IVAN – “The Russian Bear”

I have been watching wrestling for as long as I can remember. My oldest brother got me hooked one night when he took me to the Philadelphia Arena to watch Dusty Rhodes against Billy “Superstar” Graham. Both characters were so charismatic I bought into the whole act. I say act because I knew right from the start they were not really fighting. They were characters just playing the part. It really reminds me of how many Christians treat their faith.

As I started wrestling professionally I really noticed how different the “boys” were from their ring personas. Do not get me wrong, not every character was a sham. Guys like “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair were not playing characters, they were just being themselves; tough to tell where reality stopped and the acting began. The brief interactions I had with those three were more entertaining than almost anything I saw them do in the ring, and they were fantastic in the ring.

The biggest sham I ever met was Ivan Koloff, “The Russian Bear”. The bruiser heel hailing from Russia was nothing at all like his in ring character. On the contrary he was a gentle man who had great concern for people and a calming voice. He was an intimidating figure to say the least, big barrel chest, guns that looked more like somebody’s thighs, the scars on his forehead showed how vicious his career had been and when he used that Russian voice it made you take notice.
Whenever someone mentions “Uncle Ivan” I recall my first time meeting him. The Stormtrooper, Chuck Smith took me to Indian Trail, N.C. I was nervous almost to the point of unsettled. The conversation/interview went maybe 20 minutes. Koloff says, “Let’s hop in the ring”, he rolls in under rope and I just sit there. He looks at me and asks, “Have you changed your mind?” I said, “Sir, you just blew 15 years’ worth of hate, I use to despise you.” He laughed and said “well I did my job well then”. That he did, when I think back to the Russian Bear in his prime, nowhere would I have detected such a soft, loving soul.

Ivan was raised on a dairy farm in Canada. He came from a family of ten children. He was a wrestling fan since the age of eight and dreamt of the day he too would hop in the ring. At the young age of 17 years old, Ivan attended Jack Wentworth’s wrestling school in Hamilton, Ontario. After a year of training – weightlifting and learning all the holds – he was dubbed Red McNulty, an Irish rogue, who hailed from Dublin, Ireland wearing a patch over his eye and wrestled as a heel. His first match was against “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino on TV in Pittsburgh, Pa. Ivan honed his wrestling skills and gained experience over the next few years. In 1967, Ivan Koloff, the Russian Bear was born and debuted in Montreal Canada becoming the Canadian Heavyweight Champion.

The next three decades came with worldwide travel; Europe, Japan, Australia, West Indies, Puerto Rico, as well as the United States. Ivan made his biggest dream come true and along the way won many titles. The biggest being on January 18, 1971, at famed Madison Square Garden, when Koloff pinned Bruno Sammartino for the WWF heavyweight championship. After the pin, the new champion slowly walked across the ring while the ref raised his hand three times, and the announcer came into the ring with the championship belt; however, fearful of a riot, he did not present it to Koloff until they were in the locker-room. Koloff left the ring while Sammartino stayed inside to keep the crowd’s attention off Koloff.

Koloff was a star in the business and very well respected, yet with everything he had going for himself he was lost and not happy. As his fame increased his drinking increased as well. That was the culture of wrestling in those days; it was almost a requirement among all the wrestlers. Koloff found out he couldn’t be just be a “social drinker”. His body was so broken up from injuries due to wrestling and a wild lifestyle. In the square circle he was a masterful ring general but his personal life was so out of control because of drugs and alcohol, though he did not realize it at the time.

All those years he thought he was in control of his life. After all he was “the Russian Bear” a tough guy in and out of the ring; he was a famous wrestler; he wielded a lot of will power… but the truth was, it was all a big lie. He wasn’t happy and desperately needed help. There was a big void, something lacking that he could not realize. That all changed in 1994 when God used Ivan’s “nephew” Nikita Koloff, “The Russian Nightmare” for a “hot tag” moment.

Nikita was brought into the National Wrestling Alliance by his “Uncle” Ivan to prove Soviet superiority. The “Russian Nightmare” was a play-off of a fan favorite, “The American Dream”. Nikita had been Ivan’s partner on the road and Ivan had noticed a difference in Nikita. Ivan was invited to Nikita’s church for a revival service and that is where he accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior and found the answer because of the truth of God.

Boris Draggoff said he remembers in Whiteville NC “my opponent didn’t show up, Ivan was my manager and we went to the ring. Ivan told me that when he winked at me during the interview to attack him. I’m putting the boots and whipping him with the chain. He looks up at me, smiles and said hit me harder kid knowing that Ivan liked stiff work I was already laying it hard”. Jimmy Cicero recalls, “My rookie year Steve Storm & I teamed against Ivan & Vladimir… Cool & surreal!! Ivan was STIFF in that match… I believe as a way to prepare Storm & I.”

Pat Anderson said “I was on probably 7-8 shows with Ivan and the respect he gave and received from everyone was always impressive…He had asked me if I had accepted Christ as my Savior at a show at Longwood College and I told him that I had and then last year when I last saw him he asked again…That concern about me touched a part of me that few people have.”
Ivan passed away in February 2017. His memory lives on not only from his wrestling but from the years of ministry and the impact he made on the lives of so many. At one time he might have been a total sham but in the end he was a new creation. As humble of a man as he was, I like to think when he entered heaven the there might have been a standing ovation for “The Bear”.