I finally met Nikolai Volkoff, the bad-guy pro wrestler from the days of Bruno Sammartino and Gorilla Monsoon - and I don't know how we hated this man so much. Volkoff is lovable, gentle, charming and modest. He doesn't snarl anymore. The man doesn't even eat red meat.
Last Thursday, Volkoff walked into the basement dining room of The Barn, on Harford Road in Carney, wearing large, old-guy glasses, a bright red jacket and Russian soldier's cap, and he sang the Soviet anthem.
And no one threw any food at him.
That never would have happened back in the day.
In the role of evil, 300- plus-pound Soviet stooge in the 1970s and 1980s, Volkoff would step into rings at Madison Square Garden, the Baltimore Civic Center and other arenas and bring two despised figures with him - his tag-team partner, The Iron Sheik, and his manager, Classy Freddie Blassie. Volkoff would gesture for the crowds to stand as he sang to Mother Russia, and the crowd would respond by throwing last week's salad at him.
We hated this guy.
He had a long career and played to a lot of sellouts.
Nikolai Volkoff was the perfect character for the latter days of the Cold War, as pro wrestling became more popular through television and Ronald Reagan crusaded against the Evil Empire. "Volkoff will go down in history as one of the greatest villains of all time," it says on his WWE Web site profile.
A native of Yugoslavia, Volkoff hated communism and had defected in 1968. It was Blassie, the genius promoter, who persuaded Volkoff to play the part of a nasty Soviet as a way of kindling more American ire toward the U.S.S.R.
" 'Nikolai, you hate those commie bastards, be one of them,' Freddie told me," says Volkoff. "And I did good job."
But by 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern European communism crumbled, he dropped the Big Red schtick that had made Volkoff a love-to-hate-him hit.
He finished out his wrestling career as the good guy he always wanted to be.
What was he doing in The Barn last week?
Attending a little sports-nostalgia banquet thrown by our old friend, Turkey Joe Trabert, for the benefit of the new Sports Legends museum at Camden Yards. A good time was had by all. Volkoff stayed away from the delicious Buffalo wings and roast beef and opted for a giant mound of string beans. (He has been a vegetarian since September.)
Volkoff's real name is Josip Nikolai Peruzovic.
He married a farmer's daughter from Baltimore County 36 years ago and settled in Glen Arm. He works for Baltimore County as a code enforcement inspector. He's a member of the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame, and County Executive Jim Smith last year proclaimed Feb. 2 Nikolai Volkoff Day in Baltimore County.
Now, Peruzovic is considering stepping into Maryland politics. He said so at The Barn.
He might run for the House of Delegates from the 7th Legislative District, covering parts of Baltimore and Harford counties. Though a Republican, he might run as a Democrat. He says he's not sure. He joined the GOP, he says, because he viewed that party as "more on the side that wanted to destroy communism." But he has a lot of friends who are Democrats, including the Baltimore County Council chairman, Joe Bartenfelder.
This week, Peruzovic was to hold his first campaign committee meeting. He hasn't made a final decision about filing his candidacy and might not do so for a few months.
"You don't want to start too early," he says.
But here we are, with something like an exclusive: Former wrestling villain Nikolai Volkoff considers run for the State House.
I told Turkey Joe, who had made Peruzovic the guest of honor at the sports banquet, that I found the prospect amusing. Joe seemed to think I wasn't taking Peruzovic seriously.
"The former governor of Minnesota [Jesse "The Body" Ventura], who was a professional wrestler, did an outstanding job," Joe said. "And look at the present governor of California, a bodybuilder."
Says Bartenfelder: "If honesty and integrity gets anyone elected, then [Petruzovic] will win. ... He's good-natured, good-hearted. He really does have a sincere care for people and honesty in government."
I asked the former wrestler why he wanted to run for office.
It turns out that, years ago in New York City, around the time of his turn from villain to hero in the wrestling ring, Peruzovic was a celebrity guest at a fundraising gala in a big hotel ballroom. Nikolai Volkoff liked the loud and warm reception the audience gave him. Even more, he liked the idea of serving charities and community endeavors for the greater good.
"Ever since then," he says. "I didn't want to be bad guy anymore."