We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Nikolai Volkoff, an unappreciated Cold Warrior, still wrestles on weekends.
He starred in the first Wrestlemania in 1985. He sang the Russian national anthem at that event, then teamed with the Iron Sheik to win the WWF World Tag Team Championship in front of an international pay-per-view audience and a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd.
Volkoff didn’t take part in the pomp and circumstance surrounding last month’s Wrestlemania XX. No, while the current flavors of the group now known as WWE gathered again at the Garden to celebrate the 20th rendition of what has become the Super Bowl of wrestling, Volkoff was in the ring at the Millcreek Civic Center in Chesterfield, Ind., facing a grappler by the name of Diceman Ronnie Vegas.
The good tickets at the Garden this year sold for hundreds of dollars. Ringside seats for the Volkoff/Vegas feature could be had for $11, and according to the local papers were available only at the “Chesterfield Dairy Queen, Northgate True Value in Anderson and Delaware County Pawnbrokers in Muncie.”
If Volkoff regrets missing out on the latest Garden party, he’s not letting on.
“Business is business,” he tells me in a thick Eastern European accent. “I was working.”
He likes working. After taking down Vegas, Volkoff made it back home in time for what for the past eight years has been his other job: He’s an inspector for the Bureau of Code Enforcement for Baltimore County, where he’s lived for three decades.
And while on his “real” job, he uses his real name: Josip Peruzovic.
“But everybody here calls him Nikolai and knows about [his wrestling],” says a county-office receptionist about the bureau’s 6-foot-5, 275-pound civil servant. “He’s a sweetheart.”
Of all the evil Eastern Bloc characters that Vince McMahon and other wrestling promoters cooked up during the Cold War, none were more successful or believable than Volkoff. Another longtime tag-team partner, Boris Zukhov, was really a guy from Chicago named Jim Darrell. Ivan “the Russian Bear” Koloff was born Oreal Parras in Ontario.
Peruzovic, however, was a little closer to the real deal. He was born in 1947 in Yugoslavia to a Russian mother and Croatian father. He was traveling as a member of the national weight-lifting team when he escaped the Eastern Bloc as an 18-year-old. The first step of his journey came when he walked into the Canadian embassy in Vienna, Austria. The goal all along was to get to the United States.
“But I heard that the wait was three years for the U.S.,” he says. “For Canada, it was six months. I had to get out.”
He never told his family or friends of his plan to take a one-way trip to the West.
“Something they did not know was something they could not talk about,” he says. “I didn’t want anybody to get in trouble.”
Peruzovic landed in Calgary and hoped to become a professional boxer like his idol, Muhammad Ali. But when he was instead offered ring work as a wrestler, he took that. By the early ’70s, he’d gained legal entry into the States and had been through a couple of ring guises without too much fanfare, though wrestling purists wouldn’t want his stint as a member of the tag team known as the Mongols to go unmentioned. But the big break came when Classy Freddie Blassie, the legendary wrestling manager, approached Peruzovic with the idea of developing a pro–Soviet Union character.
Any wrestler willing to wear a red singlet adorned with a hammer and sickle, Blassie promised, could find work.
Peruzovic, however, told Blassie that on principle he couldn’t play that character. Not with what he knew of the Soviets’ murderous march into neighboring Hungary when he was a boy. Not with the ongoing oppression of his family back home in Yugoslavia by the ruling Communists.
But Blassie convinced him that the character he envisioned could serve a purpose that would transcend wrestling.
“I told Freddie Blassie, ‘I escaped from there! I hate them! I hate communism! I can’t do that!’” says Peruzovic. “But he says, ‘Well, if you really hate it so much, why don’t you do something about it? Show the people the truth! And make money doing it!’ So that’s what we did.”
In 1974, the America-hatin’, Commie-lovin’, Russian-flag-wavin’ rassler known as Nikolai Volkoff was born. Nikolai is Peruzovic’s real middle name; Volkoff, which means “wolf” in Russian, was his mother’s maiden name.
The character was an instant hit. Less than a year into the gig, Volkoff was paired against Bruno “the Living Legend” Sammartino. In a match that lasted an entire hour, they wrestled to a draw before a sellout crowd at the Madison Square Garden, quite a commercial feat at that time. Volkoff developed a pre-match routine that included grabbing the ring microphone and singing the Russian national anthem, then saying “America!” in disgusted tones before spitting on the canvas.
Peruzovic settled in Maryland after meeting his future wife in a local restaurant during a stop in Baltimore (“I don’t remember the name of the place, but I know I was eating with Dr. Toro Tanaka,” Peruzovic says) and gained U.S. citizenship. And over the years, especially after Ronald Reagan came into power and made anti-Soviet propagandizing the cornerstone of his administration, Peruzovic began to believe in Blassie’s pledge that a wrestler really could affect a country’s thinking.
“I always thought that the more mad I make people, the more they would look into what’s going on over there,” he says. “Then they would learn to hate it as much as I do. I really think that’s true.”
He says he was waiting to get in the ring for a WWF match in November 1989 when he first heard that the Berlin Wall was coming down. Paying attention to his wrestling was a little tough that night.
“I wanted to watch the television,” he says. “That was incredible. I couldn’t believe what was going on. That was beautiful.”
The wall coming down, of course, wasn’t really good for his character. A Russian heel didn’t draw as much heat after Glasnost. But Peruzovic dwells on the good, long run he had with Volkoff, and he doesn’t mind living in a world where the U.S. president has a pet name for the Russian leader—George W. Bush calls Vladimir Putin “Pootie Poot,” according to a Time magazine report. Nowadays, during his stints in tiny towns with independent wrestling promotions, Volkoff is as likely to be cheered as hooted.
“It’s great to be in front of a sellout crowd, whether that’s Madison Square Garden or some small building in some small town,” he says. “And if [the promoter] says I’m a good guy, then I’m a good guy that night; if I’m a bad guy, I’m a bad guy. Business is business.”
For both personal and professional reasons, Peruzovic has learned how to sing the American national anthem. —Dave McKenna