What a sad weekend for fans of 1980s WWF wrestling, as we mourn both the “Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff and George “The Animal” Steele, both of whom died after lengthy illnesses.
These guys played strong heel characters in the WWF in the early ’80s. Koloff went on to feud with the Road Warriors in the NWA in the mid-1980s, while Steele turned babyface and had a long TV feud with Randy “Macho Man” Savage over the affections of Miss Elizabeth.
George "The Animal" Steele
Steele, whose real name was Jim Myers, was 79 when he died on Feb. 16, 2017, while Koloff’s birth monicker was Oreal Perras and he was 74 at his death on Feb. 18, 2017.
Both wrestlers were outright mean during the 1970s for the WWWF. Steele actually did menacing promos instead of his later growls of “Youuuu!” and “Ayyyy!” Meanwhile, Koloff was most famous for ending the first WWWF Heavyweight Championship reign of Bruno Sammartino in 1971.
“The Animal” dislocates a shoulder
As a young wrestling fan in 1981, Steele scared the shit out of me because of a brutal angle (in real life, it probably wasn’t so bad) in which “The Animal” dislocated the shoulder of jobber Rick Bolton. To this day, it remains a very graphic attack.
Contrasting with the violence was Steele’s comedy, from the bald head but ridiculously hairy back, to his green tongue, to his ripping open the turnbuckles to thrown the inner stuffings at his opponent or even the TV camera operator.
His babyface turn came in the era of Saturday Night’s Main Event, during which a lovelorn Steele pined for Elizabeth. Steele was in Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat’s corner at WrestleMania III in Michigan when Steamboat beat Savage for the Intercontinental Title in one of the great historical bouts in the WWE’s history.
Years later in 1990s, I met Steele at an autograph signing in Everett, MA, just north of Boston, and he was a nice and funny guy. In his earlier days, he split his time between wrestling and teaching and coaching at Madison Heights, MI, near Detroit.
My friend Tom passed on a story he heard just this week that at some point — maybe in 1977 — Steele was stabbed by a fan at the Lowell (MA) Memorial Auditorium as he left the ring. He went to the city’s old St. Joseph’s Hospital but was OK.
Were any of you there that night in Lowell or know more about this incident? If you do, please let us know in the comments section below.
And I never knew this fact, but the Wrestling Observer mentioned that Steele played a role in establishing the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, formerly in Amsterdam, NY, but now in Wichita Falls, TX.
The “Russian Bear’s” voice was was unforgettable
Koloff was without doubt the most famous of the supposed Soviet Union wrestlers to compete in the U.S. The thing I remember most about Koloff was his voice — it had a thick, gutteral tone with a fake Russian accent on top of it. He was no sweet-talking Lana from today’s WWE.
Steve Austin’s podcast interview with Koloff in late 2014 was one of the first times I ever heard the guy talk normal, and you would not even recognize the real-life Koloff speaking. I don’t know how he got his voice to bend for his “Russian Bear” character.
Sure, Koloff was able to ride the wave of his Sammartino victory for almost two decades, but the guy could work and was in shape. In the 1980s, he returned to the WWF to fight Heavyweight Champion Bob Backlund and had a brief feud with Pat Patterson.
Ivan Koloff battles Bruno Sammartino in a cage match in the 1970s
Koloff helped launch he career of rhis “nephew” Nikita Koloff in the old NWA just as the real-life Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union was ending. After Ivan retired, he became a minister in the Carolinas.
Sammartino perhaps spoke for all of us this week when he told wrestling journalist Bill Apter: “It’s a sad, sad time in wrestling now because two of the giants of the game have perished.”