In the late 1950s, and early 1960s, the ‘Russian’ tag team of the Volkoffs, Nicoli and Boris, created havoc wherever they wrestled. With the death of Boris Volkoff October 15 from congestive heart disease, the tag team is reunited in the afterlife.

As a duo, the pair laid claim to two separate world tag titles. On December 15, 1956, they defeated Reggie (The Crusher) Lisowski & Stan Lisowski for the Chicago version of the National Wrestling Alliance World Tag Titles in Milwaukee. They lost the best back to the Lisowskis on June 29, 1957 and regained them February 22, 1958. It was Jackie & Don Fargo that stripped them of the prestigious belts for the final time on November 15, 1958 in Chicago.

“I remember fondly Boris and Nicoli Volkoff in the 50’s, and their legendary matches against Reggie and Stan Liswoski. If ever, there were classic tag team battles, these were it!” wrote George Schire on the board about the Volkoffs.

The other world title they hed was the WWA World Tag Team Title, which was an Indianapolis-based title. They beat Kurt & Karl Van Brauner in May 1965 in Memphis, and held the titles until July, when they lost the belts to a pair of Canadians under masks as the Assassins (Guy Mitchell and Joe Tomasso).

The duo was generally billed as being “the Russian steppes” or from Leningrad, Russia (St. Petersburg), and Nicoli weighed in at 225 pounds, and Boris 245 pounds. They worked throughout the Midwest, including Milwaukee, Green Bay, Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, South Bend, Benton Harbor and Chicago, along with at least a short stint in Georgia.

Boris Volkoff was actually Francis Edward Zela, aka “Frank” or “Butch.” He was born in Calumet City outside Chicago on May 9, 1927. He got into bodybuilding while serving in the Merchant Marines during WWII. After the War, he opened gyms around Calumet City. Wrestlers like Dick The Bruiser, Bobo Brazil and Moose Cholak began frequenting his gym and soon he was involved in pro wrestling as well. Besides running a gym until the 1970s, Zela was also at various times a restauranteur and a general contractor. For the last decade of his life, he lived in Las Vegas, and was a regular at Gold’s Gym.

“He liked being the bad guy, he liked to stir the pot,” Zela’s daughter, Frankalene Zela Rae, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Zela’s partner, Nicoli Volkoff, is not the Nikolai of WWF fame. The older Volkoff was Steve Gobrobovich, who passed away in 1997 at age 81. He preceded Zela in the wrestling game by a number of years, and there was actually another Boris Volkoff for a short time until Zela took over. (The younger WWF Volkoff was Josip Peruzovic.) Gobrobovich was from Russia, and would shout at his partner in Russian in the ring, and Boris would respond in Polish.

Dolores Nastoff, an early women’s wrestling pioneer, dated Zela in the 1960s and remained his close friend for 40 years. “Frank was so jovial all the time — boisterous, loud,” Nastoff told the Northwest Indiana Times. “Everybody knew when he was in the room. He had a wonderful life.”