365 match reviews, one for each date on the yearly calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.
Look at just about any era of pro wrestling in North America, and you can find someone portraying the role of an evil foreigner.
The foreign heel is one of those tried-and-true tropes of wrestling, for better or worse. Evil German and Japanese wrestlers were commonplace in various territories after World War II. Then, during the Cold War, Russian bad guys were the du jour choice. Iron Sheik emerged as an America-hating Iranian in the 1980s; he also stands out as one of the few foreign heels who truly was from the place he portrayed, though he ironically spent time before wrestling as a bodyguard for the Shah of Iran, fighting against the type of extremist he portrayed in the squared circle. Sometimes, promotions in other countries would flip the script by bringing in evil Americans; Sam Adonis, the brother of WWE broadcaster Corey Graves, found great success as a heel in CMLL working an over-the-top, pro-Trump American gimmick.
Two of wrestling’s most famous foreign antagonists were Ivan and Nikita Koloff. Ivan carried the “Russian Bear” gimmick for more than 20 years. He’s also famously the man who ended Bruno Sammartino’s 10-year run as WWWF Champion, then went on to extended success in the National Wrestling Alliance. He was a fixture for years on wrestling on TBS, first for Georgia Championship Wrestling, then for Jim Crockett Promotions when Crockett took over the time slot after absorbing Ole Anderson‘s promotion.
In this entry of 365 Wrestling, the Koloffs face Ricky Steamboat and Don Kernodle from the February 9, 1985, episode of WorldWide Wrestling.
You can watch this match on YouTube:
In 1984, Ivan brought in his “nephew” Nikita to Crockett’s realm and they became top villains in the promotion. At the time of this match, they’re the tag champions for the second time. Kernodle played a role in that first tag reign ending. After returning to JCP in 1984, Kernodle became a “turncoat” and allied with the Russians, until they blamed him for losing the belts and “injured” Kernodle. Kernodle wrestles this match wearing a neck brace, a visual symbol of the damage wrought.
The pairing of opponents to the Koloffs is interesting. Kernodle and Steamboat were on opposite sides of The Final Conflict, the cage match for the Mid-Atlantic tag titles that is considered the genesis for Crockett deciding to hold the first Starrcade. David Crockett and Tony Schiavone don’t mention that history, unfortunately.
The ensuing match isn’t some astonishing display of athleticism. Any play-by-play is pointless, as the sum here is much greater than any individual part. An incredibly rabid audience elevates every aspect of the match, from the Koloffs working the crowd and heavily selling Steamboat and Kernodle’s early offense, to the extended segment of the match where Kernodle is isolated and the Russians focus upon his neck injury, to the frenzied finish. Nikita is incredibly green here — only about eight months into his career — but the three veterans in the match shroud his inexperience and keep this match rolling. It goes about 15 minutes from bell to bell, but time flies.
If you enjoy studying wrestling, or you’re a wrestler yourself, observe the way they tease Kernodle making the tag to Steamboat and then find different ways each time to block Kernodle from making the exchange. Eventually Steamboat loses his patience and comes charging into the ring, sparking a melee that leads to Kernodle getting some revenge on Ivan, and the pin. There’s no tag, and thankfully no one on commentary complaining about who is legal; the action and the broadcasting are on a more visceral level here.
This is billed as a Flag Match, which apparently just means the winning team gets to wave their nation’s flag after getting the fall. Steamboat and Kernodle get to do so for only a few seconds before the third Russian, Krusher Khruschev, storms the ring. Another brawl ensues, but Steamboat wields the Russian flagpole to send the Soviets scattering and the good guys are left standing tall.
Final Rating: 6.8
This is a great example of a throwback 1980s match, and what older wrestlers today grouse about when they say it was easier to work in front of crowds “back in the day.” Steamboat, Kernodle and the Koloffs wrestle a rather simple match but do it so well that the crowd eats up every second of it and remains fully engaged. Getting to chant “U-S-A” at the top of their lungs didn’t hurt.
While many “evil foreigner” characters tend to age poorly and come off as a display of ugly nationalism today, the Koloffs hold up. That’s because they are imposing and convincing heels who use more than just anti-American schtick to build their heat.
We examine one of the wildest high-flying matches you’ll find, and one you probably have not seen.