As a kid, I absolutely adored professional wrestling, even though I quickly realized the whole performance was an extravagant act. Who could really get jumped on from 6-feet high in the air, be thrown onto a concrete floor, take a folding chair to the cranium and then hop back into the ring like nothing happened?
So while the faux action did hold some appeal for me as an 8-year-old, it wasn’t the main draw.
What I really adored were the personalities. Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Randy Savage, Jimmy Snuka — their shtick brought the “sport” to life.
None of those stars, though, could match the outright villainy of Nikolai Volkoff, the character played by Croatian immigrant Josip Nikolai Peruzovic. Sadly, Peruzovic’s wife announced on Sunday that Peruzovic passed away at the age of 70.
Peruzovic rose to fame in the 1980s for his portrayal of the despicable Volkoff character, a World Wrestling Federation performer who seemed to take ferocious pride in his Communist heritage. Volkoff would appear dressed in red and yellow and often wore an ushanka.
He would belt out the Russian anthem — sometimes while clutching an American flag. As far as incendiary gestures went during the Cold War era, it was downright explosive.
What’s more, no one was entirely safe from Nikolai Volkoff or his tag-team partner, The Iron Sheik. The pair even won the WrestleMania I title in 1985.
Interestingly enough, though, Peruzovic was anything but a Communist sympathizer. In fact, he despised Marxism, and his portrayal of Volkoff aimed to play up the horrors of the hammer and sickle.
And for good reason. As a teen, Peruzovic wanted nothing more than to escape his Communist-ruled government of Yugoslavia.
The horrific stories coming out of Hungary had put the fear of collectivist totalitarianism into him.
“I heard that the wait was three years for the U.S.,” he told Deadspin’s Dave McKenna in 2004.
“For Canada, it was six months. I had to get out.”
While traveling with the Yugoslavian national weightlifting team, he was finally able to escape and took asylum in the Canadian embassy.
Once in Calgary, he discovered Muhammad Ali and tried to become a professional boxer, but only received pro-wrestling offers.
When legendary wrestling manager Freddie Blassie first approached Peruzovic about playing a Soviet character, he flat out refused.
“I told Freddie Blassie, ‘I escaped from there! I hate them! I hate communism! I can’t do that!’” he recalled.
“But he says, ‘Well, if you really hate it so much, why don’t you do something about it? Show the people the truth! And make money doing it!’”
That’s exactly what he did — and he made life just a little richer for the children of the 1980s by doing so.
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