A true champion

Published 3:35 pm Thursday, February 23, 2017

When most people hear the name Ivan Koloff, they think of professional wrestling’s Russian Bear, a villain in the squared circle. Others, including eastern North Carolina residents, knew him — not the performer — as a man who had deep faith in God, raised money for charities and perform weddings for their family members.

Koloff, 74, died Saturday of liver cancer. Koloff, named Oreal James Perras at birth in Canada, lived in Winterville.

Before he became an ordained minister and established Bear Witness for Christ ministry, Koloff wrestled with drugs and alcohol, perhaps the toughest opponents he ever faced.

In an interview with the Daily News several years ago, Koloff said at age 8 he decided he wanted to be a wrestler. He pursued and achieved that dream, but at a cost. “I found that this was a vice too hard. That the drugs, the alcohol — I became not only addicted to prescription pills and alcohol but cocaine, marijuana. I was very dangerous, carrying a gun, machete. So, I was a person who should have probably died many, many times, let alone the car accidents I had.”

In his last years, Koloff told of how he defeated that combination of drugs and alcohol. Simply put, Koloff said, God is in his corner. He told that story many times as he raised money for the Children’s Miracle Network.

His ministry carried him to churches, youth groups and prisons. Koloff combined wrestling matches, sermons and testimonies in his ministry.

“We have church right in the wrestling matches,” he said.

At a fundraising event in Washington about four years ago, Koloff talked with an 8-year-old boy who has an interest in becoming a professional wrestler.

While Koloff discouraged the boy from following that dream, the former world champion offered sound advice for the boy. Koloff underscored the importance of academics over athletics, assuring the boy that he could do well in each area if he worked hard at it. By that Koloff meant working hard in the classroom and doing homework and working hard while practicing a sport and giving one’s all when playing sports.

Koloff pulled no punches with the boy. Koloff gave straight, no-nonsense answers to the boy’s questions. Koloff made it clear the boy’s goal should be to become champion in the realm of academics before becoming a champion in the squared circle, on the football field or on the soccer pitch. Koloff left no doubt that an athletic scholarship can be the boy’s ticket to a college degree.

That attitude is what made Koloff a champion, not in the squared circle but in life. The world could use more champions like the Russian Bear who became a teddy bear.