Name: Ivan Koloff
Year Inducted: 2011
The date January 18, 1971 and Ivan Koloff will forever be connected. That was the day that “The Russian Bear” did the unthinkable, defeating Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World title. “Dead silence came down,” said Lou Albano, who was in Koloff’s corner that night. “They couldn’t believe it.” While he only held the belt for three weeks before dropping it to Pedro Morales, it made Koloff into a star.
It was the Rougeaus in Montreal that took a young Ontario-born French-Canadian Oreal Parras who had been working as Red McNulty in Vancouver and Calgary and turned him into a vicious Russian heel, with shaved head and beard in 1967. Koloff shot to the top, wrestling all the top stars that came into Quebec. “I was wrestling these famous guys that I had heard about — Hans Schmidt and his tag team partner, the Rougeaus, Edouard Carpentier. Guys I had heard about, seen on TV, and here now I was wrestling them. That to me was really a big highlight for me.”
Following his loss of the WWWF title, Koloff hit the road, and found much success as a tag team wrestler, claiming the NWA World tag titles on a five occasions, and four different partners — Ray Stevens, Don Kernodle, Nikita Koloff (twice, and they are not related), and Manny Fernandez. He had a great ability to rile up a crowd, spewing Communist rhetoric.
He was on top in the Mid-Atlantic for years, starting in 1974 and was a frequent visitor to the WWWF. “What a heel of a hell he was,” said top NWA referee Tommy Young. “He wasn’t real tall, but thick as a brick; great performer. He was very professional, knew how to get the heat, was willing to do whatever he needed to.”
Koloff quit wrestling full-time in 1989 when Ted Turner acquired the Carolinas promotion and consolidated headquarters to Atlanta, though Koloff turned up in small promotions in the early 1990s with wrestling nephew Vladimir. His life turned for the better in 1994 when Nikita, a minister, persuaded him to attend church services and give his life to the Lord. Koloff ditched his vices and started a ministry in North Carolina with wife Renae. He appears at detention homes, prisons, youth groups, and churches, though he has laced up the boots for a few legends matches in recent years. “When I started straightening up, things started working in my life,” he said. “Once I understood that, that it wasn’t going to be on my power, it was going to be on His power, I now had a tag team partner who truly was a world champion.”
In 2007, Koloff teamed with Scott Teal to publish his autobiography, “Is That Wrestling Fake?” The Bear Facts. “Ivan was easy to interview because he was very upfront about his life. Even though he had every right to, he didn’t boast about his career,” said Teal. “It’s a good look at life on the road as a wrestler through the eyes of somebody who was there.”
— Greg Oliver & Steven Johnson