Present celebrates past at wrestling legends event
STEVEN JOHNSON -- SLAM! Wrestling
|Larry Zbyszko, left, and Tito Santana meet with fans. -- Steven Johnson
Bena, Virginia is hardly a bustling metropolis, and the Abingdon Ruritan
Club, sitting quietly across a two-lane highway from the Bena General
Store and post office, will never be confused with a major pay-per-view
But a quartet of wrestling legends made the trek to an independent show
in rural Virginia last weekend that showed appreciation for wrestling's
past runs deeper than a fad fascination with today's over-the-top
storylines and laser light shows.
"To see that we've been able to stand the test of time for so many
people is very nice," said former WWWF world champion Ivan
Koloff. "It's really gratifying to meet the fans who enjoyed our
Long-time headliners Larry "The Living Legend" Zbyszko, Nikolai Volkoff,
Santana shared honored status with Koloff at Legends Appreciation
Night for Virginia Championship Wrestling (VCW), an independent
promotion that runs shows in eastern Virginia.
Hundreds of fans pressed the flesh with the mat stars at the show and a
pair of busy meet-and-greets earlier in the day in the neighboring
cities of Virginia Beach and Hampton.
"This is like a dream come true," an enthusiastic Rodriques Johnson, a
long-time fan from Virginia Beach, said as he put his pictures and
autographs in order. "For so many years, to see Ivan Koloff, you had to
go to the arena. Now, he's right here in front of me."
The day-long event was the latest in a series of "old school wrestling"
reunions and conventions that are bringing the heroes of yesteryear
closer to fans of all ages.
"I just wanted to bring back the old-style wrestling, and let these guys
be a resource for the new guys to give them an appreciation of what came
before," said Keith McBride of Virginia-based Satterfield Entertainment,
the event organizer. "I have a lot of appreciation for the older guys,
At the same time, the revival of interest in wrestling's past appears to
signal a deep displeasure with the storylines and marketing of the WWE
and owner Vince McMahon.
Koloff, who ended the legendary Bruno Sammartino's eight-year reign as
WWWF champion in 1971, called WWE programming and storylines "X-rated"
"I don't watch it. I don't care for it," added Volkoff, a Russian emigre
who was a top name in the WWWF as a singles and tag wrestler from the
1970s through the mid-1990s.
Zbyszko chalked up the loss of old style booking and meaningful angles
to the fact that WWE esssentially has been the only game in town since
it purchased Atlanta-based WCW in early 2001.
"It doesn't have to be gone for good," said Zbyszko, whose 1980
memorable heel turn against Sammartino shocked fans all over the
country. "It's gone for good right now because you've got a television
monopoly that doesn't believe in it."
Zbyszko, a former AWA champion and WCW announcer, said a recent
Smackdown! angle during which Eddie Guerrero sprayed The Big Show with
raw sewage underscored his point.
"McMahon would rather show you a giant, for some reason dressed in a
white shirt like he's an accountant standing there, not moving, while a
140-pound guy named Eddie sprays him with a ton of sewage.
"But the giant can't move for some strange reason. He just stands there
and lets this little guy spray him with a ton of crap, and we're
supposed to think that's a riot. Vince doesn't realize that his
entertainment is not entertaining," said Zbyszko, who occasionally
wrestles and frequently plays competitive golf on mini-tours in the
Amid the autographs, electronics flashes, and yarns of long ago, the
four honorees took the opportunity to deliver humorous and moving messages.
Koloff, familiar in the area from his success in the Mid-Atlantic
Wrestling promotion, delivered a short, but inspiring, testimonial drawn
from his "Russian Bear" ministry that includes appearances at detention
centers, prisons, as well as fundraising events for the Children's
Explaining his escape from drug and alcohol abuse, Koloff, who became a
born-again Christian eight years ago, encouraged fans to keep their
lives in perspective and in order.
"I don't know who your god is - drugs or alcohol or golf," he said. "But
I do know that since this happened to me, I am on top of the world."
Volkoff, a bull of a man who usually worked as a main event heel, traced
his evolution from a Soviet defector who couldn't speak English to the
comfortable life he leads with his wife of 33 years on a large farm in
"All this has been wonderful. I am very grateful for the opportunity I
have had wrestling," he said.
Earlier in the day, Volkoff broke into an ear-to-ear smile when Geeto
Mongol (aka Newton
Tattrie), his first tag team partner, dropped by to see him at an
The pair formed the Mongols, a monstrous pair of villains who held the
WWWF International tag team championship in 1970-1971.
The Nova Scotia-born Tattrie, who now lives in Virginia Beach, recalled
Volkoff's incredible strength - he was a competitive weightlifter in the
former Soviet Union - and his impressive ability to crush an apple in
"You do that in front of somebody, and they're probably not going to
bother you for too long," Tattrie said as the Mongols shared a tag team
Santana, 50, a former WWF Intercontinental and tag team champion, donned
the tights again to knock off Wallace Stillhammer in a singles match.
And he ended the night in a run-in to aid local heartthrob Chris
Escobar, who was suffering a beat down at the hands of VCW champion
Dirty Money and his entourage.
"I want to show I can still wrestle," said Santana, an ex-CFL football
player (with the B.C. Lions), who is now mainly a coach, teacher, and
VCW promoter Travis Bradshaw was clearly thrilled at the prospect of
getting Santana's famous "Ariba!" chant going throughout the Ruritan Club.
"I've been doing this for nine years and this is by far my favorite
part of the business," said Bradshaw. "It's about paying respect to the
guys who really established this business."
Which is why Zbyszko, whose feud with Sammartino ended up in a sold-out
steel cage match in New York City's Shea Stadium, told fans he was
appreciative of their support even in a small crossroads community in
"Without you," he said, "there would be no Larry Zbyszko."
Steven Johnson is a writer from Virginia who grew up watching the
stars of the Buffalo promotion. This is the second convention / reunion
that he has covered for SLAM! Wrestling, following August's Fan
SLAM! event in New Jersey.