Shortly after 10 p.m. on the night of Jan. 18, 1971, a young Canadian of Russian descent climbed to the top rope of the wrestling ring in New York’s Madison Square Garden. He went about his business quickly and systematically, just as he had done hundreds of times before. He looked down at the canvas and leaped so that his lower leg would strike his prostrate opponent across the upper chest. He then covered his foe for a quick 1-2-3 count.
And time stopped.
Rome had fallen.
Bruno Sammartino had been defeated.
The kneedrop heard ’round the world belonged to Ivan Koloff, “The Russian Bear,” nee Oreal Perras of Quebec, Canada, a main event fixture in Pittsburgh in the 1960s and 1970s. It ended Sammartino’s unprecedented seven-and-a-half year reign as WWWF World Heavyweight champion and brought a deathly hush to 21,166 fans that realized they had witnessed a moment of passage in pro wrestling history.
Bruno Sammartino: When Koloff hit me, he hit me pretty hard. He knocked the wind out of me and I went “Ooooph.” I thought maybe he had done something to my ear because I could not hear anything. Then Arnold Skaaland [Sammartino’s manager] got in the ring and asked me, “Are you all right?” and then I knew I could hear. And I looked around, and there was nothing. Total silence. And the fans, they were crying, and some were saying, “It’s OK Bruno, we still love you.” That was quite a feeling.
Ivan Koloff: What really impressed me was the idea that it was something right in the middle of the ring. As big as Bruno was in wrestling, that’s what really caught the people. They figured it would be a fluke maybe, but not something in the middle of the ring. And the people just went quiet. And I was wondering, “What happened? Somebody’s hairpiece fall off or something?” Dead silence. It was so quiet you could head a pin drop, literally. It was the type of thing where I got up, I raised my own hand, and said to the referee, “Where’s the belt?” He said, “No, just a minute, kid. Go back to the dressing room. Go back to the dressing room.” I said, “No, I just won the belt. Give me the belt.” He said, “No, no.” I didn’t realize, but they were afraid of a riot. So as I was leaving the ring, I could hear people telling Bruno, “It’s OK, Bruno, you’re still our champion,” and women crying and everything like that. Then, I started feeling like a real heel, saying, “Well, I hate myself now."
The climb to the top rope in Madison Square Garden symbolized the long climb of Koloff from an underprivileged childhood on a Canadian dairy farm a full 10 miles from the nearest town. Yet it would represent just one of many difficult climbs that he made in his life. Born Aug. 25, 1942, Koloff was one of 10 children. Big and strong, he was expected to contribute to the farm, which lacked electricity or a car. From the age of eight, he dreamed of becoming a pro wrestler. But he punctuated his dream with a series of troubling transgressions. He angrily quit school just two weeks away from graduating from 11th grade after being suspended for playing ping-pong during class time. After being laid off from a job, Koloff ran afoul of the law. He and his brother were caught stealing cattle, a serious crime in an agricultural community.
Ivan Koloff: Needless to say, I didn’t know it at the time, but maximum security prison is not a place to go to, and I even witnessed a guy getting kicked to death. Everybody joked with everybody else that their crime was worse, and that type of thing.
In 1960, Koloff moved to Hamilton, Ont. at the behest of one of his younger brothers and started training at Jack Wentworth’s famed wrestling school. At 6-1 and 235 pounds, he had the size and strength to make an immediate impact in the ring. He initially wrestled as Red McNulty, an Irish villain with a black eye patch and a full head of hair. In that guise, he met Sammartino, the idol of his teenage years, for the first time in 1963 when he took Ron “Bull” Johnson’s spot at a Pittsburgh TV taping.
Ivan Koloff: “I didn’t know it at the time, but I was going to wrestle against Bruno on TV. I remember one of the old guys – I can’t remember who it was – told me in the dressing room, “Get him when he goes down and makes the sign of the cross in the corner. Attack him because, kid, if you want to be noticed, you’ve got to do some things like that.” I ended up doing it and I remember Bruno looking up at me like, “What’s the crazy kid doing?” He threw me around and I think he put the bearhug on me. He was a strong guy.
In 1967, McNulty morphed into Koloff in the Montreal territory. Dan Koloff had been a star in Montreal some 30 years prior, and Ivan was hailed as his nephew. In his new persona, he beat Jacques Rougeau for the International title. In late 1969, he started the first of many runs against Sammartino, winning some matches that were stopped due to Sammartino’s bleeding.
Bruno Sammartino: I wrestled Koloff — oh, my goodness, I don’t know — 50, 75 times. I don’t know how many. The reason why I enjoyed wrestling him so much was that after each match when I left and went back to the dressing room, I felt in my heart that the fans who came out and bought that ticket, that they went home feeling they got their money’s worth.
Koloff said he was surprised to be recalled to the WWWF for the January 1971 match against Sammartino because their program had ended so recently.
Ivan Koloff: I was 29. I couldn’t believe it. I had just wrestled Bruno for a solid year, three times all around the territory. Then I had left and went to Australia for 10 weeks and was wrestling a couple months in Hawaii when I got the word to come back and they had a match for me. It was the best thing I could have done even though I just stayed a couple of months.
Koloff’s reputation was made. Sammartino beat Koloff by disqualification in a rematch in Pittsburgh on Feb. 12, 1971. But the legendary win meant Koloff could travel internationally as a former world champion, the man who had vanquished the incomparable Sammartino.
Lou Albano: I was managing Ivan at the time. That match will never be forgotten ... They had some great matches back and forth.
From the WWWF, Koloff headed to the AWA, where he emerged as a credible contender for the belt of perennial world champ Verne Gagne. The program culminated in a match at Soldier Field in Chicago in September 1972, which Gagne won.
Ivan Koloff: In ’72, ’73 when I was wrestling, I lived in Minneapolis. Like a dummy, I had bought at that time 10 acres of land just down by Orange, south of Minneapolis, and I sold it too soon because right now today it would be worth about $1 million an acre.
However, Koloff’s stay in the AWA was marred by an injury that would haunt him for much of his career. In 1973, Koloff teamed with Superstar Billy Graham against Wahoo McDaniel and Billy Robinson.
Ivan Koloff: I ended up taking a backdrop in the ring in Minneapolis and I think a board was out because I know, when I hit, I had sharp pains. That really bothered me. As a matter of fact, I took about two-and-half months off. They wanted to operate but I didn’t do it. Then I had another one rupture after that. People can’t really appreciate the fact that the scheduling we had. That’s why a lot of guys back then got involved in so much alcohol and drug abuse. It was to try and find relief because it was the type of thing back then where you didn’t have a written contract. You had a job and you had to produce. So if you had a broken shoulder or broken ribs back then, no health insurance, you couldn’t take time off. You had to wrestle with it. So you had to wrestle with injuries.
For about 18 months, Koloff took painkillers, sleeping pills, and muscle relaxers so he could continue to wrestle. He became addicted to them. Once the prescriptions ran out, Koloff sought medication on the black market.
A promo shot of Ivan Koloff with the Mid-Atlantic title.
Ivan Koloff: I could get them on the street. It was very accessible on the streets and I ended up taking them and getting into situations where even the drugs weren’t enough. Looking back, I could say, “Well, I deserve it. I worked hard. I get up every morning and go to the gym and work out. I work hard in the ring, so I need this for my body. It’s OK then to not only take these drugs but to find some relief in marijuana. And marijuana wasn’t enough, then maybe cocaine.”
Koloff continued to work as one of the most in-demand performers in wrestling. When Sammartino regained the WWWF title in 1973, Koloff renewed his rivalry. The two had the first ever cage match in Madison Square Garden as part of a three-bout series of contests. Sammartino regards that as one of the greatest bouts of his career.
Bruno Sammartino: If I may say so myself, I think we set a standard because I’ve seen quite a few cage matches since then and I don’t think any of them live up to that one because he was a horse. I mean, he was tough.
Koloff landed in the Mid-Atlantic area in 1980 — he had appeared there in 1974-75 — and started feuding with Jimmy Valiant. He eventually moved to tag team wrestling, joining Don Kernodle as NWA World Tag champions in 1984. When Jim Crockett Promotions brought in Nikita Koloff as his wrestling “nephew,” a pair of destruction-minded Russians turned on Kernodle and beat him senseless.
Don Kernodle: That was a heckuva an angle. I was supposed to be the turncoat — this is when Russia was still our enemy — so teaming with Ivan brought us a lot of heat. Of course, Ivan is nothing like that in real life. He’s a gem.
Because of his vast experience in the ring, other wrestlers loved to work with Koloff, when had dropped about 60 pounds from his first run in the WWWF. Veteran George South recalled his experiences in a six-man tag match in Rock Hill, S.C. designed to prep the Russian team of Koloff, Teijo Kahn, and Vladimir Petrov for a program against the Road Warriors.
George South: It was George South, Gary Royal, and Tommy Angel against these giants. And we all three had the same idea without saying so much as a word to each other. As soon as they hit the ring, we all ran to Ivan because we knew he wouldn’t hurt us. So there we are, all three of us running toward Ivan, and these other two guys are standing there with nobody to fight.
I’ve been there when he gave me $100 out of his own pocket. He didn’t have to do that. For a guy like me who wasn’t making much money – and a lot of times, you’d do well to make $300 a week for Crockett – for somebody like Ivan to come up and give you $100, well, he’s special.
Yet Koloff’s personal life was one harrowing escape after another. He bears a scar on his neck where the iron Sheik bit him during a fight aboard an airplane at 20,000 feet. Koloff said he was drinking at the time, and took exception to the Sheik. “I was drunk. It was my fault.” The Russian Bear wrecked a car when he wrapped it around a telephone pole in the 1980s, the result of too much to drink at a wedding reception.
Ivan Koloff: I look back many, many times at the hundreds or thousands of times I could have been killed because I can’t remember the trip back. I’d wake up and say, “Man, I drove last night but I don’t remember a thing.”
It was a call from his wrestling nephew that changed Koloff and started him on the longest climb of his life. Nikita persuaded Ivan to attend church services and give his life to the Lord. It was the hardest battle of Koloff’s career, and he admitted that he struggled with the decision.
During a two-year period in the 1990s, he cleansed himself of alcohol, dugs, tobacco, and chewing tobacco. Now living in North Carolina with his wife, Koloff started his own ministry, and regularly lectures at detention homes, prisons, youth groups, and churches. For the last 11 years, he has signed autographs at Wal-Mart on behalf of the Children’s Miracle Network.
Ivan Koloff: When I started straightening up, things started working in my life. The Lord came and died for our sins. 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, that I could reach up there and tag him and know without a doubt that he’s there for me.
© September 2004 SteelBeltWrestling.com
Sources: Interviews with Ivan Koloff, Bruno Sammartino, Lou Albano, Don Kernodle, George South and others.
— Steven Johnson