The World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) was the land of super heavyweights, and each time "The Flying Greek" Mike Pappas – who sadly died on December 31, 2022 – stepped into the ring, he was David trying to conquer a monstrous, towering Goliath. And we adored him for it.
“The Flying Greek” Mike Pappas
Luscious Johnny Valiant used to say, "When you’re standing in a wrestling ring, the fans think you’re ten feet tall."
To us "mark" kids, the wrestlers were larger than life.
Except for tiny Mike Pappas, who instead was the Rey Mysterio of his day.
Born in Rhodes, Greece, Manoli Savvenas was well-built and athletic and fell into amateur boxing. Then, moving to Australia, a Greek police captain saw a different road for him.
In a May 2022 interview on Wrestling and Everything Coast to Coast hosted by Buddy Sotello, Dr. Mike Lano, and yours truly, Manoli discussed his wrestling journey and start in Australia.
"A guy said to me, ‘You look pretty athletic.’ I was [soon later] trained as a professional wrestler, and worked part-time."
He continued, "Spiros Arion was a big star. Jim Barnett wasn’t there yet. There were some Greek promoters.
"I wrestled a lot of Greek policemen, but when Barnett came, I met a lot of Americans. Superstar Bill Dundee and Bruno Sammartino were there. We all started at the same time."
His peers would call Manoli "Little Bruno" as they shared "the same" impressive physique.
Returning to Greece with a turbulent political landscape and struggling business, Manoli decided to make his way to the USA.
Getting Over as Mike Pappas
Working as a jeweler in America, Manoli still had the wrestling bug.
"I called the (WWWF) office. I talked with Arnold Skaaland. At that time, they had an office on 42nd Street. They said, ‘You wrestle? You’re too small. I don’t think we can use you here.’"
Although disillusioned, they gave him a lead that would change his life. They recommend he try Mexico, where his size wasn’t an issue.
Sending photos to promoter Salvador Lutteroth, "The Father of Lucha Libre," he ultimately wrestled south of the border for seven successful months.
Returning to the States, he was told to reach out to Nick Gulas, who utilized lightweights and middleweights.
Manoli morphed into Mike Pappas there. Hey, who could pronounce Manoli Savvenas?
Pappas laughed about his experience.
"He used small guys. The paychecks were small, too. I told him I weighed 175 pounds. He gave me a working visa, and I was working in Tennessee every day."
He explained the benefits of that run.
"The matches were 2 out of 3 falls, and I worked 45 minutes to an hour almost every night. So I got a lot of good experience."
Yet it remained quite the struggle.
"I never made any money with Gulas. I was starving. Sometimes I didn’t eat for three days. I don’t know how I survived. It was really tough, but I was working every day."
He saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
New York and the WWWF Beckons
Mike Pappas’ ultimate goal was to make it to the WWWF, and his persistence paid off.
The flying Greek eventually got that invite.
He remembers, "Vince McMahon (Senior) liked me a lot. So I went to New York."
Memorable friendships ensued.
"Andre the Giant came in 1971. Pedro Morales was the champion. Lou Albano was a very nice guy. I traveled with them many times."
While his won-loss record wasn’t stellar, he did meet with fan approval and some degree of success.
Pappas’ impressive flying drop kicks, flying head scissors, and flying snap mares were unusual then and thrilled the crowds.
"All the big guys didn’t do very much. Antonio Rocca was doing drop kicks before, but then they stopped. It was a lot of kicking and punching. They didn’t see that since Rocca, so I got over very well."
Mike Pappas fought in 104 WWWF matches during his three years there, from 1971 to 1974.
At Madison Square Garden, he defeated Jack Evans and drew with El Olympico while losing to Jimmy Valiant, Butcher Brannigan, Beautiful Bobby, and Dick Slater. He also lost in two tag matches.
Simply put, he never got that big push and once again sought greener pastures.
A Mixed Bag
While always popular with the fans, his size was still an issue with many of the promoters.
A Montreal stint disappointed when the promotion changed hands, and he "wasn’t used well." A similar experience happened on a return to Australia.
He ultimately worked in such territories as Oklahoma, Knoxville, Florida, and Kansas City.
"Some of the big guys didn’t want to put me over, but I got over anyway because I could wrestle," Pappas recalls.
Pleased with his better-than-usual push in Kansas City, it was not to last. When business picked up, they imported more prominent stars from other areas and quit using him.
It remained a tough road.
"It was a very lonely, boring life. I went home once a week to see my wife," Pappas remembers.
The business had lost its luster for “The Flying Greek.”
Life After Wrestling
After a decade in professional wrestling, he remained a small man in a big man’s world and was only going to get so far.
While he interestingly can boast a 3-0 record (with one draw) over a young Randy Savage, much of his experiences were disappointing.
He would quit the wrestling business altogether in 1978.
"I was bitter because the industry didn’t treat me well. So when I quit, I didn’t want to think about wrestling."
He worked for and later bought a floundering jewelry company, making Manoli’s Jewelers a huge success.
Nearly a half-century later, he has a large, lovely family, and the store remains flourishing.
Mike Pappas, The Movie
A chance meeting between filmmaker and longtime wrestling fan Jason Brasier and the charismatic Mike Pappas set a documentary in motion.
Brasier worked tirelessly to complete The Flying Greek.
It recently screened online and proved to be an intriguing, moving, and exceedingly well-done capturing of the wrestling jeweler’s fantastic journey.
It’s a human-interest story that happens to be about an ex-wrestler. Past the age of 80 during filming, Pappas was a humble charmer who practically beams in telling his tale.
He’s simultaneously amazed at the lives he’s touched as a pro wrestler and grateful for the sudden interest in his life.
Narrated by wrestler Debrah Miceli (Madusa/Alundra Blayze), with added insight by photographer-journalist Bill Apter, it chronicles Mike’s place in wrestling history as an unsung hero.
Unsurprisingly, the WWE coldly ignored all attempts from Brasier and company for Pappas clips. They wouldn’t so much as pick up the phone.
Even without their footage, it’s a film that can be enjoyed by grappling fans and non-fans alike.
For more info on the documentary, visit www.Flintlocksyndicate.com.
You can watch a clip from The Flying Greek documentary below:
The Death and Legacy of “The Flying Greek” Mike Pappas
With The Flying Greek garnering media attention and Mike Pappas finding acknowledgment from the wrestling industry, Mike finally realized his vital role in the business.
He was influential because of the surprising high spots he performed a half-century ago.
"Even Ricky Morton used to watch me wrestle when his father refereed, and he did all the moves I did. So he was telling everybody the reason I’m in the business is because of Mike Pappas."
Pappas concluded, "I’m very touched by all the people who still remember me. A lot of wrestlers tell me they started because of me."
Sadly, after a lengthy battle with colorectal cancer, "The Flying Greek" Mike Pappas died on December 31, 2022. He was 81.
Pappas’ health had deteriorated since October 2022. At the time, his son Packy Savvenas shared on social media that his father’s stage 4 cancer had progressed to the point of his kidneys shutting down.
Despite his greatest battle, Mike Pappas attended a screening of his film soon before succumbing to his illness. A fighter until the end.
And what greater tribute could there be to the "mighty mite," the innovative flying Greek, Mike Pappas?
For more on Mike Pappas, visit http://www.mikepappas.net/.
Watch Mike Pappas and The Flying Greek director Jason Brasier interviewed on Wrestling and Everything Coast to Coast:
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