It was July 30, 1883, a sweltering muggy day, in the Old Quarter of New Orleans. At approximately 11 o’clock in the morning, on Franklin Street, between the cobble-stoned intersection of Custom House and Blenville streets two men were in a knife fight. Unarmed Theodoros Yorgios Costakis had been slashed in the right breast (and a few other places) by Isidore Magnficio, a gambler. Whatever sparked these events is simply not reported in public accounts. Costakis must have somehow subdued the gambler for the New York Times reports that Magnficio was arrested. But nothing else was noted in the passing mention of what was clearly a fight to the death. It does, however, illustrate the dangers in which the Greek strongman and wrestler known during his very public life as “Greek George” faced on a daily basis.
Theodoros Yorgios Costakis, a Greek immigrant strongman, wrestler and renowned athletic impresario was one of the most prominent American sports-figures of the 1880s. At the very birth of American professional wrestling, a number of Greek immigrants were prominent, nationally recognized, contenders. Professional strongmen/wrestlers such as Panagotis Heracles Koutalianos, Nikolas Protopapas, Antonio Pierre and others were all Costakis’ contemporaries, opponents and even sometime business associates.
While it is understood that in the United States from the 1860s to 1880s professional wrestling matches first began to be held, little else is agreed upon. In part this is due to the furor created around 1920, over the revelation that professional wrestling promoters and wrestlers often engaged in the fixing of matches—especially title matches. Once professional wrestling in North America lost its legitimate standing many of those documents that would later offer a historical grounding were discarded. With the precise historical sequence of professional matches now not fully understood, enduring questions surrounding championship titles (given that some of these championship bouts are now view as fixed events)–all we can offer here is, an all too brief outline, of Costakis’ career as reported in the public press of the day.
Still, make no mistake about it; Theodoros Costakis was in the very forefront of American wrestlers of his day. Appearing most often, simply under the professional name of “Greek George,” Costakis frequently encountered and was known to best some of the most accomplished athletes of the era. Matches with William Muldoon, Andre Christol, Clarence Whistler, Sorakichi Matsuda, George Hackenschmidt and even the formidable Strangler Lewis, in his prime, were all near legendary contests fully covered in the daily press. In the later memoirs many of these professional athletes offered the public, their accounts of besting or being overcome by the formidable Greek George.
Understanding Costakis’ career and overall place in the history of American professional wrestling is crucial for a long term view of Greeks in American professional sports. Given that Costakis reigned from early 1880s until the early 1900s, he was in that generation of athletes and strongmen performers who first blazed the trail for another entire collectivity of later notable Hellenic athletes such as Demetrios Tofalos, William Demetral, the Combis Brothers, Jim Londos, and so many others.
Early professional wrestling in North America evolved out of various marital arts traditions and was exhibited in whatever venue was locally available. In the 1860 to 1890 period the kind of overall skills a master fighter needed to master were very similar to those seen in the film Fearless (2006). In this film, Jet Li offers a loosely based portrayal the life of Huo Yuanjia, a Chinese martial artist who challenged foreign fighters in highly publicized events. Aside from wrestling, fighting with fists (or full body contact), swords, lances, knives even fighting while on horseback were, in this era, constituted the full array of martial arts a professional soldier or fighter would have mastered. This broader context of physical or martial arts needs to be understood since Greek George challenged men across the country to wrestling and boxing matches, sword fights and even horseback wrestling bouts.
It may be hard for us to fully realize that during this time period no public forum or location existed exclusively for professional wrestling or boxing matches. Consequently these early matches (and the broad base of fighting styles and means they often presented) were first held in such diverse entertainment venues as the circus, side-shows, dime museums, armories, vaudeville, flicker shows, local fitness clubs, fairgrounds, music auditoriums and theaters.
Costakis certainly knew that advertising a potential match was essential to build up interest in the encounter. We can see this and Costakis’ status as an opponent in his February 4, 1889, New York Times, announcement entitled, ‘Greek George’s Challenge:’
‘Tedory George Costaky, known in the sporting world as Greek George, the wrestler, arrived from Boston yesterday and immediately posted $100 for a match with any athlete at Graeco-Roman or catch-as-catch-can style for a purse not to exceed $500 a side. This offer, he said last evening, would stand until his match with Charles Green, the English champion, which is to take place per agreement within four weeks from Jan. 21 at Philadelphia or Scranton. It is to be catch-as-catch-can, Lancashire rules, best two out of three falls, no holds barred, for the championship of the world.
During his stay in the city, Greek George may possibly give an exhibition of horseback wrestling. He has been in the West and South since his last visit here, and had engagements enough to keep him in good form.’
One of the main differences in professional wrestling between 1860 to 1890 was that individual wrestlers posted their own prize money as an incentive and challenge to other wrestlers. This money was held by a neutral party such as a newspaper editor, official of a local athletic club, or a music hall owner. Promoters were always present but in these very early years these men did not have the control they were later to assume. This posting of prize money did not prevent side-betting. By November 19, 1885, we find that “the Greek is heavily backed by local men.” Yet even by 1885, wrestlers are reported as saying they did not throw any fights which naturally makes one suspect that they did. Be aware that this was at a time when the average working man made one to three dollars a day.
With only 105-odd newspaper accounts spanning over thirty years on which to piece together the life, career and aspirations of Theodore George Costakis it is difficult to reconstruct. As far as can be determined Greek George was born in Athens in 1844. By 1885, Costakis made the river city of Atchison, Kansas his home base. On Sunday November 15, 1885, Costakis’ family joined him in Atchison but no further description of who exactly constituted his family members, at this time, is offered.
In vaudeville during any given season an individual perform or act could tour any given circuit and never have to change anything in their performance. Performing several times a day and then moving on to another town. Wrestling, as a sporting competition, also required the athletes to tour the country. Just a partial listing the towns where Greek George appeared during just a few months of one season includes: Newark OH, Atchison Kansas, Decatur IL, New York City, Boston, Galveston, San Antonio TX, Dunkirk NY, Fitchburg MA, Portsmouth NH, Trenton Times NJ, and Fresno, CA.
As with professional wrestling today promotional hoopla and challenges are part and parcel of the event’s entertainment. We see this in news accounts that state things such as: ‘Greek George eats six pounds of rarely cooked beef a day, which, with a few onions and bread, constitutes his bill of fare. He buys the meat himself and goes into the kitchen to see that it is cooked properly (Atchison Daily Globe 27 October 1885).’ Or as with: ‘Clarence Whistler is the only man excepted in wrestling by Greek George, and not Muldoon…The Greek has thrown Muldoon, breaking his finger and otherwise injuring him, and has repeatedly tried to secure a match with him. Muldoon is but an average wrestler, and depends upon his shape for his success. Christol has thrown him repeatedly (Atchison Daily Globe 21 November 1885).’
In time Costakis became a noted promoter bringing Andre Pierre, the Terrible Greek, to the United States. Pierre would one day become a promoter himself responsible for the whole line of Terrible Turk wresters to first come to North America. In 1916, Costakis promoted his ‘son’ George Kervaras as his wrestling successor, who in time became a notable professional in his own right. Not long after, Kervaras’ appearance Theodoros Yorgios Costakis disappears from the pages of American newspapers.
George Orwell, once said, ‘The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of history.’ Who are the Greeks in the history of the United States and what have they done? What do we know about them outside of own families or local communities? Why do we not know more?