The Moscow Mauler couldn't sleep Sunday. On the night before one of the biggest days of his life, the 37-year-old professional wrestler lay in bed in his South Tampa home, staring at the ceiling, replaying scenes from his boyhood in the USSR: roughing up his buddies, discovering a golden-haired American hero on TV, hatching a dream. And now, on the eve of everything coming true, he was anxious. Excited. Maybe even — it was hard for him to admit it — nervous.
This 6-foot-6, 310-pound monolith of a man, who is known for choke-lifting his opponents with one hand, never trembles in the ring. But this performance was going to be different. This wouldn't be Vladimir Kozlov smacking down some opponent on live TV.
This was Oleg Prudius. The real guy no one has heard of. The athlete/actor who plays the evil Russian agent wrestling fans love to hate.
About 3 a.m. Monday, he gave up on sleeping. He went into the kitchen and whipped up a half-dozen egg whites. Then he showered, buttoned on his new black suit and practiced the Pledge of Allegiance.
• • •
Prudius arrived at the Tampa Convention Center for the naturalization ceremony two hours early, but hundreds of other immigrants already were there.
He threaded through the crowd, towering above the others, and sat alone on the end of the second row. All around him, strangers were sharing stories. Some had overcome incredible hardship just to get their green cards; some had come to the United States as students and hoped to stay.
They were motivated to become U.S. citizens by the economic opportunities and the ability to elect their leaders.
Prudius' motivation was a muscle-bound man with a droopy blonde moustache.
• • •
Even as a boy, Prudius was big — taller than his classmates, thick and strong. His parents, a banker and a businessman, signed him up for martial arts, kick boxing, Russian wrestling.
He was 11, watching television with his buddies, when he first saw Hulk Hogan.
To the pale Ukrainian kid, that tanned giant in the shiny shorts looked like the American dream.
"How big and strong is this guy!" Prudius remembers shouting at his friends. "One day, I will be him."
Prudius was playing for Ukraine's professional American-style football team when he first flew to the United States, in 1999. In California, he recognized the connection between sports and acting. Put them together, he realized, "and you are a mighty superstar!"
Back at Ukraine University, he landed a role in The Three Musketeers.
• • •
"You come, today, from 74 different countries," an immigration official announced to the 413 people waiting to take the oath of citizenship.
"Our oldest applicant today is 86. And we would also like to recognize a somewhat famous applicant, Oleg Prudius. He is better known as WWE wrestler Vladimir Kozlov, who is seen in 500 million homes around the world. Oleg," said the announcer, "would you please stand?"
Prudius moved to New York in 2000. He wrestled and kickboxed and landed small acting roles in HBO's The Wire and Spike Lee's film 25th Hour.
In 2006, he signed a contract with World Wrestling Entertainment, got a theme song, and moved to Kentucky. He relocated to Tampa last year, to be near the training facility.
Slowly, he stood and raised his right hand to the official. Then he turned to face the room. When he saw all the faces behind him, he dropped his arm and wiped his eyes.
This time, instead of booing, the crowd cheered.
• • •
Together they took the oath: "I hereby declare that I will support and defend the Constitution … "
The Moscow Mauler grinned as he said the words. Here he was, swearing allegiance to his character's archenemy, promising to fight for what he has always fake-fought against.
"Congratulations," said the official. "You are all now citizens of the United States."
After the ceremony, many of the new citizens formed a line in front of the Moscow Mauler. They wanted to have their photo taken with him, to shake his bone-crushing hand.
For more than an hour, Prudius held court in the emptying convention center, flirting with a mom from Cambodia, gripping a Guatemalan boy in a headlock. "Today my dreams come true," he said.
Time to go. He had to fly to Houston in a few hours to get ready for tonight's bout.
But first, the WWE camera crew needed one more publicity shot. They strung a big American flag behind his head, set up a spotlight to look like a halo. Bad guy turns good. A woman dragged a cutout of the Statue of Liberty next to him.
"Can you give her a hug?" the woman asked. Prudius slung his arm around the prop and kissed Lady Liberty on her cold, cardboard lips.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.