As a kid growing up I remember my parents speaking about Jim Londos in reverential tones. More than once I heard my Dad say that Londos was a heroic figure that Greeks should look up to with respect. In fact, many Greek-Ameicans looked to George Dilboy, the first Greek Medal of Honor winner and Jim Londos, during the Depression era as symbols of the Greek embodiment of valor and manhood. They saw them as evidence of Greek "exceptionalism" in a country where many were initially considered nothing more than cheap labor, kitchen help and pushcart vendors. By 1956, when my parents and I arrived in America, professional wrestling was well on its way to becoming entertainment rather than a sport, yet the Londos legend was still alive and well. The sport had transformed itself in the difficult years of the Depression in order to keep drawing crowds. I remember, watching on television, wrestlers like Haystack Calhoun, a 400 lb giant of a man who gobbled a dozen eggs for breakfast and pounded nails into wood with his bare hands. Needless to say little boys like me were impressed. Nowadays the sport has been totally debased resembling a circus act. It highlights gratuitous violence by scantily clad women and men who owe their physiques to the steroids they inject. Sadly, I never got to see Jim Londos who represented what real wrestling is all about. For a brief biography go here.
Although no definitive biography exists of Jim Londos, Steve Frangos wrote an excellent two part series on Londos. According to Frangos, Londos began his career as a "hooker, " someone who traveled around the country taking on all comers and was one of a number of ethnic wrestlers who traveled throughout rural and urban America:
"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."
Jim Londos was also widely respected in his native Greece. The following is from a article by Dwight Chapin that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on January 27, 1969:
"There were 100,000 people in the Athens Olympic Stadium that night in 1934 when Jim Londos defended his world's heavyweight wrestling title against the Russian champion, and another 30,000 were turned away.
One who got in was a Greek named Theophelos, a former amateur wrestler himself. He was also Jim Londos' father.
"He never wanted me to become a professional," said Londos. "He always thought it was wrong. But he agreed to come to this match. After I won, a king's guard carried both of us out of the arena on their shoulders.
"Dad came up to me afterward, smiled, and said, 'Son, all is forgiven.'"
The brightness in Jim Londos' eyes couldn't be hidden as he wat there talking about it, 35 years later, in the room where the people had come to honor him.
Londos is about 75 years old now, although the years guard secrets well and this is one he prefers to keep hidden.
The body is not the superb thing it once was, the physique something that appeared to have been carved out of marble, but neither is it the body of a 75-year-old man.
"Condition," he says. "You must stay in condition. I learned that lesson from my father, and I haven't forgotten it."
That was the thing that everyone remembers best about Jim Londos.
"He worked harder at being an athlete," says George Parnassus, a friend of decades, "than any man I have ever known."
Another longtime friend, Sid Marks, recalls that Londos once invited him down to the beach for a morning workout.
"He walked two miles in the sand," said Marks. "Backwards! I couldn't believe it. I've seen thousands of wrestlers and I never knew a man who had more pride, or was a better-conditioned athlete."
It perhaps figures, then, that Londos should have been the heavyweight wrestling champion of the world, almost uninterrupted from 1930 through 1946.
His career spanned two eras, the honest and the not-so-honest. This appears to be one of the few blind spots the man has. He refuses to admit that he ever went into a bout knowing who the winner was going to be.
But it is likely that could have beaten almost anyone, anyway.
He came to America from Greece at age 13, sometime in the early years of the century and migrated quickly to San Francisco. The living came hard. He worked as a water boy for a railroad gang, at 50 cents a day, and then as a busboy. But within two years, he was wrestling as an amateur and, in 1920 (sic), he turned professional.
Through the tiny gyms, the sleazy promotions, he worked and progressed and in 10 years he had been Dick Shikat for the championship.
"There were many good wrestlers around then," he says, "30 or 40 of almost equal ability. The difference was keeping yourself in better shape than the other man. Condition, and the proper mental attitude, are always the deciding factors." Londos was never a big man, as wrestlers are measured. At the start he weighed only 140 pounds and even as champion"There were many good wrestlers around then," he says, "30 or 40 of almost equal ability. The difference was keeping yourself in better shape than the other man. Condition, and the proper mental attitude, are always the deciding factors."
Londos was never a big man, as wrestlers are measured. At the start he weighed only 140 pounds and even as champion he never went over 204. His weight today is 185.
Londos ignores the fact that he soon will become an octogenarian by running 3-5 miles at least three times a week, walking long distances daily, climbing and doing calisthenics on a 10-foot stepladder, doing 25-35 pushups every other day and lying on his back and raising his legs in the air 150 times every morning.
His life has been notable. He has a wife and three daughters, and an avocado ranch in Escondido that is now being subdivided for homes and apartments ("The avocados," he said, "got old --like me"). He received the Cross of the Golden Phoenix, a rarely presented award, from King Paul of Greece, for his philanthropic work with orphans on Cyprus. He is a member of the San Diego Sports Hall of Fame.
"I have no complaints," Londos says. "I do well. My life is comfortable." There are few things he would change if he could. He smiles slightly and looks straight at you.
"One thing," he says. "When I was young, I never had much money. Never enough so that I could go on to school, and I would do that if I could. I like philosophy. I would study that. It is a wonderful thing to be able to express yourself precisely and to the point.
"It was Cicero who said that the reason man excels the other animals is that he can talk and think and express himself. I try to excel. You excel everyone and you're doing pretty well, huh?"
Those who know him would not question that he has excelled most of them. They came in large numbers to honor him here last week at the World Explorers-Sportsman's Club.
"I guess," said one of them, "that Jim Londos has more friends than anybody I know."
Londos, meanwhile, sat there in the smoke-filled, booze-heavy room and shunned the cigarettes and the liquor, as he always has. He was even oblivious to the hubbub around him as he spoke in a soft, almost inaudible voice. He was talking about the profession that left him with a cauliflowered left ear, five broken ribs, a torn ankle ligament and a separated shoulder or two -- but also with a healthy outlook on this life.
This time he quoted one of his own people, a Greek, a man named Socrates.
"Socrates said, 'Be right, and fear no man, alive or dead."