Thursday, February 23, 2017

Cultureshark Remembers...Ivan Koloff and George Steele

Two famous former professional wrestlers passed away last week within a day of each other, and while it may seem like I'm straining to connect the two, I see a resemblance here. Each to me represented the stereotypical "old guy" wrestler. There is a myth that Vince McMahon took rasslin' out of smoke-filled arenas and made it a family event--a myth propagated by...Vince McMahon!

Still, it is easy to think of pre-WWF expansion in the 1980s and post as distinct eras. George Steele and Ivan Koloff had great success in the early days and looked like the archetype of the old TV wrestler--middle-aged, kind of scary-looking, hairy everywhere except the tops of their heads, and most likely quite sweaty.

Yet the two reinvented themselves, in a sense, and thrived during the 1980s, when I happened to become a wrestling fan. Steele went from the savage heel to the beloved "mentally challenged" babyface (and had a memorable feud with RANDY Savage), a comedy character who made kids happy with his green tongue and his tearing of the turnbuckles. A lot of fans didn't like the character--hey, I have to admit I was annoyed that he was involved in Savage's feud with another of my favorites, Ricky Steamboat, as much as he was--but he was one of the more well known among the general public and the casual fans, and he certainly was an attention getter.

Koloff found a career rejuvenation years after winning the World Wide Wrestling Federation championship over Bruno Sammartino in a legendary upset. He slid into a mentor role as the manager/tag team partner of his "nephew" Nikita Koloff, and together the two were a significant act in Jim Crockett Promotions, the organization I always wanted to see more of even when it seemed WWF was all over the place. So years after his physical peak, Koloff changed roles and may have made the most money he ever did, even though he was no longer a main event singles wrestler.

The other thing that links the two in my mind is that both are great examples of the, "Wouldja believe he's really..." phenomenon. You know, it's that deal where you find out a pro wrestler is totally different than his on-screen persona. I think for years the go-to example of this was that George "The Animal" Steele was a schoolteacher in between wrestling gigs. I didn't know until well after I first saw him, but Koloff was not Russian at all. Well, that wasn't a huge surprise, but I didn't know he was a Canadian who was originally billed as an Irishman.

Of the two, I much preferred Ivan Koloff's act, but both were big parts of a misspent youth filled with way too much TV wrestling. R.I.P.

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