Our special thanks to Tony Hunter for his assistance, and for Ivan Koloff for the time he graciously gave to the Mid-Atlantic Gateway.




In the long history of professional wrestling, there may never have been a more recognizable “bad guy” in the ranks than Ivan Koloff, the “Russian Bear.” Nor a wrestler that more wrestling fans loved to hate. While Ivan achieved wrestling fame in many locales, he called the Mid-Atlantic area home for a lengthy portion of his illustrious career. And in fact, to this day, Ivan continues to call North Carolina home.


Mid-Atlantic fans were fortunate to see Ivan in a three-act play of sorts. When Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling took its basic shape in 1974, Ivan was there as a major part of that opening act. Ten years or so later in the mid 1980s when the Mid-Atlantic area was morphing into a larger Jim Crockett Promotions on a national scale, Ivan was there for that transition in Act III. In the middle of those two ends of the Mid-Atlantic spectrum, Koloff had memorable feuds with Jimmy Valiant and Ric Flair in the early 1980s as part of his Act II in the area.


While Ivan entertained and often infuriated us with his Russian persona during his days as a star in the ring, unbeknownst to fans at the time, he was fighting far tougher opponents outside the ring. And for the longest time, he was losing those battles. Drugs and alcohol were a tag team that seemed to be the only opponent that could defeat the Russian Bear. And they were, until Ivan underwent a major transformation in his life, and found a tag team partner that would enable him to prevail in his biggest battle…Ivan formed a tag team with Jesus Christ.


In this interview, Ivan shares with us the highs and the lows he experienced during a magnificent career in professional wrestling. We focus primarily, but not exclusively, on Ivan’s wrestling career as part of Jim Crockett Promotions. Coming all the way to the present, Ivan tells us how his life today is so radically different from his wild days in professional wrestling. Ivan’s story is compelling and, at the same time, uplifting.


Special thanks to Tony Hunter of Carolina Championship Wrestling, for setting up this interview with Ivan for the Gateway before a recent card in Lenoir, NC. Thanks also to my site partner Dick Bourne for his assistance with, and during, the interview. And our deep appreciation goes out to Ivan Koloff for the time he gave to the Gateway in Lenoir. Ivan, you were a shining star during your Mid-Atlantic wrestling days…but your star has never shone brighter than it does right now.      

 - David Chappell

David Chappell : Ivan, thank you for spending some time with the Mid-Atlantic Gateway this evening. You were a superstar with Jim Crockett Promotions not just one time, but during three separate stints in the Mid-Atlantic area. It’s a real pleasure to have the opportunity to talk to you about your outstanding wrestling career.


Ivan Koloff: I appreciate the kind words. I’m glad to be here, David . I enjoyed reading your interview with Abe (Jacobs) a few weeks ago.


Chappell: Thanks…Abe is such a great guy. Just a true class act.


Koloff: I met Abe Jacobs in Australia way back in 1970. So…we got to wrestle each other over there. Abe was very, very good.


Chappell: No question about it! Well, Ivan, while fans remember you as the ‘Russian Bear,’ you actually are from Canada. Tell us about your start in the wrestling business.


Koloff: I originally came out of Jack Wentworth’s wrestling school in Hamilton, Ontario.


Chappell: This was in the early 1960s, I believe?


Koloff: Yes.


Chappell: Like many of your colleagues, I’m sure you have some stories about when you got going in the business. (laughs)


Koloff: (laughing) Oh yes! When I was at the wrestling school when I first started, I got so excited with the very first match that I was involved in. At the wrestling school, on Thursday nights they would put on a show with the students…maybe a couple hundred people would show up. And a couple of the professionals would be there too.


I got so involved with the bad guys beating up the good guys type of thing…that I jumped up and hit a guy by the name of Sailor Clark in the stomach and knocked him through the ropes…


Chappell: (laughing)


Koloff: And when Sailor Clark’s partner came around, I did what I saw on TV---I picked up a chair and hit him over the head with it! (everybody laughs)


I was a big guy when I started…I was about 240 pounds and I was bench-pressing about 350 pounds. In six months I had progressed fast…so I picked this guy up and put him up against the wall and started hitting him. I wanted to get a name in the business, and figured that was the way to do it! But pretty quickly they ushered me out of there! (laughs)


Chappell: Ivan, your career started with a bang…literally! (laughs)


Koloff: (laughing)


Chappell: When was your famous wrestling persona, Ivan Koloff, born?


Koloff: Ivan Koloff was born when I was up in Montreal, later in the 60s. That was where he became really known…famous, you might say, with the Rougeaus.


The people up there really loved the Rougeaus. Johnny Rougeau…and Jacques Rougeau, his brother—they were the champs up there for a long while. I ended up tagging up with Hans Schmidt against those guys…


Chappell: I bet you took some big heat against the Rougeaus…particularly with your Russian gimmick.


Koloff: I had people take nails and bend them, and shoot them at me with elastic bands…and they’d jab into my forehead. I had knives thrown at me…and chairs! One incident I remember when Hans Schmidt and I were tagged up against [the Rougeaus], the fans filled the ring up with chairs…it was a riot situation!


Chappell: Being a Russian in those days was no piece of cake, I’m sure! (laughs)


Koloff: A lot of run-ins with fans, that’s for sure! (laughs)


Chappell: When did you pick up the moniker, the ‘Russian Bear?’


Koloff: That really started when I was up in New York [with the WWWF], I believe. I think it was 1968-69…I was up there against Bruno (Sammartino). I was up there a whole year against him then, but never won the title.


Chappell: But of course you later came back and defeated Bruno for the title up there in early 1971.


Koloff: Yes, that’s right. But the ‘Russian Bear’ thing really started in that earlier stint in New York.


They had me doing a thing then that originated in Montreal, when I first started. I used to run from the dressing room out to the ring, and then run round and round outside the ring about four or five times. They’d announce my opponent, and then I’d jump up in the ring and attack him and beat him up. I’d put him in the inverted backbreaker or the bear hug, and defeat him. Then I’d jump out of the ring, and run around the ring again…and back to the dressing room.


At this stage, I was 280-90 pounds…which was a lot of weight for me to carry. They dubbed me the ‘Russian Bear,’ because I looked like a bear running around out there!


Chappell: In the early 70s, you had that short and really stocky build…you probably would have matched up pretty favorably with a bear! And come to think of it, Bruno sort of had that same build as well.


Koloff: Well, for a little guy I was a big man…in the sense that I wasn’t very tall. I was only about five foot nine or ten…but I was carrying 300 pounds and doing the weights and everything. Back then, guys weren’t into steroids like they were years after that. You know, the way I looked, I think I just stood out. 


And against Bruno…we sort of complimented each other. He was maybe an inch or so taller than me, but we were both stocky and also complimented each other in terms of style.


David Chappell interviews Ivan Koloff in Lenoir, NC


Chappell: After you lost the WWWF Title to Pedro Morales, I guess your next memorable run was in the AWA, where you were a top contender to Verne Gagne’s version of the World Heavyweight Title.


Koloff: Yes, I was up there for Verne Gagne during 1972-73. And I ended up meeting George Scott while I was in Minneapolis. George came up there…to scout out the talent, I guess. (laughs)


Chappell: George Scott had just gotten the book for the Mid-Atlantic territory, and right before you came into Jim Crockett Promotions during the early months of 1974, George had already brought in (Super Destroyer) Don Jardine and Johnny Valentine to the area.


Koloff: Yes, George had become the booker, and he wasn’t only looking at the young talent in the AWA…but others that were already established that he could bring in and start for Crockett right away. And indeed, over the next year or so, he took a lot of guys out of the AWA!


Chappell: And, of course, you were one of those guys!


Koloff: Yeah, I ended up setting it up with him to come into Charlotte in ’74, which was the year after he’d been in the AWA scouting.


Wahoo (McDaniel) ended up following me into the Carolinas a couple of months later in 1974. And then several of the other AWA guys also came in later….Blackjack Mulligan, Superstar Billy Graham and Dusty Rhodes all came in for George for shots later in 1975.


Chappell: When you first started for Crockett in ’74, who were you teaming with?


Koloff: You mentioned them earlier… Don Jardine and Johnny Valentine. Those guys were great!


Matter of fact, Don Jardine passed on the first Russian Chain to me!


Chappell: (pauses) Really?


Koloff: Yes… Don did a Chain Match, and ended up saying that he didn’t have any use for the chain any more…so he gave me the chain!


Chappell: Interesting!


Koloff: Yes, he did a special match involving a chain and he had the chain made for that. He told me that’s what I should use…you know, the Russians in Siberia with the camps and the prisons up there with the chain gangs. He said it would be an ideal match for me to specialize in.


Chappell: So… Don Jardine not only physically gave you your first Russian Chain---he actually created the ‘Russian Chain Match’ gimmick for you?


Koloff: That’s right! (laughs)


Chappell: That’s unbelievable…I had no idea! (laughs)


This happened when you and Jardine were together in the Mid-Atlantic area in 1974?


Koloff: Yeah, that’s when the Russian Chain Match was born---as far as me using it! (laughs)


Chappell: I had always thought that your using that gimmick predated your earliest days with Jim Crockett Promotions. And to now find out the Super Destroyer was behind it all!


Koloff: (laughing)


Chappell: By the way, Ivan, you never lost a Russian Chain Match, right? (laughs)


Koloff: (laughing) Oh, yes I did…probably more than I’d like to say!


Chappell: I thought you’d always say on interviews that you NEVER lost a Russian Chain Match? (laughs)


Koloff: Yeah…we’d go around and spread the rumor that I was undefeated in those matches---and then nobody asked for a long time! (laughs)


Then Nikita (Koloff) came along…and of course, we then claimed HE was undefeated in the Russian Chain Match! And you know, I’m not sure that he did ever lose one…even against his Uncle Ivan! (laughs)


Chappell: What were your overall impressions of the Mid-Atlantic area when you first came in during 1974?


Koloff: The Crockett area…I really enjoyed wrestling in that area because of the super talent that was there when I arrived. I got to meet guys like Rip Hawk, Swede Hanson and Johnny Weaver.


Chappell: 1974 was a fascinating year…a transitional year for the territory. Older tag team guys like Hawk, Hanson and Weaver were being slowly phased out, while newer singles wrestlers like you, Valentine, Jardine and Wahoo were really getting pushed.


Koloff: It really was a great year. And, David , (Ric) Flair was in around that time, too! I was only in a few months before he came in.


Chappell: Yes! Of all those AWA guys we talked about a minute ago…how could we forget Ric Flair? (laughs)


Koloff: I had made friends with Flair when we were in the AWA. I celebrated one of his early birthdays at Boone’s Farm, up there in Minnesota on one of our Iowa trips. I remember having a headache for about three days after that! (everybody laughs)


Chappell: What are some of your other memories of the very early Ric Flair?


Koloff: Ric was…exceptional. Matter of fact, in the AWA there were about a dozen guys in Verne Gagne’s camp at that time---Flair stood out among them all.


Chappell: How so?


Koloff: Ric would always make himself available…he would volunteer to get in there every time. He would take the most impressive bumps that I ever saw, for a big guy. He was about a 300 pounder then.


Chappell: So, even before Flair came to the Mid-Atlantic area, you saw something special in him?


Koloff: Yeah, definitely. Matter of fact, George Scott asked me what I thought of him, and I told George that the kid definitely had it.


And then when Ric came into the Carolinas, I tried to help him as much as I could, you know.


Chappell: Did you consciously try to help out the guys just starting out in the business, like the real young Ric Flair?


Koloff: I was one that had always gotten a lot of help in my early career, and I guess I figured that was what we were all supposed to do as we moved on in the business. As you got more experience, it became a veteran type thing where you’re supposed to help the young guys.


I would try and give as much advice as I could to help them. As long as they caught me during those days when I wasn’t partying and drinking too much! (laughs)


Chappell: How did you specifically help Ric Flair when he first came into the Mid-Atlantic area?


Koloff: Ric had a thirst for the idea of becoming really successful, right from the start.


When Ric first came to town in Charlotte, we got together right away. He was overweight at the time. But he was strong…as far as lifting weights and everything. But he knew he had to lose some weight.


Chappell: Did you help Ric drop some of that weight?


Koloff: He got me to run with him! And I wasn’t a runner back then. I had done some running, mainly because of the thing I talked about in Montreal and New York.


We would get together at his place, and go jogging around the block. He was getting ME in shape! (everybody laughs)