It had the feel of one of those homecomings cooked up by Hollywood when Theodore Anton returned to the city where everybody remembered him by the name that sounded more like a rassler’s than that of the welterweight boxing champion of Wisconsin: Anton the Greek.
They also remembered that nobody was tighter with a buck than the little immigrant who’d boasted through 100-plus professional fights that “I make my own matches and keep every cent the promoter gives me.” So nobody was surprised when Anton came back to Milwaukee dressed like a bank president, sitting in the back of a large touring car driven by a uniformed chauffeur, and bragging about a net worth of around 200 grand.
“Look at your Greek friend,” Anton told Walter Houlehan, who had managed the local burlesque theater where Anton had lost one of his first bouts because he ate three pounds of grapes right before the fight and had to rush from the ring to the toilet. “He’s a little different today from when he ate those grapes….”
Theodore Anton was the picture of the conquering hero, but an even more drastic change was straight ahead, and within 24 hours not even his staunchest admirers wanted to be in Anton the Greek’s shoes anymore.
Born Theodore Antonopoulis in Ageonsosten, Greece on September 2, 1891, Anton came to live in Milwaukee in 1902. Boxing was big in Beertown then, and the 14-year-old Greek weighed less than 100-pounds when he started out on the cards at the local theaters. The proper pre-fight diet wasn’t the only thing about which Anton was abysmally ignorant then. But what he lacked in fighting know-how he more than made up for with his willingness and ability to take a licking.
“Anton the Greek took enough punishment at the hands of Young Pinkey to founder the ordinary pug, but the pride of Wells St. weathered the storm trying for a knockout to the last,” reported the Milwaukee Free Press on April 11, 1912.
What really cemented the Greek’s reputation as one of his era’s indomitable tough guys and permanently endeared him to boxing fans was what happened at the Armory in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, about 55 miles north of Milwaukee, on January 27, 1913.
Fighting in the eight-round semi-windup, Anton and Bert Stanley of Oshkosh put on a war described by the Fond du Lac Reporter as “full of action from start to finish” and “the best seen in the Armory in several seasons.” Stanley punished him and won by a wide margin, and after the final bell Anton shook his hand and said, “Mr. Stanley, you were too clever for me.”
“And you,” replied Stanley, “were too tough for me.”
The main event that evening was to feature local hero Dauber Jaeger against the same Young Pinkey who’d whipped Anton so handily in Milwaukee a year earlier. But 10 minutes before fight time, Pinkey suffered what the Reporter called “coldfeetis following an attack of ‘yellowstreakus’ in its most malignant type,” and refused to enter the ring.
As the large crowd booed and hissed, Anton the Greek stepped up and offered to take on Jaeger himself after a 15-minute rest, a cold shower and a rubdown. He got them, and then he got his second beating of the night, Jaeger “landing 10 blows to the Greek’s one,” in their six-rounder. But the headline in the next edition of the Reporter –– “Greek Anton A Real Fighter” –– was reproduced all over the country, and Anton was famous.
He still wasn’t much of a fighter, but over the next few years the Greek was in demand throughout the Midwest. He lost as much as he won, but nobody ever asked for his money back after one of Anton’s fights.
After a close points loss to Bud Logan, Anton demanded a rematch and told the Milwaukee Free Press that he would “meet Logan for a peanut or he will wager his grocery store against almost nothing that he can win.”
The reference was to the corner market in downtown Milwaukee that was the Greek’s headquarters between fights. Anton and his relatives started the store from scratch, and by dint of nose-to-the-grindstone work built it into a thriving enterprise. The little fighter whose head was almost impossible to miss in the ring turned out to have one hell of a head for business. Between the store and the fighting purses he didn’t have to share with a manager, Anton made money hand-over-fist, and salted away every penny.
In 1914, Anton made headlines again when he took on two opponents in a single night in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After he knocked out Farmer Smith, one of the latter’s pals in the crowd stood up and challenged the Greek to fight. Anton whipped him, too.
A few months later, Anton sold his grocery store for $10,000 and sailed for England, where he had a 20-round match before London’s National Sporting Club against Eddie Elton. Upon his return to Milwaukee, the Greek claimed the state welterweight title and fought a private 35-round bout in Des Moines, Iowa.
He also opened up another store, and, as always, banked every cent of profit.
In 1916, with World War One foaming up, Anton became a U.S. citizen. “I sure am glad that I am now an American citizen,” he told reporters. “I think a good boxer would make a good fighter for his country.”
He enlisted in the Army, and “even the $30 per day he received from Uncle Sam was saved,” according to The Milwaukee Journal.
In 1922, Anton quit boxing for good and moved from Milwaukee to Cicero, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He opened a fruit stand that became spectacularly fruitful, sold out and then plunged into real estate. He built the Hotel Anton, and then bought another hotel called The Hawthorne, and also ran a smoke shop and restaurant on the same block.
In the mid-1920s, Chicago Mayor William E. Dever set out to rid his city of the mob forces at war with one another. One of his targets, Al “Scarface” Capone, soon to become America’s most feared Prohibition-era crime lord, set up shop in The Hawthorne. He and the proprietor became pals, and Anton’s hotel became Capone’s headquarters. And a target for the police and rival gangs. The former raided The Hawthorne and charged Anton with keeping a disorderly house, and at least once the latter strafed the building with machine-gun fire.
Fearless in the ring, Anton the Greek was no fool outside of it. When he made his triumphant return to Milwaukee on Saturday, November 27, 1926, he indicated to friends that he intended to come back for good as soon as he could unload his Cicero properties for what he figured they were worth.
In the meantime, Anton did something that took bigger balls than fighting two boxers on the same night. He told Al Capone to take a hike and run his mob operation someplace else.
So it was really no big surprise when, the day after his Milwaukee visit, proprietor Theodore Anton disappeared from The Hawthorne Hotel.
On December 4, Anton’s blood-stained overcoat was discovered near Des Plaines, Illinois, and a few weeks later a body was found in a shallow, lime-filled grave outside Chicago Heights. “Two bullets had been fired into the head and an inflammable liquid poured over the body and set aflame,” according to the Chicago Herald Examiner. A finger had been cut off, apparently to make it easier for his killers to remove the victim’s $1,000 diamond ring.
“Ex-Capone Aid Is Found Slain; Body Set Afire,” headlined the paper on its January 6, 1927 front page. The sub-head said, “Victim Identified as Theodore Anton, Who Ousted Gang Chief From His Cicero Hotel.”
Nobody pinched a penny harder than Anton the Greek, but in the ring and out nobody was ever less disposed to coldfeetis and yellowstreakus, either.