John Tolos: The Golden Greek – An Oral History

Many fans remember him whistle-in-tow as “Coach,” Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig’s ill-fated manager in the WWF. However, he was much more than that. John Tolos was a magnificent all-time great headliner and one of the best promos in the game. Unfortunately, coming from an era in which promoters shortsightedly taped over their T.V. footage to save a few bucks, little footage of him still exists to show just that.

In his own words and from the people who knew him best, this is the story of “The Golden Greek.”

"The Golden Greek" John Tolos over the years.
“The Golden Greek” John Tolos over the years.

"How Do You Spell Wrestling? T-O-L-O-S!" – An Oral History of “The Golden Greek” John Tolos

“How do you spell wrestling?” the Golden Greek would snarl into the camera. “T-O-L-O-S!”

And as you’ll see from the many notables lauding him in this oral history, that’s a far more accurate assessment.

Much of the content in this piece comes from Dr. Mike Lano, who ran the Tolos Brothers Fan Club, worked for the legendary Los Angeles territory as a photographer, and was a close personal friend and even a pallbearer at John’s funeral.

Also quoted throughout, Mike Rodgers did an extensive interview with Tolos in his Rings Around the Northwest newsletter, which is reprinted in his book, Excitement in the Air, the Voices of N.W. Wrestling Volume 2. As is my own April 1991 interview with John for my Wrestling- Then & Now newsletter.

Other longtime fans, historians, insiders, family, and wrestlers who revere Tolos contributed. Special thanks to Irish Mickey Doyle, Dave Drason Burzynski, and Rock Rims for their assistance. Dr. Mike Lano and I will be completing a John Tolos book in 2023. 

Humble Beginnings

JOHN TOLOS:

“I always knew I wanted to become a wrestler. I was a rough and ready kid- the same as my brother Chris. We were always in street fights. We used to go to the matches in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where we’d see guys like Sky High Lee, The Great Togo, Whipper Billy Watson, Ray Vilmer, and the Mills Brothers.

I’m going way back now- even Killer Kowalski when he started. Also, the French Angel and the Swedish Angel, Argentina Rocca, of course, Lou Thesz, Wild Bill Longston; I can go on and on.

In Hamilton, they had wrestling every week. It was at a swimming pool, and they had a ring on top of the swimming pool, believe it or not. I went there occasionally, and they didn’t draw too badly. I was more interested in amateur. Then when I was about eighteen, I started going to the matches a little more. Same with my brother.

My brother and I enjoyed going to the YMCA. I decided to go amateur, and we did a lot of bodybuilding. Four or five wrestlers used to go to the Y, close the door, and work out on the mat down there. A lot of guys from Hamilton became professional wrestlers.

Suddenly Wee Willie Davis in the Y took a liking to us. He was an old-time wrestler, a 6-foot-6 300-pounder, and he showed us the ropes; my brother went on the road first, and a few months later, I followed. At twenty-one years old, I packed my bag and hit the road.

My first match was in 1951 in Syracuse, NY, for a promoter named Ed Don George. I was shaking and everything else. My brother began in Buffalo and then went to Calgary and El Paso, and I met him there.

After El Paso, I got a call from a promoter named Hugh Nichols to come to Hollywood, California. So, I said, ‘Hey, Hollywood, that sounds great.’ I started meeting old-time wrestlers like Charlie Moto, Wilbur Snyder, Hans Schnable, Lord Carlton, Baron Leone, Dave Levin, Lord Blears, Sando Szabo. I first met Blassie there.

It was the end of the golden era. They knew I was green, and I was determined to learn. Mainly in the dressing room, they’d say, ‘Don’t do it this way or do it this way. I saw your match, and it was OK, but try it this way next time.’ So many gave me a lot of good advice, especially the older wrestlers, if you were liked and weren’t an a-hole. I was just a punk. What did I know?

A lot of the promoters were wrestlers, as a rule. So they would show us how to get in the ring and look like an athlete. ‘Know that you look better than the guy spending 25 cents to watch you wrestle.’ And I always looked good. I always looked better than him. Look the part, walk the part.” 

The Tolos Brothers

JOHN TOLOS:

“In the ’50s and ’60s, the country was all tag teams. There were many brother tag teams; that was a big thing. There were The Tolos Brothers. Then, the Mills, Gallagher, Sharpe, Scott, and Torres Brothers were there. Then, there were all the cousin teams.

Chris and I held the World’s Tag Team Title. We won it here in New York City and held it for a long time. Then we went to territories like Buffalo, Cleveland, L.A., and San Francisco. We always won the belts.

Suddenly, tag teams stopped. Tag matches were very exciting. But I think they were ready for that one-on-one. Tag matches were generally on the undercard, and you had to be the main event to make money. So, we decided to split up.”

The Tolo Brother: a tag team that consisted of brothers John Tolos and Chris Tolos.
The Tolo Brother: a tag team that consisted of brothers John Tolos and Chris Tolos. [Photo taken by Tony Lanza]
MICHAEL OMANSKY (Wrestling Magazine publisher):

“On Saturday, December 28th, 1963, The Tolos Brothers were given a shot at Gorilla Monsoon and Killer Kowalski’s WWWF United States Tag Team belts at the Teaneck Armory, in Teaneck, New Jersey. I attended the event.

Even though both were heel tag teams, The Tolos Brothers did a face interview promoting the show, with Ray Morgan, on Washington, DC TV. The brothers said they had many fans in Teaneck and were going to win. When the night arrived, they were cheered as faces; Monsoon and Kowalski booed.

For the first fall, Tolos Brothers had Monsoon on the mat, threw Kowalski on him, and piled on top. The ref counted a pin anyway; Monsoon protested angrily and stormed out of the ring, leaving Kowalski alone. The Tolos Brothers had an easy time pinning him for the second fall and winning the belts.

A few months later, there was a rematch at a house show in Paterson, NJ. Tolos Brothers split falls with Kowalski; then curfew intervened.”

DR. MIKE LANO:

“The Tolos Brothers remain recognized as one of the greatest teams of all time.

Off and on from 1952-1972, they held tag straps and dominated many top territories. Campaigning in Northern California in the early ’50s for promoter Joe Malcewicz, they met with early success, holding The Pacific Coast belts in 1953. Over the next two decades, they held belts in territories like Detroit, Florida, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and the WWWF.

The only time they were faces was Chris’ last big national stint when John had him brought to L.A. in 1972 for four months.

It was absolute magic hearing them recreate their 1960’s call/response routine where Chris would say they would destroy Shibuya and Masa Saito, adding, ‘Right, Brother John?!’ John would respond, ‘You’re exactly right, Brother Chris!’

The fans loved them and went insane any time they hit that Tolos catchphrase. They took on Billy Graham and Ernie Ladd, Gordman and Goliath, and others.

They had a several months-long feud, battling America’s Tag Champs Killer Kowalski and Kenji Shibuya, ending with an insane one-hour broadway at The Olympic, which was untelevised.

John would always smile at the camera, breaking that fourth wall whenever Chris botched Kenji Shibuya or Masa Saito’s names live on TV promos. It was Chris’ everyman charm that won over fans instantly.

Chris then retreated to Hamilton to care for their mom and ailing sister. He sacrificed a lot for them. He’d take nearby undercard jobs at Maple Leaf Gardens for Jack Tunney, keeping a low profile while John was still touring the U.S. and New Japan.”

Watch The Tolos Brothers in action:

Wrestling in Vancouver in the Late 1960s to Early ’70s

JOHN TOLOS:

“My brother usually was in Canada and Detroit. I headed out to Vancouver, British Columbia. Rod Fenton was the promoter; I knew Rod when I was in Arizona when I worked in El Paso for the first time. Don Leo Jonathon was there, and Gene Kiniski was the world champ. Dutch Savage, Roy McClarty, Eric Frolich, Bulldog Brown, Abdullah The Butcher, and Dominic Denucci were there. And Tony Borne would come in once in a while.

It was a good territory. They had some excellent talent. Then Fenton sold it to Kiniski. I heard a rumor that Don Owens had part of the action. Then Kiniski became the promoter and champion, and Kovacs had part and ran it for him. Some guys liked their payoffs, while others didn’t. That was the bottom line, ‘What am I going to get?’ They kept it clean, and there weren’t that many gimmicks.

All the action was straight hard-fought wrestling. Of course, you threw one in now and then, like a cage match or a lumberjack match. But even his T.V. was just matches. The big thing there was they had some excellent talkers. But mostly, it was all in the middle of the ring.

Harry Elliott was the promoter in Seattle, and Don Owen was in Portland. So, within the radius of 300 miles, you had three territories, and that area wasn’t that populated. Don Owen was a good payoff man, and so was Elliott. He was fair.

My headquarters were in Vancouver. I would work in Tacoma, and once in a while, I would go into Portland. A little talking on T.V. and work the second or third match. But I enjoyed working for Don because he was a nice guy. God bless him.

I don’t think all three promotions were that gimmicked. Pepper Martin helped Owen. He was a pretty good card there as well. Other guys they had there were Stan Stasiak and Lonnie Mayne. They had some good boys there. They didn’t use huge guys; Stasiak was probably their biggest in a long time.

In Vancouver, I became the Canadian singles champion, the British Empire Champion, and I was there for about a year and a half. I was wrestling in Portland, Washington, and British Columbia. I got over so big as a single, and suddenly a few tag teams came in. They gave me a few partners, but we didn’t gel. ‘Hey, I got a great partner. The heck with this!’ I got my brother, and we stayed there a year- then we split up again.

That’s when I went to California. In the late ’60s. And I set that state of fire for ten years; that was my state.” 

John Tolos Rules Los Angeles

DR. MIKE LANO:

“John embodied L.A. 1970’s wrestling as its essence. In all the years of Los Angeles’ KCOP Saturday 6 pm 90-minute Championship Wrestling tapings, those fans were most boisterous for Tolos, whether he was a heel or a face. ‘Whatever the office needed me to be, I was it. And I think I did a damn good job,’ John told me emphatically years later.

John was the “star” of the weekly show open for KCOP, getting thrown by Blassie into the turnbuckles and selling like crazy holding his head in faux pain in the footage. The live camera then always went straight to former movie and film star Dick Lane sitting at his commentary desk. Behind him were photos of Tolos, Blassie, Dick with Jimmy Lennon, Gene Lebell, our “genius booking tag team,” of Jules Strongbow and Charlie “Mr” Moto as John and Blassie called them.

John told me he hated that midway through every KCOP show, play by play announcer Dick would have to say, ‘These wrestling exhibitions are sanctioned by the State of California Athletic Commission.’ The word “exhibitions” was a major sore point as he couldn’t say “matches,” “bouts,” or something more legitimate.

Few outside of SoCal ever saw the KCOP show unless they came to L.A and got to watch local KCOP-TV 13 broadcasts. No tapes exist, not even for arguably the greatest pro wrestling angle ever in Tolos/Blassie in early 1971.”

Whether teaming or feuding, John Tolos and Freddie Blassie drew money.
Whether teaming or feuding, John Tolos and Freddie Blassie drew money. [Photo by Dave Drason Burzynski]
DR. MIKE LANO (continued):

“Our second weekly show, Lucha Libre From The Olympic Auditorium, on top Hispanic T.V. channel 34/KMEX, was quickly created out of necessity when promoter Mike Lebell first lost our long-running Channel 5 show but before landing KCOP/13. It was hosted in Spanish initially by Miguel Alonso and Nono Arsu. Arsu was soon replaced by Olympic Auditorium Aileen Eaton/Lebell’s boxing historian Luis Magana.

That was the show eventually syndicated by KMEX’s SIN or Spanish International Network in early 1973 to major Hispanic cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Tampa, and more.

For so many fans outside of California, this show is how they got to see and grew to love Tolos.

Among John’s innumerable L.A. highlights, he teamed with Giant Baba at our Christmas 1971 card to solidify one of his many turns that saw them destroy heels, Shibuya and Saito.

He had a great feud with Ernie Ladd, who had bloodied and beaten him to take the strap.

John was said to ‘be in the hospital for a long time’ from all of Ladd’s patented taped thumb jabs and kneedrops to the throat. And then many top global stars came in, announced as John’s friends returning to seek retribution for him against Ladd.

There was Bobo Brazil, Pedro Morales wearing his WWWF title on our T.V., Mil Mascaras twice, Kenji Shibuya, and others.

In actuality, John took his first extended L.A. territory several-month leave during this stretch to spend time with his ailing sister back home in Hamilton. Plus, ‘do a few shots in Vancouver to see lifelong friends Gene Kiniski and Don Leo Jonathan.’

John helped get over debuting face Victor Rivera in late 1972. Rivera had been sent in by WWWF’s Vince McMahon Sr., with whom promoter Mike Lebell oddly was always close. John had interfered, seeking revenge by causing mega heel Ernie Ladd to lose his America’s Title to the high-flying Rivera.

As America’s Champion in 1972, John had feuds with Killer Kowalski and The Sheik and traded incredible barbs with Ernie Roth (later known as The Grand Wizard of Wrestling) as Abdullah Farouk, Billy Graham, and Ladd.

John was one of the first to do the chop to the chest in America from 1972 on, well before Ric Flair used it, saying, ‘Baba taught it to me.’ He was ahead of his time.”

From “The Golden Greek” to “Maniac Tolos”

DR. MIKE LANO: 

“Babyface ‘The Golden Greek’ turned into ‘Maniac Tolos’ in the spring of 1973. After losing an America’s Title babyface hair versus hair match to Victor Rivera, John hugged Rivera, raising his hand but violently attacked him and reset our office for the next few years with Freddie Blassie absent. John carried the territory magnificently.

He had notable feuds as a heel against Pampero Firpo, Ed Carpentier, and Mighty Igor in L.A., plus teaming with The Sheik as killer heels in August of 1973 three times at the Olympic.”

John Tolos with a shaved head the night after he lost a Hair vs. Hair match against Victor Rivera at KCOP-13 Studio TV show. in 1973 That night, play-by-play announcer Dick Lane nicknamed him "The Maniac Tolos." [Photo taken by Wrealano@aol.com for use on Pro Wrestling Stories]
John Tolos with a shaved head the night after he lost a Hair vs. Hair match against Victor Rivera at KCOP-13 Studio TV show. in 1973 That night, play-by-play announcer Dick Lane nicknamed him “The Maniac Tolos.” [Photo taken by Wrealano@aol.com for use on Pro Wrestling Stories]
GREGG BARRY (contributor to 18th & Grand: The Olympic Auditorium Story Facebook page):

“John Tolos was one of the final three in the 1974 Battle Royal. He was so hated by Rivera that Rivera ignored Gordman and attacked Tolos. As Rivera threw Tolos over the top rope, Gordman came from behind and threw Rivera out to win.

Tolos teamed up with ‘Million Dollar Baby’ protégé Greg Valentine and got into a heel feud with Oliver Humperdink’s ‘Hollywood Blondes,’ Buddy Roberts and Jerry Brown. Valentine turned on Tolos in a match with the Blondes and joined Humperdink’s army. So, John teamed up with his old rival Blassie on T.V.”

John Tolos and Victor Rivera had one of the all-time great feuds.
John Tolos and Victor Rivera had one of the all-time great feuds. [Photo taken by Dave Drason Burzynski]
DR. MIKE LANO:

"John Tolos and Freddie Blassie beat The Blondes. And each year, he’d often turn back and forth. For example, he lost a loser-leaves-town in April of 1975 to protégé Greg Valentine but returned weeks later to wrestle and manage in a mask/full-body suit as Mr. California. Few of our fans figured out it was him until months later when they finally let John return as himself with no explanation or payoff.

In 1976, Tolos turned face to team with Ernie Ladd beating Black Gordman and Great Goliath with fans really into the former bitter rivals who made for an unusual duo.”

JOHN TOLOS:

“I was based out of L.A., but I was in and out. I went to Houston. Finally, I came back, and there was nothing there. I was a babyface and worked with Greg Valentine and The Hollywood Blondes, terrific wrestlers. It was alright, but nothing like it was. Then suddenly, everyone left. I was here because I was living here, but there was nothing else.

I would go in the ring and work with a guy. ‘Come on, Tolos, you can beat him in 2 seconds,’ and then I’d hear, ‘It’s time to hang them up.'”

John Tolos vs. Freddie Blassie: Their Legendary Match and Feud

JOHN TOLOS:

“When I went into California, believe it or not, Freddie Blassie and I were tag team partners. We gelled pretty well.

“Blassie was in there way before me; it was his home ground. We started to tag, and suddenly they began to like him. A few fans would go, ‘Kill that Tolos!’ Soon after, Fred turned on me, and people were going crazy. A couple of weeks later, he was kissing all the Mexican ladies and babies, and he liked it. That’s how our feud started. I’d always call him ‘a yellow-bellied turncoat.’

On Channel 13 in Hollywood, on a Saturday night, from seven to eight live, they were going to give a trophy to the best wrestler in California. We were all around the ring, and I think this trophy was mine. It was a hell of an angle. They presented it to Blassie, and I got hot.

The doctor’s bag was there, and I opened the bag and found this powder. Fred was getting interviewed with his trophy. I threw a lot of the powder. Finally, I got his trophy and hit him over the head with it. We had a riot in the studio.

Then he went away and came back, and we did the big house in The Coliseum. The paper said it was 25,000. It was a hell of a big card.”

Aerial view of the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Aerial view of the Los Angeles Coliseum. [Photographer unknown, from Dr. Mike Lano’s archive collection]
JOHN TOLOS (continued):

“What happened was at The Olympic, when Blassie or myself were on the card, it was an automatic sellout. Ten thousand people. The Olympic was one of the top three or four places in the country to see wrestling. Any seat in the house was great. Super-duper. It was sold out a week before.

So, Mike Lebell decided to get closed circuit T.V. downtown in theatres, and they sold out. Blassie and I were in the main event, and these theatres had a thousand people in each of them. He didn’t even tell us about them. He just said they were ‘an experiment.’ We didn’t get a paycheck for them. I know Lucha Libre- the third tapes- was going into South America, and they were cleaning up. I never saw a penny of that, either.

Our feud just kept on going on and on for years. They knew when Blassie and I got in the ring; they were getting their money’s worth.

We had a match on television. Fans were lined up around the block to get into the studio, which held 100 to 150 people. You couldn’t get in, and they had to call the cops; fans were trying to break in. So, we went on, and it was a riot match, and the ring filled up with wrestlers, and it just shut off right at the end of the hour. We went to San Bernadino that night, which would always sell out.

I was the first guy ever to use a snake. I was carrying a snake in the box, a giant boa constrictor. I was wrestling Blassie that night. People were hanging from the rafters; they wanted to know what was in the box. So here comes this colossal snake; ringside cleared out at The Olympic. The snake wrestled better than me; the snake was terrific.

It depends on how you use the angle. You can’t use it on anyone. You have to use it on a top guy, and he was a top guy, and I was a top guy. An angle like that only comes up once in a blue moon. That’s the original.

Whenever I saw Fred, I would say, “Fred, when I met you, you were a star. Then you met me, and I made you a superstar.” He’d answer, ‘Why you piece of sh**!’

Fred was a hell of a guy; he was a trooper. A credit to the profession, 110%. He knew the ring, and he knew psychology. He was a good talker. He loved his profession. He came out of St. Louis, which had a lot of good wrestlers at the time. He started as a babyface, and a few years later, he turned heel. He bleached his hair blond, filed his teeth, started with his legendary ‘Pencil Neck Geek’, and became well known.

We had one hell of a run and one hell of a feud.”

John Tolos and Fred Blassie tagged, feuded, and were lifelong friends.
John Tolos and Fred Blassie tagged, feuded, and were lifelong friends. [Photo taken by Dave Drason Burzynski]
DIANE DEVINE (fan/promoter):

“I attended The Coliseum match. Actor George Hamilton and company were behind us, cheering Tolos on!” 

GREGG BARRY:

“Blassie has said that he was asked who he wanted in the match at The Coliseum, and he requested Tolos. When The Sheik came in to feud with Blassie, his last match in the territory was in a steel cage.

Fred climbed out of the cage to win the match. The crowd went crazy, cheering him as he sat down in the always empty Olympic’s first row. Tolos ran out and attacked him, starting a new angle.

Later in their lives, Tolos and Blassie, the two good friends, continued to write letters and call each other.”

DR. MIKE LANO:

“Tolos was most proud of the worked magic he created with the angel to his devil in beloved Classy Freddie Blassie. I’d rate it a tad above Zbyszko/Bruno as wrestling’s greatest angle. Our office filmed Fred at L.A.’s top hospital, St John’s, during an all-day shoot, and the vignettes of him getting eye bandages after the blinding changed each week for months on T.V. It felt incredibly real.

Since Blassie turned in his cage series with The Sheik the year before, adversaries and friends on each Olympic card tried to avenge Fred taking on Tolos in his absence. But, from Fred’s last heel tag partner in ‘Arson’ Don Carson, to Bobo Brazil, Mil Máscaras, Earl Maynard, Rocky Johnson, Peter Maivia, and others, none got the job done.

Later that year, Blassie finally came out of that hospital bed and got revenge. A double-juice incredible Coliseum main event; it was the pinnacle for our beloved L.A.territory.”

John Tolos vs. Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden (July 24th, 1974)

EVAN GINZBURG:

“Tolos was so hot on L.A. T.V. seen in NYC on Channel 41, a Spanish-speaking network, that after coming in for one set of WWWF TV tapings, he got a title shot against Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden.

The promos were classic, with the “Maniac” calling Bruno a “spaghetti bender.” Those were fighting words back then. Bruno bested Tolos with a backbreaker in 15:29, the last time he’d used that finisher. It’s a fond memory for longtime New York-based fans.”

DR. MIKE LANO:

“Vince Sr. was bringing in L.A. talent such as Black Gordman and Great Goliath, who were popular with New York fans seeing our T.V. on tape delay. And John, as the incredible heel cutting great promos, was who WWWF fans wanted to see.

John explained it was primarily a business trip as Mike Lebell had been close to Vince Senior for years, getting Victor Rivera, Manny Soto, SD Jones, Butcher Brannigan, and more who became Southern California stalwarts. The Bruno match was secondary.”

John Tolos in Texas in the Mid-1970s

JOHN TOLOS:

Fritz Von Erich had Dallas, and Paul Boesch had Houston. [Boesch] was an excellent payoff man. Joe Blanchard had San Antonio. It was a good territory- they had Superstar [Billy Graham], Steve Strong, [Jos] Leduc, Mad Dog Vachon, Al Madril, and José Lothario. Jack Brisco and Terry Funk would come in as champions.

The territory was in good shape, and everyone was making a buck there too. I had the Texas Belt. Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Corpus Christie weren’t too bad. Spot shows were always good. The T.V. was out of Fort Worth, and they were doing quite well.

Dallas was a super town.”

DR. MIKE LANO:

“Each year from 1972-on, Tolos would take a several months break from our L.A.territory to help his brother Chris take care of their ailing sister, then John would work some mains in Texas, Kansas, and Vancouver memorably feuding with Johnny Valentine in Houston and Dallas.

His travels were mostly to see all his friends like Red Bastien, Fritz, Bob Geigel, Ronnie Etchison, Don Leo Jonathan, Gene Kiniski, Dutch Savage, and Stan Stasiak.'”

His Time in Central States:

MICHAEL “WOMBAT” WALROD:

“John Tolos came to NWA Central States. His signature move was the corkscrew. He’d put his opponents to sleep with it, or they would tap out. He ruled the area while here.”

John Tolos in Hawaii in the Late 1970s

JOHN TOLOS:

“Ed Francis did a terrific job. This was the late ’70s. He got some T.V. and some pretty good guys. You know you’re not going to make big money there, but you’re going to have a nice vacation.

Andre the Giant came in from Japan for the first time, and Francis made Andre walk around Honolulu for a couple of days so people could see him. They had a big show at The HIC and a Battle Royale, and the place was packed. T.V. was there, and he did the interviews after the matches. So Andre stayed a couple of weeks; he wanted a vacation.

They had Steve Strong, Jesse Ventura, Billy White Wolf, the Francis Brothers, Firpo, Don Muraco, Fuji and Tanaka. Nick Bockwinkel would come in once in a while. Lord Blears was commentating. The territory was in good shape, and you worked three or four times weekly. Then bingo, something happened, and no T.V., and that was the end.”

John Tolos: World Traveler

JOHN TOLOS:

“I have been all over Canada, all over the States. I’ve been to Hong Kong and Singapore a couple of times. I’ve been to Mexico- just border matches.”

DR. MIKE LANO:

“Tolos was doing a lot of stuff with New Japan, and when our L.A. office switched loyalty from Baba/All Japan to Antonio Inoki/NJPW in ’73, Gene Lebell and Tolos did a lot for Inoki. Gene and Red Shoes Duggan regularly refereed in NJPW, while Tolos now had his Japan tours but only for Inoki.”

Late Career in AWA

JOHN TOLOS:

“When I quit, I’ll tell you the truth. I went to Minnesota and stayed there for a time. It was winter and cold. I mean, it was snowing. I’m from California- a beautiful home- I got a kid there. I looked out the window and asked myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I’m 52 in Minneapolis in a preliminary.

My God, I want people to remember me. I got a sore knee. My hip hurts. And when I got in the ring, I pretended I was still the young Tolos when I wasn’t. I called the promoter and said, ‘Hey, pal, book me out. I’m going back to California.’ That was the end of my career.”

DOBIE MAXWELL (noted stand-up comic): 

“I saw him late in his career in the AWA, where he worked in one of the opening matches.

I had heard his name many times and was eager to see him being a big reader of the Apter mags.

While he only worked in a preliminary role, it was easy to see his in-ring charisma, and he had the crowd from when he got to the ring until he left.

I wish I could have seen him in his prime; I’m sure he was the star I always read he was. MUCH respect!”

John Tolos’ Time as a Manager in the UWF:

JOHN TOLOS:

“I became a manager for Herb Abrams. He had a little thing going around the country. I laid off from wrestling for six years. I didn’t want anything to do with it, and I was bumming around. I’m an active guy. I work out a lot. I always kept myself in good shape. And suddenly, I get a call from Abrams, and he’s telling me about his UWF. He tells me to come on out and talk to him. I was very much interested in what he was doing.”

DR. MIKE LANO:

“I drove John along with Gorgeous George’s valet/widow Cheri Dupree to several Abrams UWF SoCal 1990s tapings. John told me he was working for Abrams primarily to see his longtime friend Bruno who he always said ‘was the greatest!’ Bruno returned the compliment, saying, ‘my friend John was always the heart of the L.A. office.'”

As “Coach” in the WWF

JOHN TOLOS:

“Then I managed Curt Hennig for the WWF; God rest his soul. A terrible thing that happened to him. You have to keep away from that stuff. It will kill you. Anybody that uses that is crazy.”

DR. MIKE LANO:

“John legit was a huge collegiate football fan which is how that character came about. In 1994, he told me he felt neutered reciting scripted promos while managing as Coach in WWF, where he also worked with The Beverly Brothers. ‘I do my best when it’s just impromptu, no memorizing what others wrote for me to say, which never felt right.'” 

Legendary Promos

DR. MIKE LANO:

“John Tolos delivered state-of-the-art promos before stars like The Rock and MJF were even born. He had classic exchanges with peers Blassie, Destroyer Dick Beyer, Killer Kowalski in that incredible feud, Curtis Iaukea, Johnny Valentine, and tons more.

He was arguably the first to talk about himself in the third person- ‘The Golden Greek is gonna run roughshod on you, Blassie.’

John also had his catchphrase ending every promo with ‘The only way to spell Wrestling is T-O-L-O-S!’ whether screaming it as a heel or whispering it Bockwinkel-style when babyfacing since at least 1967. Most wrestling catchphrases started years later. The Golden Genius was way ahead of his time.”

John Tolos was an all-time great promo guy.
John Tolos was an all-time great promo guy. [Photo taken by Dave Drason Burzynski]
GREGG BARRY:

“While being interviewed once by Luis Magana, he ate an enchilada and other Mexican foods. Then, he spat them out and said this is what I think of Ruben Juarez.”

EVAN GINZBURG:

“I grew up watching Tolos on T.V. in New York. He’s cutting these classic promos week in and week out. Then, at one point, he’s got this insane glint in his eye, pulls out this glove, and maniacally rants into the camera, ‘Can I use my GLOVE?’ And I’m a kid, a total mark, just imagining the horrible things he will do to his opponent with that glove he probably bought for a buck at the local store.

Meanwhile, my father was laughing. It was so over the top and crazily entertaining. But, man, did it ever work. Like Roddy Piper, you could loathe him and laugh simultaneously. Few had that gift. Tolos sure could talk you into a seat.”

JOHN TOLOS:

“Eventually, everything blended together with all the T.V. coming on. Every territory began to become the same. Your style got over everywhere, and the main thing was your talking. That was the big thing; the interviews became mighty important.”

John Tolos' promos put bodies in seats.
John Tolos’ promos put bodies in seats. [Photo taken by Dave Drason Burzynski]

John Tolos, The Man

HENRY FRIEDMAN (fan):

“In 1969, I was ten, living in Los Angeles. My folks split up, and my dad asked, ‘What do you want to do with me?’ I remember telling him I wanted to see professional wrestling. So, Wednesdays at the Olympic Auditorium were Dad nights. I remember feeling connected to Tolos.

In 1977 there was a racquetball club in Chatsworth called Racquetball World, and I was a regular. One day I heard over the loudspeaker, ‘Phone call for John Tolos.’ I perk up and think, ‘Could this be the same Tolos?’ So I watched for who came to the front desk.

There he was, returning to a table with friends.

Approaching him, I quietly poured my heart out. ‘Excuse me, Mr. Tolos, but when I was a kid, you were my hero.’ He smiled, shook my hand, and turned to his friends, saying, ‘See that, I used to be somebody.’

I’ll never forget that day or that brief conversation.”

IRISH MICKEY DOYLE:

“I first met John Tolos in 1973. I was going to work Oregon, coming from Mobile. I went toThe Olympic to see my partner Mike Boyette who was working as the Wildman. Tolos came and introduced himself and asked, ‘When do you want to start?’ I couldn’t as I was committed to Oregon.

The next time was 1975 when I was booked there. The second night was Bakersfield, and he was getting ready to go to Houston. We were partners against The Hollywood Blondes. I kept residences in the Valley for ten years, so we always saw each other.

The most memorable trip was my driving and Tolos and Bob Orton Sr. going to San Diego in 1975. We got a flat coming home and our trying to change that on the I-5 Freeway was humorous.

In 1978, we were both in Hawaii, living in the Ambassador Hotel. He would goof around with my two-year-old son Brett in the pool. Andre would play with Brett, also. John was a good guy- always a lot of fun.

In 1981, I had my postal job, and he was working part-time and driving for the movie studios. His son Chris, named after his brother, was probably nine and Brett’s six; we both lived in Woodland Hills, Cali. We coached the Woodland Hills T-Ball team. A blast. He’d be at third base and me first. He was Coach John and was vocal and funny. Now the other coaches adored him, and I was just Coach Mike; they had no clue who I was.

At the end of the year, we had a pizza party and beers, and John loved his beer. The other coaches started talking ‘rasslin’. Finally, John asks, ‘Do you know who Mike is? They looked at me. ‘This is Irish Mickey Doyle’ to quote him. And I’ll never forget what he followed up with. ‘One of the best f**king dropkickers in the business.’ That made me feel really good; he put me over. That was John.

We still saw each other until 1984, when I moved back to Detroit. The last time I saw him was in 1991 at the Cauliflower Alley reunion.

Tolos was a friend I will never forget.”

DON MURACO: 

"Yes, he was one of the all-time greatest guys in or out of the business. By the way, you spell wrestling T-O-L-O-S."

DIANE DEVINE:

“I saw John vs. Blassie at the Coliseum; I lived in St. Louis then. John was a wonderful person and friend. We met when he worked for the Kansas City office.”

DAVE DRASON BURZYNSKI (wrestling journalist/photographer):

“When I worked for the L.A. office in 1973, he would get my lazy butt out of bed early in the morning to go running on the beach at Santa Monica. He looked after this young kid of eighteen when he knew I worked for his good friend, The Sheik.”

JOHN AREZZI (wrestling journalist/photographer):

“John Tolos was always in my top five all-time favorite wrestlers. I got to know him when he was working with Herb Abrams. He was a great guy, a gentleman! One of the most authentic heels ever and one of the nicest guys I met in the business. My fondest memory was in November 1990, when he stopped by my apartment on Long Island with Herb Abrams before an autograph appearance. My mom was so smitten by him, and he was so kind to her and even a little flirty, which makes me smile to this day!”

John Tolos, Woman (Nancy Benoit), and wrestling journalist/promoter John Arezzi.
John Tolos, Woman (Nancy Benoit), and wrestling journalist/promoter John Arezzi. [Photo courtesy of John Arezzi private collection]
RICK ALLEN (former wrestler “Sunny Beach”):

“I worked with him in the UWF promotion for Herb Abrams. He was a great guy.”

ED FRANCIS:

“I was on my brother [former wrestler and NFL player] Russ’ twin-engine plane with Tolos in the late 1970s. Russ was flying a bunch of wrestlers from Kauai back to Oahu. We got caught in a vicious thunderstorm with lightning and crazy rough turbulence.

John about lost his mind with overwhelming fear and begged Russ to turn the plane around and go back to Kauai. Russ did go back because the plane was not fit to handle such hardcore weather. He had a hard time flying in small planes like that again from that point forward.”

JOHN TOLOS:

“I think I’m the only wrestler in the world who made love to women in every state, Japan, and Canada.”

 ED GIOVANNETTI (former wrestler “Moondog Moretti”):

“All the boys knew he was great and LOVED him.”

The Legacy John Tolos Leaves Behind

JOHN TOLOS:

“I wrestled Kowalski, Monsoon, the Grahams, Thesz, Carpentier, Rocca, Roy Shires, Ray Stevens, Pat Patterson, Ernie Ladd, Victor Rivera, Blassie- people still talk about our matches. I could go on and on and on. Even with my brother Chris, we go way back; these were all legends, and they were all great, great wrestlers.”

John Tolos held many belts during his glorious career.
John Tolos held many belts during his glorious career. [Photo taken by Dave Drason Burzynski]
DR. MIKE LANO:

“The Golden Greek was always ahead of his time and on many levels. He revolutionized the biz with his years-long feud with Fred and created great gimmicks like wrestling’s first Roman-Gladiator-Death-Match in 1970. Another was having both John and Fred wear spiked dog collars to prevent the other from ‘knee-dropping each of us into oblivion,’ as John said on T.V.

And the feuds besides Blassie were incredible: Mascaras, Buddy Austin, Don Carson, Bearcat Wright, Bobo Brazil, Earl Maynard, Dory Dixon, Ruben Juarez, Alex Wright’s dad Steve in ’73, Raul Mata, Cowboy Frankie Layne, Mando Lopez; in the Pacific Northwest, Don Leo Jonathon, Gene Kiniski, Dutch Savage, Shag Thomas, Luthor Lindsey; in Houston: Johnny Valentine, Jose Lothario, Red Bastien and in Dallas with Fritz Von Erich. His matches with Baba and Inoki in SoCal were terrific.

The guy was top-notch whether he was in with one of his peers like Gagne, Red Bastien, Pepper Gomez, or carrying someone much younger or even the greenest of kids at the time to what felt like a great match. John wrestled them all and wrestled virtually everywhere.”

JOHN TOLOS:

“I liked working with Paul Boesch. I thought he was honest and would bust my balls for him. I used to correspond with Don Owen a lot when I quit, and he used to tell me I was the only guy to write and call him. If I had worked in Portland a little more, I would have put Don Owen in Paul Boesch’s category. Those two guys aren’t where I made my money, though.

I made money in New York with my brother and Vince McMahon Sr. and in Toronto with Frank Tunney. Then, believe it or not, I liked working for Bill Watts in Oklahoma. Then we were doing very well in Florida for five or six months for Eddie Graham. But, hey, if you are making bucks, the promoter is a hell of a guy.”

GEORGE STARCHEV:

“It’s sad how many wrestlers make millions of dollars today for nine minutes of wrestling while back in the day, John Tolos shed blood, sweat, and tears every week for a local station KTL 5. He sold the wrestling card that week at the Olympic and local arenas.”

GREGG BARRY:

“He was hated as a heel and loved as a face. He was as good as they came on the microphone.”

JOHN TOLOS:

“How do you spell wrestling? T-O-L-O-S, my boy. It’s the only way to spell wrestling. For me, it was the greatest profession in the world. At that time, where can you invest $10 for a pair of shoes and $3 for a pair of tights, $5 for a jacket to put on, $3 for a bag to carry your stuff, and you have invested maybe $50, and if you hit it right, you can make a hell of a living.”

John Tolos passed away in 2009 at the age of 78. While so much of his footage may be gone, countless great memories remain. And to his many peers and fans, should you ask how they spell wrestling, they’ll fondly say, “T-O-L-O-S!”

Listen to Pro Wrestling Stories’ own Evan Ginzburg and Andy Dujilovic give tribute to John Tolos on Grappling With Canada:

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Evan Ginzburg is the Senior Editor for Pro Wrestling Stories and a contributing writer since 2017. He's a published author and was an Associate Producer on the Oscar-nominated movie "The Wrestler" and acclaimed wrestling documentary "350 Days." He is a 30-plus-year film, radio, and TV veteran and a voice-over actor on the radio drama Kings of the Ring. He can be reached on Twitter @evan_ginzburg or by e-mail at evan_ginzburg@yahoo.com.