If you’re a fan of pro wrestling, then 2017 is off the same horrible start that 2016 was for music. In the past month, we lost three wrestling legends in Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka (January 15), Chavo Guerrero Sr. (February 11), and George “The Animal” Steele (February 16), plus former WWE Superstar Nicole Bass, a day later on February 17. Today we lost a fifth, as news broke this morning that former WWE (then WWWF) World Champion Ivan Koloff passed away from a long time battle with liver disease. Koloff was 74. The news was first announced by long time friend and rival, Ric Flair, on his Twitter.
I'm Sad To Wake Up And Hear of the passing of my very close friend the Russian Bear Ivan Koloff. You will be missed My Friend. Rest In Peace pic.twitter.com/nziKZ2Zqy4
Despite spending the majority of his professional wrestling career, which spanned 1961 to 1994, as the Big Bad Russian, he was actually a Canadian wrestler, Oreal Perras, born in Montreal, Quebec. At age 18, he left Quebec to become a professional wrestler, heading to Hamilton, Ontario to work with grappler Jack Kentworth at his wrestling school. Wentworth, a career journeyman, was in the 1956 main event for Vince McMahon Sr.‘s inaugural card for his Capitol Wrestling (which would become the WWWF and, ultimately, the WWE), losing to Antonino Rocca. Perras began his wrestling career primarily wrestling the Toronto circuit (with occasional stints in Japan), as an eye patched Irish character, Red McNulty.
In 1967, he returned to Quebec and the Rougeau family’s International Wrestling Association (IWA), where he developed “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff, a dastardly Ukraine born mauler, taking advantage of the rapidly increasing world tensions from the increasing Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. He was an immediate main event heel and soon caught the attention of his mentor Kentworth’s former employer, Vincent J. McMahon, and the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). By 1969, he had joined the WWWF and managed by the dastardly Captain Lou Albano (long before he was a face in the 1980’s). For years he would be the nemesis of the WWWF’s iconic everyman hero and WWWF World Champion, Bruno Sammartino.
On January 18, 1971, “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff accomplished the unthinkable. He defeated WWWF World Champion Bruno Sammartino for the World Championship at Sammartino – and WWWF’s – hallowed hall, Madison Square Garden, ending Sammartino’s over seven year reign at the top. Throughout that reign, Sammartino had fought off attempts from such wrestling icons as Freddie Blassie, Gorilla Monsoon, Shohei “Giant” Baba, The Crusher, Gene Kiniski, The Sheik, Killer Kowalski, as well as another recently departed Legend, George “The Animal” Steele. But the Russian Bear proved too much and the World title became property of the “enemy”.
Alas, Koloff proved to have been a transitional champion for the company, despite his great success as one of the company’s top heels. Back then, heels rarely held titles for long – the real money was in the hero champions. With Sammartino taking some time off, the WWWF had already built up Peurto Rican star Pedro Morales as their next face of the company and 21 days after taking the title from Bruno, Koloff lost to the new rising Latino. Koloff would remain a main event star with the company, but by the year’s end, Koloff departed the WWWF after a three year run with the company, heading to the larger territorial waters of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA).
He immediately became a star with the territories – he unsuccessfully challenged AWA World Champion Verne Gagne in 1972 – but found his greatest success with Jim Crockett‘s NWA region, Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, where he was a 4-time Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Champion 3-time Mid-Atlantic Television Champion, along with numerous tag team reigns. And while he was primarily a Mid-Atlantic and other NWA territorial property, he still made the odd return to the WWWF, with occasional rematches throughout the 70’s against his former foe, Bruno Sammartino.
In the 1980’s, with Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic assuming more and more control over the entire NWA brand (and shortly before becoming World Championship Wrestling (WCW)), Koloff would form the villainous faction, The Russians, as the Cold War from the 60’s became even greater in the 1980’s with the constant threat of nuclear attack being spouted in the media. Paired with his “nephew” Nikita Koloff as well as another comrade from the Motherland, Krusher Kruschev (an early gimmick by Barry Darsow, before he went on to Demolition Smash and Repo Man). The Russians would have memorable feuds with the likes of The Road Warriors (Hawk & Animal) and recently announced WWE Hall of Famers The Rock N’ Roll Express (Ricky Morton & Robert Gibson), to name a few.
In the early stages of WCW in the late 80’s, Koloff moved to more of a managerial role, as a “coach” for Paul Jones‘ Army, handling The Barbarian and Warlord as the Powers of Pain. They once again feuded with the Road Warriors, but when the Powers of Pain jumped ship to Vince McMahon Jr.‘s WWF in 1988, Koloff left the company shortly after. Koloff would find work in both ECW (he was on the first card in 1992) as well as Smokey Mountain Wrestling, before ultimately retiring in 1994.
Ivan Koloff may not have been the first wrestler to cash in on the Russian enemy stereotype, but he was definitely one of the first to make such an impact on a national scale – his triumph over Bruno Sammartino in 1971 was scandalous to many. But ultimately, his greatest battle would be his last, as he succumbed to a long battle with liver cancer this morning, at the age of 74.
On behalf of the entire Last Word on Pro Wrestling staff, we offer our condolences to the entire Perras family and to the friends and fans of the Russian Bear around the world.
ONE OF MY FIRST TEACHERS WHO HAD THE REAL HEEL HEAT. MY BROTHER IVAN KOLOFF REST IN PEACE pic.twitter.com/5xJ5cVRoR6
One day after George Steele, now Ivan Koloff has passed away. Rest in Peace Uncle Ivan, a great wrestler and person. #RIP
Rest in Peace Ivan Koloff. Thank you for your part in making me love professional wrestling.
Condolences go out to the Ivan Koloff family on Ivan's passing. Another fantastic guy and a real first class gentleman.
Always was a big fan of the GREAT Russian Bear Ivan Koloff. Dominated in an era filled legends. Condolences to his family, friends & fans. pic.twitter.com/2aasYcDM1q
Main Photo: WWE