The professional wrestling one sees on television is no longer considered a true sport. Given the training that professional wrestlers receive it would be a near death match if any two opponents seriously wanted to engage each other. And this has been the case since the first professional matches began to take place in North America. Given that there is no genuine element of competition possible in professional wrestling, its status as a ‘sport’ has been denied. It is now considered as ‘a form of performance entertainment where the participants engage in simulated sporting matches.’ But this formal definition says nothing about the unquestioned and continuous popularity of professional wrestling in the United States.
Whatever those who are concerned with the ‘sport’ aspect of wrestling may wish to see occur, the entertainment aspect triumphed long ago. So what we see in ‘professional’ American wrestling instead is a kind of morality play. Good versus evil is the core, and frankly only, theme of these now highly stylized encounters.
Given that there is always a ‘hero’, who then are the villains? Well, once again, this is quite simple. Given the nature of the central theme ‘good triumphs over evil’ we must have an ‘evil wrestler’ character. And there were dozens and dozens of this class of professional wrestlers. Now just to be clear, today, the role of the bad wrestler is known as being the ‘heel’. The name may have changed but not the action of either the good or the bad wrestler. So let us proceed.
Since at least 1876, and perhaps earlier, Greek-born wrestlers have competed in the United States. With the arrival of the ‘Royal Greek Circus’ to San Francisco in 1876 came two Greek wrestlers (San Francisco Chronicle April 18, 1876). Once in California, we quickly hear – via a flurry of advertisements and news articles of circus owner and principal wrestler/strongman Antonio Panay and later his ‘student’ Tedory George Costaky (AKA ‘Greek George’), also an accomplished wrestler.
Now, putting all the advertising hoopla to one-side Panay and Costaky were – as the historical record clearly documents – well-trained seasoned athletes. But given the nature of the ‘sport’, showmanship was (and remains) clearly at very center of these matches. Consequently, these two engaged in matches alternating their professional ‘personas’ as the various matches required. By this I mean Panay would sometimes assume the bad or evil wrestler role. To the best of my knowledge Costaky never portrayed the evil or bad wrestler in any match, but having said that, certainly not all his matches were the outcome of a general contest of skill.
Establishing who was the bad or evil wrestler and who was the good wrestler was always easy to determine. The good wrestler would enter the stadium and ring upright and acknowledging the fan audience every step of the way into the ring. Once there he would wave, salute, or call out in a friendly manner to the audience. The villain wrestler would enter the stadium with a lot of noise and hoopla, mostly yelling at the fans. Upon entering the ring this yelling at the audience would increase to the point where some of these villains would step through one or two of the ring ropes as if they were going to jump down into the audience and attack someone. Naturally all this was just theatrical bluster.
When the match began the two opponents would wrestle according to their personas. The good upright wrestler would only use sanctioned wrestling holds. The referee was ever honest yet somehow, he would also somehow not see when or how the evil wrestler was intentionally breaking the rules. The evil wrestler would do anything he could get away with, which included, at times, involving the referee in some fashion – including even hitting or throwing him onto or across the mat. Naturally, most of the time the evil wrestler would use illegal holds (such as eye gouging, hitting with his fist, or slamming the other wrestler into a corner ring-post) when the referee could not see him – but the audience could. But, once again, this was all theatrics, with all three men assuming their respected roles.
All wrestlers in North America, not just the Greeks, were not only aware of these conditions but participated willingly in these kinds of activities. No one wanted to be permanently injured or even get marginally hurt in any manner while wrestling. Now be aware that at this time in the history of professional wrestling in the United States the matches were predetermined. Who would win and how was all worked out ahead of time. Once it became clear that wrestling matches were (and had to be) prearranged, the status of professional wrestling lost its standing as a sport and was relegated to what is most commonly called a spectacle.
All this explaining aside, here are a few newspaper snippets on the Greek villain wrestlers as well as something of their in-ring bad-guy role.
Among the most notable was George Zaharias, described by the Birmingham News as, “the great Greek villain” (August 16, 1932). Zaharias started out as a ‘good wrestler.’ Then, once, in a double-match Zaharias, who was wrestling by the rules, was intentionally hurt by his opponent. In the rematch that followed Zaharias went out of his way to not only physically hurt the other wrestler, in kind, but to do such that no one in the audience could miss his intentional brutality. As the audience shouted and booed at Zaharias he immediately knew he had to become a villain of the wrestling ring.
Headlines screamed the lament, “2 Villains Win Over the Heroes Fans Howl as Pair of Bad Ones Net Victories.” On reading beneath this headline we learn that “the Greek villains, Joe Shimkus and Joe Dillman, had a ‘big night’ Tuesday in Martin Arena, before one of the largest crowds in many weeks at the American Legion’s weekly wrestling show (Decatur Daily 20 Dec 1933).”
“Two other giants of the wrestling ring, Gus Pappas, Greek villain, and Tony Marconi, Italian grappler, struggled to a 30-minute draw in the first preliminary (Tampa Bay Times 21 Dec 1934).”
“Supporting action…will be furnished by an hour limit semi wind-up in which Johnny Felix, veteran Greek villain, will meet a newcomer, Svede Johnson from Louisiana (Park City Daily News (KY) 25 January 1938).”
Pete Tripodes was frequently described as a “Greek villain par excellence.” In his bout with Carlos Rodriquez, the local newspaper played into the image of a total no-holds-barred match as it speculated that, “[W]hat these men will do to each other will probably beggar description. They will stop at nothing and are far too big an assignment for any one referee to handle (Decatur Daily (AL) 28 Aug 1939).”
“Jones, a remarkably clever fellow with his legs, has registered a decision over Chris Zaharias here in Orlando, taming the big Greek villain handily (Orlando Sentinel 18 June 1939).”
“The Other half of the double feature brings Dorv Roche, heavy-weight title contender, in against Nick Bacalis, oily Greek villain (Orlando Sentinel 21 Feb 1940).”
And there were even bad-guy versus bad-guy matches as in: “…the Mysterious Mr. X, claiming never to have been defeated in 397 matches, makes his first Miami appearance, against Greek villain Nick Bacalis (Miami News 20 Aug 1944).”
“Boom Boom Pantazi, the rough Greek villain who always gives the referee a bad time, clashes with Walter Underhill of Tampa in a 45-minute, one-fall semi-final (Miami News 1 May 1947).”
And once again, “In a rough and tumble last night at Biscayne arena Boom Boom Pantazi, the Greek villain used his wild ring tactics to win (Miami News 16 May 1947).”
To my knowledge there is no one source that has yet systematically gathered specific information on the exact presence and role of Greeks in American sports since the 1870s. Why Not?