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Soviet wrestlers mourn Ronald Reagan.

Hammers, Sickles, and Turnbuckles
Posted Friday, June 11, 2004, at 12:14 PM PT

"Business was good with Reagan," recalls a wistful Nikolai Volkoff. "I voted
for him twice."

Nikita Koloff is a fan of the dead president, too. "I wasn't a political
guy," says Koloff, "but Ronald Reagan's policies were good for wrestling."

Yes, Reagan's policies were good for wrestling - and even better for
Volkoff, Koloff, and the gaggle of faux-Russian wrestlers who worked the
ring during the last years of the Cold War.

Pro wrestling has always been pro-xenophobia, with cartoonish foreigner
types employed to goose the crowd into a patriotic frenzy. But during
Reagan's reign, evil German and Japanese characters - everybody but the Iron
Sheik, really - got bumped down or off the card to make way for the Red
Menace.

Had Reagan not dogged the Evil Empire so intensely, Volkoff (real name: Joe
Peruzovic) surely wouldn't have fired up the crowd by singing the Russian
national anthem at Vince McMahon's first WWF Wrestlemania in 1985. And
Koloff would have gone through life as plain ol' Scott Simpson, a wannabe
pro football player from Minneapolis.

Koloff says he owes his career to a 1984 brainstorming session. Animal (real
name Joe Laurinaitis) of the tag team the Road Warriors, Sgt. Slaughter (a
GI Joe-type superpatriot played by Robert Remus), and Don Kernodle (real
name Don Kernodle) all toiled in the Charlotte-based NWA, then the premiere
rassling federation in the Southern states. When they mulled over how to
take artistic advantage of real world events, they seized upon the
threatened Soviet boycott of the L.A. Olympics. We need more Commie ass to
kick, the wrestlers concluded. NWA boss Jim Crockett agreed.

"Do you know any big guys who would shave their head?" Crockett asked.
Simpson, an occasional workout partner of Animal's, was mentioned. His lack
of wrestling experience - "I'd never even been in a ring before," he says -
was trumped by the need for Russians. Plus, he had huge pecs and a
willingness to go bald. Crockett hired Simpson over the phone. Nikita Koloff
was born.

Nikita Koloff was introduced to fans as the nephew of Ivan Koloff, the elder
statesman of ring Russkies and, at the time, the only Soviet character in
the NWA stable. Now 61, Ivan grew up in Canada as Jim Parras.

"I know 'nyet' and 'da' - and I'm not sure what 'da' means," says Ivan when
asked how much of the Russian language he picked up in three decades of
playing the "Russian Bear."

Peruzovic, the Yugoslavian émigré who played Nikolai Volkoff, is the only
alleged Russian of ring renown who actually spoke the language. But
wrestling audiences don't speak Pinko, either. The anti-Soviet atmosphere in
the NWA's Southern territory meant that a mute in a CCCP singlet could get
the crowds jeering.

Almost overnight, Nikita became the NWA's most hated performer. Death
threats and bigger paychecks kept on comin'. By the end of his first year as
a wrestler, Simpson legally changed his name to that of his character. He
remains Nikita Koloff to this day.

When Reagan took office, Nikita's high-school classmate Barry Darsow was
wrestling in Florida as fan favorite Crusher Darsow. In 1982, his promoter
decided that the Cold War would be good for both of them. Darsow announced
to fans that America was the real Evil Empire. He would henceforth wrestle
as Krusher Khrushchev.

"I changed my name to honor Nikita Khrushchev, the greatest leader of all
time," Darsow remembers. "This was a time when the fans believed everything.
They wanted to kill me."

Darsow took his CCCP sweatband to the NWA in 1984, joining the Koloffs. The
heat just got hotter. At a show in Washington, D.C., Darsow's head got split
open by a hot dog with a bolt in it that was thrown from the cheap seats. He
spent much of the next decade running from the ring to the dressing room,
and from the arena exits to his car, to avoid getting pummeled by fans
caught up in the president's "Better Dead Than Red!" mindset.

But that only makes the Krusher's heart grow fonder for the dearly departed.
"I loved Ronald Reagan," he says. "I believe Ronald Reagan was the greatest
leader of my lifetime." Better than Nikita Khrushchev? "Oh, yeah. Even
better than Nikita Khrushchev!" Darsow says. "That was a gimmick, remember?"

Like every pundit this week, the faux Russian wrestlers who thrived under
Reagan now give him all the credit for getting a three-count on Communism.
"I never believed the wall would come down in my lifetime," says Volkoff.
"Ronald Reagan was the best president we ever had, for the U.S."

"I've seen a lot of old clips of President Reagan this week," adds Nikita.
"And I see why he got over: When he was in front of a microphone, he made
his point. He really was the Great Communicator. He would have been a great
wrestler."

Alas, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought big changes to pro wrestling.
Darsow dropped the Krusher Khrushchev gimmick and went to work for the WWF
as Repo Man. Volkoff, now 57, works as a code-enforcement inspector for
Baltimore County, Md., but still wrestles, mostly in small towns for
independent promoters and more often as a good guy than a heel. He's
replaced the Russian national anthem in his pre-match routine with a version
of the "Star Spangled Banner," sung in a deep baritone with an authentic
Slavic accent.

Ivan Koloff, who, like Nikita, retired from wrestling in the early 1990s,
says that the end of the Cold War "took the edge off" his character.
"Democracy is good for the world," he says. "But it was bad for business."

###

Dave McKenna is the sports columnist for the Washington City Paper.


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