Hammers, Sickles, and Turnbuckles
Soviet wrestlers mourn Ronald Reagan.
Almost overnight, Nikita became the NWA's most hated performer. Death threats and bigger paychecks kept on comin'. By the end of his first year as a wrestler, Simpson legally changed his name to that of his character. He remains Nikita Koloff to this day.
When Reagan took office, Nikita's high-school classmate Barry Darsow was wrestling in Florida as fan favorite Crusher Darsow. In 1982, his promoter decided that the Cold War would be good for both of them. Darsow announced to fans that America was the real Evil Empire. He would henceforth wrestle as Krusher Khrushchev.
"I changed my name to honor Nikita Khrushchev, the greatest leader of all time," Darsow remembers. "This was a time when the fans believed everything. They wanted to kill me."
Darsow took his CCCP sweatband to the NWA in 1984, joining the Koloffs. The heat just got hotter. At a show in Washington, D.C., Darsow's head got split open by a hot dog with a bolt in it that was thrown from the cheap seats. He spent much of the next decade running from the ring to the dressing room, and from the arena exits to his car, to avoid getting pummeled by fans caught up in the president's "Better Dead Than Red!" mind-set.
But that only makes the Krusher's heart grow fonder for the dearly departed. "I loved Ronald Reagan," he says. "I believe Ronald Reagan was the greatest leader of my lifetime." Better than Nikita Khrushchev? "Oh, yeah. Even better than Nikita Khrushchev!" Darsow says. "That was a gimmick, remember?"
Like every pundit this week, the faux Russian wrestlers who thrived under Reagan now give him all the credit for getting a three-count on Communism. "I never believed the wall would come down in my lifetime," says Volkoff. "Ronald Reagan was the best president we ever had, for the U.S."
"I've seen a lot of old clips of President Reagan this week," adds Nikita. "And I see why he got over: When he was in front of a microphone, he made his point. He really was the Great Communicator. He would have been a great wrestler."
Alas, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought big changes to pro wrestling. Darsow dropped the Krusher Khrushchev gimmick and went to work for the WWF as Repo Man. Volkoff, now 57, works as a code-enforcement inspector for Baltimore County, Md., but still wrestles, mostly in small towns for independent promoters and more often as a good guy than a heel. He's replaced the Russian national anthem in his pre-match routine with a version of the "Star Spangled Banner," sung in a deep baritone with an authentic Slavic accent.
Ivan Koloff, who, like Nikita, retired from wrestling in the early 1990s, says that the end of the Cold War "took the edge off" his character. "Democracy is good for the world," he says. "But it was bad for business."
Dave McKenna is a writer in Washington D.C.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.