For reasons I cannot fully understand, the exploits of Jim Londos are only recalled by the oldest members of the Greek-American community.
For the rest, when Londos’ name is recognized at all, it is in connection to a dimly remembered, somewhat mythical, figure from the Great Depression. Yet in the 1930s, Jim Londos was the undisputed world champion of wrestling. Londos stood on an equal footing with Jack Dempsey, the undisputed heavy weight boxing champion of the world. This was at a time when the sport of wrestling still retained its athletic credibility. Through his undeniable athletic prowess, good looks, and outspoken positions on controversial topics, Jim Londos was, from 1930 to 1946, the greatest wrestling attraction of the times.
From the 1880s onward, Greek immigrants were recognized as champion-level wrestlers all across North America. Direct ties between Ancient Greeks and their Modern descendants were a reoccurring topic in the American press. At least two generations of Greek wrestlers in North America preceded Jim Londos. By the time of Londos’ rise to fame Greek immigrants were found in all areas of amateur and professional American sports. What follows is only the mere outline of Londos’ public life.
Londos was born Christos T. Theophilou, on January 2, about 1895, in the village of Koutsopodi near Argos, which is approximately 60 miles west of Athens. Christos was, depending on the source, either the twelfth or thirteenth child of Theophelos and Maria Theophilou. Before arriving in the United States, around 1912, young Londos was a shepherd. Theophelos Theophilou, an amateur wrestler of considerable reputation, is credited with having instructed his young son in some of the fundamentals.
Initially, the young man worked as a waterboy on Western railroads and as a waiter. In time, Londos enrolled in the San Francisco YMCA, where he attended wrestling classes three days a week. He was either 16 or 17 when he entered the YMCA’s Pacific Coast amateur wrestling competition and emerged as champion of the middleweight division. Londos lost the heavyweight contest to his opponent, Jack Larou, who was 6’2” tall and weighed 235 pounds. Londos weighed 165 pounds at the time. While Londos never made any excuses for this loss, it is telling that he took on an opponent who outweighed him by 70 pounds and nearly won. Also sometime during this period Christos Theophilos became Jim Londos. Allegedly Theophilos, was an avid reader of Jack London short stories, and so took on this stage name.
Just as Londos entered the world of professional wrestling a new style of wrestling came to dominate the sport. Known as “catch-as-catch-can” (meaning just about what it sounds like), this style evolved taking the best holds and tactics from wrestling traditions found all across the planet. As young wrestlers from all over the world began to compete for the first time on American soil they quite consciously used the best tactics they knew to win.
We hear of headlocks, flying mares, toeholds, a crotch-and-body slam, airplane spins, the flying drop kick, the Japanese arm-lock, cradle holds, a short arm scissors, the Irish whip, the dreaded eagle-spread, along with both full and half-nelsons. This rich flow of wrestling jargon now sounds as if it was taken directly from a film noir or a novel by Dashiell Hammett. As such this collection of moves became known as “submission holds” since the ultimate point in this evolving sport was to win as quickly as possible.
Besides being recognized as a solid wrestler, Londos was credited with being a real draw for female wrestling fans – which led to his “Greek Adonis” label in the press. A wily aspect of this title was that Ed White, Londos’ manager throughout his years of glory, initially sought out the ugliest wrestlers possible for the Greek to wrestle. Billed as “The Man with the Million Dollar Body,” Londos was romantically linked in one newspaper account after another with starlets and high-society ingenues.
All accounts agree that Londos first won the wrestling heavyweight title in Philadelphia on July 29, 1930, from Dick Shikat in a match that lasted one hour and 29 minutes. After holding the crown for five years, Londos lost it to Danno O’Mahoney at Boston, but regained it in 1937 by pinning Bronko Nagurski in one hour and 27 minutes. Londos then kept the title until his retirement in 1946. He also definitely held (at least) two different titles that were recognized across the country: the National Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship (New York).
Let’s just look at some of the statistics. For January 27, 1931, the New York Times reported that 22,200 fans went to see Londos retain his title in a bout with Jim McMillen at Madison Square Garden. 30,000 people attended his bout with Ray Steele (The New York Times, June 30, 1931). Later that same year, 17,000 went to see the Londos-Calza match (The New York Times, November 17, 1931). Anyone doubting Londos’ sustained fame need only glance at the New York Times sports section, from say, 1934 to 1937. After each Londos bout, one sees a banner headline running across the entire top of the page and then the details of the specific match as the lead feature running in the first column.
Londos had only one real nemesis in his long career: Ed “Strangler” Lewis. Born Robert H. Friedrich (1891-1966) in the small farming community of Nekoosa, Wisconsin in his prime, Friedrich held the heavyweight championship five times over a period of 25 years. Lewis received his nickname for his signature headlock hold, said to be unbreakable once it was fully applied.
On September 20, 1934, Londos met Lewis in Chicago. Why there was so much publicity about this particular match is hard to reckon from this distance in time. Lewis had beaten Londos some 14 times in previous matches. So why anyone would go to see Londos presumably get whipped again doesn’t really make sense. It might have been due to the fact, however, that the two had not met in 10 years. A reported crowd of 35,265 people, believed to be the largest ever to watch a wrestling match in the United States at that time, packed Wrigley Field. Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight boxing champion, refereed the match.
My father was nine years old in 1934. I have heard my entire life how everyone was gathered around the radio in my grandfather’s barbershop. In the film, Malcolm X, we see Malcolm and some African-American coworkers listening to the blow-by-blow account of the bout between Joe Lewis and Max Schmelling for the world heavyweight boxing title. It was with this fight that an African American first became an undisputed world champion. As I saw that scene for the first time, I immediately recalled those stories of the one-chair barbershop with its tiny band of Greeks huddled around the radio cheering on the Greek Adonis. Londos won his one-fall match over Lewis in 49 minutes, 27 seconds, for the world’s heavyweight wrestling championship.
Londos’ life was not all wrestling ugly, brutal men. Just before his retirement, he married Avra C. Rochwite (1912-1998), who was born in Clayton, Montana. At the time of their marriage, Rochwite was described in press reports as a “St. Louis Aviatrix.” The couple had three daughters: Diana, Demetra, and Christina. Londos officially retired in 1946. The Londos family moved to Escondido, California, where they settled on a 10-acre site nestled in an avocado grove. There, Londos quietly managed his orchard and other investments; he devoted the rest of his public life to charity.
These sustained efforts did not go unappreciated. On November 12, 1961, in Los Angeles, Jim Londos received the Order of the Phoenix from Greek consul-general Sotirios Bouphidis on behalf of King Paul I. In 1970, President Richard Nixon presented Londos with a special citation, which noted his charity work for children in particular. Aside from the many wrestling trophies and tournaments named after him, Jim Londos was inducted, as the “All-Time Greatest Wrestler,” into the Breitbard Hall of Fame at the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum on January 11, 1967. Londos died on August 19, 1975, at Palomar Memorial Hospital, and was buried at Oak Hill Memorial Park.
Whether Greeks in the future still remember Jim Londos will ultimately make no difference to history. Since the bold Greek champion appeared in some 2,500 individual wrestling matches during his professional career, once the first solid history of wrestling in America is finally written, the role and considerable accomplishments of this Greek immigrant are sure to be prominently featured. Still, it is surprising how many Greeks living today all heard the same phrase when they were children, “Better drink your milk if you expect to grow up like Jim Londos.” In legends as well as history, Jim Londos carved a unique place for himself in the ongoing experience of Greeks in North America.