Poddubny was born on John the Apostle day in 1871 into a family of Zaporozhian Cossacks in the village of Krasenivka, in the Zolotonosha county (uyezd) of the Poltava Governorate of the Russian Empire (present-day Chornobai Raion of Cherkasy Oblast, Ukraine). Having a big family Poddubny senior had a difficult time to provide for his big family, therefore Ivan was forced to leave the father’s house before turning 20. As a young man, Poddubny worked as a fitter in the ports of Sevastopol and Feodosiya for seven years earning a nickname of Ivan the Great. In Feodosiya Ivan started to practice with kettlebells and participated in some wrestling fights. Sometime since 1897-1898 he started traveling with circus tours and performed at first Sevastopol and later Kiev arenas.
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While touring in Rostov, Ivan meets his future second wife whom he marries in 1923. In 1920s he was touring the United States staying undefeated while visiting New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco. During his tour in the United States he was forced to fight freestyle as his opponents. At age 56 Ivan won a beauty contest among men in the United States. Being unable to take out his earned half a million dollars from the bank (required to be a citizen), he left for home. Upon return, he found out that his relatives whom he spared some of his land were classified as kulaks. In 1937 the NKVD agents detained him in the Rostov prison for a year where he was tortured, due to his corrections in the passport. The NKVD agents also were requesting from Poddubny to tell about his bank accounts abroad where he could have held money earned for his fights.
Later Ivan continued to perform in the Russian circuses retiring finally at age of 70. His last farewell performance he did in the Tula city circus in 1941. After the retirement he with his wife settled in Kuban buying a two-storey house with a garden in Yeysk.
In November 1939, he was given the title of Honored Artist of the RSFSR, and in 1945 that of Honored Master of Sports.
During the Nazi German occupation, he refused to leave the Soviet Union to train German wrestlers.
Poddubny maintained a lifelong professional rivalry with wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko. He died undefeated on 8 August 1949, in the town of Yeysk, in the Kuban region in Southern Russia from a heart attack. Ivan was buried in Yeysk in a park outside of the city. At his burial site was installed an obelisk that used to say “Here lies the Russian bogatyr”. In 1988 somebody destroyed the obelisk and wrote Khokhol-Petliuravite (see Anti-Ukrainian sentiment#Ethnic slurs).
When Ivan Poddubny was issued a passport, it stated that he is Russian with a surname Poddubny. He was forced to make corrections and himself changed his nationality to Ukrainian with a surname Pіddubny.
His first wife Antonina cheated on him and ran away with another stealing his gold medals. After she regretted and tried to return, but Ivan did not forgive her.