Ivan Koloff – WWE’s Shame Behind Him Not Being in the Hall of Fame

As a kid, it was an amazing sight in the mid-1970s to witness Bruno Sammartino vs. Ivan Koloff at Madison Square Garden. Without entrance music, pyro, or anything beyond sheer charisma, when "The Italian Strongman" and "The Russian Bear" entered the ring, both in nothing but a pair of tights, the building would literally shake. Folks knew they were in for an epic encounter, were primed, and when that inevitable lock up and test of strength happened, our hearts raced with excitement and delight.

Black and white photo of Ivan Koloff about to square off against Bruno Sammartino in a wrestling ring.
Whenever "The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff and "The Italian Strongman" Bruno Sammartino entered the ring, the building would shake. [Photo: Pro Wrestling Illustrated]

The Night Ivan Koloff Shocked The World

On January 18, 1971, Ivan Koloff shocked the world and 21,666 fans in attendance by pinning the seemingly unbeatable Bruno in the sold-out "World’s Greatest Arena," Madison Square Garden. In those kayfabe pre-Internet days, to say folk were shocked would be an understatement. Older fans to this day tell the tale of sitting at MSG "the night IT happened." Mouths agape, they were silent, numb. A few even cried.

Must-read: Wrestling at Madison Square Garden – Our Top 5 Moments

And although Ivan Koloff lost the belt a mere three weeks later to Pedro Morales in the very same arena, he would ultimately headline that hallowed venue an amazing 13 times, making him arguably, with the exception of Superstar Billy Graham, the biggest WWF heel draw of the modern era. But maybe that’s an unlucky 13, because nearly a half-century later, Ivan is always at the top of the list along with Ray Stevens and the British Bulldogs in the annual discussions of guys who unquestionably belong in the WWE Hall of Fame, but who have yet to be given the nod.

Now while some folk point to WWE pettiness, as Ivan was reportedly part of a concussion lawsuit against the now WWE, at what point does achievement and dollars generated sway them regardless? That second run versus Bruno mentioned earlier saw him in MSG’s first-ever steel cage match, which not only sold out the Garden but the attached Felt Forum, too, where an additional 4,000 fans watched via closed-circuit. And he repeated that accomplishment during his territory-wide run versus Bob Backlund when on August 28, 1978, a double main-event of Ivan Koloff vs. Backlund and Superstar Graham vs. Dusty Rhodes Bullrope match sold out both MSG and the adjacent Felt Forum. And Koloff returned yet again in ’83 to work the circuit with Backlund.

Is Pettiness and Past Litigation the Reason Behind Ivan Koloff Not Yet Getting the Nod Into the WWE Hall of Fame?

But when you talk about Ivan, it goes far beyond just main-events and sellouts. He is easily one of wrestling’s top 20 all-time heels, and when you interview many of his peers as I have, they’d go even further and say he was Top 10. Such is the respect that they have for him. A tremendous worker, a powerhouse, and having an all-time great gimmick all were part of the allure, but the timing was perfect as well. Younger fans today may not grasp the Anti-Russian sentiment of that long-ago Cold War-era -watch some Sean Connery James Bond films to get the feel, I suppose- but he was the perfect heel at the perfect time.

It all worked. Ivan Koloff – "The Russian Bear" was a total package.

Taking it even further, as he aged and eased more into a tag team role, "The Russians" were a huge draw, too. With partners such as Nikita Koloff, Don Kernodle, Krusher Khruschev, and the lesser remembered Vladimir Petrov, they headlined or were near the top of an endless stream of NWA shows. He held a mountain of regional belts and was a main-eventer wherever he went throughout his long career as well.

Also, well worth noting, Ivan was universally beloved by all who knew him. And that’s something that rarely happens in this business.

Recommended: Nikolai Volkoff Stories: A Smelly Rib and a Joke in the Ring!

In short, the WWE is well aware of this all-time great’s Hall of Fame worthiness. He generated millions at the box office, had classic encounters that are still talked about today, and held the belt back when it meant something. Hell, the man pinned Bruno. They still talk about that today. And they always will.

Frankly, it’s a disgrace that when they knew he was dying- he passed away on February 18, 2017- the WWE didn’t acknowledge him by putting him in, for few are as deserving. And even fewer have been or ever will be as great in the squared circle as "The Russian Bear," Ivan Koloff.

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Evan Ginzburg is the Senior Editor for Pro Wrestling Stories and a contributing writer since 2017. He's a published author and was an Associate Producer on the Oscar-nominated movie "The Wrestler" and acclaimed wrestling documentary "350 Days." He is a 30-plus-year film, radio, and TV veteran and a voice-over actor on the radio drama Kings of the Ring.