Acrylic on 24″ x 24″ wood
There’s an old rule in wrestling that being from another country makes you a villain, but Ivan Koloff took that to another level. Born James Parras in Montreal, he would debut as Red McNulty and was billed from Dublin, Ireland. He worked in the Toronto area for three years before continuing his wrestling education in Japan. In 1967 he found the gimmick that worked, when he debuted with the International Wrestling Association in Montreal as ‘The Russian Bear’ Ivan Koloff. He was an intimidatingly-sized bearded man billed from the Ukraine, and instantly drew the ire of the fans by espousing Communist ideals and their superiority to the Capitalist way of life.
In 1970 he debuted for the then-WWWF and was managed by the legendary Captain Lou Albano, and was quickly put into a feud with the champion Bruno Sammartino. Koloff would defeat Sammartino in 1971 for the title, ending Bruno’s nearly eight year reign. He would go on to lose the title less than a month later to Pedro Morales. During his time there he would have notable feuds with Sammartino, Morales, Superstar Billy Graham and Bob Backlund. When it became clear he would not win the title again, he left the company in 1972.
Koloff would then see great success in the NWA’s Georgia, Florida and Mid-Atlantic territories in the tag division, winning over twenty tag titles. His first tag title win was with Ray Stevens, and later with Don Kernoodle, and most notably with his storyline nephew Nikita Koloff as The Russians. The Russians, also with Krusher Kruschev, were a top heel stable in the mid-1980’s. During this time, his greatest feuds included Dusty Rhodes, the Road Warriors, the Rock n’ Roll Express, and Magnum TA. He also has the distinction of appearing on both the first card for ECW and the first television main event for Smoky Mountain Wrestling.
Since retiring, he has focused his life on charity work and his ministry. I had the pleasure of being in attendance for his acceptance of the Iron Mike Mazurki Award at the 2013 Cauliflower Alley Club Reunion. He gave a very genuine, passionate speech about his life in and out of wrestling, and how defeating his personal demons was so much more difficult than the opponents he faced in the ring.
About the piece: Sometimes I go for the obvious thing, and for Koloff the obvious thing was to do his portrait in the style of a Communist propaganda poster. In my opinion, that style’s kind of done-to-death in this post-Shepard Fairey art world we’re in, but it felt so appropriate for his over-the-top character.