Antonio Pierre: Tales of the Terrible Greek

From the late 1880s throughout the 1890s, every professional heavyweight wrestler in the world wanted to defeat Antonio Pierre. During what was then called the Gay Nineties, that is the decade of the 1890s, Pierre wrestled most of the notable professional champions of Europe, South Africa, and the United States. Given his formidable presence in the ring Pierre became known around the world as The Terrible Greek. Even among that singular generation of Greek world-class athletes such as Hercules Koutalianos, Theodore George Costaky, and Nicholas Protopapas, Antonio Pierre was a unique figure. While an internationally recognized wrestler and strongman, Pierre was also destined to become one of the most influential wrestling promoters of all times.

Unaccountably, Antonio Pierre, as well as the majority of the other Greek champion wrestlers, are now largely lost to sports history. But then there is no recognized narrative history of North American wrestling since the Civil War. The history of wrestling in America is much as baseball history was in the 1950s, largely just a string of disjointed accounts. Without question the movement in professional wrestling from a sport to a spectacle has added to the unwillingness of most researchers to engage with this subject.

As a challenge to this contemporary viewpoint Antonio Pierre is especially worth studying since during his career this one man held, at various times, the European Greco-Roman Champion title, American Catch-As-Catch-Can Championship, as well as the World Championship title. True, Pierre is not entirely unknown to sports historians.

Yet in all the contemporary accounts Pierre’s wider career is reduced to his years as a vastly influential wrestling promoter. Contrary to available news accounts of the 1890s and very early 1900s Pierre’s career as a promoter sees description in such a manner that his earlier role as a notable champion wrestler is forgotten. Contemporary accounts, then, unjustly reduce Pierre to a bit player on the stage of wrestling’s very early history. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Virtually nothing about Pierre’s private life is now publicly known. Aside from the long string of wrestling news accounts all that is agreed upon concerning Antonio Pierre is he was of Greek birth and that, as we read in the American and British press, he then lived in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. Even the spelling of this man’s name is not agreed upon. We see ‘Anton Pierre,’ ‘Antonio Pierre,’ ‘Pieri’, and a dizzy array of variations. I have selected ‘Antonio Pierre’ simply as a convenience.

During the heyday of Pierre’s sports career this massive athlete was given the nickname of “The Terrible Greek” for his stunning demonstrations of sheer strength and agility as a wrestler. Incredible as it may sound Pierre seems by all available accounts to be none other than the first Greek wrestler to be known by this nickname. True, George Costaky was known in advertisements of the 1880s and 1890s as “The Terrible Greek George,” but his much publicized identity as “Greek George” outweighs any other stage names.

Just for the sake of completeness we should note in passing that wrestlers such as George Katachino, George Heraklides, George Neff, and Nick Spenjos all were known as “The Terrible Greek” on wrestling advertising and in the public press. I am sure there must have been many more. The historical point here is that until other documentation is brought forward Antonio Pierre was the first recognized Greek wrestler to bear this honorific.

Pierre’s career as a wrestler is easy to document. As one of the first generation of professional wrestlers Antonio Pierre competed on a regular basis with virtually every major wrestler of the day. While enthusiasts of American wrestling today know of Joe Action, Tom Cannon, Frank Gotch, George Hackenschmidt, Jacob Hart, or William Muldoon few can recount Pierre’s fabled encounters with these formidable athletes. In the New York Times on April 23, 1889, we find “William Muldoon, the professional Wrestler, is anxious to wrestle Duncan C. Ross, Antonio Pierri, Greek George, or any other man in the world for $1,000 a side, Græco-Roman style, time limited to six hours, and if Muldoon fails to secure a fall he is willing to forfeit.”

Accounts of Pierre’s grace, agility, and sheer physical strength are easy to locate as in this account of his match with Smith Jackson the Canadian wrestler in the Trenton Times on January 12, 1887:

“The first fall was Graeco-Roman. The men clinched and after a spirited struggle both fell, Pierre underneath. With cat-like spring he turned a somersault and shook off Jackson’s grip. Both men clinched again, Jackson securing a full Nelson and leg hold on the Greek. It was only for a moment, however, for Pierre, with a powerful half Nelson hold, threw Jackson on what is known as a “harem back,” the time being two minutes and twenty-six seconds. At the finish Jackson was considerably winded, but the Greek showed no signs of the struggle.”

By 1888, Antonio Pierre was the recognized American Catch-As-Catch-Can Championship. The match took place on December 7, 1888 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. As the New York Times reported: “The catch-as-catch-can contest in Turner’s Hall here to-night between Tom Cannon and Antonio Pierre, the stalwart Greek, was a terrible exhibition of strength and skill. It was decided in favor of the Greek amid a burst of applause from more than 1,000 throats.” Less than one year later on June 16, 1889, the New York Times began referring to “Antonio Pierre, the champion catch-as-catch-can wrestler of the world.”

Now let us jump ahead three years to Glasgow, Scotland where, as the New York Times reported on February 17, 1891, “A wrestling match for championship of the world, best two out of three falls, took place in this city to-night between Antonio Pierri of Greece and Tom Cannon of America. The contest resulted in a victory for Pierri by two falls to one. Cannon made a protest against the decision, but it was not allowed by the judges.”

But rather than a case of Pierre holding the title for a time and then passing it back to Cannon as has been reported in some contemporary wrestling articles, period newspaper accounts attest that that the mighty Greek won the title and then held it for at least six years. Then, again in 1891, Pierre won the European Greco-Roman Champion title.

If what I am claiming is true, then why has Antonio Pierre not received the recognition he deserves? The titles in the Gay Nineties are not included in any of the world wrestling title listings I have managed to locate. All this is not some plot against ‘the stalwart Greek’ as he was called by the world press but rather a function of when the official records begin. Officially the European Greco-Roman Heavyweight Championship begins with the Tom Cannon versus Tom McInerney match on August 22, 1894 in Liverpool England. George Hackenschmidt is ‘officially’ world champion in 1904. Evan “Strangler” Lewis unified the Catch-as-Catch Can Title and the American Greco-Roman title on March 2, 1893 by defeating Ernest Rocher.

I have no idea why these title records do not go back in time. It is clear that the history of world, regional and/or American titles remains a bitterly contested business. From our vantage point in history, it seems that, the tempestuous consolidation of wrestling as a recognized sport in public venues is the defining issue for how the public record is now understood. Although, again, most writers freely admit that more research needs to be conducted.

Just noting that Pierre held various world titles alters not simply American/European wrestling accounts but Greek-American history. In 1946, Jim Londos retired as World Heavyweight Champion. It has long been thought that Londos was the first Greek to hold such an international sports title in wrestling. As the citation of these few accounts document, it was in fact Antonio Pierre.

Antonio Pierre brought Youssuf Ishmaelo (1857-1898) the first ‘Terrible Turk’ wrestler to the United States. The genius of Antonio Pierre as a wrestling impresario was to exploit the war fever seen in the American and European Press of the late 1890s. The Ottoman Empire was being threatened on all sides by the European Powers. Called ‘the Sick man of Europe’ the Ottoman lands were much sought after by any number of the European nations. Wrestling in the 1890s and long afterwards was depicted as a contest between ‘nations.’ Advertising cardboard posters, referred to as ‘cards’ literally stated “America vs. Turkey’ or whoever. At a time when Social Darwinism was the popular belief, different and distinct races competed for supremacy each drawing upon their innate strengths or falling behind because of some equally inherent (quite literally) weakness.

Antonio Pierre died in Strasburg on August 23, 1912. In terms of Greek-American history popular athletes such as Antonio Pierre and all the other Hellenic strongmen offer an alternative interpretation of the Greek experience in North America than is now allowed. The generic presentation of Greek immigrants as unlettered day workers is common in American historical accounts. The Greeks as rich self-made men who personally and consciously influenced American popular culture and society is never considered. Or if it is, such thoughts are always muted, with the most allowed being Greeks as small-time businessmen. Only a select few rich and influential men are ever discussed or allowed this role as exceptions, or to be heard of only buried in footnotes.

The Greek-born champion strongmen and wrestlers of the 1880s and 1890s commonly broke heavy chains wrapped across their chests. As guides, these very same men can teach us not only of their fabled exploits but how history is itself a very selected and edited literary genre. Reading about these athletic giants and how they literally helped create the international sport of wrestling can allow us to break the chains others have placed on our minds about our ancestors.