Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Flying Greek

Manoli Savvenas and me, 2005 (if you enlarge this pic, I'm totally sticking my tongue out)

Here's a little local trivia for you.
Find "Mike Pappas" pics here

Published February 13, 2004

Wrestling's 'Flying Greek' trades in flying kicks for fine jewels

It was the late 1950s, the '60s, the early 70's. There were three channels, if you could tune them in.

On Sunday mornings, gospel music reigned. The Happy Goodman Family, the LeFevres.

But on Saturday nights, wrestling was king. I don't remember that there was anything else to watch. Other people I've asked remember the test pattern on one station and a black-and-white Indian that served as a test pattern on another station, but nothing else — other than wrestling.

My father ate it up. He also dragged me to the Shrine Mosque for Wednesday night wrestling matches when I was in elementary school, where people got so wackoed over what was going on that they flailed their fists in the air and even rushed the wrestling mat.

As I cowered in my seat while men fist-pumped above me, I was watching one of Springfield's jewelers-to-be, Manoli Savvenas. Who knew?

Savvenas was on the ticket sometimes with Andre the Giant, Cowboy Bill Watts, Tom Thumb, Bruiser Bob Sweetan, Dusty Rhodes, Danny Hodge and other big names from my past.

I don't remember "The Flying Greek" from my childhood, but looking at Savvenas' old posters I don't know why I don't. I was going to the wrestling matches here when Savvenas, as the hairy-chested "Mike Pappas," was flying at opponents in perfect horizontal "head scissor kicks," thrusting his body parallel to the ground, grabbing his opponent's head with his feet.

"Because I was small, I was doing stuff that people liked," Savvenas explains, "drop kicks, flying kicks, head scissors. I was very fast. When someone was giving me the flip" — a move that sent most wrestlers onto their backs — "I land on my feet. They throw me on the ropes, instead of landing on the ropes, I land on my feet."

So, the diminutive Greek, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1969, made a career. In 1973, bookworm Valerie Barnes moved across the hall from him in his apartment building in Paducah, Ky.

"My family all watched wrestling and they all loved him, but I'd never watched wrestling," says his wife of three decades. Instead of watching TV, Valerie would be in her room reading Nancy Drew mysteries and novels as she matured. "It wasn't the wrestling" that won her heart, she says. "He was just so nice.

After 11 years on the wrestling circuit, wearing out his cars and leaving his young family behind, Savvenas decided to return to the trade he learned in Greece, making jewelry. Having played the Shrine Mosque, he'd grown to love Springfield. He and Valerie came here in 1978, and he did custom work for other jewelers until they opened their own shop in 1985.

Savvenas is still athletic, able to do Russian jumps from the floor on Greek dance nights, but he doesn't miss wrestling. "To me, it was just a job."

Contact News-Leader columnist Sarah Overstreet at 836-1188.
Online post found here.

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