Ivan Koloff never got the respect he deserved.
While many of us growing up knew him for his time in Jim Crockett’ outfit in the Carolinas and his hoarse accent as one of the best heels of my generation, Koloff did the unthinkable in 1971 by ending Bruno Sammartino’s reign in WWWF. His win, which lasted all of 21 days, bridged the gap between the former champion Sammartino and the man who would take the strap from Koloff, Pedro Morales.
The Canadian-born Koloff, whose real name is Oreal Perras, lost his battle with cancer on Friday night. He was 74.
When I look at the greats of the 1970s and 1980s, those who shaped the business, Koloff’s name is seldom mentioned. But it should be. Perras developed on the greatest characters in this business. A burly man with a barrel chest and thick accent. Walking to the ring with a huge chain around his neck and at 5-foot-7, he was truly a giant in matches where he would batter his opponents.
There has been much talk about putting Both Chyna and Vader in WWE’s Hall of Fame this year. Chyna, who passed away last year, was arguably the greatest women’s performer of all time. Vader, a star in both WCW and WWE after a successful career in Japan, are both worthy soldiers. Koloff should be mentioned in the same breath. While the debate continues over who should and should not be part of this year’s class, all three need to be part of the argument. Enough with the political comment.
During his time in the WWWF, Koloff wrestled WWWF World Heavyweight Championship title matches against Sammartino, Morales, Superstar Billy Graham and Bob Backlund, holding the distinction, with fellow villain Stan Stasiak, as one of only two men to challenge all four of these fan favorite champions. Koloff would also be the first opponent to ever challenge for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship in a steel cage match in a rematch loss against Sammartino. He spent time in the WWWF from 1975–1976, 1978–1979 and 1983.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Koloff found success in the National Wrestling Alliance, winning many regional tag team and singles titles in the Georgia, Florida, and Mid-Atlantic territories. In February 1981, he teamed with Ray Stevens to defeat Paul Jones and Masked Superstar to capture the NWA World Tag Team Championship. This would be the first of his four reigns as NWA World Tag Team Champion, later winning the belts with Don Kernodle and twice with his “nephew” (kayfabe), Nikita Koloff as “The Russians”.
Koloff’s greatest gift to the business was his ability to take heat from fans and became a “super” heel, which is unheard of today. His lack of size and stature made him an even greatest star in the NWA’s most successful era. In a time when wrestling played on the sensibilities of its fans and its love of America versus all other countries and a time when the United States and Russia were engulfed in the Cold War, Koloff was the most recognizable villain in the business.
I once joked Koloff would have been a great James Bond villain. The look (a bald head and goatee), the voice, the larger than life persona. How could he not have gotten over? They don’t promote heels like Koloff these days. The business and the fans won’t allow it. But for this fan, the memories of a man who was larger than wrestling at one point created memories of how the business was done and done well back when we all thought wrestling is real.