Goodbye to "The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff
Originally published at Canadian Bulldog's World.
The bear may seem like a lumbering beast but the bear is one of the most intelligent and powerful of animals, able to use tools, empathetic, and cable of communicating through body language. Like his namesake, Ivan “The Russian Bear” Koloff was a complex individual with much to be learned about. Beneath his gruff promos were t many talents and wonderful qualities that made him respected in and out of the ring.
I’ll always remember Ivan Koloff for his epic feud with “Boogie Woogie Man” Jimmy Valiant in Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) but there was so much more to this outstanding wrestler’s career, his historic dethroning of WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino in 1971 at Madison Square Garden, a series of memorable runs throughout the territories, and Ivan teaming during his later years with storyline nephew Nikita Koloff in the Carolinas.
Born Oreal Perras, the man who became best known as “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff was born in Canada in 1942. He wanted to be a wrestler from the time he was eight years old, and left school at 17 to begin training as a professional wrestler. According to his website, Koloff wrestled early on as Red McNulty, an Irish heel with an eyepatch who terrorized babyfaces as he learned the ropes. In 1967, Perras transformed into Ivan Koloff, debuting in Montreal, Canada as a heel and winning championship gold in the territory.
Ivan Koloff began wrestling in the WWWF in 1969, teaming up with fellow heel Waldo Von Erich to take on the popular team of Victor Rivera and Gorilla Monsoon (Koloff had wrestled as Red McNulty a few years before).
On October 11, 1969, Koloff fought WWWF champion Bruno Sammartino in Pittsburgh for over sixteen minutes until the match was stopped due to blood loss. The Pittsburgh rematch on November 14 saw Sammartino win by submission but this rivalry was only beginning. Koloff amassed win after win in the WWWF. On December 9, 1969, Sammartino and Koloff met in Madison Square Garden, the match being stopped due to blood loss (match finishes were often reused in different venues since few fans knew what happened in other venues). Koloff and Sammartino would clash occasionally through 1970 in singles and tag team matches but Koloff was unable to wrest the title from Sammartino.
That changed on the night of January 18, 1971. A crowd of 21, 666 at Madison Square Garden (a record at the time) saw Bruno and Ivan engage in a titanic struggle that went on for fourteen minutes and fifty-five seconds. The match was a classic with an amazing display of fast-paced moves such as arm drags, submission wrestling, and plain brawling. It was a match that could have gone any way. One mistake led to Bruno’s downfall. He charged Koloff in the corner only for “The Russian Bear” to get out of the way. Koloff body slammed a dazed Sammartino then climbed to the top rope, coming off with a boot to Sammartino’s chest. A three-count later and the Garden went silent. Legend has it the ring announcer feared a riot and did not dare to announce Koloff as the new WWWF champion.
Of course, Koloff’s role was to serve as a transition champion and he did so for 21 days before passing the title over to Vince McMahon Sr.’s new standard bearer, Pedro Morales. After leaving the WWWF, Koloff did what wrestlers usually did, he traveled the world, wrestling for various promotions where his rugged and fearsome look made him a natural heel, especially with the Cold War going on. Koloff would challenge Verne Gagne for the AWA World Championship, win Japan’s IWA World Tag Team Championship with “Mad Dog” Vachon, and the Mid-Atlantic Television Championship. A return to the WWWF in 1975 culminated in a legendary cage match between Koloff and WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino.
My first memories of “The Russian Bear” date back to one of his campaigns in JCP. At the time, Koloff was feuding with babyface “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant aka “The Boogie Woogie Man.” I’ll never forget a promo Koloff cut where he claimed Valiant and his motorcycle-riding friends ran him off the road, injuring him. My brother Dave would mimic Koloff’s gravelly voice, “Mr. Boogie Woogie Man, you ride your motorcycles around me.” Koloff took what could have been an unintentionally funny promo and made it believable.
Koloff’s promos sometimes reflected a dark humor but he was no joke. The guy looked tough as nails and he was one of those heels that looked like he could take on a bunch of longshoreman during his lunch break. Koloff’s finisher saw him mount the top turnbuckle and drive his knee into his opponent’s back, driving their head into the mat apron. Whenever Koloff had an opponent up for that, you knew it was over. Not every wrestler had finishers back in those days but Koloff did, and I can’t recall anyone kicking out. If that wasn’t bad enough, Koloff carried around a shovel (what a wrestler needed a shovel for is anyone’s guess) and on rare occasions, used it, clobbering his opponent (in this case, Jimmy Valiant). Koloff was also known for using a chain when he needed an assist.
“The Russian Bear” was known for his roughhouse style as exemplified by his feud with Jimmy Valiant. Koloff and Valiant’s feud over the Television Title in JCP made for some brutal and unforgettable matches. The two brawlers worked up and down the Mid-Atlantic territory (as well as its satellite in Toronto’s legendary Maple Leaf Gardens) engaging in a variety of specialty matches such as Salt Miner’s Glove Matches and New York Street Fights. Ivan Koloff remained a fixture in JCP during the 1980’s. By 1984, some people wondered if the Russian Bear still had it though. Any doubts were dispelled with the introduction of Ivan’s kayfabe nephew, “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita, who seemed to invigorate Uncle Ivan. After dumping former partner Don Kernodle (in true Koloff fashion, Ivan and Nikita destroyed Kernodle after he and Ivan lost the NWA World Tag Team Championship), Ivan formed a dominant team with “The Russian Nightmare” The Russians (not exactly the most colorful tag team moniker but one that got the job done) would go on to hold the NWA World Tag Team Championship on two occasions as well as the NWA World Six-Man Tag Team Championship with Nikita and American turncoat Krusher Krushchev.
The Russians were considered one of the most (if not most) dominant tag teams at the time so it was little surprise that promoters eagerly signed them to matches against wrestling’s other dominant bad boys, the Road Warriors. The Road Warriors, AWA World Tag Team Champions at the time, engaged in bloody battles that saw fans hoping to see Road Warriors Hawk and Animal overcome the Russian menace. With the Cold War back after the détente of the 1970’s, the Russians were the perfect heel team. Ivan’s anti-American promos were ideal for capitalizing on American patriotism just as films like Red Dawn and Rocky IV did.
Ivan’s team with Nikita ended when Nikita turned babyface (Nikita would turn babyface in one of the most unlikely turns ever when he took over for Magnum T.A., following Magnum’s career-ending auto accident). Ivan’s last major program was when he helped manager Paul Jones coach the Powers of Pain against the Road Warriors.
After retiring from wrestling, “The Russian Bear” became a born-again Christian and later, an ordained minister. Koloff would credit his faith with conquering personal demons that plagued him and his ministry saw the man who once terrorized fans, now performing weddings. Ivan Koloff’s WWWF Championship win over Bruno Sammartino was enough to earn him a spot amongst the legends of the business but that was just the beginning of his many accomplishments. Everyone at Canadian Bulldog’s World sends their condolences to Mr. Perras’ friends and family and thank him for so many wonderful memories.
Buckler, David. “Ivan Koloff.” Online World of Wrestling.com. Ivan Koloff. 18 Feb. 2017. http://www.onlineworldofwrestling.com/bios/i/ivan-koloff. Accessed 19 Feb. 2017.
Cawthon, Graham. “The History of the WWE. Results. 1971”. The History of the WWE. June 2016. http://www.thehistoryofwwe.com. Accessed 2 June 2016.
Hornbaker, Tim. Capitol Revolution: The Rise of the McMahon Wrestling Empire. ECW Press, 2015. .
Marley, P. “A Brief History of the Russian Bear.” Ivan Koloff, The Russian Bear: Professional Wrestling Champion. 2013. Web. 02 June 2016.
Wikipedia contributors. "Ivan Koloff." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Apr. 2016. Web. 2 June 2016.