Yesterday was the first anniversary of the death of my beloved friend, Nikolai Volkoff. Marc Madison asked me to do a piece on him and rather than once again chronicling his amazing career, I thought I’d share some personal memories of the man Bret Hart described as “The nicest wrestler I ever met.” This was about my friend Nikolai.
The first time I met Nikolai was at wrestling historian Scott Wilson’s house on Long Island on April 13, 2002. Scott has the most extensive collection of Nikolai Volkoff memorabilia and ring worn garb in the world and hired Nikolai for a personal appearance to spend his birthday with him. He is Scott’s childhood hero and I honestly didn’t know what to expect, but I had grown up on him as well. In fact, he appeared in the main event of the first show I EVER went to- as he and manager Fred Blassie took on Bruno Sammartino and Chief Jay Strongbow in the main event at Madison Square Garden on 6/24/74. Now, amazingly, I was about to wine and dine with the man and his real-life manager, Nikita Breznikov.
My Friend Nikolai
To say he was warm, and accommodating would be an understatement. This wasn’t some money grab to him or “just another appearance.” He took a legitimate interest in everyone he met- from Scott’s family to his friends going so far as to give out sage-like nutritional advice. He brought Russian military jackets for everyone to pose with him. Nikolai regaled us with road stories and told us about having so much heat when teaming with The Sheik they had to sneak out of Madison Square Garden in an ambulance mid-show rather than face a horde of seething fans at the stage door. The man was warm, friendly, funny, caring. In short, we bonded.
In fact, when we did the Wrestling-Then & Now documentary with West Coast filmmaker Dwayne Walker, we went to Nikita’s house to interview them. Nikita had just gotten through prostate cancer surgery and the shoot was a real boost to him after that particularly rough stretch. It all felt warm and cozy as opposed to many film shoots with legendary stars who for all intents and purposes are often strangers. And although the film has never attained the attention of The Wrestler or 350 Days it has had “legs” and is available on Amazon Prime and will be screened in Vegas on November 13th, some seventeen years after we shot it.
To think that so many of my friends in the film- Nikolai, Killer Kowalski, Don “Dr. Death” Arnold, Fred Geobold, promoter Bobby Lombardi and my “brother” Tiger Khan are all gone, makes me ever so grateful we captured them on film.
This clip is from the film:
Later down the road when I was producing Johnny Valiant’s one-man comedy show, An Evening with Johnny Valiant, JV had to miss one performance due to a family emergency. Who was right there to take his place? Nikolai himself. Somehow the Johnny Valiant Show morphed into the Nikolai Volkoff show and he and Nikita told jokes and amazing stories did magic tricks and kept those couple dozen fans in that small New York theater entertained. What was interesting to me was a man who entertained 22,000 at Madison Square Garden was nervous being out of his element with this tiny crowd, but he more than pulled it off. It was a fun night and man do I ever wish someone had thought to videotape it.
Lou Albano’s Birthday Party
Another memorable night was Lou Albano’s birthday party at Ashford and Simpson’s swanky NYC club. Johnny Valiant hosted it and there were Nikolai and Lou and Bundy and so many heroes no longer with us. Sitting in a limo with Greg Valentine and Adult film legend Seka and other legends that night who ultimately became friends I kind of pinched myself, “marking out.” A cherished memory as well.
Nikolai was also one of the reasons I became Associate Producer on The Wrestler. As an agent, I had booked Nikolai and Johnny Valiant at The Wrestling Universe for an autograph signing. In the course of the day, the best friend of The Wrestler’s Executive Producer approached us and said, “You guys would be perfect for a film Darren Aronofsky is doing on pro wrestling.” Next thing I knew I was at a meeting with Darren, Producer Scott Franklin, Screenwriter Robert Siegel, Nikolai, Nikita, Johnny V, Tiger Khan and others from the production. With Nikolai and Johnny regaling them with endless wrestling tales, we more than connected. Not long after I was offered an Associate Producer role which was one of the great experiences of my life.
Thank you, Nikolai, my friend.
Over the years we did a variety of projects and appearances. As editor of Wrestling-Then & Now, there was an annual, we devoted to his career. I also roomed with him on more than one occasion and he’d awaken at the crack of dawn to do hundreds of push-ups with old school blocks he carved himself “in the old country.” And I never saw him less than friendly or warm to anyone that approached him for an autograph or a picture.
Speaking of which, one funny story was out in L.A. we were heading back to the airport on a shuttle bus after a signing. A woman boarded and immediately said, “You’re Nikolai Volkoff!” She asked for an autograph which he heartily gave her. They got to chatting and he said to her, “This is my partner, The Sheik.” Looking questioningly at the tired, sleepy and worn out Iron Sheik, she made the mistake of saying, “No he isn’t.” Well, Sheik didn’t quite like that response. “Get out of here!” he roared at the embarrassed woman as we watched the bizarre spectacle.
Just Another Day On The Road With The Boys.
The last time I saw Nikolai was at a New Jersey wrestling convention. 350 Days was about to be released- which he appears in- and he graciously walked over to cut a promo for us. But I had never seen him look this tired or frankly, “old” and it alarmed me. “You made an old man walk over here” he joked in that warm way he always did. This may very well be the last interview he ever did:
Not long after Nikolai phoned me from the hospital. I was always flattered when he called as deep down, he was still that childhood idol and not just a friend. “I’m feeling better. They cleared up a chest infection. I’m going home in a few days.”
I never dreamed it would be the last time I’d speak with him and I honestly thought this “health nut” would live to 100.
I got the bad news right before going on my radio show. Devastated, I somehow plowed ahead and got through it. Ironically, there was a great live blues band- Bill and Shy Perry in the studio. How appropriate, because I sure was singing the blues that day having lost my dear friend. You can watch that show here and it’s quite powerful: here
Yes, Nikolai Volkoff was- as Bret Hart said- “the nicest wrestler I ever met.” Forget all the titles and sold-out crowds, fame, and notoriety. What better tribute to a man is there than that?