Pete Spanakos Was a Diddly Bopper

BY Robert Mladinich ON July 11, 2005
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On the streets of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, New York, in the 1950s and ‘60s, identical twins Petros (Pete) and Nikos (Nick) Spanakos were known as the “Terror Twins,” although there was nothing terrible or terrifying about them.

The sons of Greek immigrant parents, they began boxing solely as a means of survival.

“One day we’d get beat up by the Italians, the next day the Irish,” Pete recalls. “In Red Hook, if you were a good street fighter you were called a bopper. If you were extraordinarily good, you were a diddly bopper. Both my brother and I were diddly boppers.”

The brothers racked up impressive amateur resumes. Pete won ten New York City Golden Gloves titles, and Nick won seven. Pete won a bronze medal at the 1959 Pan American Games, while Nick represented the United States on the 1960 Olympic team. His roommate in Rome was Cassius Clay, who later gained greater notoriety as Muhammad Ali.

It was the height of the Cold War and Nick lost a questionable decision to a Russian in his very first bout. “My brother swallowed that loss like he was swallowing poison,” said Pete. “However, the next night 15 of the 30 judges were fired for showing unfair favoritism. All were from Communist nations.”

Pete usually boxed at 118 pounds, while Nick competed at 126 pounds. All in all, the twins cumulatively engaged in over 200 fights, and won 40 national, regional and local titles. Boxing also garnered them invaluable college scholarships, at a time when collegiate boxing was at its apex. Pete initially attended the University of Wisconsin, but later joined his brother at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, which is now known as Albertson College of Idaho.

“They always won on sheer energy,” veteran fight scribe and cartoonist Bill Gallo of the New York Daily News told the New York Times in 1996. “And they both fought the same: busy, their hands always going. They were real crowd-pleasers.”

One person they didn’t please was their father Michael, a hardscrabble man of traditional Greek values who wanted nothing more than all seven of his sons to be college educated.

“Back then, fighting was so popular in Brooklyn, if you asked a kid in Red Hook if he wanted to be a boxer or President of the United States, he’d say boxer,” said Pete. “But in my father’s mind, you were either a doctor or a bum.”

The twins each had one pro fight each, and have no regrets about not taking their sporting careers further. Choosing more cerebral pursuits, Pete received a law degree but later became an educational counselor, and Nick earned a doctorate in business administration. Three brothers were practicing attorneys, while another was a stockbroker.

Pete and Nick, who are now 67 and still Brooklyn residents, are both retired from careers in education. They are involved in numerous charitable endeavors, including many that are boxing related.

Pete is co-chairman of the New York Police Athletic League Alumni Association, and the twins are active members of the Ring 8 Veteran Boxers Association. Being New Yorkers through and through, they enjoy an iconic status as elder statesmen of the local boxing scene. Several years ago their family was even the subject of a PBS documentary called “The American Story: The Spanakos Family.”

“There are no words to describe how much boxing did for us,” said Pete. “It helped us go from being poor and on the wrong side of the tracks in Brooklyn, to where I have a law degree and Nick has a doctorate. If not for boxing, who knows what would have happened to us?”

Still, there is some anger when Pete talks about his collegiate career, and how the boxers were treated by uncaring administrations. In a book he is writing to be called “NCAA Boxing and Me,” he describes a myriad of abuses he suffered in college.

“In Brooklyn we had coaches that were genuinely concerned about us,” he said. “In college we were just a commodity, a piece of meat on a hook. We were often forced to fight at heavier weights to maintain our scholarships, and once my coaches wanted to give me painkillers so I could fight with an injured hand.”

Things took a tragic turn at Wisconsin when Charley Mohr, an extremely popular roommate of Pete’s, was killed in a college championship bout in 1960. “Charley was a boxer who wanted to be a priest,” recalled Pete. “He was conflicted over the two. He even transferred from one Catholic high school because they didn’t want their students to be boxers. He was a brilliant defensive boxer, but couldn’t punch hard. If he hurt you by accident, he’d back off rather than risk hurting you.”

Pete says the Mohr episode was the last straw that finally broke the back of collegiate boxing. Shortly after Mohr’s death, the NCAA banned the sport completely. However, Pete says there were other abuses that could have easily resulted in tragedy.

“I can’t tell you how many times under-qualified boxers were forced to fight boxers like me who had a plethora of fights,” he explained. “And boxers had to lose or gain weight instantly if they wanted to keep their scholarships. At most I was 119 pounds, but I often fought at 132 or 139 pounds. If I didn’t, I’d lose my scholarship.”

Moreover, two of Pete’s teammates, Orville Pitts and Vinny Ferguson, the latter of whom Emanuel Steward once described as “the greatest amateur” he’d ever seen, had over 100 fights and were far too experienced for their collegiate opponents, many of whom were donning gloves for the first time. When Ferguson was recruited by Wisconsin, he was undefeated in 70 fights.

“The NCAA matches made Don King’s overmatches look like Boy Scout stuff,” said Pete.

Although it would have appeared that Pete was much too talented to be hurt at the collegiate level, he remembers being concerned enough to ask difficult questions. One time, in 1957, he asked his coach who would be responsible for the burial expenses and care of his elderly parents if he was killed in the ring. The coach dismissed the argument as “impossible” and “sophomoric” which, given Mohr’s death three years later, proved to be “profound and prescient,” according to Pete.

Oddly enough, by 1961, four boxers who at one time or another roomed with one of the twins was killed in the ring. Among them were Mohr and Harry Campbell, a young pro who had also fought on the 1960 Olympic team.

“None of these guys fought with their face,” said Pete incredulously. “These were the last guys you’d think would get hurt.”

Although the twins chose not to become professional boxers by vocation, they have great admiration for fighters and still respect the sport. While they can sometimes sound like harsh critics, Pete says that their vast experience gives them that right.

At a recent lecture and book signing by three authors of boxing books at an independent bookstore in lower Manhattan, Pete took each writer to task. His biggest question to all was how they could credibly describe boxing if they had not experienced the sport from a competitive standpoint.

Not initially satisfied with the responses, he prodded on; not as an arrogant bully but as a polite but firm inquisitor. “I’m very appreciative that I’m here and my brains are unscrambled enough where I can ask those kinds of questions,” he explained.

“As much as I’d like to say boxing doesn’t make you punch drunk, in many cases it does. Some writers tend to simplify the sport. As a former boxer who got so much out of the sport, I think it’s my right to make sure that doesn’t happen. I earned the right to ask difficult questions and expect satisfactory answers.”

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