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WWE HALL OF FAMER NIKOLAI VOLKOFF PASSES AWAY (UPDATED WITH CAREER RETROSPECTIVE)

By Mike Johnson on 2018-07-29 11:07:00

PWInsider.com is sad to report that WWE Hall of Famer Nikolai Volkoff passed away this morning, just days after being released from a hospital in Maryland where he had been treated for dehydration among other issues.  Volkoff, real name Josip Nikolai Peruzovi?, was 70 years old at the time of his passing.

Although he would top the list of the most famous foreign heels in pro wrestling and certainly was one of the most memorable Russian characters, Peruzovi? wasn’t actually Russian.  He was originally from Croatia, which at the time was still part of Yugoslavia.

A member of the Yugoslavian weightlifting team until 1967, he emigrated to Canada, where he trained as a pro wrestler under the legendary Stu Hart after befriending professional wrestler Newton Tattrie.  The two traveled together in Canada and when Tattrie left for territories in the United States, Peruzovi? went with him.   Volkoff would later tell the story that he arrived with only $50 in his pocket.

The two worked a number of territories in the United States as a tag team, but it wasn’t until they made it to the WWWF and were managed by Lou Albano that they became The Mongols, Bepo and Geeto.  The two captured the WWWF International Tag Team Titles from Tony Marino and Victor Rivera, holding them for over a year until losing them to Luke Graham and Tarzan Tyler in a match that unified them with the WWWF World Tag Team Champion over a year later that unified the WWWF International and WWWF World Tag Team Titles.

After the run with the Mongols, Peruzovi? worked as the third masked Executioner alongside Big John Studd and Killer Kowalski, also having a run with the WWWF Tag belts under that persona.

Peruzovi? began working under the ring name Nikolai Volkoff, originally billed as from Mongolia, but later billed from Russia.    He did a gimmick at the time where he would crush apples to show off his superior strength.  He had a memorable feud with then-WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino.  Volkoff attacked Bruno during a TV interview, setting up a series of matches where Bruno and Nikolai faced off with Bruno finally soundly winning the blow-off matches.

After his initial WWWF run against Bruno, Peruzovi? worked for the AWA, managed by Bobby Heenan as Boris Breznikoff and also ventured to Mid-South, where he worked as a heel for a long stretch.

Volkoff returned to the WWF as part of its national expansion, this time as the foreign menace heel from Russia.  Singing the Russian national anthem to get heat, teaming with the Iranian menace The Iron Sheik and managed by Freddie Blassie, this run would go on to define Volkoff’s legacy in pro wrestling as he almost iconic in the role as a member of the original national cast of characters as Vince McMahon pushed to take over the country.

Volkoff and The Sheik’s first success came with a Tag Team title win over the patriotic tag team of the U.S. Express, Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda (billed as Rotundo) after Windham was blasted with Blassie’s cane.  The teams feuded for several months before the U.S. Express regained the belts.

Volkoff’s Russian persona was the perfect antagonist for the “Real American” Hulk Hogan character and the formula Hogan used as the time. The monster heel would beat Hogan down and he’d sell, sell, sell, then make the big Rocky Balboa-style comeback, with America victorious.  Volkoff was a regular Hogan foe, even facing him on Saturday Night’s Main Event, during that era.

Volkoff’s gimmick led to other feuds based around the idea that an American hero was defending the country.  He feuded with Cpl. Kirchner, which led to a Wrestlemania 2 bout.  A year later, his old Mid-South foe Hacksaw Duggan was on the scene, attacking Volkoff with a 2x4 to prevent him from singing the anthem.  Volkoff and Sheik’s feud was a hot prospect for WWF at the time until Sheik and Duggan were arrested together on the New Jersey Turnpike, exposing the business after getting arrested for marijuana and alcohol possession.

While the wrestling world had and still has its share of crazy personalities in front of and behind the cameras, Volkoff was not one of them.  He saw the business as a way to make his living and was a dedicated husband and fathers to his daughters.  He was one of those respected personalities that everyone liked and had positive things to say.  

In his autobiography, Fred Blassie even credited Volkoff with helping his reunite with his long-lost daughter.  She showed up at a live event hoping to see her father, but at that point managers weren’t on the road.  She met Nikolai, who asked for her number and promised he would get Blassie in touch.  The next time he saw Blassie, he sat him down and told him he had a surprise and made the call.  Blassie would always credit Volkoff for that moment and would tell people it was the best gift he ever received.

After Blassie’s retirement, Volkoff was managed by Slick.  In the wake of the Duggan storyline ending without a conclusion, Volkoff was given a new partner, former AWA star Boris Zukhov, creating The Bolsheviks.

The team was used to put over other stars, including a short 19-second match against The Hart Foundation at Wrestlemania VI.  They had an extended, silly feud with the Bushwhackers and worked tons of live events with them.  Eventually, for the first time in his WWF career, Volkoff was turned babyface with the idea that he was from Lithuania, which had just left the USSR and announced it was becoming its own country.  When he supported that, Zukhov attacked him. 

From that point on, Volkoff was used as a veteran babyface to put over heels strongly.  Now, he was the one losing to the foreign menace heel, as portrayed by Sgt. Slaughter, at the time playing the role of an Iraqi sympathizer during the Desert Storm conflict.

Volkoff quietly disappeared but would make appearances from time to time.  He returned full-time in 1994 with the idea that he out of money, forcing him to work for The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase, including wearing a suit adorned with cents symbols, as opposed to DiBiase’s tuxedo featuring dollar signs.  Volkoff worked as a low-level heel before breaking away from the group before being phased out.

After that run, Volkoff worked everywhere you could imagine on the independent scene, especially in the Northeast as he had made his home in Maryland.  Until the end of his life, he regularly appeared at conventions and independent shows, even after he was out of the ring.

Volkoff was inducted by Jim Ross into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005 and was long considered part of the extended WWE family, regularly popping up for cameos (mostly singing) and even the rare nostalgia match on Old School Raws.  His last WWE “match” was a March 2008 appearance where he and The Sheik were to face The U.S. Express, but the match never started as Volkoff’s singing was interrupted by Jillian Hall, at the time doing her own singing gimmick, singing “Born in the USA.”

Volkoff’s last appearance on WWE TV was a backstage vignette where he was singing the Russian National Anthem alongside Rusev and Lana.

Volkoff released a comic book about his life several years ago and in 2006, he campaigned for Maryland Republican Primary for State Delegate in District 7 (representing parts of Baltimore & Harford County) but failed to move forward in the electoral process.

Volkoff was a really nice person, and a gentle giant in every way that description could fit a person.  He will certainly be missed.

On behalf of everyone at PWInsider.com, our deepest condolences to the family, friends and fans.

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