WASHINGTON – When Nikolai Volkoff made an entrance during the height of his fame years ago, he was greeted by boos. Now he hopes for applause.
That's because Volkoff, who as a symbol of the communist Soviet Union in the 1980s was considered one of the most notorious professional wrestlers, is preparing for a run at the House of Delegates in September.
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Volkoff, now a Baltimore County code inspector, is a veteran of the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) from the 1980s, when the likes of Hulk Hogan, "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, and Rowdy Roddy Piper crossed paths.
Volkoff, a U.S. citizen since 1970 and now a registered Republican, is actually from Yugoslavia, not the Soviet Union, and has spent the last 10 years learning America's democratic process. He said he supports the GOP because its members helped liberate his country.
"They loved me when I wrestled. I made a good living. I just want to give something back," Volkoff said. "I was a good wrestler and now I want to be a good politician."
Volkoff, who plans to make an official announcement in May, fled his native country at 19 and chose his wrestling character to educate Americans about the evils of communism, which he calls "the worst shape of capitalism."
"You can never say anything against government," he said. "You say something against the government and next day you're gone. American people don't know how good they have it here."
The legendary wrestling manager Fred Blassie, who died in 2003, suggested the move, telling Volkoff, "If you don't like those bastards, become one yourself and tell people why."
Wrestlers will often enter politics or movies as extensions of their wrestling characters, but Volkoff does not indicate any ulterior motives, said Mike Mooneyham, who writes a wrestling column and been covering professional wrestling for 40 years.
"In Nikolai's case he really seems to be a genuine public servant," he said. "America's been good to him. He played a bad guy for such a long time that I think he wants to finally play a good guy."
But unlike other political outsiders, wrestlers have a natural affinity for the public stage and Volkoff is no different, said Alex Marvez, a wrestling columnist for Scripps-Howard News Service.
"It's not unprecedented for performers to make this move," Marvez said. "You have to convince people to believe in your character. You need to have oratory skills and read an audience. It's a gift that can translate to a political realm."
Given that, it is little surprise that Volkoff draws inspiration from both former wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura — a "good friend" — and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who he has met a handful of times.
"They speak from the heart and I speak from the heart too," Volkoff said. "That's the best you can do. Be honest. Be decent."
Volkoff, 59, did not disclose specific campaign issues, but said he is particularly upset with high taxes and the increasing cost of living. He remembered when he could spend "$2 for 20 cans of sardines, and now $5 will get you only six cans."
He said he will campaign "mostly" on the Internet, but left open the possibility of wrestling at campaign events. Such a tactic was not met with enthusiasm from his opponents.
"We will wrestle in words, in debates, rhetorically," said J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County, the deputy minority whip and one of three incumbent Republican delegates Volkoff will face. "But there's not going to be any physical confrontation."
Some people familiar with Volkoff were surprised about his political intentions. Georgiann Makropoulos, who once ran wrestling fan clubs and has known Volkoff since the 1970s, remembers him off-stage as someone reserved, not a showman like Ventura.
"He was a big bad villain in the ring, but when you knew him personally, he was just wonderful," said Makropoulos, who now writes a wrestling magazine.
Volkoff's influence was strongest in the early 1980s when the country's relationship with the Soviet Union was most tense. His "worst moment" came in New Orleans after a friend misplaced the tape with his introductory music. Volkoff himself sang the song, which happened to be the Soviet's national anthem.
"I got scared," he said. "They were mad. They were stamping their feet and I didn't know what to do."
The stunt stuck and Volkoff performed the song until he left professional wrestling in the early 1990s.
Volkoff is now married with two grown children, and although he insists he is retired from wrestling, he joined other WWE Hall-of-Famers in Orlando March 5 for Wrestlemania Legends.
Winning Maryland's 7th District won't be easy. It's predominantly Democratic — 25,841 Dems to 17,841 Republicans — and the 2002 elections brought in Republicans for the first time in more than 20 years.
Patrick L. McDonough, R-Baltimore County, a Democratic delegate from 1979 to 1983, is convinced that his delegation will prevail in elections over a code inspector "giving out tickets nobody wants" and who lacks any political experience.
"It's not a circus, it's not a wrestling match, it's about peoples lives, it's about policy," McDonough said. "Hitting someone over the head with a chair does not really qualify you."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.