Retired professional wrestler Nikolai Volkoff turns his energy to helping children

Inside this recreation and parks center in Cockeysville, past the folded-up pingpong table and the pictures of pandas with fun facts about the furry creatures crayoned on the wall, is his modest office.

He is crammed behind a desk in there, waiting for the children to arrive.


His hair is buzzed short, he wears thin-wired glasses, and his big black leather sneakers stick out from underneath the desk. Golden trophies peak out of cardboard boxes. Old pool cues lean in the corner. And a dollar-store flyswatter hangs from a thumbnail over his broad shoulders.

The small black-and-white wrestling poster is the only indication that this is the office of Nikolai Volkoff, one of the most hated heels in professional wrestling history.


"He is definitely a large presence around here," said community supervisor Kevyn Allgeier, his superior.

Volkoff is 66 now, and his real name is Josip Nikolai Peruzovic. He still casts an imposing shadow and still climbs into the ring from time to time. But he spends many of his days at the Police Athletic League center in Cockeysville, where he has worked as help leader for three years.

It is a comfortable fit for Peruzovic, who despite tweaking patriotic wrestling fans for years with his anti-American shtick, has always been a kind soul with a big heart who enjoyed helping others.

"I like to help people because lots of people helped me when I was growing up," Peruzovic said.

He grew up in Croatia, which was part of Yugoslavia at the time, and became a weightlifting champion. But at 18 he fled his conflict-ridden country and moved to Canada. It wasn't long before he arrived in the United States.

With the help of legendary wrestling promoter and trainer Stu Hart, the father of wrestlers Owen, now deceased, and Bret, Peruzovic started wrestling in the World Wide Wrestling Federation (now the WWE) and became an American citizen in 1970.

That year, he also met his wife, Lynn, moved to Maryland and took up permanent residence in Glen Arm.

His manager, "Classy" Freddie Blassie, told him that the WWWF needed a Russian character and that he would be perfect for the role. But Peruzovic, who spoke Russian, didn't want to be cast as a bad guy, especially not a Communist. "I escaped from there and I hate them, so I cannot be one of them," he told Blassie. But he eventually relented, becoming the infamous Nikolai Volkoff.


Donning red spandex with "U.S.S.R." emblazoned on his chest and a Russian fur cap, Peruzovic worked crowds into a frenzy by singing the Soviet national anthem before every match. He was harassed so much in public that he sometimes had to wear a wig to go out to dinner with his family.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "I was the most hated wrestler in the United States at the time."

Peruzovic won several titles in his pro wrestling career, none bigger than the World Wrestling Federation tag-team title he won with the Iron Sheik in 1985, and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005.

After entering semiretirement, Peruzovic worked for Baltimore County as a code enforcement inspector and made an unsuccessful run for the House of Delegates in 2006. When the position at the PAL center opened up, Peruzovic jumped at the opportunity to work with kids.

"There's no better role model than Nikolai," said Andy Vineberg of Sparks, a close friend of Peruzovic's whom the wrestler took under his wing 25 years ago when Vineberg was a scrawny, unconfident 14-year-old. "The fame and the fortune never got to his head. I like that so much about the guy and respect him so much. And he just loves people. … He's a great human being."

While he has slimmed down significantly since his wrestling days, thanks to a vegetarian lifestyle, Peruzovic is literally a big part of the program's after-school activities. Once the children finish their schoolwork, he supervises the older ones when they lift weights. He cheers the children on when they play basketball outside. And he teaches youngsters how to play chess and pool.


"We just want to give kids a healthy environment so they stay away from troubles," he said.

Their parents, having grown up during the Cold War in the heyday of Nikolai Volkoff, are more familiar with his wrestling career. But the children know who he is now, mostly because he appears in one of the wrestling video games they have at the center.

"They love it," he said. "They say, 'Mr. Nikolai, we beat you in video game.'"

His friends and colleagues say he loves it, too, and everything about his job at the PAL center. While he is no longer executing body slams, he is still making a big impact every day.

"He's great working with the kids," Allgeier said.