Ivan Koloff: Secret Untold Tale of a Beloved Wrestling Heel

Explore the captivating transformation of Oreal Donald Perras, a Montreal native with a humble upbringing on a dairy farm, as he evolved from a mild-mannered young man into the notorious wrestling persona of Red McNulty and later the sinister Russian villain Ivan Koloff. Uncover his secret story and memorable journey, culminating in his historic upset victory that reverberated throughout the world of professional wrestling.

Oreal Donald Perras over the years, from Red McNulty to Ivan Koloff. Photo Montage: Pro Wrestling Stories.
Oreal Donald Perras over the years, from Red McNulty to Ivan Koloff. Photo Montage: Pro Wrestling Stories.

Ivan Koloff: From Red To Red – The Early Years

The future Ivan Koloff grew up as one of ten children. The wrestling bug struck early in the Perras household, as Ivan became a fan at the young age of eight. With six brothers, he had ample enhancement talent to test his favorite moves on.

At 18, he quit school and traveled to Hamilton, Ontario, to learn his future craft at Jack Wentworth’s wrestling school.

Oreal’s path to the squared circle was not without a pitfall or two. He was arrested for theft at 18 and spent some time in prison before beginning his epic mat career. After paying his debt to society, he set out to make a name for himself; perhaps it is more appropriate to say names for himself, as he had several.

Unlike all major sports, where modern-day recordkeeping is meticulous and easy to obtain, professional wrestling results can be as elusive as finding that last item in a scavenger hunt. The Internet Wrestling Database website lists Koloff’s wrestling debut on February 15th, 1963, in St. Louis.

Koloff, then 20 years old and wrestling as Ivan Zukoff, was defeated by Joe Blanchard. In addition to a notable wrestling career, Blanchard is known for his time as a promoter (San Antonio-based Southwest Championship Wrestling) and as the father of Four Horseman Tully Blanchard and grandfather of Tessa Blanchard.

The wrestling world is certainly full of irony, and Koloff’s career is no exception. Approximately two weeks after his initial match against Blanchard, Koloff wrestled none other than his career nemesis Bruno Sammartino in Pittsburgh as part of the fabled Studio Wrestling show. Again wrestling as Ivan Zukoff, Koloff experienced defeat at the hands of the Italian Strongman, as he did a week later.

Koloff returned to Pittsburgh in November of 1965 and again wrestled Sammartino under the name Orwell Paris, a takeoff of his real name. The name didn’t matter, as the result was the same: defeat.

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Red McNulty becomes Ivan Koloff

Ivan Koloff as Red McNulty.
Ivan Koloff as Red McNulty. Photo Credit: WWE.

The year 1966 saw the introduction of Red McNulty into the world of professional wrestling.

McNulty, a one-eyed, red-headed Irishman, debuted in the NWA Vancouver territory in May of that year. It would be nice to say that Red McNulty fared better than Ivan Zukoff. Sadly, that did not happen for quite a while. Red dropped matches to Haystacks Calhoun, Rene Goulet, Dominic DeNucci, and John Tolos.

His first recorded victory was against Roy McClarty in Victoria, British Columbia, on June 21st, 1966. McNulty Mania wasn’t exactly running wild, but Koloff was doing what every great before him and most after did: paying his dues.

McNulty remained in Western Canada through 1967. He worked as a mid-carder, losing more often than he won, and worked programs with such greats as Luther Lindsay, Don Leo Jonathan, and Rocky Johnson.

In 1968, he headed east and wrestled for Johnny Rougeau’s Montreal-based International Wrestling Association (IWA) promotion. On January 8th, 1968, Ivan Koloff defeated Eddie Auger in Montreal, Canada. This was the first recorded time that Koloff would use the name he kept for the remainder of his career.

Koloff’s won-loss record improved considerably as he engaged in feuds with Rougeau (father of the Fabulous Rougeau Brothers, Jacques and Raymond) and the ‘Flying Frenchman’ Edouard Carpentier.

On August 12th, 1968, Koloff defeated multiple-time world champion Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon to capture the World/International Heavyweight Title (Montreal Version).

During his initial championship reign, Koloff scored wins over Carpentier, Gino Brito, Bulldog Brower, and former NWA World Heavyweight Champion Whipper Watson. Koloff would win this title again on May 23rd, 1969, defeating Johnny Rougeau in Quebec City.

A Career On The Rise for Ivan Koloff

Ivan Koloff as WWWF Champion.
Ivan Koloff as WWWF Champion. Photo Credit: WWE.

Ivan Koloff was undoubtedly making his bones in the world of professional wrestling.

Until this point, Koloff had wrestled almost exclusively in Canada, save for his few initial appearances in Pittsburgh and several appearances for Sam Muchnick in St. Louis.

This would all change in September of 1969. Eleven days after wrestling Johnny Rougeau in Montreal, Koloff defeated then World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) Bruno Sammartino by countout at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. The WWWF was the precursor to today’s WWE.

If the wrestling world didn’t know who Ivan Koloff was previously, they sure did now.

By November 1969, Koloff was wrestling exclusively for Vince McMahon Sr.’s Capitol Wrestling Corporation. He received several more title matches with Sammartino and plowed through the New York territory’s competition, defeating the likes of Dominic DeNucci and Victor Rivera, the number two babyface in the territory. A victory over Rivera was a very rare commodity at this time.

Koloff was virtually unbeatable throughout 1970, his singles losses coming mostly via countout or disqualification.

Ironically, Koloff and Sammartino have no recorded matches between May through December of 1970.

The Match That Shocked The World

Ivan Koloff defeated Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship on January 18th, 1971.
Ivan Koloff defeated Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship on January 18th, 1971. Photo Credit: WWE.

On January 18, 1971, the landscape of professional wrestling was forever altered when Ivan Koloff defeated Bruno Sammartino in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden on January 18th, 1971.

Sammartino had been the champion for nearly eight years and was considered invincible by many in wrestling. Here is an excerpt from the January 19, 1971 issue of the New York Times regarding this historic bout:

“A record crowd of 21,106 saw Bruno Sammartino lose his World‐Wide Wrestling Federation heavyweight title at Madison Square Garden last night. Ivan Koloff, 298 pounds of the Soviet Union, pinned the 34‐year‐old Italian strong boy in 14 minutes 55 seconds of the exhibition.

“Sammartino, 265, received the title belt in May 1963 when he defeated Buddy Rogers in 48 seconds in the old Garden. The gate receipts totaled $85,544. The previous attendance record was 20,892.”

Bruno Sammartino mentioned over the years in many interviews that he thought his hearing was damaged during the match, as the crowd was eerily silent after Koloff pinned him. Silence gave way to sobs amongst the crowd, many of whom chanted, “We love you, Bruno,” as he exited the arena.

Ivan Koloff as WWE Champion

WWWF Champion Ivan Koloff with manager Lou Albano.
WWWF Champion Ivan Koloff with manager Lou Albano. Photo Credit: WWE.

Ivan Koloff would hold the WWWF Heavyweight Championship for a mere 21 days before losing it to Pedro Morales on February 8th, 1971, in front of another sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden. Although his time as champion was brief, he was quite active, defending the title ten times and wrestling in three tag team matches.

It appears that Ivan took some time off after the defeat to Morales, then went on an extended tour of Japan before doing a brief stint in the familiar climes of Western Canada.

It would have been unthinkable for Bruno to have been defeated by a fellow scientific wrestler (the jargon of the day) such as Morales, so a go-between was required to do a quick baton toss, which the wrestling public would buy.

This was repeated when Stan Stasiak, the pride of Buzzard Creek, Oregon (37 miles North by Northwest of Parts Unknown), defeated Morales in Philadelphia on December 1st, 1973. Stasiak, another transitional champion, only had a nine-day reign before dropping the title to the returning Sammartino on December 10, 1973, to the delight of the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden.

Could Koloff have carried the belt for an extended period, similar to Superstar Billy Graham? That debate is for a different time and place.

Ivan Koloff’s Time in the AWA and JCP

Ivan Koloff alongside "The Big K" Stan Kowalski during his time in the AWA.
Ivan Koloff alongside “The Big K” Stan Kowalski during his time in the AWA. Photo Credit: AWA Wrestling Magazine.

Ivan Koloff found himself in the American Wrestling Association (AWA) towards the end of 1971.

He received a huge push, scoring wins over Don Muraco, Sailor Art Thomas, and Red Bastein. This led to a January 26th, 1972, AWA Championship match with perennial kingpin Verne Gagne, which Koloff won by disqualification.

Despite a very impressive record and numerous victories over top AWA talent, Koloff’s title opportunities were few and far between. He wrestled Gagne to a no contest on March 18th at the St. Paul Civic Center; the subsequent encounter, on May 20th, at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, yielded the same outcome.

There were a couple of matches between the two later in the year, with Gagne coming out on top; however, per the wrestlingdata.com website, there were no matches between the two during 1973, despite Koloff making the AWA his home for the entire year.

After making Minneapolis his home base for almost two and a half years, the Canadian-Irish Russian headed to the Charlotte-based Mid-Atlantic territory.

Befitting his status as a former world champion, Koloff was given an immediate push. His first Mid-Atlantic victory occurred on March 6th, 1974, at a TV taping in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he defeated Ed Wiskowski, who gained fame a decade later as the evil South African Colonel DeBeers.

Although he reeled off an impressive string of victories in his first month in Crockett land, April saw this push stalled, as he was booked almost exclusively in tag team matches with a variety of random partners, including Chuck O’Connor (Big John Studd), The Super Destroyer (Don Jardine), and Rip Hawk.

Although brief, Koloff’s Mid-Atlantic stay yielded two reigns as the Mid-Atlantic Television Champion. Although his most significant title victory was in his rear-view mirror, there were many more in the portrayed Russian’s future.

Koloff wrestled most of 1975 in the fledgling and short-lived International Wrestling Association (IWA). Koloff was again a main event star, scoring victories over top names like Tex McKenzie, Argentina Apollo, and IWA Champion Mil Máscaras. However, he could not wrest the title from the Man of a Thousand Masks.

Back To The WWWF

Ivan Koloff in the WWF.
Photo Credit: WWE.

Ivan Koloff would return to the WWWF in late 1975 to once again challenge his arch-rival Bruno Sammartino, who was now in his second reign as champion.

Although Koloff was unsuccessful in recapturing the title from the Living Legend, his second run in the Federation was quite successful, as he received many title shots, worked an excellent program with ‘Polish Power’ Ivan Putski, and frequently tagged with Superstar Billy Graham and Ernie Ladd.

Koloff would have subsequent stays in the WWWF/WWF and holds the distinction of challenging four champions (Sammartino, Graham, Morales, and Bob Backlund).

Ivan’s last run in the WWF included a championship match against Bob Backlund at Madison Square Garden on April 25, 1983.

Carolina On My Mind

NWA World Tag Team Championship Don Kernodle and Ivan Koloff.
NWA World Tag Team Championship Don Kernodle and Ivan Koloff. Photo Credit: WWE.

Although Koloff is best known in the wrestling world for his victory over Sammartino, he experienced phenomenal success wherever he went.

His stint in Florida in 1977 yielded much gold, including the NWA Southern Heavyweight Championship (Florida Version) and several runs with the NWA Florida Tag Team Championship (with Pat Patterson and Masa Saito).

The following year, the Russian Bear emerged in the Peachtree State, capturing the NWA Georgia Tag Team Championship with Ole Anderson and Alexis Smirnoff.

Ivan experienced the greatest run of his career at the very end, homesteading with the Charlotte-based Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP). Here, Koloff would win a bucketful of gold, including the NWA World Tag Team Championship (with Nikita Koloff and Don Kernodle) as well as the NWA Mid-Atlantic World 6-Man Tag Team Championship on several occasions with Krusher Khrushchev, as well as once each with Barbarian and Warlord.

Koloff’s last significant championship was the World Wrestling Council (WWC) Puerto Rican Heavyweight Championship, defeating Invader #1 on July 15th, 1989, a month shy of his 47th birthday.

Ivan Koloff: Why He Was So Universally Loved and Respected

"The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff.
“The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff. Photo Credit: WWE.

Ivan Koloff is universally loved and respected by his peers in the world of professional wrestling. Here is what several of them had to say about The Russian Bear:

Davey O’Hannon: “Red was one of the most wonderful guys I met in the business. He was such a good-hearted and warm guy to be around.”

Davey related a story about Ivan buying a present for Davey’s father to show his appreciation for Davey never charging him for transportation costs.

Nikita Breznikov: “Back in 1999, I was working on a series in Virginia with Nikolai Volkoff and Ivan Koloff. They were to face a team called The Double Doinks. Don’t ask. So, Friday night’s show went off without a hitch.

“However, the next day, Ivan said, ‘I just can’t do it, I’m in agony, it’s been too long for me.’

“He wanted to manage and have Nikolai and me as a team. Nikolai was afraid that I did not have enough experience yet, as I was mostly managing, and these guys were lime green. So, my fertile mind came up with an idea.

“‘We go out and laugh and say one Russian can beat two USA goofs any day.’

“We flipped a coin, so Nikolai would basically have a handicap match with Ivan and I on the floor. Ivan did as much to incite the crowd and put the match over as if he was in the ring. I was in my glory watching this legend perform alongside me.

Then, a few days later, after the tragic 911 attack, I got a call from Uncle Ivan. He remembered that I still worked for Baltimore Police and was concerned. That’s the type of man he was. GREAT!”

Ivan’s Widow, Renae Koloff Perras: “Bruno Sammartino was always Ivan’s biggest hero! Ivan’s whole face would light up like a Christmas tree when he was talking to Bruno on the phone. I would laugh at Ivan because he became like a kid!

“Bruno decided to drop the belt to Ivan on January 18th, 1971. Ivan was always so grateful to him for that. Ivan told him, ‘Thank you’ every time they talked.”

Johnny Rodz: “Ivan Koloff was just a regular good guy. Great worker in the business.”

Nikita Koloff: Ivan’s on-screen “nephew” had this to say about Uncle Ivan in an interview with Hannibal TV:

“Ivan lived a full life; he had a stellar career in professional wrestling. He gave everything he had to the wrestling business. He lived, ate, and breathed it. He loved the wrestling business. He gave his heart to wrestling. I couldn’t say enough good things about Ivan Koloff. The success of my career, much of it is attributed to him and Don Kernodle.”

Ivan Koloff in Later Years

Ivan Koloff in later years.
Ivan Koloff in later years. Photo Credit: Perras Family.

Whether he was a Red (as in Red McNulty) or a Red (as in evil Russian), Ivan Koloff was a main-event championship quality wrestler who was booed the world over for three decades.

After a final run with World Championship Wrestling in 1989, he wrestled on the independent circuit until his retirement in 1994.

Shortly after his retirement, he was invited to church by his “nephew” Nikita Koloff, where he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

Ivan would become an ordained minister and traveled nationwide to share his testimony. He authored a book called Is Wrestling Fake? The Bear Facts, as well as contributed to the book Life In the Trenches by author Brian D’Ambrosio, which detailed his struggles with substance abuse before his conversion to Christianity.

In the YouTube documentary Ivan Koloff: The Most Hated Man in America, Koloff talked about his spirituality.

“I have somebody I can look up to. I’ve got a partner here that when the times get rough, or I need help, all I have to do is tag my partner. And that’s Jesus Christ.”

Oreal Perras lived his retirement years in the quiet community of Winterville, North Carolina, with his wife, Renae.

Despite achieving what could be considered the most pivotal triumph in professional wrestling history, he never received the honor of being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, which is a shame.

Ivan Koloff sadly passed away on February 18th, 2017, at the age of 74, of liver cancer.

He is widely acknowledged as one of the preeminent heels in the history of the professional wrestling industry, leaving behind an indelible legacy that continues to resonate with fans and individuals in the business alike.

Listen to Pro Wrestling Stories authors Benny Scala, Evan Ginzburg, and Andy Dujlovic discuss Ivan Koloff’s story further on the “Grappling With Canada” podcast:

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Benny J. Scala is a senior writer at Pro Wrestling Stories and co-host of the Dan and Benny In the Ring podcast. He is also a writer/promoter for Jimmy Valiant's Boogie’s Wrestling Camp and Hall of Fame Museum (BWC). Benny is a licensed Florida Realtor and recently joined the writing staff of the Through The Fence Baseball website. He has been a fan of professional wrestling since the late '60s.