Jim Londos: The Golden Greek Megstar
by Brian R. Solomon
In the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, one professional wrestler continued to inspire fans in urban centers on both the East and West Coasts of the United States, filling arenas to capacity like no one else. On the New York scene, he was the first true pro wrestling superhero, an unstoppable drawing card at the ‘old’ Madison Square Garden on 8th Avenue and 49th Street in Manhattan, who set the pattern later followed by future MSG headliners like Antonino Rocca, Bruno Sammartino and Hulk Hogan. ‘The Golden Greek’ Jim Londos set the template for wrestling’s reliance on ethnicity as a tool for selling tickets, a tradition that would live on for decades. Some call him the greatest live draw in the history of the business, remaining one of the top box office attractions, if not the very top attraction, for more years than nearly anyone else in history.
Many considered Jim Londos the greatest wrestling star the sport had ever seen. From his first match on August 6, 1915, competing under the name Jim Wilson and wrestling Charlie Rentrop to a 30-minute draw in Dairyville, Oregon; until his final match, defeating Elias Panagos in Argos, Greece on October 7, 1956, he continued to be a draw.
Perhaps it was fitting that the Golden Greek would take his last bow in Argos, where he was born Christos Theofilou on January 2, 1897, the youngest of thirteen children. In 1910, a teenaged Theofilou ran away from home and immigrated to the United States, where he took on a series of manual jobs, including that of a plasterer on a construction site. A student of bodybuilding and weightlifting, he trained his body to near perfection, and although he stood only 5’9”, his adult weight reached as high as 205 pounds. This helped him to find work both as a nude art model, as well as a circus acrobat.
The circus world inevitably led him to cross paths with the similarly colorful world of professional wrestling, which captured his imagination instantly. He trained feverishly for the sport, debuting at age 18, using the unfortunate name of ‘The Wrestling Plasterer’ Christopher Theophelus. It was a gimmick tied to his profession outside of wrestling, but simply wasn’t suited to someone destined for greatness like he was. Before long, he abandoned the plasterer persona and rechristened himself Jim Londos, in honor of the early 20th century journalist and novelist Jack London, of whom the well-read young man was a great admirer.
He worked out every day and kept on a strict diet. He studied every form and style of wrestling, including jiu-jitsu, which he came into contact with while living near the Chinatown section of San Francisco as a teenager. He seemed to have his whole life planned before he started, and no wrestler ever worked harder for what he got.
What he got was a position at the very top of every promoter’s wish list. Facing all the top competitors of the 1920s, Londos’ star rose even in defeat, as crowds took an instinctive liking to the tough, good-looking underdog, with a body that looked like it had been cut out of marble. In an era of mass immigration to the United States, with so many new Americans who still had ties to the old country, his immigrant status would endear him to not just the Greeks, but also the many Italians, Jews, Poles, Swedes, Norwegians, Chinese and other groups that made up so much of the growing urban populations of the day.
The Depression era in wrestling is known as an era of fragmented championship lineages and white-hot promotional rivalries. Londos seemed to come along at just the perfect time and was the top star to emerge from this era—a handsome, chiseled Greek immigrant tailor made for the working-class audiences that made up so much of wrestling’s fan base at the time. Groomed for greatness by the Toots Mondt-Ray Fabiani promotional combine, Londos burst on to the scene first in Philadelphia and then New York. With his matinee idol looks and deep tan, he was wrestling’s first sex symbol, and the start of a long-running tradition of ethnic babyfaces in the Northeast.
His first true shot at greatness came on June 6, 1930, when, before 20,000 fans at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl, he toppled renowned shooter and fellow immigrant Dick Shikat after one hour and 23 grueling minutes to take the World Heavyweight Championship, as recognized by the New York State Athletic Commission, The Ring magazine and many other prominent organizations and governing bodies, including the newly formed National Wrestling Association, a division of the National Boxing Association (now the WBA). With Mondt, Fabiani and later New York kingpin Jack Curley behind him, Londos quickly became a sensation, packing houses throughout the Northeast on a consistent basis, to a degree that had never quite been seen before. However, a white-hot behind-the-scenes feud with another giant of the ring, Nekoosa, Wisconsin’s own Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis—a former world champion and a major power broker in his own right—would throw a monkey wrench into things.
Lewis had been the hottest wrestling superstar of the 1920s, but by the 1930s Londos had superseded the Strangler as the industry’s hottest star and reigning World Heavyweight Champion. The Strangler’s backers badmouthed Londos in the press and tried to position Lewis as an alternate World Champion in opposition to the Golden Greek. Londos had the backing of New York and Pennsylvania area promoters Mondt, Fabiani and Curley, who found themselves on the other side of a war with Lewis and his backer, Boston promoter Paul Bowser. A promotional rift separated Londos for years from Lewis, his longtime rival for most dominant star of the era. Owing in part to bad blood over Lewis’ previous promotional association with Mondt (and perhaps the fact that Londos feared locking up with the formidably skilled Strangler), a match could not be worked out between the two opposing factions.
The waters became muddied further when Lewis and his combine invaded New York, eventually gaining World title recognition from the New York State Athletic Commission in 1932. After Lewis defeated Jack Sherry in a number-one contender’s match at the new Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, New York, he gained recognition by the Athletic Commission as World Heavyweight Champion. It was a maneuver he and his promotional backers had orchestrated as a move against Londos, who had refused to defend his title against the Strangler. Lewis and company had used their influence to have the commission strip Londos of the title because of this refusal. Now both men had a claim to the crown.
The warring sides at last came to an agreement in 1933, forming what became known in the business as ‘The Trust’, an unspoken alliance among promoters that included Curley, Fabiani, Mondt, ‘Carnation’ Lou Daro (Mondt’s newest ally out of Los Angeles), Bowser, and both Londos and Lewis. The dream match between the Strangler and the Golden Greek finally took place on September 20, 1934 at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. It would be the most talked about and highest drawing match the business had seen since another mega match in that same town, the 1911 return bout between Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt. A record-shattering crowd of 35,265 fans paid $96,302 to witness Londos vanquishing his rival (and new business associate) Lewis to settle the feud. In the end, Lewis had agreed to do the honors in the middle of the ring for Londos, granting him the spotlight as the 1930s’ premiere grappler while his own in-ring career wound down—officially passing the torch to a new generation, as has happened so many times in wrestling history. The record gate drew by the match would not be surpassed for 18 years.
The appeal of Londos extended far beyond just the northeastern United States, as could be seen on October 10, 1934, when he journeyed to Los Angeles to defend his world title against the West Coast’s number-one attraction, the massive Man Mountain Dean. The match drew 38,756 people to the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, again setting a new attendance record for wrestling in North America. Indeed, Londos held attendance records in most major cities where he wrestled throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Londos would continue to claim the National Wrestling Association title, eventually losing it on June 27, 1935 before 30,000 fans in Fenway Park to Danno O’Mahoney, Bowser’s Irish rookie superstar who was busy unifying all the sport’s major world titles at the time. By that point, Londos had abandoned Curley and aligned himself with Bowser, in a move typical of the byzantine wrestling intrigue that characterized so much of the 1930s. The National Wrestling Association’s recognition of Londos as World Champion from 1930 to 1935 remains one of the top ten longest world title reigns in wrestling history.
The extremely popular Londos had been the top draw for the Trust. But Londos had become such a success that he became difficult for the Trust to control, and so the paranoid promoters sought new, more malleable, and wet-behind-the-ears attractions that they could keep under their thumb. Thanks to his immense drawing power, Londos was essentially more powerful and influential than even most of the promoters of his time, a fact that often led those promoters to resent him. Sometimes, he would find himself locked out of certain cities, as promoters sought to do business instead with less powerful, less experienced wrestlers (O’Mahoney had been one of these for the Bowser camp). But when the box office began to suffer, they would inevitably come calling to get him back.
Ever the smaller underdog, he innovated a match style that is still copied by beloved babyfaces to this day, that of the hero who takes tremendous punishment over a long period of time, only to make a dramatic comeback in the end and vanquish his more intimidating opponent. He was one of the first to understand how to properly ‘sell’ the suffering he endured at the hands of his enemies, so it would be apparent all the way to the cheap seats. In this sense, Londos was one of the early innovators of the ‘performance’ aspect of professional wrestling.
Londos claimed World Championship status in form or another well into the 1940s, before he finally wound down his historic career. But with or without the title, he was a top-drawer attraction and regular main eventer. He was also wise enough to save his money, and therefore was able to retire in comfort to Escondido, California, where he lived as a millionaire avocado farmer in his final years. He also remained heavily involved in charitable organizations, being especially dedicated to helping Greek children orphaned during World War II. His impressive philanthropic efforts earned him decorations from President Richard Nixon and King Paul of Greece, among others.
‘The Golden Greek’ Jim Londos passed away of a heart attack on August 19, 1975 at the age of 78, leaving behind a legacy that remains a credit to the sport and to the business of professional wrestling. A bona fide sporting superstar, world-renowned champion and major league attraction, he was an icon beloved by millions, who personified his era of wrestling and gave fans their first genuine pro wrestling superhero. Before Cena, before ‘The Hulkster’, before Andre, before Bruno, before Rocca and Thesz, Jim Londos galvanized the support of fans young and old, providing memories the impact of which are still recognized to this day, more than a century after he first set foot in the ring.
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