Vladimir Kozlov didn't stay in the wrestling ring long after his WWE career ended, but he found a home in Tokyo, in a world filled with harder punches and grittier wrestling.
By pairing him with Santino Marella, WWE had made him into a clown. Japan offered him a stage on which to showcase his brutishness and technical skill, a place where wouldn't have to participate in a dance-off or tangle with MacGruber.
After half a decade with the company, WWE released him on August 5, 2011.
His first post-WWE venture didn't take him as far as Japan. It led him to Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, New York.
On Oct. 1, 2011, he wrestled at Northeast Wrestling's Autumn Ambush, an event that featured Terry Funk, Jerry Lawler, Mickie James and Tommy Dreamer. Bret Hart also appeared as a special guest enforcer in one of the matches.
Thanks to a midair headbutt, he defeated Jake Manning.
Bigger names would garner much of the spotlight that night—even on a stage far smaller than WWE's. After facing the well-traveled Manning, Kozlov would soon change his ring name and find himself on a higher position on the card in a promotion that is far removed from WWE both in terms of headquarters location and in-ring style.
He began performing as Alexander Kozlov (not to be confused with Alex Koslov), and Antonio Inoki signed him to his Inoki Genome Federation.
The WWE Hall of Famer is as well known in Japan as a booker as he is a wrestler. He founded the highly successful New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972 and 35 years later began a new promotion, one that blended worked wrestling with shootfighting.
This more hard-hitting, realistic style suited Kozlov the way the forest suits a bear.
Rather than goof around with Santino, he was bowling over opponents, wrestling them to the ground and tagging them with hammering strikes. Being able to incorporate his kickboxing, sambo and jiu-jiutsu skills into his matches allowed him to better maximize his potential.
No one would put him in the top tier of mat performers, but his strengths emerged far more on Japanese soil.
In a slugfest against Montanha Silva, he employed an ugly, straight-ahead style. Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan, famous for sumo events, welcomed Kozlo and the monstrous Silva on Dec. 2, 2011.
Kozlov had to peer up at his foe, a towering figure at 7'5'' nicknamed "The Brazilian Beast."
Early in the bout, Kozlov smashed his head against Silva's boulder of a chest. It's a move that fans of his WWE work saw quite often. The rest of the action didn't look as familiar.
The two men rolled on the mat. Kozlov cinched in a keylock once he had the big man under him.
A grinding pace made the six-minute match feel much longer, as if it had been plucked directly from the Octagon. The clash soon morphed, though, into something out of Godzilla vs. Gigan, two monsters grunting as they smashed into each other.
Kozlov and Silva ended up in a corner with The Moscow Mauler on top and looking to choke out his opponent.
Silva clubbed him, and the two men locked on to each other. Control escaped the referee, so he called for the bell. A brawl broke out after the bell. Kozlov's entourage entered the ring, and Silva promptly kicked one of them in the face.
The fighters threw some last wild punches before walking away.
In future matches, IGF allowed him to experience victory several times. He defeated men like Hideki Suzuki, Shogun Okamoto and Kendo Kashin, per CageMatch.net, in his two-year stint with the promotion.
Tokyo,IGF after my victory! pic.twitter.com/yXQhLYdc— Vladimir Kozlov (@WWEKozlov) February 17, 2012
Kashin, fought in a handful of bouts for PRIDE and K-1. That experience and training made him the perfect fit for IGF, just as it did for Kozlov's most prominent opponent there—Jerome Le Banner.
Le Banner wore a piercing glare and a pair of boxing gloves. Blows to the face had warped his face over time, pushing the bridge of his nose to one side. This is who waited on the opposite side of the ring for Kozlov on May 26, 2012 in the Tokyo Dome City Hall.
Fans had already seen Ultimo Dragon get a win and Atsushi Swada earn two tournament victories that night. The IGF Genome 20 main event was next, a battle for the IGF Championship.
The shoot-style match didn't last long. It opened with Kozlov kneeing Le Banner in the chest and soon became a showcase of takedowns and ferocity from both men.
Le Banner's right hand floored Kozlov. He rose to his feet only to taste another punch. The referee hovered over Kozlov after each blow arrived and after each trip to the mat. Eventually, the ref called the match, meaning Le Banner remained champ.
This was world's apart from what Kozlov was doing for WWE not long before this. Hard-nosed replaced showy. The line between shoot and work, real and theater, was far more blurred here.
Battling Le Banner in the main event of a championship match ended up being the pinnacle of his career. He wrestled his last match of IGF five months later, toppling Okamoto in just over four minutes.
His time with Inoki's promotion cracked a window that allowed us to better see Kozlov's potential. A warrior had found a home, even if it was only a temporary one.