Sports Of The Times By Red Smith

The New York Times – August 24, 1975

Jimmy Londos was the professional wrestling champion of this wide, bewildered world in the days of the Great Depression, Prohibition, Repeal and the New Deal. News of his death in California the other day brought back a vivid image of his thickly muscled figure and olive oil face with gently sorrowing brown eyes. Face and figure were as familiar to Americans 40 years ago as the Blue Eagle of the National Recovery Act.

Chances are the golden Greek was neither the strongest nor the most skillful wrestler of his time, but he was the richest, esteemed by his peers as the best “worker” in the craft. In their business, one did not wrestle an opponent or even rassle him. You worked with him, and an accomplished worker like Londos could subject a man to tortures so fiendish that ringsiders’ blood turned cold, without a trace of discomfort for the victim.

It was probably while working with Londos that the late Herman Hickman, the Tennessee Cannonball who later coached football at Yale, suffered his most embarrassing moment in the ring. Herman was on his ample stomach, screaming and pounding the mat with a fist, while behind him his adversary applied inhuman pressure with a toehold. For reasons of his own, the referee broke the hold and conducted the opponent across the ring but Herman still lay shrieking in mortal anguish until the hysterical laughter of the crowd told him his ordeal had ended.

“There was nobody like Chris,” Herman used to say. “He could rip your arm from its socket and you’d never know he had laid a hand on you.”

Jimmy was baptized Christopher Theophelus and was known as Chris in the lodge or bund or syndicate that employed most of the top performers. They all had code names for purposes of communication within the brotherhood. Hickman, for example, was Cannonball.

On the morning of a Londos-Hickman championship in say, Memphis, a telegram would arrive from syndicate headquarters in New York: “Cannonball Moon Chris.” Instructions always arrived by Western Union, to be confirmed by Postal Telegraph. But the message would go: “Ok Cannonball Moon Chris.”

It was not true, as some insisted, that these matches followed a prepared script in which every move had been rehearsed. These men were artists who improvised as they went along, tuning the tempo of the match to the temper of the crowd but making sure the climax would find Cannonball on his back looking at the moon as instructed, with Chris triumphant.

They were a gifted fraternity, bound by a mutual affection for show business but differing widely in temperament and ethnic roots. There were a few All-American Boys like Hickman, Gus Sonnenberg of Dartmouth and Jim McMillen, the Illinois guard who had led interference for Red Grange. Most of the rest were Russian counts, English lords, terrible Turks and Swedish, French or Italian Angels, with here and there an Indian chief whose squaw would crouch at ringside thumping a war drum to rouse her buck to competitive frenzy. Cowboys were big in Tennessee and hillbillies in Omaha.

The promotional pattern seldom varied. If Londos was defending his championship on one of the biweekly shows presented by Tom Packs in St. Louis, a newcomer would appear in a preliminary match. The new boy might be Pat O’Shocker, a fair-skinned redhead who was an accomplished bleeder. Pat would get a nosebleed in the opening scuffle but would struggle on undaunted to wind up in triumph bathed from head to foot in his own gore.

After that sensational debut, Pat would be back to bleed on every card, moving up to oppose George Zaharias, one of the Dusek brothers, John Pesek, and finally Dick Shikat, which would qualify him for a title shot with Londos.

As he always did, Londos would teeter on the brink of defeat for 30 minutes or so, harried and punished by his gory pursuer, then suddenly, swiftly, turn the tables and pluck victory from the jaws of slapstick. “Londos is on the mat!” a St. Louis sportscaster screamed one night. “He is writing in pain, but quick as a cucumber he breaks the hold — .”

In the very early 1930s, Jack Curley built up a match between Londos and Ray Steele to ballpark proportions. The principals even set up training camps in the mountains which the New York newspapers covered dutifully. One dispatch began: “‘Perhaps it is some atavistic instinct in me,’ Jimmy Londos said today. ‘I am not a cruel man, yet, I love to hear an opponent’s bones crack.'”

The match drew at least 40,000 to Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds — memory slips here — and it ended with Londos’s discovery of the dreaded Unconscious Hold. After about 40 minutes on the edge of disaster he stooped over the fallen Steele, lifted Ray’s left foot and clutched it to his bosom like a child cuddling her dolly. Medical science has never explained why, but on that occasion and many times later, this induced temporary paralysis.

“They can say what they like about how Jimmy couldn’t beat one side of Strangler Lewis,” said Ray Fabiani, the Philadelphia promoter, “but he’s a pretty good wrestler. I watch him working in the gym, that’s how I can tell.”

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One response to “Sports Of The Times By Red Smith

  1. Brilliant. Thanks. I never knew Red Smith to turn his gaze to pro wrestling.

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