Peter and Nicholas Spanakos may be unknown to sports fans in Greece, but that is not the case in Brooklyn, New York.
The Greek community in the Big Apple takes great pride in the twin brothers whose roots lie in the village of Alika in the Mani district of the southern Peloponnese, as they made history in US sports in the middle of the last century before turning to academic careers.
Nick and Pete, now 72, simultaneously became the youngest US boxing champions at the age of 16 when they both picked up Golden Gloves awards, the first of a total 48 titles between them.
Born and raised in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, Pete, Nick and their five brothers soon learned how to cope with living in a tough area: «We learned how to box for the sake of self-defense, but we never repented it,» they told Kathimerini in an exclusive interview.
They are the children of immigrants typical of many Greeks trying their luck across the Atlantic: Their father, Michalis, and mother, Stella, went to New York «without even speaking the language,» according to Nick, and originally supported themselves waiting tables in restaurants before making enough money to buy and operate their own.
Yet they always strived for the best for their family. Michalis aspired to see his children graduate from university, while Stella was voted Mother of the Year in New York in 1962 and Greek Mother of the Year in the US in 1964.
The two youngest sons of the wait staff turned out to be esteemed boxing stars before embarking on academic careers in law and business administration. «We are very proud of our sacrifices,» Nick told Kathimerini.
Known simply as «the Greeks,» the brothers made their mark in the sport by emerging as a rare case of triumphant twins. Pete took 10 national titles while Nick got seven and went on to represent the US in the 1960 Olympic Games.
The two brothers were happy to hear from a Greek newspaper, gladly turning back the clock and reminiscing about their neighborhood in Brooklyn, the gangs, the poverty and the moments of glory that followed.
“Our neighborhood was very tough. We were the only Greek family there. The Irish and the Italians would beat us up every day. At the age of 14 we decided to turn to boxing and after that they would think twice before coming at us,» Pete said.
“There were several instances when we felt we had a hard time due to our Greek roots. It was not just the Italians and the Irish who didn?t like us, but also some coaches,» added Pete. «But I have as my motto the ancient Spartan ‘E tan e epi tas’ [With your shield or on it].?
Their love for Greece, and Mani in particular, is unmistakable: «My dream was to go back to Mani and teach boxing,» confessed Nick, who came to Greece in 1969 and faced a local champion in an exhibition match.
“It was at a ring in Piraeus. I remember that the fans were cheering on my opponent, obviously considering me an American. Then somebody shouted to the crowd, ‘Hey guys, Spanakos is also a Greek.’ Immediately everyone started cheering me on as well. It was a great feeling,» he recounted.
Nick?s dream is yet to be fulfilled: He is now offering his teaching services to Greece free of charge in an attempt to train a generation of young boxers that the country can take pride in: «I am not interested in money. I just want my traveling expenses covered and I will help Greek children learn how to box,» he explained, his voice full of emotion.
The Spanakos brothers’ memories punched through incessantly, as they transported us to the US rings of the 1950s and 60s and shared their boxing secrets.
The identical twins share the same body type and weight. However they always managed to avoiding facing each other in competitive matches.
“A few days before we were weighed ahead of a championship, I always made sure I drank almost no liquids, and therefore they found me lighter,» revealed Pete, before analyzing their tactics.
“When either of us was fighting, in every three-minute round we would be rather defensive for the first two-and-a-half minutes. Then, with 30 seconds left, whichever of us was outside the ring would shout in Greek, ‘Tora’ — i.e. ‘Time.’ We would then start attacking to win the round.
“At one point, though, the Americans in the stands heard this ‘Tora’ and started shouting it to us to spur us on! So we made them speak a little Greek,» Pete added, with a sense of pride in his voice.
They both display a combination of toughness and tenderness, self-confidence and humility, dynamism and tolerance, like the mixture of Greek and English that they speak to us in.
The twins later turned to professional boxing. With Cus D’Amato as his agent, whose clients also included the fearsome Mike Tyson, Nick won the only pro fight he took part in, before deciding that professional boxing was not for him. «I lost interest in it. At least I can say I am undefeated,» admitted Nick, who has the ancient Spartan motto «Molon lave» (Come and get it) tattooed on the biceps of his right arm.
The brothers never met in a fight as Nick was in the 57-kilogram category and Pete in the 51-kg or the 54-kg, but they did face each other several times in charity matches to raise money for Greek churches or schools.
Yet their charity activity didn?t stop there. In 1975 Nick set up the Hellenic-American Education Association, aimed at supporting Greek children in New York. «We offer scholarships. We want to keep Hellenism alive here,» he told Kathimerini.
The duo soon proved that they packed a punch in more ways than one as their stars continued to shine after their sporting careers had ended. They both abandoned professional boxing to turn to academic careers, heeding the advice and wishes of their father.
“Had it not been for boxing I would have never got to study. I studied through boxing. I was a tutor for 26 years at the City University of New York, teaching business administration,» said Nick, who on May 1 this year got married to Barbara, his partner for the last 11 years.
Pete also quit boxing at the age of 27: «Until then I was drinking boxing, smelling boxing, thinking boxing. Had I turned pro at 21, who knows what I would have done? After all, I had already seen four of my friends killed in the ring.»
Their boxing careers in college were another interesting experience: «They treated us like a piece of meat in the hook. They would set us up against bigger guys, they just wanted us to slap each other around,» remarked Pete, adding: «Once, when I hurt my arm, a coach gave me a narcotic to continue fighting. They did not really care about us — all they wanted us to do was to fight.»
So how did Pete and Nick end up in academic careers? «We had no other option. We simply couldn’t come home to face our father and mother otherwise,» admitted Pete, who received a bronze medal in the 1959 Pan American Games.
Besides his career in law, Pete became a counselor in the school system: «I love working with children. I find their problems very challenging and it is very rewarding.»
They say they overcame obstacles in life by drawing strength and inspiration from the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Nick says that he calls himself a
“pallikari,» the Greek word for ?brave young man,? and his code of conduct is summarized in the Spartan motto: «Don’t show fear, don’t surrender!»
Muhammad Ali and the Olympics
Taking part in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome was the pinnacle in Nick Spanakos’s career. However, it was politics that played a lead role in what was the first fight between an American and a Soviet boxer during the Cold War.
“I was thrilled to represent America. I had to do 30 fights to qualify for the Olympics,» he said. «Unfortunately Pete lost out, so I went there alone.»
“In Rome I met the Greek team — it was great. They had very little support from the government in Athens then,» he recalled.
“I would have gone all the way to the gold medal but I lost to a Russian in a disputable decision,» he said, recounting his fight against Boris Nikanorov.
“The day after our match, 16 out of the 30 judges, who came from the then communist bloc, were replaced. Politics became entangled in a sporting event and it was not the first time we saw cheating in the Olympic Games,» he remarked.
His roommate in Rome was no other than Muhammad Ali, still known as Cassius Clay at the time. «Great guy, but had a big mouth. He has a great sense of humor, but changed a lot after he met Malcolm X,» Nick told Kathimerini.
Pete added that one day in Rome Nick saw Ali, then aged 18, drinking water in the bathroom. Ali said, «I was thirsty and thought I could drink some water,» before Nick realized he was drinking out of the bidet! «It was probably the first time he had seen such a thing in his life,» commented Pete.
He recalled that several other teammates did not make friends with Ali: «The blacks didn?t like him. They beat him up all the time, because he was showing off and demanding attention.»
Ahead of the next Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, Nick tried to compete for Greece. He attempted to secure Greek citizenship but it wasn?t to be. «I wanted it so much, but I did not send the paperwork in time,» he said in a sad voice.