It’s been a fairly run of the mill week in wrestling when looking at this buildup to Wrestlemania. Since the last post, the biggest news has to be the death of wrestlers George “The Animal” Steele and Ivan Koloff, who WWE tributed on this past week’s episode of Raw. I’m not going to say that the tribute was a disservice in the slightest, but when I think about Ivan Koloff, I remember just how significant he was in terms of wrestling history.
In terms of WWE history, Koloff is best known for being the heel that knocked off the near decade title reign of Bruno Sammartino. While he only held the title for 21 days, the length doesn’t give enough credence to just how significant this role for Koloff was. Sammartino, at that time, was the face of the WWWF (now WWE); and in a babyface run company like WWWF was at that time, seeing a “Russian” (Koloff’s real name was Perras and he’s from Ottawa) raised in victory was near unheard of for that promotion. In a modern retrospective, the role of Koloff is even more fascinating, as the idea of a literal “transitional Champion”, deriving its name for a wrestler who holds the belt so two fan favorites don’t have to wrestler each other for it, is odd. The idea of Kayfabe at that time being as strong as it was for the audience, as the mystique of wrestling was still firmly in place, it made the moment of Koloff losing the belt to Pedro Morales after that 21 days even more the sweeter.
That title drop brings up another point of wrestling history that’s fairly weird in a modern light, where a champion is crowned presumably with a specific demographic of the crowd in mind. This idea was also discussed on David Shoemaker’s excellent wrestling podcast The Masked Man Show this past week, so I want to give credit where it’s due. WWWF, being a northeast territory, namely a New York Territory, based a majority of its crowd from native New Yorkers. At that time, one of the dominating demographics of immigrant in its first to first/second generation in NYC were Latinos, which led to a good chunk of the WWWF fandom demographic matching that. With that in mind, Pedro Morales accumulated a huge following and appeal among this demographic, being a Puerto Rican man himself, so, in addition to him being a stellar in ring worker, it just made sense to push him to the top (wrestling has a weird history regarding race, some odd highs and lows, which would be a whole piece in itself). Having Koloff fill the villain role of transitional champion so the crowd gets that payoff when Morales comes out on top, adds another dimension of importance to his history. Fictional stories like these kayfabe professional wrestling stories need villains, and Koloff found his home there.
Koloff was just the first of some transitional champions, as Stan Stasiak (held the belt for 9 days) and the Iron Sheik (champion for 28 days) soon did the same. For Koloff, most well versed wrestling fans would remember him for his time in NWA, namely in the tag team “The Russians” with his on screen nephew Nikita Koloff, who famously broke up after the tragic car accident involving Magnum T.A., which may have led Nikita to turn on Ivan and team up with the fan favorite Dusty Rhodes.
What really stands out to me with the passing of these great wrestlers of the past, other than the obvious tragedy of it, is that it highlights the seemingly endless stream of interesting tidbits of wrestling history. While the roles of heroes and villains has been changed forever with the rise of the “smark”, and the forced drive of near fan written story (this is a fairly WWE centric issue, other companies find ways to avoid this), seeing the difference of the wrestling landscape is fascinating. There are few more villain names than Ivan Koloff in history, as he dethroned that face that ran the place, and it’s important to go back and remember his significance in memoriam.