon was trademarking the monikers of every wrestler in his employ.
The Soviet heel gimmick, featuring a shaved head, hammer and sickle garb and a convincing Russian accent, was a radical departure from his Pvt. Jim Nelson character in the Mid-Atlantic territory. But he came up with the name fairly quickly.
“I got the name out of an encyclopedia. Zhukov was a Russian general in the old days. And I liked the name Boris. Jake Roberts’ dad, Grizzly Smith, was working for Bill Watts at the time. I called Watts and ran it by him, and he told me to come to Louisiana. It was completely opposite.”
The gimmick clicked, and Zhukov has used it to this day.
Zhukov went to Minnesota in 1985 to work for Verne Gagne’s AWA, and in 1987 joined forces with Soldat Ustinov (Jim Lanning), under the management of Sheik Adnan El-Kaissey (Adnan Alkaissy), to defeat The Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty) for the AWA world tag-team title. He left the territory, though, in the middle of the title run to go to the then-WWF where he teamed with another “Russian,” Nikolai Volkoff, (Croatia native Josip Peruzovic), as The Bolsheviks in a mid-card act with the Rev. Slick (Ken Johnson) as their manager.
Zhukov left the WWF in 1991 and quit wrestling full-time shortly thereafter following a hernia injury.
“The territories were all gone by then anyway,” he laments.
Zhukov has been driving a tractor-trailer since 1992. He works for SunBelt Transport out of Jacksonville, a flatbed carrier whose majority of freight hauled consists of building materials along with other related types of products. His work takes him throughout the Southeast.
Both his dad and his grandfathers were involved in transportation. The traveling part is second nature to him since he spent his entire wrestling career traveling 2,000 to 3,000 miles a week.
“It’s pretty much all I know,” he says.
He moved back to western Virginia, near the Roanoke area, in April 2001 after having lived in Pensacola for 11 years. He got remarried in 1999 and now lives near Burnt Chimney, Va., 10 miles from Rocky Mount.
Zhukov still loves talking about his days in the wrestling business. He grew up a fan attending the Mid-Atlantic shows at the old Starland Arena in Roanoke.
“I’m still a fan. That’s how I got started in it. I was a fan before I got into it,” says Zhukov, who was cross-town rivals with another future grappling star, Tony Atlas (Anthony White), who attended a nearby high school.
His first pro match was in 1978 at the tender age of 19, a year after he graduated from high school, and two years later he was working for Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic wrestling promotion, going up against some of the same wrestlers he had idolized as a youth.
“I idolized guys like Johnny Valentine and The Super Destroyer. I got to wrestle in Greensboro and Charlotte and places like that. It was great. It was a lot of stress at a young age. I never expected to be in that position.”
It was a dream come true for the youngster when Sgt. Slaughter (Bob Remus), at that time one of the best heels in the business, enlisted Harrell, along with journeyman Don Kernodle, as “privates” in his infamous “Cobra Corps.” Harrell, now known as Private Jim Nelson, went on to win the Mid-Atlantic tag-team belts with Kernodle on two different occasions. Nelson soon became part of one of the biggest programs in Mid-Atlantic history.
As Jim Nelson, he betrayed Slaughter and Kernodle to help arch-rivals Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood, resulting in Nelson getting booted from the team.
The angle culminated in a tag-team showdown billed as “The Final Conflict” pitting Slaughter and Kernodle against Steamboat and Youngblood for the championship. The bout drew more than 15,000 fans, with nearly that many being turned away, clogging roads around the Greensboro Coliseum for miles.
“I loved the business. But the best time was when I was in Mid-Atlantic wrestling. The most money was in WWF, but the best fun was in Mid-Atlantic. I got to work with all those guys like Johnny Valentine and Wahoo McDaniel. There were so many good memories.”
Zhukov rattles off names like Johnny Weaver, The Andersons, Steamboat and Youngblood as being influences in his career. A few choice words from the legendary Johnny Valentine let him know he’d arrived.
“Kid, you’re really nice and snug out there,” Valentine told the newcomer, complimenting him on his style in the ring.
“Snug my (behind). He’s stiff,” retorted Valentine’s son, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, an equally tough customer. It was unadulterated validation for Zhukov.
Zhukov says he was happy just to be part of the show. To be given a compliment from one of his idols was icing on the cake.
“I certainly remember Charleston (and County Hall),” he says. “It was extremely hot in the summer. And (late promoter) Henry Marcus was a fun guy. I used to travel down there a lot with Gene Anderson and Swede Hanson. Those guys helped me a lot. They were great. I grew up watching them, and then I got to work with them and travel with them. You can’t top that. Ole got me started in Atlanta, but Gene helped me a lot as well. Those days sure were a lot of fun.”
Donations can be made to the William Harrell Benefit Account at the PenAir Federal Credit Union at: PenAir Federal Credit Union, William Harrell Benefit Account (2579836), 1495 East Nine Mile Road, Pensacola, Fla. 32514. Checks should be made to the William Harrell Benefit Account (please put Member No. 2579836 on the check).
– Promoter Tony Early is holding a wrestling show and fundraiser March 17 at the National Guard Armory in Manning. Main event is an over-the-top-rope battle royal. All admission money from Charleston residents who show their ID at the door will go towards the Wayne Harrell Fund. A number of items also will be raffled off at the event. Bell time is at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 advance for front-row ringside and $18 at the door; $12 advance for second-row ringside and $15 at the door. General admission is $10 the day of the show. Advance tickets are on sale at the Pizza Hut in Manning. For more information, call (803) 356-0771.
– Old School Championship Wrestling will hold a show at 6 p.m. today at Weekend’s Pub, 428 Red Bank Road, Goose Creek. The main event will be a gauntlet steel cage match between Solitude and The Bullet Proof Saint for the Intercontinental title. Semifinal will pit Mack Truck against Adam Owens. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for kids. For more information, call 824-1477.
– MTV is airing five new episodes of Wrestling Society X in a marathon format Tuesday night beginning at 11 p.m. The show returns to its normal time the following Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. in what could be the season finale.