Ivan Koloff was one of the most hated characters in wrestling. Each night he stepped into the ring with a wicked look on his face, sinister Fu Manchu, embroidered black velvet robe, and sometimes chains draped over his shoulders. Backstage was a different story. Koloff was more teddy bear than Russian Bear (his nickname).
"I don't know anyone who's ever said a bad thing about Ivan," says his fictional nephew, Nikita Koloff, whose character was brought in to team with Ivan during the 1980s (Nikita legally changed his name when he adopted the persona).
"I never figured myself as a main-eventer. I always kept that feeling of a fan being in awe," says the soft-spoken Ivan Koloff, sixty-seven.
Koloff's outlook may stem from modest beginnings in Canada. "We couldn't afford electricity. I was about eight years old and mother took us to a friend's place that had a [television]. Wrestling was one of the first programs on TV, and I fell in love with it."
At eighteen he began lifting weights, bulking up from 183 pounds to 235 in order to train at a wrestling school in Hamilton, Ontario. After adopting the Russian Bear persona six years into his career, Koloff defeated Bruno Sammartino for the then-WWWF Championship Title at Madison Square Garden in 1971. The win, which ended Sammartino's seven-year reign, left the crowd stunned — fans mobbed Koloff's car as he drove out of the Garden's garage. Koloff moved to Charlotte in 1974 to work for Jim Crockett Promotions.
"It was intense to say the least. We wrestled seven days a week. Most days you wrestled twice," he says. In Charlotte he drafted Nikita, who converted Ivan to Christianity in 1995, help- ing him after years of abusing a laundry list of substances ("chewing tobacco, cocaine, marijuana, pills, alcohol"). Koloff retired in the early 1990s and moved to his wife's hometown of Greenville, North Carolina. He's now an ordained minister who speaks to prisoners and performs wedding ceremonies on Carolina beaches.
He hasn't lost his passion for wrestling and appears at charity events, independent shows, and book signings (Is That Wrestling Fake? The Bear Facts is available at crowbarpress.com).