Twin box­ers look back on glo­ri­ous ca­reers

For­mer US box­ing champs with Mani roots, the Spanakos brothers re­veal de­tails of their up­bring­ing in NYC, their tac­tics and their as­pi­ra­tions

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY GE­ORGE GE­OR­GAKOPOU­LOS & SPYRI­DOULA SPANEA

Peter and Ni­cholas Spanakos may be un­known to sports fans in Greece, but that is not the case in Brook­lyn, New York.

The Greek com­mu­nity in the Big Ap­ple takes great pride in the twin brothers whose roots lie in the vil­lage of Alika in the Mani district of the south­ern Pelo­pon­nese, as they made his­tory in US sports in the mid­dle of the last cen­tury be­fore turn­ing to aca­demic ca­reers.

Nick and Pete, now 72, si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­came the youngest US box­ing cham­pi­ons at the age of 16 when they both picked up Golden Gloves awards, the first of a to­tal 48 ti­tles be­tween them.

Born and raised in Brook­lyn’s Red Hook neigh­bor­hood, Pete, Nick and their five brothers soon learned how to cope with liv­ing in a tough neigh­bor­hood: “We learned how to box for the sake of self-de­fense, but we never re­pented it,” they told Kathimerini English Edi­tion in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view.

They are the chil­dren of im­mi­grants typ­i­cal of many Greeks that left to try their luck across the At­lantic: Their fa­ther, Michalis, and mother, Stella, went to New York “with­out even speak­ing the lan­guage,” ac­cord­ing to Nick, and orig­i­nally sup­ported them­selves wait­ing ta­bles in restau­rants be­fore mak­ing enough money to buy and op­er­ate their own.

Yet they al­ways strived for the best for their fam­ily. Michalis as­pired to see his chil­dren grad­u­ate from univer­sity, while Stella was voted Mother of the Year in New York in 1962 and Greek Mother of the Year in the US in 1964.

The two youngest sons of the wait staff turned out to be es­teemed box­ing stars be­fore em­bark­ing on aca­demic ca­reers in law and busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion. “We are very proud of our sac­ri­fices,” Nick told Kathimerini.

Known sim­ply as “the Greeks,” the brothers made their mark in the sport by emerg­ing as a rare case of tri­umphant twins. Pete took 10 na­tional ti­tles while Nick got seven and went on to rep­re­sent the US in the 1960 Olympic Games.

The two brothers were happy to hear from a Greek news­pa­per, gladly turn­ing back the clock and rem­i­nisc­ing about their neigh- bor­hood in Brook­lyn, the gangs, the poverty and the mo­ments of glory that fol­lowed.

“Our neigh­bor­hood was very tough. We were the only Greek fam­ily there. The Ir­ish and the Ital­ians would beat us up ev­ery day. At the age of 14 we de­cided to turn to box­ing and af­ter that they would think twice be­fore com­ing at us,” Pete said.

“There were sev­eral in­stances when we felt we had a hard time due to our Greek roots. It was not just the Ital­ians and the Ir­ish who didn’t like us, but also some coaches,” added Pete. “But I have as my motto the an­cient Spartan ‘E tan e epi tas’ [With your shield or on it].”

Their love for Greece, and Mani in par­tic­u­lar, is un­mis­tak­able: “My dream was to go back to Mani and teach box­ing,” con­fessed Nick, who came to Greece in 1969 and faced a lo­cal cham­pion in an ex­hi­bi­tion match.

“It was at a ring in Pi­raeus. I re­mem­ber that the fans were cheer­ing on my op­po­nent, ob­vi­ously con­sid­er­ing me an Amer­i­can. Then some­body shouted to the crowd, ‘Hey guys, Spanakos is also a Greek.’ Im­me­di­ately ev­ery­one started cheer­ing me on as well. It was a great feel­ing,” he re­counted.

Nick’s dream is yet to be ful­filled: He is now of­fer­ing his teach­ing ser­vices to Greece free of charge in an at­tempt to train a gen­er­a­tion of young box­ers that the coun­try can take pride in: “I am not in­ter­ested in money. I just want my trav­el­ing ex­penses cov­ered and I will help Greek chil­dren learn how to box,” he ex­plained, his voice full of emo­tion.

Glo­ri­ous ca­reer

The Spanakos brothers’ mem­o­ries punched through in­ces­santly, as they trans­ported us to the US rings of the 1950s and 60s and shared their box­ing se­crets.

The iden­ti­cal twins share the same body type and weight. How­ever they al­ways man­aged to avoid fac­ing each other in com­pet­i­tive matches.

“A few days be­fore we were weighed ahead of a cham­pi­onship, I al­ways made sure I drank al­most no liq­uids, and there­fore they found me lighter,” re­vealed Pete, be­fore an­a­lyz­ing their tac­tics.

“When ei­ther of us was fight­ing, in ev­ery three-minute round we would be rather de­fen­sive for the first two-and-a-half min­utes. Then, with 30 sec­onds left, which­ever of us was out­side the ring would shout in Greek, ‘Tora’ – i.e. ‘Time.’ We would then start at­tack­ing to win the round.

“At one point, though, the Amer­i­cans in the stands heard this ‘Tora’ and started shout­ing it to us to spur us on! So we made them speak a lit­tle Greek,” Pete added, with a sense of pride in his voice.

They both dis­play a com­bi­na­tion of tough­ness and ten­der­ness, self-con­fi­dence and hu­mil­ity, dy­namism and tol­er­ance, like the mix­ture of Greek and English that they speak to us in.

The twins later turned to pro­fes­sional box­ing. With Cus D’Amato as his agent, whose clients also in­cluded the fear­some Mike Tyson, Nick won the only pro fight he took part in, be­fore de­cid­ing that pro­fes­sional box­ing was not for him. “I lost in­ter­est in it. At least I can say I am un­de­feated,” ad­mit­ted Nick, who has the an­cient Spartan motto “Molon lave” (Come and get it) tat­tooed on the bi­ceps of his right arm.

The brothers never met in a fight as Nick was in the 57-kilo­gram cat­e­gory and Pete in the 51kg or the 54-kg, but they did face each other sev­eral times in char­ity matches to raise money for Greek churches or schools.

How­ever, their char­ity ac­tiv­ity didn’t stop there. In 1975 Nick set up the Hel­lenic-Amer­i­can Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, aimed at sup­port­ing Greek chil­dren in New York. “We of­fer schol­ar­ships. We want to keep Hel­lenism alive here,” he told Kathimerini.

The duo soon proved that they packed a punch in more ways than one as their stars con­tin­ued to shine af­ter their sport­ing ca- reers had ended. They both aban­doned pro­fes­sional box­ing to turn to aca­demic ca­reers, heed­ing the ad­vice and wishes of their fa­ther.

“Had it not been for box­ing I would have never got to study. I stud­ied through box­ing. I was a tu­tor for 26 years at the City Univer­sity of New York, teach­ing busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said Nick, who on May 1 this year got mar­ried to Bar­bara, his part­ner for the last 11 years.

Pete also quit box­ing at the age of 27: “Un­til then I was drink­ing box­ing, smelling box­ing, think­ing box­ing. Had I turned pro at 21, who knows what I would have done? Af­ter all, I had al­ready seen four of my friends killed in the ring.”

Their box­ing ca­reers in col­lege were an­other in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ence: “They treated us like a piece of meat on the hook. They would set us up against big­ger guys, they just wanted us to slap each other around,” re­marked Pete, adding: “Once, when I hurt my arm, a coach gave me a nar­cotic to con­tinue fight­ing. They did not re­ally care about us – all they wanted us to do was to fight.”

So how did Pete and Nick end up in aca­demic ca­reers? “We had no other op­tion. We sim­ply couldn’t come home to face our fa­ther and mother other­wise,” ad­mit­ted Pete, who re­ceived a bronze medal in the 1959 Pan Amer­i­can Games.

Be­sides his ca­reer in law, Pete be­came a coun­selor in the school sys­tem: “I love work­ing with chil­dren. I find their prob­lems very chal­leng­ing and it is very re­ward­ing.”

They say they over­came ob­sta­cles in life by draw­ing strength and inspiration from the Spar­tans at the Battle of Ther­mopy­lae. Nick says that he calls him­self a “pal­likari,” the Greek word for “brave young man,” and his code of con­duct is sum­ma­rized in the Spartan motto: “Don’t show fear, don’t sur­ren­der.”

Ali and the Olympics

Tak­ing part in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome was the pin­na­cle in Nick Spanakos’s ca­reer. How­ever, it was pol­i­tics that played a lead role in what was the first fight be­tween an Amer­i­can and a Soviet boxer dur­ing the Cold War.

“I was thrilled to rep­re­sent Amer­ica. I had to do 30 fights to qual­ify for the Olympics,” he said. “Un­for­tu­nately Pete lost out, so I went there alone.”

“In Rome I met the Greek team – it was great. They had very lit­tle sup­port from the gov­ern­ment in Athens then,” he re­called.

“I would have gone all the way to the gold medal but I lost to a Rus­sian in a dis­putable de­ci­sion,” he said, re­count­ing his fight against Boris Nikanorov.

“The day af­ter our match, 16 out of the 30 judges, who came from the then com­mu­nist bloc, were re­placed. Pol­i­tics be­came en­tan­gled in a sport­ing event and it was not the first time we saw cheat­ing at the Olympic Games,” he re­marked.

His room­mate in Rome was no other than Muham­mad Ali, still known as Cas­sius Clay at the time. “Great guy, but had a big mouth. He has a great sense of hu­mor, but changed a lot af­ter he met Mal­colm X,” Nick told Kathimerini.

Pete added that one day in Rome Nick saw Ali, then aged 18, drink­ing wa­ter in the bath­room. Ali said, “I was thirsty and thought I could drink some wa­ter,” be­fore Nick re­al­ized he was drink­ing out of the bidet! ”It was prob­a­bly the first time he had seen such a thing in his life,” com­mented Pete.

He re­called that sev­eral other team­mates did not make friends with Ali: “The blacks didn’t like him. They beat him up all the time, be­cause he was show­ing off and de­mand­ing at­ten­tion.”

Ahead of the next Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, Nick tried to com­pete for Greece. He at­tempted to se­cure Greek cit­i­zen­ship but it wasn’t to be. “I wanted it so much, but I did not send the pa­per­work in time,” he said in a sad voice.

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