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General News

Theofanis Tzanetopoulos: A True Greek Tiger

November 7, 2021

The only reason that the history of Greeks in American sports is not more closely studied is because such a venture seems, on the surface, to our current generation of Greek-American scholars, to be of little or no real historical, cultural or social value. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each area of life Greek immigrants ventured into has its own unique vantage point for sustained study. The results are frequently quite surprising.

As a case in point, the professional career of Theofanis Tzanetopoulos, a professional boxer, offers much more than mere period-specific sporting statistics. The sustained troubles Tzanetopoulos experienced and his refusal to bow to popular will is a direct challenge to the now commonly held belief that the early Greek immigrants had no choice but to passively and meekly assimilate into the surrounding society. Not only is this ‘Greeks-must-always-submit’ an ahistorical point-of-view it ultimately can only understand cultural exchange as a one-way process.

This short-sighted point of view serves two-masters. The first is the persistent American claim that all immigrants are ultimately assimilated into the dominate and unchanging Anglo-Saxon culture. The other is that this is the same view ultimately held by all Greek immigrants to American shores. This one-way only process of cultural adaptation does not exist in everyday reality. A wide array of studies document that given local circumstances either separate identities within the two cultural groups in question are strengthened and/or various cross-cultural exchanges take place. A one-way only exchange is an enduring myth in modern Greek-American Studies that only serves as a means to assert Anglo-American dominance and superiority over others.

Theofanis Tzanetopoulos’ career and the public stance he felt compelled to take—no matter the consequences–offers a crystal clear example of an immigrant who defied all such assertions of dominance. Tzanetopoulos’ sustained resistance took place in one of the most public of American forums, the daily press.

On September 19, 1911, Theofanis Tzanetopoulos was born in the village of Amaliada in the northwestern region of the Peloponnesus. Tzanetopoulos’ initial career in Greece rates this man as one of the most accomplished Hellenic boxers before World War II. Classed as a light heavyweight Tzanetopoulos debuted in Athens on August 22, 1930 against Motzi Spakow, winning with a knockout. Ultimately, Tzanetopoulos won ‘the European middleweight title following a winning streak of 37 bouts (Boston Globe July 1, 1983).’

In late 1934, Tzanetopoulos traveled to the United States with ‘Nick Caneles, a Lynn shoe manufacturer, [who] saw Fanis go in Athens, signed him to a five-year contract, and brought him to America (Journal (CT) December 7, 1934 ).’ In his debut fight in the United States against Ed Sharkey: ‘Tjanatapoulos, an untried fighter, was not conceded a chance against the more crafty Sharkey. At the opening bell, however, the Greek tore into Sharkey and in less than a minute put him down for a nine count. As Sharkey arose, Tjanatapoulos waded in and put on the finishing touches with a right to Sharkey’s chin (Boston Globe May 8, 1934). By year’s end Tzanetopoulos was duly credited with 18 knockouts to his credit (Boston Globe December 6, 1934). But the available 1934 public records, now, only cite five boxing matches for Tzanetopoulos.

And, as I am sure my attentive Greek-American Reader has noted Tzanetopoulos in the news-report has his name misspelled. This may seem a minor point, on initial consideration, yet at its core an extremely deep and strongly held prejudice is not simply revealed—but endures. One which, at this moment in time, forever falsifies and makes any investigation of Tzanetopoulos’ professional career nearly impossible.

And here is where we must pause and report upon official and unofficial record keeping concerning professional sports in North America. Briefly, as one would suspect every sport amateur or professional athlete has his or her ardent supporters. Tabulating who has won which event, when, by how much, e.g., what was the score/who was the winner as well as the specific record of accomplishment(s) in great detail exists for literally every athletic event, individual team and certainly every individual athlete no matter how distinguished or terrible their record. Today, the readily available public record includes both fan-compiled tabulations and accounts as well as the sharp attention of the professional academic. Sociologists are especially attentive to the meanings and social ramifications inherent in both amateur and professional sports including the record keeping methods. The sustained sociological attention cannot be over emphasized. Quite literally dozens of sociological volumes exist on professional sports in North America.

Simply put with the current reliance on computers research and existing professional boxing publications discovering Theofanis Tzanetopoulos’ complete professional record is nearly impossible. Since each misspelling has its own distinct set of referenced citations. Ultimately all this confusion was due to Tzanetopoulos’ refusal to bend to public pressure.

As far as I have been able to verify (so far) there were two distinct periods when Tzanetopoulos was strongly pressured to change his name first in 1934 and then again, in 1936. During both periods Tzanetopoulos was pummeled in the public press for—as far as the average American journalist was concerned—his impossible name. Here is a short list of how prejudice took on printed form in 1934:

Theofanis’ first name becomes ‘Sanis’ (which is a variant ‘Fanis’) (Times Union (Brooklyn) May 7, 1934); but then also, ‘Fans’ (Boston Globe (MA) May 8, 1934) and even, ‘F.T., the Greek Tiger’ (Boston Globe Dec 5, 1934). Then we have ‘Tzunatopoulous’ (Boston Globe May 7, 1934); ‘Tjanopoulos’ (Boston Globe (MA) May 8, 1934); ‘Tjanatoupolis’ (Boston Globe July 2, 1934); ‘Tjanetopolous’ (Boston Globe July 24, 1934); ‘Tjanatopolous’ (Times Union (NY) August 11, 1934) and ‘Tzanetoupolos’ (Boston Globe September 11, 1934) and ‘F.T., the Greek Tiger’ (Boston Globe December 5, 1934).

It gets worst. ‘‘This Greek ‘Tiger’ is one of the new fistic sensations around Boston…Fanis is no scientific boxer—he wins his fights by wading in and swinging until someone drops—usually it’s the other fellow. The Greek killer has knocked out 18 of his 20 opponents since he arrived in America (Journal (CT) December 7, 1934).’ But looking at the public record 18 to 20 opponents cannot be found.

Now initially some readers might shrug since Americans of this period more often than not misspelled Greek names. But public sports records, printed and now on computers, are all kept by the athlete’s name. So, if you searched for ‘Theofanis Tzanetopoulos’ then, at first, inexplicitly from May to December 1934, various sources including printed book references (and now computer sources as well) list only five matches for the spelling of ‘Tzanetopoulos.’ Yet the public press, just for 1934, reports an additional six fully documented matches. The missing matches were with boxers: Buster Price; Mickey Bishop; Harry Allen; Ollie Kiski; Johnny Rossi and Al Gladysz. But that only provides six more so the 18 to 20 number for the moment cannot be verified.

Each variant spelling of Tzanetopoulos’ name found in the public press translates into its own individual listing. In searching under ‘the Greek Tiger,’ I found several other matches, including the claim that Tzanetopoulos’ made his first Boston appearance when ‘he knocked out Abie Bain of Newark with a right-hand punch to the jaw in the second round of a scheduled 10-rounder (Boston Globe (MA) December 8, 1934).’

Sports reporters were quite clear to interject their ‘feelings,’ concerning this Greek boxer’s name—even when they were allegedly reporting the factual news of the day, as in, ‘Theo Tzanetopoulos, whatever that may mean in Greek…The unpronounceable Greek claims he has scored thirty-four knockouts in forty-four fights (Daily News (NY) Oct 8, 1935).’ This intentional misspelling business went on for quite a while with Tzanetopoulos being badgered every so often to simply change his name. That is, until Tzanetopoulos had had enough.

In 1934 and then again in 1936, the Associated Press wire service circulated the following quote: ‘Fanis Tzanetopoulos, Greek fighter, won’t change his name. He refused his manager, William McCarney, saying: ‘My name Tzanetopoulos, Tzanetopoulos my father’s name, Tzanetopoulos my grandfather’s name, Tzanetopoulos great name, Tzanetopoulos old Greek name, Tzanetopouloses never no never, change from Tzanetopoulos, Tzanetopoulos good enough…(Decatur Daily Review (IL) September 2, 1936).’

This concise declaration circulated all across the nation, in major metropolitan cities and tiny hamlets alike. Sports page after sports page, featured Tzanetopoulos’ simple declaration. Clearly, for the American press it was a joke. We can surmise this since this declaration was often featured with a cartoon drawing or even highlighted on the sports page by placing it in the sports page’s corners—so it couldn’t be missed.

How Tzanetopoulos was portrayed in newspapers across America has dimensions that elevates his simple declaration into some quite complex. Since it seems highly unlikely that every American-born reader of this quote in small towns and/or big cities actually knew a Greek-born immigrant then as Will Rogers’ old quip contends, ‘all I know I read in the newspapers.’

In 1945, Theofanis Tzanetopoulos retired from professional boxing. Yet this one man’s career challenges not simply the mandatory record keeping priorities of both fans and academics alike it also brings into question the whole ‘Greeks are only another assimilated minority group.’ Tzanetopoulos didn’t merely challenge other professional fighters in the ring but a whole broader system of underlying prejudice. Theophanes Tzanetopoulos’ career challenges not only professional sport’s history but the enduring myths of the passive Greek immigrant as well. It also begs the question, ‘how many other Greek immigrants in North America refused to submit to Anglo-American cultural demands?’

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