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.