John Tolos dies at 78; notorious wrestling villain known as the Golden Greek
His long ring career included a memorable grudge match against Freddie Blassie in the Coliseum in 1971.
After leaping atop a fallen Dan Carson, John Tolos drags his rival out of the ring during a 1971 match at the Olympic Auditorium. (Los Angeles Times)
Nicknamed the Golden Greek, Tolos died of kidney failure Thursday at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Woodland Hills, his son Chris said.
FOR THE RECORD:
Tolos obituary: The obituary of wrestler John Tolos in Monday's Section A misspelled the last name of daughter Tracy Wallace-Serabian as Wallace-Serbian. The survivors list also omitted a granddaughter, Mia. —
Tolos, who spent more than 30 years in the ring, gained fame as Los Angeles' top villain in the early 1970s, according to Dave Meltzer, a pro wrestling historian and editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter.
"He played the role of an arrogant, good-looking, well-conditioned guy," Meltzer said. "He talked big. . . . He inflamed the crowd so much, he came off as a real superstar in L.A."
Tolos mostly played the heel in matches against Blassie, Mil Mascaras, Killer Kowalski, Don Carson, Ernie Ladd and others on the Southern California circuit starting in the early 1950s.
By the early '70s, Tolos was often featured in the main event Friday nights at the Olympic Auditorium, then the hotbed of local wrestling, and Saturday nights at the KCOP television studios in Hollywood, with announcer Dick Lane calling the action.
A strapping 6-foot-2, 250-pounder in tip-top shape, Tolos was known for body-slamming his opponents and executing flying knee drops from the ropes onto foes who were sprawled out on the mat.
In 1971, he famously feuded with Blassie during epic matches that whipped fans into a frenzy.
"He used to bite me all the time. That was his thing," Tolos said in a 1990 interview with The Times. "And, man, does your head bleed when someone bites it."
During a match that May at the Olympic, Tolos allegedly threw monsel powder (used by boxing trainers to staunch cuts) into the eyes of Blassie, who screamed that he had been blinded. A doctor recommended Blassie retire, which he did for a few months to have knee surgery and tour Japan.
Back he came on Aug. 27, 1971, for a much-hyped rematch with Tolos at the Coliseum, where a reported 25,847 fans went through the turnstiles and saw Blassie exact his revenge. According to Meltzer and others, that crowd was the biggest to witness a pro wrestling event in California.
The belligerent Blassie wasn't the only one Tolos had to watch out for.
"I was always more afraid of the fans than my opponents," Tolos told The Times in 1990. "Crazy people in most places. I really worried about some of them. They'd hit me with everything, including chairs."
As his son recalled, "It was never any fun to watch Dad get beat up, but it was always exciting to see Dad win."
Tolos' notoriety extended beyond Los Angeles. Because many of the local matches were aired on syndicated TV, he was a draw whenever he toured the United States, including matches against Pedro Morales at Madison Square Garden in New York, or performed in events in Japan and South Korea.
He won various championships in North America and appeared in the ring until the mid-1980s. He later managed pro wrestlers in World Wrestling Entertainment events.
Tolos was born April 5, 1931, to Greek immigrant parents in Hamilton, Canada. When he was 18, he followed his older brother Chris into what was known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation. They became a tag team and toured as the Canadian Wrecking Crew for a short time before going solo.
Tolos moved back to Canada in the 1960s and in Vancouver met his future wife Ingrid. They married in 1967 and moved back to Los Angeles, where he rejoined the local wrestling scene. He and his wife later divorced.
Besides his son, of Woodland Hills, Tolos is survived by a daughter, Tracy Wallace-Serbian of Boston, and his sister, Mary, of Hamilton. His brother died in 2005.
A funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 9501 Balboa Blvd., Northridge.