Tag Team Appreciation Month

THE RUSSIANS

Ivan Koloff & Nikita Koloff

1984-1986

NWA World Tag Team Champions

 

Written by Mike Rickard

Professional wrestling is well-known for its use of heels who personify foreign menaces, ranging from enemies hearkening back to World War Two in the form of Nazi and Japanese wrestlers (Waldo Von Erich, Mr. Fuji, and Professor Toru Tanaka to name a few) and continuing with Soviet badmen such as Nikolai Volkoff and Boris Zhukov. Arguably, the premier Russian heel of the 70s and 80’s was “The Russian Bear,” Ivan Koloff. Koloff’s menace rose to new heights when he teamed with his storyline nephew, Nikita in Jim Crockett Promotions during the 1980s, forming the formidable team known as The Russians.

 

Uncle Ivan had made a huge name for himself after dethroning Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF Championship. As we noted in our look at Ivan’s career, that was only the beginning of a long and successful run through the territories. Koloff returned to the WWWF for an epic series of rematches with Bruno in 1975 and found championship gold in promotions such as Championship Wrestling from Florida, Georgia Championship Wrestling, Jim Crockett Promotions, and the World Wrestling Council.

Although the 1970s saw the age of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, that didn’t stop promoters from exploiting Cold War tensions. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan saw the end of détente and a renewed patriotism in America. Promoters capitalized on this whether it was the once hated Sgt. Slaughter turning face to battle Iran’s Iron Sheik, or any number of American wrestlers battling foreign menaces.

 

In 1984, Ivan’s storyline nephew Nikita debuted alongside him in JCP. At the time, Ivan held the NWA World Tag Team Championship with American wrestler Don Kernodle. However, after Ivan and Kernodle dropped the belts to Dusty Rhodes and Manny Fernandez, Ivan and Nikita attacked Kernodle, delivering a brutal beatdown. With Kernodle tossed aside, Ivan and Nikita formed a new and fearsome team, known as the Russians. The addition of American turncoat Krusher Kruschev only added to the team’s menace.

 

Nikita was portrayed as an unstoppable monster, akin to the character Ivan Drago from the 1985 film Rocky IV (Interestingly enough, Nikita claims in an interview he auditioned for the role of Drago). With his experienced uncle guiding him in the squared circle, and Kruschev providing timely interference, the Russians proved their dominance, defeating Rhodes and Fernandez for the NWA World Tag Team Championship on March 18, 1985. The Russians invoked the Freebird Rule, allowing any pairing of them to defend the titles.

The Russians didn’t limit themselves to the NWA World Tag Team Championship. The trio held the NWA World Six-Man Tag Team Championship and Ivan helped Nikita campaign against “Nature Boy” Ric Flair for Flair’s NWA World Heavyweight Championship, including their historic meeting at the inaugural Great American Bash.

 

The Russians were a powerful team but they found an unlikely rival in the much-smaller team of The Rock & Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson). The Rock & Roll Express used their speed advantage to overcome The Russians, upsetting them on July 9, 1985 for the tag team titles. The two teams continued battling each other with The Russians regaining the gold on October 13, 1985. However, proving once again that rock and roll never dies, Gibson and Morton defeated Ivan and Nikita in a Steel Cage Match at Starrcade ’85, regaining the gold.

 

While the Russians’ battle with the Rock & Roll Express is well-remembered, their battle with the Road Warriors is the height of their run. Even before Hawk and Animal signed with JCP (The Road Warriors were working for the American Wrestling Association at the time), the two teams battled on several occasions. The Roadies vs. The Russians was a dream match with both teams considered two of the toughest (probably the toughest) in the industry at the time. Their powerful, take-no-prisoners style had fans wondering which team was the baddest. Once the Road Warriors signed with Crockett, the two battled throughout the promotion, in some of the most action-packed and bloodiest matches of the 80s.

A tragic accident led to the dissolution of the Russians as Nikita made a shocking babyface turn in October 1986, following the career-ending automobile accident of Crockett’s top babyface, Magnum T.A. Nikita joined Dusty Rhodes in a bout against the Four Horsemen, becoming a beloved babyface in the blink of an eye. Uncle Ivan continued his anti-American campaign but it was never the same without Nikita by his side.

As the Cold War began to wind down, even Ivan Koloff turned face, after being kicked out of manager Paul Jones’ heel faction, “The Paul Jones Army.” Ivan reunited briefly with Nikita but the reunion was short-lived as Nikita took a sabbatical following the death of his wife Mandy.

 

While The Russians were a short-lived team, they provided some exciting moments in JCP. Whether it was their David vs. Goliath battles with the Rock & Roll Express, or their Godzilla vs. King Kong bouts, they were able to work with a variety of opponents, engaging the fans with their interviews and in-ring action.

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