The wrestling world lost one of its most colourful and entertaining characters this weekend with the passing of Nikolia Volkoff. Today on the blog, Craig looks back on his lengthy career, recapping a number of the highs from his time inside the squared circle.
On Sunday 29 July 2018, Josip Nikolai Peruzović, better known to wrestling fans as Nikolai Volkoff, passed away at the age of 70.
Volkoff, a one-time WWF tag team champion and member of the 2005 WWE Hall of Fame class, had been in the hospital days prior in Maryland for treatment of dehydration and other issues and passed away in the morning of 29 July.
Born in Yugoslavia, and a member of that country’s weightlifting team, he emigrated to Canada in 1967 and began training at Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling. The wrestler Newton Tattrie took Peruzović, who couldn’t speak English at this stage, under his wing and became his tag team partner.
When Tattrie moved to America in 1968, Peruzović followed him and the pair worked in various territories for The National Wrestling Alliance including NWA Detroit, International Wrestling Association and National Wrestling Federation.
That year, the pair would begin working for Vince McMahon Sr’s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) as the Mongols – Peruzović as Bepo Mongol and Tattrie as his partner Greeto. The duo was managed by “Captain” Lou Albano. On 15 June 1970, the pair defeated Tony Marino and Victor Rivera to win the WWWF International Tag Team Titles, the first of two reigns.
In the late 70s, now flying solo and wrestling under the pseudonym Nikolai Volkoff, he challenged both Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund for the WWWF title and although failing to make it to the top of the mountain, his rivalry with Sammartino was played out in front of sold-out audiences across the North East of America.
After spells in the American Wrestling Association and Mid-South Wrestling, Volkoff returned to the WWF and began teaming with the Iron Sheik, with the duo managed by “Classy” Freddie Blassie. Playing up on cold war tensions, and to generate heel heat from the American audiences, Volkoff would sing the Russian national anthem before matches before the Iron Sheik would grab the mic and declare “Iran number one, Russia number one” before spitting after saying ‘USA’.
The pair’s biggest success, and arguably the highlight of Volkoff’s in-ring career, came at the inaugural WrestleMania when they captured the WWF tag team titles from the U.S. Express (Mike Rotundo and Barry Windham). The finish came when the Sheik knocked out Windham with Blassie’s cane, allowing Volkoff to grab the pin. However, their reign was short-lived and just three months later they dropped the gold back to the U.S. Express.
Soon after, Volkoff began to focus on his singles career, including challenging Hulk Hogan for his WWF title, although these attempts were foiled. A feud with Corporal Kirchner followed, with the former 82nd Airborne paratrooper winning at WrestleMania 2 in a flag match after using Blassie’s cane to defeat Volkoff.
By late 87, Volkoff began teaming with Boris Zukhov as ‘The Bolsheviks’. Managed by Slick, after the retirement of Blassie, the pair quickly became a lower-card enhancement team, acting as fodder for new and emerging WWF tag teams. During this time, the pair lost to the team of the Hart Foundation in just 19 seconds at WrestleMania 6.
After splitting with Zukhov, Volkoff became a hero for the first time in his career. His gimmick was now that of a recently liberated Lithuanian, following the fall of the Soviet Union; he became very pro-west and feuded with Sgt. Slaughter. At the 1990 Survivor Series, Volkoff’s team defeated Slaughter’s, with Tito Santana being the sole survivor, and soon after he left the promotion.
After leaving, he did make the odd appearance – including at the 1992 Royal Rumble. By 1994, he began appearing in the crowd at WWF events before it was revealed he was part of Ted Dibiase’s ‘Million Dollar Corporation’. The storyline was that he had fallen on hard times and had been forced to accept a job with the stable. He was renamed “Nickel & Dime” Volkoff and DiBiase forced him to place a ¢ on his trunks where the Russian sickle once was along with a sign on his ring attire that read “Property Of The Million Dollar Man”. the group forced him to take matches they didn’t want or to soften up opponents.
Following this run with the company, he entered semi-retirement although did pop up from time to time. The Gimmick Battle Royal at WrestleMania X7, various “old school” editions of Raw and segments throughout the year. He last appeared on WWE TV in 2014, singing the Russian national anthem with Rusev and Lana.
In 2005, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by Jim Ross, introducing Nikolai Volkoff and his antics over the years to a new generation of wrestling fans.
Peruzović had been married for 35 years, for which he has two daughters. As well as making various WWE and independent appearances, he was code enforcement officer in Baltimore County and unsuccessfully ran in the 2006 Maryland Republican Primary for State Delegate in District 7.
Everyone at Ring the Damn Bell is saddened to learn of his passing and our thoughts go out to his family and friends at this time.