Ivan Koloff spent several decades terrorizing opponents and striking fear into fans all around the world. Known as “The Russian Bear,” Koloff permanently etched his name in wrestling history when he dethroned Bruno Sammartino in 1971 at Madison Square Garden, ending the Italian strongman’s 7½-year reign as WWWF heavyweight champion.
Forty-four years later, Koloff is facing his toughest battle yet. Diagnosed more than a decade ago with liver disease, the 74-year-old mat legend is now waging war with a formidable foe that is threatening his life.
Recent lab results have shown a marked increase in levels that measure the disease, and Koloff has begun to experience serious symptoms.
According to Renae Koloff, his wife of 21 years, Ivan now has difficulty walking due to extreme weakness in both knees. He also is experiencing diminished liver function, along with jaundice and shortness of breath, which most likely is a result of an accumulation of fluid in his abdominal cavity stemming from liver failure.
“Doctors say this will only get worse as time goes on,” she said. "There’s really nothing they can do about it except to keep a watch on him.”
His system is under attack, she added. A nurse told the couple that his condition would likely get worse day by day. Medicines can help, but only for the short term.
Until now, only family and close friends have been apprised of his changing medical condition. But due to Koloff’s busy schedule of wrestling-related appearances and charitable work, it was time to let the public know of his status.
“He’s just not able to go out and do appearances as he had in recent years,” Renae said. “He’s not even able to sign autographs at this point.”
Neither, however, are giving up hope. Bound by a strong Christian faith, the two continue to pray for a miracle.
“It’s in the Lord’s hands,” said Ivan, a soft-spoken man with a gentle soul who for the past 20 years has been a tireless advocate for the Children’s Miracle Network and has served as an ordained minister who shares his testimony at churches and prisons and performs marriage ceremonies.
“Ivan’s had liver disease for many years, but he’s been living with it,” said Renae. “He didn’t want to make it public before now because he wanted to continue to witness about the Lord and help with the Children’s Miracle Network and do weddings and fundraisers. He just wanted to stay active.”
But now, she says, it’s gotten to the point where he is physically unable do these things. “He’s really down about not being able to go out and make appearances. But he can’t even sign his name. We do have a rubber stamp with his signature on it. Our daughter goes with us, and she helps him get to the table. I guess we could stamp the pictures ahead of time.”
He has a number of scheduled appearances that he may have to cancel. “We have to take it one day at a time, one week at a time,” said Renae, who travels with her husband to all of his bookings.
The two plan to visit a specialist next month in Chapel Hill, N.C., who will suggest options. At this stage, Renae said, quality of life takes precedence over chemotherapy treatment. “He’s going to do the watch and wait every three to four months until they get ready to turn him over to doctors here,” she said. “And we’ll just take it from there.”
For now, the two are just trying to process the information. “The news was devastating. It really threw us for a loop,” Renae said.
While the family respectfully asks for privacy at this time, notes, cards and words of encouragement are appreciated and can be sent to Ivan Koloff at P.O. Box 2673, Winterville, N.C. 28590.
“Of course, we also ask for all the prayer we can get,” adds Renae.
The couple’s daughter, Rachel, plans to start a GoFundMe account to help with the mounting medical bills.
They next visit doctors at Chapel Hill on Feb. 8. They’re hoping for a miracle but bracing for whatever comes. They hold on to their faith.
“I appreciate the fans. Without the fans, there wouldn’t be any wrestling,” said Ivan, who began his pro career in 1961. “The main thing for me over the years, even as a bad guy, was just to make the matches exciting. Whether the fans were picking on me or booing me or just showing their love, I appreciate them so much and want to thank them all for their support. It makes me feel so good that they still remember.”
Even with all the ailments and injuries he incurred over the years, the least of which is a jagged forehead that served as a testament to his brand of wrestling, it was still worth it. “I really enjoyed it. It was all worthwhile.”
But even more meaningful is when fans come up 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.”
Now, he said, their prayers will help him and his family.
“He’s my best friend and my soulmate,” said Renae. “Without Ivan, there’s no me. It’s just very hard on all of us. We’ve got everybody praying.”