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Saturday, December 15, 2001

Diaspora

Jim Londos, The Golden Greek - Part 1


This is the first part of a two-part series.

Inexplicably, Jim Londos’s exploits are only recalled today among the oldest members of the Greek American community. For the rest, when Londos’s name is recognized at all, it is as the connection to a dimly remembered, somewhat mythical, figure from the Great Depression. Yet in the 1930s, Jim Londos was the undisputed world master of wrestling. This was at a time when the sport still retained its athletic credibility. Through his undeniable athletic prowess, good looks, and outspoken positions on controversial topics, Jim Londos was, from 1930 to 1946, the greatest wrestling attraction of the times.

No book on Londos has ever been published. This is especially curious given the reams of available documentation on his life, career, and the heated controversies that continue to surround his exploits. Nevertheless, we still have no reliable guide through this maze of information – and often no agreement on even the most basic facts. For every citation I can quote, it is easy to find two, three, or a dozen more that report something completely different. In one way, this is to be expected. As a reigning champion who took on all comers, Londos received an incredible amount of media attention from around the world.

The absence of a solid biography of Londos has much to do with his chosen career. Wrestling is the black sheep of American sports. The general history of wrestling in North America has yet to be written. There is no secondary literature, only unexamined documents and a mass of rumors, gossip, and unsubstantiated claims. This general lack of reliable studies on the history of wrestling is just about where baseball stood in the 1950s. The following account, therefore, is a distillation of eyewitness reports, published newspaper and magazine accounts, visits to two different archives, and correspondence with a third one. Having said all that, however, I must confess that finding the man inside the legend has proved more than a little difficult.

The world champion who was to become Jim Londos was born Christos T. Theophilou, on January 2, about 1895, in the village of Koutsopodi near Argos, which is approximately 60 miles west of Athens. Christos was, depending on the source, either the twelfth or thirteenth child of Theophelos and Maria Theophilou. Before arriving in the United States, around 1912, young Londos was a shepherd. Theophelos Theophilou, an amateur wrestler of considerable reputation, is credited with having instructed his young son in some of the fundamentals.

Initially, the young man worked as a waterboy on Western railroads and as a waiter. In time, Londos enrolled in the San Francisco YMCA, where he attended wrestling classes three days a week. He was either 16 or 17 when he entered the YMCA’s Pacific Coast amateur wrestling competition and emerged as champion of the middleweight division. Londos lost the heavyweight contest to his opponent, Jack Larou, who was 6’2” tall and weighed 235 pounds. Londos weighed 165 pounds at the time. While Londos never made any excuses for this loss, it is telling that he took on an opponent who outweighed him by 70 pounds and nearly won.

In his prime, Londos stood just 5’8” tall and weighed in at a mere 200 pounds, which is the bare minimum for a heavyweight wrestler. To put this in perspective, as a heavyweight contender, Londos often wrestled men who outweighed him by at least 40 pounds. To hold his weight down, Londos avoided alcohol, carefully watched what he ate, and maintained a rigorous training schedule aside from his often-daily professional matches. He was also a non-smoker.

It is always said that Jim Londos became a professional wrestler at 20. What is overlooked, however, in the vast majority of written reports is Londos’s activities in the period between winning the YMCA amateur title and emerging as a professional wrestler. For roughly three years, the young Greek worked in vaudeville and carnivals. In the accounts that describe Londos’s vaudeville days, he is described as a “catcher” (or “bottom man”) in a carnival acrobatic act; this is the individual who catches the person thrown through the air (the “top man”) by another acrobat or by virtue of a mechanical device. Since well before the turn of the century, and for some decades afterward, Greek immigrant strongmen, acrobats, and tableaux acts appeared as headliners in vaudeville houses, circuses, and carnivals all across the United States.

What is not so clear from these same published accounts, although there are any number of tantalizing references, is whether Londos also worked as what was then called a catch wrestler. In the late 1890s and very early 1900s, catch wrestlers toured the county in carnivals, taking on all comers. Hookers, as these men called themselves, were known for their deadly mix of truly Olympic-level wrestling ability and sure knowledge of vicious concession holds (called “hooks”). The rules in these carnival matches were simple: Hookers fought everyone/anyone, and whoever gave up lost.

Although hookers inevitably won these matches, however, they couldn’t finish off their local opponents too quickly. If a hooker whipped a local Golden Boy in a heartbeat, that would inevitably discourage others from paying their money and taking their chances in the ring. The whole point to these matches was to get local people to spend money on wrestling, either by paying to watch the match or taking part in side-betting. An old hooker, Sputnik Monroe, describes the inherent problem in these matches:

That’s the hardest kinda guy to wrestle – the guy doesn’t know how to wrestle, because if you wristlock him or something, he does the exact opposite of what you’ve trained yourself and learned to do in your career. So there’s a specialty in wrestling idiots. You always try and give him your head or your hand – you used “marks” for referees, so they won’t count the homeboy out – you always had to make them submit.

On the whole, these hookers had the ability to fight anyone and then let that person walk away befuddled, bent, and sore, but otherwise uninjured. These were not men to trifle with, however. A story is often told of George Tragos, another of the immigrant generation of Greek wrestlers, who was an especially deadly hooker. A particularly abusive young giant once entered the ring, loudly insulting Tragos. The Greek caught him in a wristlock; before the youth could surrender, Tragos had caused massive injuries to his opponent’s ligaments, muscles, and tendons, and even separated the bone. The injury quickly became infected. Within two weeks, in an era before antibiotics, the young man had lost his arm.

These stories illustrate the types of contests in which Londos participated, and opponents that he met, daily. What is even more impressive about Londos’s athletic ability, however, is that he was the most active champion ever to wear a heavyweight wrestling belt. He sometimes appeared in matches three to five days a week. As such, Londos’s long-term problems as champion were soon similar to those of the carnival hookers. Since Londos met an amazingly diverse array of wrestlers, with varying levels of ability, in countless cities across the country (and eventually around the world), there was certainly more than one opponent with whom he waltzed in the ring.

Londos achieved his prominence exactly at the moment that American wrestling found itself somewhere between a sport and a spectacle. It cannot be overemphasized that, at the end of the First World War, professional wrestling in North America was not the purely theatrical spectacle it is today. Complicating this fact, however, was the reality that wrestling as a cohesive national sport was even less organized than it is today. This resulted in uneven wrestling matches – and titles of questionable validity.

Wrestling in North America at this time was an odd mix of sport and show. This was openly recognized within the wrestling world, in which those in the know made distinctions between various sorts of matches. “Shooting matches” were wrestling bouts in which competitors genuinely attempted to defeat their opponents. They could last well over an hour and be extremely bloody and brutal affairs. On the other hand, “business matches“ were quite the opposite, with results prearranged by managers/promoters so that reputations could be built or maintained, and profits maximized. In time, this led the New York State Gaming Commission to rule that wrestling events be referred to as “exhibitions” rather than “matches.”

As all of this was taking place, a new American style of wrestling came to dominate the sport. Known as “catch-as-catch-can” (meaning just about what it sounds like), this purely American style evolved during the time when Jim Londos reigned supreme. This American form of wrestling owes much to the old hookers’ use of what was then called submission grappling, in which the wrestler’s every movement was directed at that goal and that goal alone.

The time between the two world wars was an era of nativist attacks against recently arrived foreigners, blacks, Catholics, and every manner of political dissident. The social significance of ethnic wrestlers, in rural towns as well as urban America, cannot be overestimated. From the 1880s onward, ethnic wrestlers became incredibly popular with the large ethnic groups then streaming into the country. Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Asian, and Middle Eastern wrestlers not only wrestled to large crowds but saw their exploits heavily reported in both the American press and the then quite considerable foreign-language press as well.

In professional wrestling’s golden age of notoriety and high profits, therefore, these matches, wherever they were fought in the United States, pitted an international gathering of wrestlers against each other. For Greeks in the United States, Jim Londos was their great hero. He would face Kola Kowriani, the Russian Lion, one day and Richard McMillan, the All-American football hero, the next – each time emerging as the undisputed winner. And just as one Greek American community after another built monuments to George Dilboy, the Greek doughboy who won the Medal of Honor, Londos became the community’s reigning prince of the squared circle. Without question, future researchers on Greeks in the United States will explore how Jim Londos and George Dilboy were employed as symbols of manhood and valor by Greek communities around the country to argue for a form of ethnic exceptionalism. Both men became invested embodiments of the notion that Greeks were far from just newly arrived immigrants. They were ostensibly the direct descendants of that classical civilization on which America itself was presumably founded.

Steve Frangos lives and writes in Round Lake, Illinois.
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