Hammers, Sickles, and Turnbuckles
Soviet wrestlers mourn Ronald Reagan.
"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."
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.
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.