The real-life Josip Peruzovic, who passed away Sunday in his home state of Maryland at age 70, had come a long way in the years before his dour glare and heavyweight frame were drawn into Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n Wrestling in 1985. When Peruzovic was 15 years old, he sought to leave behind Yugoslavia, but there were few other ways to obtain a passport, aside from finishing a term with the army.
The future WWE Hall of Famer found his ticket to a more desirable life by becoming a decorated athlete, tirelessly working out for a reported six hours a day to the point where he was able to earn accolades as a weightlifting champion in his native land. Peruzovic would go on to win a tournament in Vienna, Austria around the age of 20, which allowed him, passport in hand, to emigrate to Canada in 1967. His new life awaited him, as he shortly thereafter sought training as a professional wrestler under the tutelage of Stu Hart.
Most memories of the eventual Nikolai Volkoff go back to those halcyon Rock 'n Wrestling days, when he'd stand with the Madison Square Garden bungee-mic in front of his face, reciting the Russian National Anthem beneath a flurry of boos, and even some paper and plastic projectiles. No collage or montage of the nationally-expanding Stamford giant would ever be complete without Volkoff stoically hailing his alleged Motherland, barely audible above the din of sheer scorn.
The role was an ironic one for Volkoff, who was portraying just the sort of unwavering Soviet sympathizer that he personally detested - the diametric opposite of the young man that toiled and ground until he found his ticket to a different life, a life filled with what he deemed superior opportunities. Volkoff would claim that it was "Classy" Freddie Blassie who sold him on the idea of playing a personally-undesirable character, because as a heel, he could get the fans to hate what Josip Peruzovic hated. "In the meantime, we can make some money,” Volkoff remembered Blassie telling him.
The result was the very character that Peruzovic would become internationally synonymous with. Although he would demonstrate his genuine gratefulness for American life by turning face in 1990, siding with the pro-Americana Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Volkoff will always be best remembered as part of the cadre of villains in the eighties that posed a threat to Hulk Hogan's core ideals. Some were threats to Hulk's character (Randy Savage, Paul Orndorff), while others to Hogan's body (Andre the Giant, King Kong Bundy). Volkoff was a threat to Hogan's patriotism, as geopolitics (such is often the case in wrestling) were reduced to punches, kicks, and the occasional eye gouge between the ropes. National audiences would see Volkoff and his ilk as the Penguins, Riddlers, and Jokers to Hogan's Batman, the tough-talking, teeth-gnashing patsies that get fed to the omniscient hero like logs to a wood-burning stove.
That Volkoff was playing the precise opposite of his truest feelings is noteworthy. He was unique in the regard that while some of wrestling's best characters are said to be themselves with the volume cranked to full blast, he instead portrayed a walking effigy that he would've happily burned himself. That such a character would be merchandised through action figures and home video releases (as well as a novelty recording of fifties rock ditty "Cara Mia") must've felt strange to a man who once hesitated to hawk virtues he legitimately deplored. Granted, Anthony Hopkins doesn't actually eat other people, but the cloud of kayfabe doesn't hang so low over Tinseltown.
When a fan takes stock of the career of Nikolai Volkoff, they see a man who found longevity in caricature, etching his name into WWE's framework through memorable villainy. It was through that longevity that Volkoff continued to occasionally perform, even as recently as three months before his passing. Personally, I witnessed him wrestle a little more than one year ago, going one on one with Combat Zone Wrestling owner DJ Hyde in a match that went roughly three or four minutes. At one juncture, with Hyde laid out on the mat, the then-69-year-old Volkoff sprang from the ropes and performed a front-rolling senton onto Hyde's torso, earning incredulous applause from the 100 or so fans on hand. Younger spectators born 25 years after his match with Hogan on Saturday Night's Main Event would flock to his merchandise table with some clear awe in their eyes.
There isn't exactly a signature match that immediately springs to mind from Volkoff's long portfolio, simply because that isn't the measure of Volkoff's effectiveness. Jim Cornette once said something the lines of if you have 12 big men on your roster, then you have no giants, meaning that nobody in particular is a standout. At 6'4" and over 300 pounds with a barrel chest, Volkoff could've been lost in the sea of monsters that was the WWE body gallery. Instead, he filled a unique niche, and that's all he needed to do to. The fact that he had been able to mine from his name and character for years after first breaching the pop-culture parameters is more success than most could ever aspire to.
When one reads Volkoff's words and understands his personal beliefs, you couldn't call his life and career anything but a success. He had a very fine idea of what true happiness was, in younger days when he wasn't personally experiencing it. By rigorously dedicating himself toward pursuing that definition of happiness, he became more famous and successful than perhaps he could have ever imagined. Whether that success and fame was a source of Mr. Peruzovic's personal happiness is something only he could say. That he got to live life on terms he staunchly aspired to is to imagine that the man behind Nikolai Volkoff was happy, and that's success by any measure.