Ivan Koloff, one of pro wrestling’s biggest stars, passed away early Saturday at the age of 74 following a decade-long battle with liver disease.
Known as “The Russian Bear,” Koloff permanently etched his name in wrestling history when he dethroned WWWF heavyweight champion Bruno Sammartino in 1971. It was one of the most iconic moments in wrestling history as a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden watched in shock as Sammartino’s nearly eight-year run as champion came to an end.
Koloff would later admit that he was still quite green for such a high-profile program with the legendary Italian strongman. It didn’t take long, though, for Sammartino to smarten up his younger opponent.
“Ivan, do you realize as the heel, you’re supposed to be the general in the ring?” he asked Koloff.
“Bruno was my hero, and asking me to be the leader in the ring was something,” said Koloff. “He could have told me to jump, and I would have asked how high. It was such an honor just to work with him.”
Koloff was one of wrestling’s top heels as a menacing Muscovite who spoke in a raspy Russian voice, wore heavy stomping boots, toted his trademark Russian chain, and boasted the cross and sickle emblazoned on his ring garb.
But Koloff, who was born Oreal Perras and raised on a dairy farm in Ottawa, Canada, was better known to a later generation of wrestling fans as “Uncle Ivan,” a gentle soul who embraced his fans and did charitable work for organizations including The Children’s Miracle Network. He also started a ministry in North Carolina with wife Renae and shared his testimony at churches and prisons and performed marriage ceremonies.
Pastor Andy McDaniel of Seneca, who grew up watching Koloff do battle with the likes of Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes and Jimmy Valiant in the Mid-Atlantic area, said his passing truly marked the end of an era.
“I was fortunate to have witnessed him take part in so many incredible battles in the wrestling ring. The enormous anger he could elicit from a crowd was extraordinary. It was a time that suspending belief was very easy to do and characters like Ivan Koloff were the masters … The memories of seeing him doing promos alongside Johnny Valentine, his matches with Dusty or Wahoo and, of course, his tremendous feud with Jimmy Valiant.”
“The wrestling memories are many, but it would be the time later in life when I ministered with Ivan that I hold dear to my heart,” McDaniel added. “He was a man who had experienced great change in his life and he was proud to openly share his faith with all who crossed his path. While indeed he will always be known as the ‘Russian Bear,’ those who were blessed to truly know him knew that he was a gentle Lamb. It was a blessing to have known him.”
Koloff’s daughter, Rachel Marley, had recently set up a Go Fund Me page to help her ailing father.
“My dad was diagnosed with liver disease about 10 years ago and while he has been living with it, he chose not to make this announcement public to his fans and friends,” she wrote. “But doctors are now saying that his liver function is getting worse day by day and it will continue to. There are no other medical options available for my dad for a cure.”
Several weeks ago Koloff expressed his appreciation for the support fans had shown over the years. Even those fans “who lived to watch me get up,” he joked.
“I appreciate them so much and want to thank them all for their support. It makes me feel so good that they still remember.”
But even more meaningful, he added, was when fans would come up to him and relate how he impacted their lives.
“They tell me they heard my testimony and it touched them so much that they came to the Lord because of it. They say us guys meant so much to them growing up. It makes me feel good just knowing that. Of course God gets the glory.”