By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor
Welcome Bruthas and Sistas, to the premiere edition of my new series, Going to Heel. We will be looking at a multitude of wrestlers, and as many different gimmicks that all lent to them being the bad guy, the one you hate, as well as the one that is the key to the success of any storyline……the heel.
Whether it be in movies, on television, or especially in wrestling, I have always been the person who cheered the villains. The good guys always seemed to be, and I hate to be using this term, more fake in their behavior than the heel. What could be more real than being bad, right? So while everyone was cheering for the friends and compatriots of the Red and Yellow, as they came running to his aid, after he was laid out by the likes of a Piper, Andre, Bundy, or Savage….it was the heel that I wanted to be because he was putting the boots to the goodie-two-shoes that I despised for their bubblegum approach that Vince chose to take in the late 70‘s and 80’s. It wasn’t until the rise of the anti-hero, and the beer swilling bad guy that the herd embraced, that I found myself in their Borg-ish numbers. Gods bless Vince for realizing the gap and coming out to take on the role of heel, and give me someone to cheer for, while the rest of the fans boo’d their disapproval of. I do so love to cheer in their fragile little faces as their beloved heroes take a beating.
We will be looking at more than just the McMahon’s ever changing promotion in this series, we will look at wrestlers from not only other promotions, but from around the world. I believe the best place to start is with the man that put the great Bruno Sammartino on the shelf, and helped to transition the belt from not only one babyface champion to another, but also helped to change the direction of the promotion in the process.
While Ivan Koloff had an amazing run with the Russians in both Tag Team and Three Man Tag Team championships, we will focus on the singles runs of these legends of the ring, and the titles they captured within them. So bundle up and let’s get started, cause we’re headed to the cold North, to Montreal.
Born Oreal Perras in the height of the 1942 summer, he was one of ten children raised by his parents on their dairy farm. Life was plenty of hard work for the youngster on the farm, and that ideal of nothing worthwhile comes easy, was set upon him early on. Some of the happy times were when the family would gather in front of the television in the evenings after the days toils. Among the things that would be tuned in was the local professional wrestling, and it had a profound effect on him. With six brothers, I can only imagine the rough housing and scrapping that happened on the living room floor in front of their television set. He stayed on at the farm and their agrarian lifestyle until he was eighteen, and set out to live the dreams that he had manifested a decade earlier, and had cultivated in the time since.
He headed to Hamilton, Ontario and a wrestling school he had been hearing about for several years. Perras spent the next year training heavily and sculpting the hulking farm-fed frame he had shown up with, at five feet, ten and two hundred seventy pounds. He took his training from Jack Wentworth, who owned the school, and Dan Koloff, whose last name he would take later on during his rise in the business, and make his fame with. Perras broke his in-ring cherry in 1961, working an eye-patched Irish heel gimmick, under the name Red McNulty, and had trimmed his physique down to a trim two hundred five pounds. He cut his teeth there and worked that circuit for the next few years, before heading out onto the long, long roads of Canada, as well as the Japanese territories to ply his craft, and learn as much as he could. He also began to see that the top draws were either technicians, or massive bulked up bruisers. Taking his heel style to the latter, he began to put back muscle onto the frame that he had thinned out during his initial time training.
It was during his time at the IWA in Eastern Canada, that he took on the Koloff moniker and adopted the gimmick that he carried for the rest of his career. He faced off against Jean Rougeau, uncle to Jacques and Raymond, for the Heavyweight Title there and beat him in 1968 for that belt. It is said that Rougeau was the one to put the name of Ivan Koloff onto him after hearing about his background and training. The pattern of the Big Russian title hunting every promotion he went to, began here, and he held the top gold most everywhere he went. He had now bulked up to near three hundred pounds onto his person, and knew how to use that mass to his advantage. People would soon fear the name of Ivan Koloff, and all that started for him in the New York City market, and with Vince McMahon Sr.
The Russian Bear arrived in NYC near the end of 1969, and his evil “red” character was immediately seen as a foil for the beloved champion at that time, Bruno Sammartino. Sammartino had been carrying the belt for a long run and the effects were beginning to tell on him, so Vince Sr. was looking for that perfect heel to transfer the belt to, in order to then put it on the new man he had set to be his champion, fan favorite, Pedro Morales. Taken under the wing of heel manager, Capt. Lou Abano, Koloff got his shot at the WWWF Title on January 18th, 1971.
The level of love and devotion to their champion, Sammartino, by the NYC fanbase was known to be large, but the shock and awe in their faces that evening were hugely underestimated by the McMahons. Fans cursed, threw debris, and some even cried as the three count fell down that evening, and Sammartino himself, made the comment that he thought he had lost his hearing, when the stunned silence fell just before the unleash of their uproar and revulsion to Bruno’s loss. He would only hold the belt for three short weeks, but the impact of that title change catapulted him into the forefront of the professional scene, as well as cemented his legacy forever as the man who beat the “Living Legend” and ended his near eight year run with the Heavyweight Title.
All the territories had heard about the title shift, and once Morales took the belt from Koloff, he was one of the hottest commodities on the free agent scene. Taking to the roads, his title hunt continued, and in 1974 he was working in the Southern market, still riling the hatred of the patriotic fans and military families that were predominate there. His helped grow the still fledgling Jim Crockett promotions who were growing their Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling brand. Koloff won their Television Title on May 10th of that year and became embroiled in a feud with #1 Paul Jones, who took the title from him in a Texas Death match that July, but Koloff took it back that Halloween.
One of the known facts in territorial wrestling in the mid to late-Seventies was that if you were a heel, and could draw money, then you wanted to get to Florida and wrestle Dusty Rhodes. Koloff was not immune to this, and made his way to the Sunshine State in 1977 to find out for himself. The two battled but it was when he came up against Steve Keirn, that he found his first gold there, in the NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship in Tampa on May 24th of that year. The Summer months were proving to be the title season for Ivan, and he continued this trend over the next several years. He held the Southern Heavyweight Title for near six months before his old title snatching nemesis, Pedro Morales, hit the scene and defeated Ivan for the title in September of 1977.
During 1977, Koloff was also working in Indianapolis for Dick the Bruiser and his World Wrestling Association promotion. Though he had stopped off in ’74-’75 for a short stint in the promotion, it was during this 1977 run that he added the WWA Heavyweight Title notch to his gun. From April to December of that year, Koloff and The Bruiser traded the belt back and forth three times, with the Bruiser coming out on top of the feud. Koloff’s ability to work the fans, and draw them to the shows, was not lost on any of the promoters across the country and all of them wanted to have a run against the Russian Bear. He took advantage of this time and made money all over the country. His next major title capture would be back in the Crockett’s MACW, in 1981.
Having now been on the roads and building a following for himself, albeit one of ire and and disdain from the fans, but also that of respect among his peers for taking care of the business he was helping to grow. The NWA Heavyweight Title was the pinnacle of achievement outside of the established, self-sufficiency that lay in the few promotions that had managed to set themselves apart and sustain their own championships. Though Koloff battled for the “Ten Pounds of Gold”, he never held that ultimate of ultimates. He did, however, hold most every other title represented by the NWA, including the biggest prize behind it in the Carolinas….the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Title.
Ricky Steamboat was six months into his reign with the MACW Heavyweight Title when Koloff came calling. The dynamic of the perfect goodie-goodie babyface that, eternally, was Steamboat was a winning combination for his polar opposite. Koloff had no significant babyface singles run that I can remember, especially during his heyday He took lil’ Ricky to his limits, and beat him for the strap in April of 1981 at the Norfolk Scope. Steamboat regained the title in October that year, after another Reign of Summer for Ivan.
Koloff stayed in MACW for several years off and on, and it was then that he, along with his booked nephew Nikita and Barry “Krusher Kruschev” Darsow came together to create one of the most acclaimed heel factions of it’s time, and is still regarded today as one of the best three man units to date, with the Russians. They went to war with Dusty Rhodes, and a few parings to form a three man unit, including the Road Warriors, with whom the most famously battled. One match against the Paul Jones Army in 1988 with Nikita as his partner, was one of the few, if only, times he worked the babyface side of the story.
The next territorial title conquest for Koloff came in the Spring of 1984, and back on his native Canadian soil, at the Maple Leaf Wrestling promotion in Toronto. This one of the international territories that will be covered in the book version of my Wrestling Territories. At this time in its life arc, the promotion was being ran by the Tunneys, Jack and Eddie. Ivan came in on a talent exchange with MACW and defeated the Brian Adidas in a tournament final to declare a new NWA Canadian Heavyweight Champion there, after it had been vacated by Angelo Mosca just over a month prior.
Angelo Mosca Jr. came back to claim the title his father had held, and did so in June of that year, defeating Koloff. It was not long after that the Tunneys broke from the NWA and came under the expanding McMahon umbrella. Koloff got there just in time to add that piece of Canadian professional wrestling history to his resume.
Koloff’s last Heavyweight Title reign came in 1989. The date he won the WWC Puerto Rico Heavyweight Title was only a year removed, nearly to the day, that Bruiser Brody was killed at a World Wrestling Council show. Ivan won the title on July 15, when he defeated the Invader #1, who was also Brody’s killer. The two feuded all summer, and the Invader took his title back in the fall of that year. The WWC will also be covered in the International section of Wrestling Territories book.
The last years of his career were spent doing short stints in the last respite of the territories, in that of ECW and Smoky Mountain Wrestling. Koloff also worked the nostalgia circuit and appeared at signings and conventions. He passed away on February 18th, 2017 from cancer.
Ivan Koloff sold out the biggest arenas across the country during a time when titles meant a little more to the business, and the ability to take the biggest strap in the land, no matter where he went was a quality that promoters loved in him. He found a gimmick that fit his own natural looks, and his ability to be that heel that everyone loved to hate, and feared to come face to face with. His lack of admittance to the WWE Hall of Fame is a damn disgrace, and smear on the history books in this historians opinion, as well as from a mindset of a fan of the Russian Bear. When he was in the ring or cutting a promo, he was always one of those kinds of wrestlers that made me think….this guy may actually be that mean and nasty. He may really want to hurt you if he got the chance. That, is what a great heel does, and that is why I chose Ivan Koloff to start this series.
Thank you Bruthas and Sistas, and until next time, keep in mind; you may love to cheer for your heroes, but it’s the heels that keep you coming back. For how can you have a triumphant defender, without an equally evil villain for them to conquer.