The Russians are coming: Soviets in sports-entertainment
From Russia with love
Through the years, the wrestling industry has spawned its share of foreign competitors. One such grouping played on the emotions of many a fan by simply hailing from a country that at one point or another did not fall into favor with the American populous. In this article, I chronicle a number of individuals who were — or simply portrayed — Russian competitors. ( PHOTOS | WATCH)
Of course, the main catalyst for the influx of Russian competitors throughout the ’70s and ’80s was the era of the Cold War. The tensions of that time transcended into the world of wrestling and it was a natural fit. I hearken back to the days of the first “brother” combination of Russians. First appearing in Texas around 1953, the quartet of Kalmikoffs — Ivan, Karol, Nikita, and Igor — wreaked havoc inside the squared circle, winning many a title in many a territory. But The Kalmikoffs were only the beginning.
Arguably the greatest Russian competitor was Ivan Koloff. The Superstar known as the “Russian Bear” was a brute of a man. At nearly 290 pounds, he entered WWE in 1970. Managed by Captain Lou Albano, Koloff ran off victory after victory and quickly became the top contender for Bruno Sammartino’s WWE Championship. And on Jan. 18, 1971, the unthinkable happened in New York City’s Madison Square Garden when the nearly eight-year reign of Sammartino came to an end. ( WATCH) A knee drop off the top rope garnered Koloff the title and put him on the map. The Russian’s reign was a short one, though, as he was defeated in The Garden by Puerto Rican upstart Pedro Morales three weeks later.
Still, the period that Koloff was in the WWE served as his meal ticket to move onto other areas during the ’70s, specifically the Mid-Atlantic, Georgia, and Florida areas. During that timeframe, The Russian Bear dropped significant weight to not only get into better shape, but also to prolong his wrestling career. And one of the positives during the ’80s was his association with an individual who became known as Nikita Koloff. “Uncle Ivan” took him under his wing, and together the two formed an extremely hated duo throughout Georgia and the Carolinas. ( WATCH)
Thanks to his association with the villainous Ivan, Nikita quickly became one of the most despised competitors in the industry. Nicknamed "The Russian Nightmare," the mighty Soviet famously took on the heroic Magnum TA in a best-of-seven series over the United States Title in summer 1986. Nikita won the seventh and deciding match to capture the championship.
Eventually, things soured between The Koloffs, leading to a split between the two. That turned into another great opportunity for Nikita, as he befriended Dusty Rhodes during The American Dream’s rivalry with The Four Horsemen. ( WATCH) As hated as Nikita was at one point, he became a fan favorite when he aligned himself with the wildly popular Rhodes. As the Cold War began to thaw, Nikita heated up and became one of the most popular Russian competitors of all time.
Another powerful Russian who enjoyed success in the ring was Nikolai Volkoff. Big and burly, Volkoff first made a mark during a rivalry with Bruno Sammartino in the ’70s. Their battles up and down the east coast drew turn away crowds. Volkoff impressed many with one particular feat of strength: the ability to crush an apple with his bare hands!
Volkoff’s greatest successes came during the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection” in the mid-80s. Demanding that the fans respect his singing of his country’s national anthem before his matches, the proud Soviet became one of the most hated Superstars in WWE. Through manager Freddie Blassie, Volkoff formed an association with The Iron Sheik. He and his Iranian cohort won the WWE Tag Team Championship at the inaugural WrestleMania in 1985. ( WATCH) Volkoff also had an issue with Corporal Kirchner that culminated with a Flag Match at WrestleMania 2 in 1986. ( WATCH)
Another individual by the name of Boris Zhukov entered WWE in 1987 after finding some success in the Mid-Atlantic region. Zhukov formed a tag team with Nikolai Volkoff with the pair dubbing themselves The Bolsheviks. ( WATCH) The duos success was marginal at best and, with the Cold War fast becoming a memory, Vokoff dissolved his association with Zhukov in 1990. As was the case with Nikita Koloff, Volkoff became a fan favorite and began singing the Star Spangled Banner to echo his newfound freedom.
The Bolsheviks weren’t the only Soviets waving the red flag in wrestling rings in the ’70s and ’80s. Other personalities of the Russian persuasion included Krusher Khruschev, Alexis Smirnoff and The Masked Russians, a team who competed in WWE in the early ’70s and were managed by Nikita Mulkovich.
With the demise of the Cold War, Russian villains have become far less prevalent in sports-entertainment. But in recent times, WWE and ECW rings were invaded by Vladimir Kozlov, who made his debut in 2008. Expertly skilled in the art of sambo and other martial arts, The Moscow Mauler wasted no time in impressing both opponents and WWE fans alike. ( WATCH) He certainly had his ups and downs (as any newcomer would), but perhaps his greatest accomplishment was winning the WWE Tag Team Championship with Santino Marella in December 2010.
The era of Russian competitors has been one that has been unique in scope. From the dark days of being the hated ones, to the days of where they were embraced, it has been a period of time that will be forever etched in the annals of wrestling history.