Wrestling with Identity
By Mason Adams
(540) 981-3149

In the 27 years since he first met Roy Bradbury during a match in New Castle, Boris Zhukov has secured a spot in pro wrestling history, remembered fondly for both his hard-line Russian character and for his Marine character, Pvt. Jim Nelson.

He's wrestled in arenas around the world, from Germany and Japan to Singapore and Samoa. He's wrestled everyone from Ric Flair to Bret Hart. He's suffered broken fingers, a hernia, a shoulder separation, tendinitis, arthritis, bursitis, twisted ankles and a hyperextended knee.

And on Saturday, Zhukov, now a Franklin County-based trucker, will be among the wrestlers participating in a show at Breckinridge Middle School to remember Bradbury, aka Major Joe Powers, a friend and colleague who died in 2003.

Things have come full-circle for Zhukov.

Born James Kirkharrell in January 1959, Zhukov grew up watching grapplers in Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling - the Super Destroyer, Wahoo McDaniel, Johnny Valentine and even a young Ric Flair - compete at the Starland Arena on Shenandoah Avenue. By his senior year at Northside High School, Zhukov left the football team to concentrate on his passion.

"Wrestling became tunnel vision for me," Zhukov said.

He fell in with Ric McCord and Mike Weddle, who now serves as promoter for New Age Wrestling, the group booking the memorial tournament Saturday. Zhukov took the name "Jim Nelson" and wrestled his first official match in 1978 in Newcastle, just a year after he graduated from high school.

After wrestling locally for a year, Zhukov went to Atlanta to work in Georgia Championship Wrestling. Soon he was sent up to Charlotte, N.C., to wrestle for a couple of weeks in Mid-Atlantic Wrestling - the home of the wrestlers he'd watched in Starland Arena. In September 1980, Zhukov moved there to wrestle full time.

He was teamed with Don Kernodle as a pair of Marines managed by Sgt. Slaughter, who was at the time a bad guy or "heel." By 1982, the three were involved in a struggle against Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood, two high-flying wrestlers who were extremely popular with fans. As Jim Nelson, Zhukov betrayed Slaughter and Kernodle to help Steamboat and Youngblood.

The angle culminated in a tag-team match pitting Slaughter and Kernodle against Steamboat and Youngblood for the championship. The match attracted more than 15,000 people, clogging roads around the Greensboro Coliseum for miles.

According to Dave Meltzer, who for 32 years has written the underground newsletter "The Wrestling Observer," the match made it clear that big "event" matches could draw a huge audience. Later that year, Starcade was booked as another "event" show, and Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) followed suit with Wrestlemania in 1985.

After "Jim Nelson's" career was put to an end by the Brisco brothers shortly after the Greensboro match, Zhukov moved to Mid-South Wrestling in Louisiana, where he shaved his head and became a Russian.

"I've practiced that Russian voice since I was a kid," Zhukov said. "I've always done imitations of people's voices. I used to do imitations of some of the other guys like Greg Valentine in the locker room."

Despite the waning of the Cold War, fans reacted to the character.

"I enjoy being the bad guy," Zhukov said. "It's a lot easier to get people to hate you than to love you."

Zhukov also traveled around to wrestle in nearby promotions, sometimes traveling 2,000 to 3,000 miles a week. A few times he flew in airplanes, though that once nearly killed him.

Wrestler Jimmy Garvin had his pilot's license and his own plane, and he was to take Zhukov and several other wrestlers from Abilene, Kan., to Dallas.

"We got up in the air, and Terry Gordy looks over and sees oil coming down the wing," Zhukov said. "The oil pressure drops. It turned out the mechanic left the oil cap off. Jimmy turns the thing around and got it on the ground before the engine locked up. We were lucky we didn't catch on fire."

In 1985, Zhukov went to wrestle for the American Wrestling Association in Minnesota. With Soldat Ustinov, Zhukov defeated Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels for the AWA tag-team title. In another match, he wrestled a bear. Emboldened by his success as a Russian, he legally changed his name to "Boris Zhukov" in 1987.

That same year, Zhukov was signed by the WWF, which was home to Hulk Hogan, "Macho Man" Randy Savage and Andre the Giant.

"The Iron Sheik had left, and they wanted a tag-team partner for Nikolai Volkoff," Zhukov said. "That's when Vince was really grabbing guys from other territories. My contract with the AWA ran out midnight on Friday, and on Saturday I was in Texas wrestling for the WWF."

Wrestling as one-half of the Bolsheviks, Zhukov participated in a battle royale in Wrestlemania IV.

"It was the shortest tag-team match I had in history," Zhukov said. "They jumped us during the Russian national anthem and doubled-teamed me. And the match was over in less than a minute. The next day I blamed Nikolai and jumped him on TV."

The WWF used Zhukov's turn to make Volkoff, a well-known and longtime wrestler in the federation, a good guy, or "babyface." He and Zhukov went on to wrestle several matches against each other.

In early 1991, Zhukov left the WWF. He said it was because the company wanted to own the rights to all its characters but couldn't do that because he'd made "Boris Zhukov" his legal name.

He moved to Alabama in 1990. After 11 years there, he returned to Virginia and bought a home in Burnt Chimney.

These days, Zhukov drives a tractor-trailer, traveling as many miles as he did during his days as a wrestler. Shortly after his return to Western Virginia, he hooked back up with Weddle and began wrestling again.

On Saturday, he'll compete for the "North American Title" and also participate in a battle royale with about 20 other wrestlers, all trying to win the Joe Powers Cup.

(C)2005 The Roanoke Times