wrestling / Columns

The Top 7 Foreign Heels: Nikolai Volkoff, Iron Sheik, More

July 11, 2019 | Posted by Steve Cook
Nikolai Volkoff

Around this time of year, I find a way to write some form of patriotic column. Or I find a way to re-print something I already wrote with a similar theme. I’m feeling like switching things up in 2019. Typically, we celebrate the best American wrestlers, or the most patriotic American wrestlers, or something along those lines.

Let’s go to the other side this year. Why not take a look at the people that hate America? These folks used their hatred of Mom, apple pie, baseball and everything else American to make a ton of money at our expense. We booed them out of buildings, but they made sure to get their payoff first.

Today, we look at the most magnificent foreign heels.

7. Baron von Raschke

Wrestling had tons of Nazis for a lengthy period of time. We can’t really do this now because people either get offended by Nazis or by being called Nazis for having Nazi-type beliefs. At any rate, the ol’ Baron had the longest staying power of all of the goose-stepping Nazis that finished their opponents off with the Iron Claw. Heck, he stuck around so long that he eventually became a babyface in the AWA.

I’m not really sure how that worked, maybe he cut a promo on TV where he renounced his beliefs and declared himself for the USA. I do know he was a good promo with a classic catchphrase, and that’s all the people need to know.

6. The Original Sheik

Some historians will tell you that the Sheik was the most effective heel in wrestling from the 1950s until the 1970s. The noble Sheik from Syria amazed crowds with his sheer lunacy and lack of anything resembling pro wrestling knowledge. His two most effective moves were the camel clutch and a strike from his trusty pencil. It wasn’t pretty, but it sure was effective. Sheik was a constant presence at the top of cards in the Detroit & Toronto areas and would typically main event wherever his travels took him.

Sheik paved the way for non-speaking rulebreaking foreign menaces that would follow in his footsteps. He was also one of the originators of the hardcore wrestling style & was having deathmatches with Onita well into his sixties.

5. Yokozuna

The first time Yokozuna appeared on WWF Superstars with Master Fuji in his corner, it was obvious he was going to dominate. I had never seen anybody his size doing the things he was doing. Even young me could tell the difference between big guys that could work and big guys that were just big guys. He rightfully steamrolled everybody in his path, and after a brief issue with Hulk Hogan he became a nearly unbeatable WWF Champion.

Yoko still ranks as one of my favorite champions simply because of how believable he was. It was difficult enough for people to pick the guy up. How would they get him down for a three count? I was still at the age where things like that really mattered, and as an old fart I think they still matter. Yokozuna represented percieved Japanese dominance over America, which was kind of funny when he was from Samoa & Jim Cornette ended up talking for him after they figured out Fuji’s promos weren’t really getting the job done. It still kinda worked, by cracky.

4. Bret Hart

Bret has gone on record saying that the most fun he had during his career was when he was the leader of the Hart Foundation in the summer of 1997. He had been a bad guy earlier in his WWF tenure, but this time he really got to cut loose & let America know what the rest of the world thought of them. It revitalized Bret’s character and kept him from getting stale in comparison to the younger talent on the roster that were beginning to push the envelope.

As a 13 year old during the US/Canada dispute, I was amazed by the different crowd reactions WWF Superstars would get each week depending on what side of the border they were on. In my country, Stone Cold Steve Austin was becoming the most popular guy in the WWF while Bret & his family were despised. Up north, Austin was hated just like it was still 1996. I’d never seen anything like it before.

3. Nikolai Volkoff

Nikolai combined multiple dastardly heel traits to ensure himself a spot in memories of children of the 1980s. First off, he was an evil Soviet. Secondly, he was part of the most dastardly foreign heel tag team of all time managed by the Ayatollah Blassie. Perhaps most importantly, he insisted on singing the Soviet National Anthem prior to his matches.

Now that’s heat! Later on, evil foreigners would ask people to rise for their national anthem…but they wouldn’t sing it themselves! Volkoff went the extra mile, and that’s why he’s on the list while those jabronis aren’t.

2. Ivan Koloff

Talk about staying power. The Russian Bear debuted in 1967 under the Ivan Koloff persona, and was still working as a heel for Jim Crockett Promotions in the late-80s. The credibility he’d built over the years as a despicable commie was used to help along too many young wrestlers that served as tag team partners to name here. Of course, Nikita Koloff was the most important one. Uncle Ivan got his career off to a good start, and Nikita deciding to take his fallen comrade Magnum T.A.’s spot alongside Dusty Rhodes & buck the Soviet system was a huge moment.

Ivan’s career was made on January 18, 1971 in Madison Square Garden. That was the night he won the WWWF Championship & ended Bruno Sammartino’s nearly eight-year run with the belt. He lost the strap to Pedro Morales shortly afterward, but that didn’t diminish his accomplishment. Bruno lost for the first time anybody could remember. To a Russian! That nearly wiped out the lead the USA had gotten over the USSR after landing on the moon first.

Honorable Mention: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper

The Hot Rod was billed from Glasgow, Scotland and wore kilts on a regular basis. His heel act was never really based on foreign heel stuff though, which is why I didn’t feel like he belonged on the list. He never feuded with America. He just feuded with whoever was on top, which happened to be Hulk Hogan. Piper’s act transcended nationalities. He didn’t care about his country or your country, he was just an asshole. God bless him for that.

1. The Iron Sheik

Part of becoming a top star in the wrestling business is being in the right place at the right time. The Iron Sheik is a shining example of that. He got out of Iran and into America a few years before the Revolution took place & hostages were taken at the U.S. Embassy in the country. He was a bodyguard for the Shah and would not have been on the side of the people rebelling against that government. If you told that to anybody attending WWF shows during the early 1980s, they wouldn’t have believed you.

Sheiky Baby used the heat his home country was generating in America to its fullest. His mere entering the arena elicited boos from any crowd in this country. His usage of the Persian Clubs & his mastery of them led to an issue with Bob Backlund, which led to Mr. Backlund’s 5-year reign as WWF Champion ending in the Sheik’s Camel Clutch. Much like Ivan Koloff’s title reign, Sheik’s didn’t last long. Hulk Hogan would run him over a month later in Madison Square Garden to begin the era of Hulkamania. It did nothing to damage Sheiky’s placement in the WWF. He moved on to a bitter feud with Sgt. Slaughter & a top tag team with Nikolai Volkoff. Not to mention several other colorful twists & turns his career took afterward.

The Iron Sheik found further life after his wrestling career ended. His insane sense of humor led to a widely-followed Twitter account and a newfound love among wrestling fans for one of the sport’s most hated figures. We may love him now, but few people generated the hatred the Iron Sheik did back in his day.