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Tuesday, January 01, 2002

Diaspora

Jim Londos, The Golden Greek - Part 2


To this day, many believe that Jim Londos was the greatest American wrestler who ever lived. At the time of his death, numerous sportswriters tried to describe his abilities and popularity to a younger generation that had never seen “the Golden Greek” in the ring. One writer, David Condon, stated the case plainly: “[H]ad he starred in the age of television and jet travel Jim Londos [would have been] as renowned as…Muhammad Ali.” Condon was wrong. As hundreds of newspaper and magazine clippings from all around the country attest to us today, Londos, just like Ali, did experience celebrity status. The only difference was that no other wrestler in North America had ever received such sustained media attention before.

Besides being recognized as a solid wrestler, Londos was credited with being a real draw for female wrestling fans – which led to his “Greek Adonis” label in the press. A wily aspect of this title was that Ed White, Londos’s manager throughout his years of glory, initially sought out the ugliest wrestlers possible for the Greek to wrestle. Billed as “The Man With The Million Dollar Body,” Londos was romantically linked in one newspaper account after another with starlets and high-society ingénues. Scrapbooks of Londos’s career are filled with full-page pictorial fluff pieces about the champion trying on hats or discussing his favorite authors. All this, and numerous cartoons about “Jemmy,” abounded on sports pages throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Other aspects of his career remain uncertain, however – for example, how Christos Theophilou became Jim Londos. One story claims that a sportswriter remarked that Theophilou resembled Jack London. Another asserts that Jack London was such a popular writer that the Greek wrestler, who was also an avid reader, intentionally “took” his name. Whatever the case, it is clear that the Greek felt compelled to Anglicize his name. Theophilou continually proved too difficult for American reporters to handle. And given that the young Greek was interviewed on nearly a daily basis for some 15 years, anything that made the process easier seems reasonable. How Jack got to be “Jim” is never explained but the “n” in London was changed to an “s” to make it, so the argument goes, “more Greek.” To Greek Americans, Londos was instantly recognized by one name, to such a degree that even thick-tongued Anglo-Saxons heard us say “Jimmy.” This did not stop them from making fun of us, however, by noting that it was pronounced “gee-me.”

With no reliable history of professional wrestling to consult, we are left with the hard task of extracting Londos’s story out of a hodgepodge of newspaper clippings. All accounts agree that Londos first won the wrestling heavyweight title in Philadelphia on July 29, 1930, from Dick Shikat in a match that lasted one hour and 29 minutes. After holding the crown for five years, Londos lost it to Danno O’Mahoney at Boston, but regained it in 1937 by pinning Bronko Nagurski in one hour and 27 minutes. Londos then kept the title until his retirement in 1946. He also definitely held (at least) two different titles that were recognized across the country: the National Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship (New York).

As mentioned in the first part of this series, the New York State Commission drew a razor-sharp distinction between wrestling matches and exhibitions, refusing to recognize any bout as a match unless a title was being defended against a bona fide challenger. Londos was in fact charged by the commission as being “dilatory in recognizing the challenges of established rivals.” But as one sports cartoon of this period drolly observed, there were only so many times Londos could beat someone before they were no longer “a bona fide challenger.”

Title disputes aside, no one ever contested the fact that Jim Londos was absolutely the biggest money- and fan-draw in the world of wrestling. In 1931, Londos earned $1,500,000 in 140 bouts. An undated and unidentified newspaper clipping in a scrapbook at the Hellenic Museum in Chicago claims that Londos cleared, on average, $500,000 a year in his prime. This all took place during the darkest moments of the Great Depression. Attendance at Londos’s matches was among the largest ever recorded until that time. This lends credence to the idea that, as many still recall, Londos represented more than mere escapism.

Let’s just look at some of the statistics. For January 27, 1931, the New York Times reported that 22,200 fans went to see Londos retain his title in a bout with Jim McMillen at Madison Square Garden. 30,000 people attended his bout with Ray Steele (The New York Times, June 30, 1931). Later that same year, 17,000 went to see the Londos-Calza match (The New York Times, November 17, 1931). Anyone doubting Londos’s sustained fame need only glance at the New York Times sports section, from say, 1934 to 1937. After each Londos bout, one sees a banner headline running across the entire top of the page and then the details of the specific match as the lead feature running in the first column.

Where newspapers fail us is in describing the exact manner in which Jim Londos was a “good showman.” This phrase is repeated over and over without any details. Here we must rely on memory. Many an elderly Greek American recalls sitting in front of the family radio and listening to a broadcast of a Londos wrestling match. Two things impressed both the announcers and the fans. First, Londos’s ability as a wrestler was unquestioned. Listening to these stories takes us into another linguistic time. We hear of headlocks, flying mares, toeholds, a crotch-and-body slam, airplane spins, the flying drop kick, the Japanese arm-lock, cradle holds, a short arm scissors, the Irish whip, the dreaded eagle-spread, along with both full and half-nelsons. This rich flow of wrestling jargon now sounds as if it was taken directly from a film noir or a novel by Dashiell Hammett.

Secondly, and again in the wrestling slang of the 1930s, Londos was a “worker” in the ring. Friend and foe alike always credited him with never giving up. As soon as he spotted a weakness of any sort in his opponent, Londos would pound away, or “work” on it, until he won. Again, the magnitude of Londos’s ability can be seen in the fact that he never lost a match in nine years. If there was a “fix” on, as his critics would later assert, it must have been a whopper. Indeed, for the majority of wrestling fans and sports writers, Londos had only one real nemesis in his long career: Ed “Strangler” Lewis.

For many years, the one man who stood between Jim Londos and undisputed possession of the heavyweight wrestling title was born Robert H. Friedrich (1891-1966) in the small farming community of Nekoosa, Wisconsin. In his prime, Friedrich held the heavyweight championship five times over a period of 25 years. One of the stories explaining Friedrich’s name change claims that when the young man decided to become a professional wrestler, he did not wish his parents to know. He was 14 years old, had a 56-inch chest, wore a 22-inch collar, and weighed in the general vicinity of 250 pounds, when he first entered the ring as “Ed Lewis.”

Lewis received his nickname for his headlock, said to be unbreakable once it was fully applied. In Lewis, we not only find the greatest opponent in Londos’s career, but also the most persistent claim against the hardworking Greek. Many sports enthusiasts, to this very day, assert that Lewis was the better wrestler, and that he simply turned over in their final match and let Londos beat him. This was done, as this argument goes, because Lewis and his backers knew the bout would be a tremendous moneymaker.

On September 20, 1934, Londos met Lewis in Chicago. Why there was so much publicity about this particular match is hard to reckon from this distance in time. Lewis had beaten Londos some 14 times in previous matches. So why anyone would go to see Londos presumably get whipped again doesn’t really make sense. It might have been due to the fact, however, that the two had not met in 10 years. A reported crowd 35,265 people, believed to be the largest ever to watch a wrestling match in the United States at that time, packed Wrigley Field. Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight boxing champion, refereed the match.

My father was nine years old in 1934. I have heard my entire life how everyone was gathered around the radio in my grandfather’s barbershop. In the film, Malcolm X, we see Malcolm and some African American co-workers listening to the blow-by-blow account of the bout between Joe Lewis and Max Schmelling for the world heavyweight boxing title. It was with this fight that an African American first became an undisputed world champion. As I saw that scene for the first time, I immediately recalled those stories of the one-chair barbershop with its tiny band of Greeks huddled around the radio cheering on the Greek Adonis. Londos won his one-fall match over Lewis in 49 minutes, 27 seconds, for the world’s heavyweight wrestling championship.

With Lewis finally defeated, Londos undertook a world tour, wrestling in Australia, Canada, Cyprus, England, Egypt, France, Greece, New Zealand, Rhodesia, South Africa, and Turkey, among other places. While the Greek Adonis was out of the country, a whole set of “world champions” appeared on America’s wrestling circuit, including Bronko Nagurski (California and Pennsylvania), Everett Marshall (Colorado and Illinois), Lee Wycoff (Kansas City), “Crusher” Casey (Boston), and John Pesek (National Wrestling Alliance). Upon his return, Londos wrestled with as many of these “champions” as would agree to do so, winning on each occasion.

The deathblow to the sport of wrestling, and for many to Londos’s legend, can be traced to one man. In 1933, Jacob (Jack) Pfefer (1895-1974), a wrestling promoter and partner with the New York wrestling trust of booking agents, found himself ostracized after he attempted an unsuccessful takeover of the organization. To bring down his former partners, Pfefer offered his insider knowledge (through Dan Parker, sports editor of the New York Daily Mirror) in a series of articles spread out over 1933-1934. Pfefer relayed, in amazing detail, the full extent of professional wrestling’s fakery and the exact manner in which promoters choreographed who would win or lose in any given match. Wrestling has never recovered from Pfefer’s attack. Later articles, such as Paul Gallico’s “That Was Acting” in Theatre News (January 1949), only turned the public and press further against “the sport” of wrestling.

David Condon asked Londos about the fixing accusation. Londos responded immediately: ”He was indignant at suggestions that the outcome of matches was adjusted. He sneered: ‘Phooey on them – phooey on anybody else. I’m not with any combine. I’m with me.’” And, as Condon reported, “Millions believed him, because Jim was sincere, proud, and had integrity.” Nat Fleischer, editor and publisher of The Ring, one of the most popular boxing and wrestling magazines of its day, had this to say about Londos, Pfefer, and the later “exposés”:

Unfortunately, Londos came at a time when promotional warfare detracted from the greatness of certain wrestlers, including the Greek, because of the many title claimants and the subsequent cries of setups and prearranged bouts that invariably greeted every successful defense of the title made by Londos. This, regardless of his known superiority over the man whom he conquered.

The first year of Londos’s championship matches after he won the title….were replete with sensational bouts. He was the most active champion the division ever had…[H]e went through the year with a total of 221 bouts, a record for a titleholder. Of those matches, he clashed with every known top-notcher who appeared in this country and his record shows that he met some of his boys as often as a dozen times, but the average, in various parts of the country, were [sic] seven. Among those whom he engaged two or more times, were Garibaldi, Marshall, Ernie Dusek…Jim McMillen, Dick Shikat, Sabdor Szabo, Joe Savoldi, and the bewhiskered Man Mountain Dean, among others. But his most sensational battles, besides the O’Mahony contest, were those with Everett Marshall, Dick Shikat, Ed Don George, and Strangler Lewis.

We must reserve judgment on this issue until more reliable evidence is offered.

Londos’s life was not all wrestling ugly, brutal men. Just before his retirement, he married Avra C. Rochwite (1912-1998), who was born in Clayton, Montana. At the time of their marriage, Rochwite was described in press reports as a “St. Louis Aviatrix.” The couple had three daughters: Diana, Demetra, and Christina.

Londos officially retired in 1946. The Londos family moved to Escondido, California, where they settled on a 10-acre site nestled in an avocado grove. There, Londos quietly managed his orchard and other investments; he devoted the rest of his public life to charity. These sustained efforts did not go unappreciated. On November 12, 1961, in Los Angeles, Jim Londos received the Order of the Phoenix from Greek consul-general Sotirios Bouphidis on behalf of King Paul I. In 1970, President Richard Nixon presented Londos with a special citation, which noted his charity work for children in particular. Aside from the many wrestling trophies and tournaments named after him, Jim Londos was inducted, as the “All-Time Greatest Wrestler,” into the Breitbard Hall of Fame at the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum on January 11, 1967. Londos died on August 19, 1975, at Palomar Memorial Hospital, and was buried at Oak Hill Memorial Park.

Whether Greeks still remember Jim Londos will ultimately make no difference. Since the bold Greek champion appeared in some 2,500 individual wrestling matches during his professional career, once the first solid history of wrestling in America is finally written, the role and considerable accomplishments of this Greek immigrant are sure to be prominently featured. Still, it is surprising how many Greeks living today all heard the same phrase when they were children growing up, “Better drink your milk if you expect to grow up like Jim Londos.” In legends as well as history, Jim Londos carved a unique place for himself in the ongoing experience of Greeks in North America.

Steve Frangos lives and writes in Round Lake, Illinois.
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