WWE Hall of Famer Nikolai Volkoff, who rose to fame with the company as one of the preeminent villains of wrestling in the 1980s, died on Sunday morning at the age of 70.
No cause of death was mentioned in PWInsider’s report on Volkoff’s death, but it was mentioned that the legendary wrestler was released from a Maryland hospital a few days ago, where he was diagnosed with a number of medical issues, including dehydration.
Despite the fact that he was billed as hailing from what was then known as the Soviet Union, Nikolai Volkoff, real name Josip Nikolai Peruzovic, was actually a native of present-day Croatia, where he was born on October 14, 1947. After competing for the Yugoslavian weightlifting team as a young man, Volkoff emigrated to Canada in 1967 and trained under Calgary wrestling patriarch Stu Hart, whose sons Bret and Owen would later be among Volkoff’s colleagues in what was then known as the WWF.
As noted by PWInsider, Nikolai Volkoff moved to the United States with his friend, Canadian wrestler Newton Tattrie, and signed with Vince McMahon Sr.’s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). As Bepo and Geeto Mongol, Volkoff and Tattrie held the WWWF International Tag Team Championships for over a year. Volkoff then worked under a mask as The Executioner, and as the 1980s hit, switched to his familiar ring name, upon which he was originally billed as a Mongolian, then later on as a Russian.
It was in the mid-’80s when Nikolai Volkoff gained the most fame as a professional wrestler, as the then-WWF booked him as a foreign heel, one who would attract heat from audiences by loudly singing the Russian national anthem. With Freddie Blassie as his manager and The Iron Sheik as his tag team partner, Volkoff enjoyed memorable feuds against the U.S. Express (Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda) and Hulk Hogan, who was then at the peak of his run as WWF’s All-American heroic character.
After Blassie’s retirement, Volkoff was managed by “The Doctor of Style” Slick and partnered with American wrestler Jim Harrell, who was given a matching fictional Russian identity and ring name, Boris Zhukov. Volkoff then became a babyface in 1990 in light of the fall of the Soviet Union, and left the WWF later that year, making one-off returns in the years that followed. He returned in 1994, again playing a villainous role, albeit one where it was implied he was a reluctant lackey to Ted DiBiase, and only siding with the “Million Dollar Man” because he was broke and needed the money.
Despite already being close to 50 at the time his last full-time run with the WWF ended, Nikolai Volkoff remained active in the independent scene in the 20-plus years that followed. He was inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2005 and frequently returned to the company for cameos in backstage skits and occasional matches. According to PWInsider, Volkoff was last seen on WWE television in 2014 singing the Russian national anthem in a backstage segment with present-day foreign heels Rusev and Lana.
In the hours since Nikolai Volkoff’s death was first reported, several wrestlers, including current WWE superstars Natalya and Big E and former ECW and WWE mainstay Tommy Dreamer, have taken to Twitter to pay tribute to the late legend and offer their condolences to his family. Fans and former colleagues alike remembered Volkoff as a kind man and a unique character, while also looking back fondly at his memorable heel tactics as one of the top “bad guys” during his heyday.