Soviet wrestlers mourn Ronald Reagan.

Dispatches from the dark corners of sports.
June 11 2004 3:14 PM

Hammers, Sickles, and Turnbuckles

Soviet wrestlers mourn Ronald Reagan.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

"Business was good with Reagan," recalls a wistful Nikolai Volkoff. "I voted for him twice."

Nikita Koloff is a fan of the dead president, too. "I wasn't a political guy," says Koloff, "but Ronald Reagan's policies were good for wrestling."

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Yes, Reagan's policies were good for wrestling—and even better for Volkoff, Koloff, and the gaggle of faux-Soviet wrestlers who worked the ring during the last years of the Cold War.

Pro wrestling has always been pro-xenophobia, with cartoonish foreigner types employed to goose the crowd into a patriotic frenzy. But during Reagan's reign, evil German and Japanese characters—everybody but the Iron Sheik, really—got bumped down or off the card to make way for the Red Menace.

Had Reagan not dogged the Evil Empire so intensely, Volkoff (real name: Joe Peruzovic) surely wouldn't have fired up the crowd by singing the Russian national anthem at Vince McMahon's first WWF Wrestlemania in 1985. And Koloff would have gone through life as plain ol' Scott Simpson, a wannabe pro football player from Minneapolis.

Koloff says he owes his career to a 1984 brainstorming session. Animal (real name Joe Laurinaitis *) of the tag team the Road Warriors, Sgt. Slaughter (a GI Joe-type superpatriot played by Robert Remus), and Don Kernodle (real name Don Kernodle) all toiled in the Charlotte-based NWA, then the premiere rassling federation in the Southern states. When they mulled over how to take artistic advantage of real world events, they seized upon the threatened Soviet boycott of the L.A. Olympics. We need more Commie ass to kick, the wrestlers concluded. NWA boss Jim Crockett agreed.

"Do you know any big guys who would shave their head?" Crockett asked. Simpson, an occasional workout partner of Animal's, was mentioned. His lack of wrestling experience—"I'd never even been in a ring before," he says—was trumped by the need for Russians. Plus, he had huge pecs and a willingness to go bald. Crockett hired Simpson over the phone. Nikita Koloff was born.

Nikita Koloff was introduced to fans as the nephew of Ivan Koloff, the elder statesman of ring Russkies and, at the time, the only Soviet character in the NWA stable. Now 61, Ivan grew up in Canada as Jim Parras.

"I know 'nyet' and 'da'—and I'm not sure what 'da' means," says Ivan when asked how much of the Russian language he picked up in three decades of playing the "Russian Bear."

Peruzovic, the Yugoslavian émigré who played Nikolai Volkoff, is the only alleged Russian of ring renown who actually spoke the language. But wrestling audiences don't speak Pinko, either. The anti-Soviet atmosphere in the NWA's Southern territory meant that a mute in a CCCP singlet could get the crowds jeering.

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