Manoli Savvenas can still remember smelling the Aegean Sea air as he tried to out-maneuver his friends kicking a soccer ball made from old rags.
“We didn’t have toys. But it was a very happy childhood. We’d get hungry from playing, so we’d go home and eat a slice of bread. We’d wet it with water and put a little sugar on it,” he says.
Growing up on the Greek island of Rhodes, Savvenas was aware of the ancient Roman and Byzantine artists, writers and philosophers who had called the island home.
“Believe me, we ate a lot of fish. And fresh vegetables like green beans and fresh tomatoes. And all the fruit you can imagine. We cut it from the trees ourselves,” he said.
There was no stove; his mother cooked with terra cotta pots over an open wood fire.
The son of a farmer, Savvenas remembers lighting the kerosene lamp at night to sit and do his homework.
“We didn’t have running water. Or electricity. We didn’t have a TV or radio. But we felt rich, because we relied on each other,” he said.
It was the postwar era, in which Greece, like other European nations, struggled to regain its economic footing. His mother could not read – “women didn’t go to school in her days” – but she saw the value in hard work and learning a trade. She wanted that for her seven children, all of whom shared a one-room house. All nine slept side by side every night.
“We didn’t even have a bathroom. You had to go outside,” Savvenas recalls.
His mother asked a neighbor to teach Savvenas the jewelry trade. He was 11 years old.
“Then when I was 12, we used to work late at night polishing jewelry just to make enough money to spend on something like a pair of socks. It was not hard labor — it was just a job. And appreciated the opportunity to learn,” Savvenas said.
Since the shop didn’t have electricity, Savvenas learned to melt silver and gold over glowing-hot coals.
“We made our own wire by hand. I can melt gold or silver down and make it as thin as your hair,” he said.
At 16, he started boxing. But his mother, a driving force in his life, begged him to stop. So he took up wrestling.
“It was like the Greco-Roman style of competition. I never thought I would become a professional wrestler. I wanted to compete, not perform,” Savvenas said.
But then, at 18, he left Greece in search of opportunity. After stops in Australia, Canada and Mexico, he found himself working as a professional wrestler in Madison Square Garden, New York.
“Now, [professional wrestling] is a monopoly. At that time, it was different. There were territories. My first one was the NWA, or North Wrestling Alliance out of St. Louis. And I wrestled for the WWF in New York,” he said.
“I wrestled Macho Man Randy Savage and Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase, and Bob Backlund,” he said. “My wrestling name was Mike Pappas.”
And so it went for nearly 12 years. He got married and had a son. He continued wrestling, trekking cross-country for events.