wwwf championship

Rest in peace, Ivan Koloff
[1942 - 2017]

Earlier this week, it was announced that the former WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Ivan Koloff was dealing with some heavy medical issues. Unfortunately, Ivan has lost that fight, as he passed away early this morning. He was 74.

The man known as “The Russian Bear” actually got his start in his homeland of Canada, where he began his career in the early 1960s as Red McNulty, an Irish hooligan character. After gaining some experience, Koloff traveled to Japan where he honed his craft before returning to Canada as Ivan Koloff, a Russian villain from the Ukraine. In 1969, Koloff debuted in the World Wide Wrestling Federation, managed by Captain Lou Albano and becoming one of the biggest stars in the company. Koloff’s target was the WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Bruno Sammartino, who was the biggest hero the company heralded. After feuding with Sammartino for some time, on January 18th, 1971, Koloff defeated Sammartino in Madison Square Garden for the WWWF Championship with a knee drop from the top rope, ending Sammartino’s 2,803 reign as champion!

Koloff holds the distinction of being one of the company’s most promiment main event villains, having wrestled championship matches against Sammartino, Pedro Morales, Superstar Billy Graham, and Bob Backlund and being one of only two men to have challenged all four fan favorite champions. Koloff was also the first opponent to ever challenge for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship in a steel cage match. Outside of the WWWF, Koloff also found success as a tag team specialist, teaming with Nikita Koloff and/or Krusher Krushev in a team often referred to as The Russians.

Koloff traveled through the 70s and 80s as a journeyman superstar, wrestling in Georgia, Florida, and the Mid-Atlantic territories for the NWA, capturing the NWA World Tag Team Championships in 1981 with partner Ray Stevens. This was only one of several reigns Koloff would have as a tag team champion, having also captured the titles with such wrestlers as Nikita, Pat Patterson, and Ole Anderson. In 1992, Koloff wrestled in the very first ECW card, as well as the first Smoky Mountain Wrestling television taping.

To say that Ivan Koloff had a successful wrestling career would be an understatement. He was a career heel, working dilligently through every notable company and with a “who’s who” of talent in his 30+ year career. Ivan was a wrestler’s wrestler, a good hand, and a talent who could make even the most bland superstar look like a million bucks. Rest in peace, Ivan Koloff.

WWE Champion Pedro Morales [1971]

On February 8th, 1971, Pedro Morales defeated “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff to win the WWWF Championship (now known as the WWE Championship). Koloff has been cited as being a “transitional champion”, having defeated the long-running beloved champion Bruno Sammartino for the gold. Having Morales defeat Sammartino would have made him the surefire candidate for being the most hated in the company, a title which Koloff had no problem holding being a villanious bastard himself. So, when Morales defeated Koloff, it made him THAT much more popular as the champion. Morales would go on to to become a Grand Slam Champion, winning the WWE’s Intercontinental, Tag Team, and United States Championships, and in 1995, he was inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame.

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WWWF Championship:
Bruno Sammartino Vs. Ivan Koloff
Live at Madison Square Garden - January 18th, 1971

A lot of people are familiar with the 2,800+ day reign of Bruno Sammartino as the WWWF Champion. What many don’t know, however, is who Bruno lost the championship to. The man who finally ended the longest reign in history was Ivan Koloff, a man known as The Russian Bear. Koloff was the kind of heel that WWWF fans didn’t immediately take seriously, as it seemed Bruno as the champion was something that was set in stone, but once Koloff got the win, there was no turning back, as everyone then realized what a wrestler he was.

One of the YouTube comments below this video puts it into perspective:

I was there that night. The audio and crowd noise in this video is dubbed in. That is not what it sounded like. When the match ended, the crowd was in stunned silence. The quiet (even continuing into the next match) was surreal. Nobody could believe what they just saw.

Koloff held the WWWF Championship for 21 days, essentially the reign of a transitional champion as the company were set to go with Pedro Morales as their new champion, but didn’t want to have Bruno lose it to a good guy. Despite this, the fact that Koloff defeated the beloved champion for the gold, even if just for 3 weeks, made him a despised heel. Despite losing the title, Koloff remained a top contender for the title, facing off against the other 4 of the first 5 champions (Sammartino, Morales, Billy Graham, and Stan Stasiak) on several occasions.

WWWF Champion Pedro Morales
[1971]

Pedro Morales certainly earned his spot in the prestigious WWE Hall Of Fame. Not only was Morales the first man to hold all three of the WWE’s championship belts (the WWWF Championship, the WWF Intercontinental Championship, and the WWE Tag Team Championship), but he was also the first Latino to hold the WWWF Championship, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, and the AWA World Heavyweight Championship. Morales’ WWWF Championship reign began on February 8th, 1971, when he defeated Ivan Koloff, who had ended the near-8 year reign of Bruno Sammartino. Morales’ reign lasted from February of 1971 until December of 1973, when he was defeated by Stan Stasiak for the title.