Steve Mamakos: The Golden Greek

By Clarence George on July 26, 2014
Steve Mamakos: The Golden Greek
Mamakos died eight years ago to the day, July 26, 2006, at age 88. It was Alzheimer's.

“If I had to go through life again,” said Mamakos, “knowing what I know now, you can bet your bottom boots I wouldn’t be a fighter…”

“When I came out of the ring, the girls used to grab me and kiss me and run their hands through my hair. I had lots of thick, wavy hair back then.”—Steve Mamakos

Former middleweight contender, Steve Mamakos, died eight years ago to the day, July 26, 2006, at age 88. It was Alzheimer’s. He’d taken a lot of punches in his day.

The “Golden Greek” fought from 1937 to 1947, racking up a record of 29 wins, 10 by knockout, 20 losses, 12 by knockout, and one draw. Not too impressive, eh? Well, you can’t always go by records. Mamakos took on plenty of hard boys, and some of them were names: Georgie Abrams (three times), Emil Calcagni (managed by Hall of Famers Joe Jeannette, Al Weill, and George Parnassus), Bobby Pacho, Cocoa Kid, Kenny LaSalle, Wildcat O’Connor, Sammy Luftspring (twice), Holman Williams, Izzy Jannazzo, Milt Aron (twice), Ernie Vigh, Tami Mauriello, Johnny Colan, Ezzard Charles, Bobby Dare, and Clarence Wilkinson.  And, oh yeah, he also fought Tony Zale, aka the Man of Steel. Twice. The second time for the National Boxing Association World Middleweight Championship.

Born in DC on October 25, 1917, young Steve was a member of the Waterfront Bunch, which meant getting into a lot of fights. His father told him to join the Boys Club and learn how to box. It was his first day, he was hitting the bag, and a kid came up to him. “Hey, Mr. Bully,” said the kid. “So I busted him,” said Steve.

“Although he was suspended from the club for a week, he learned to box under the tutelage of club trainer Ollie Dryser, and soon he was fighting as an amateur and winning Golden Glove awards,” reports Joe Holley of the Washington Post.

“A battered ear kept him from participating in Olympic tryouts, so on his 20th birthday, in 1937, he turned pro,” Holley continues. It was a year later that Mamakos rocked Georgie Abrams in the fourth “with right uppercuts, had his damp head bobbing like a cork in a millstream and thumped him almost at will with a ponderous left,” reported the Post at the time.

But Mamakos—who “went forward, forward, never stopping, just kept plunging in, never attempted to get out of the way,” as a friend, Whitey Brooke, recalls—is best remembered, if he is at all, for his bouts with the champ, Tony Zale. The first, a non-title match, took place at Chicago Stadium on January 10, 1941, Zale winning on points. “Mamakos, displaying unbelievable stamina and ring courage, absorbed Zale’s two-fisted attack without retreating, and was always crowding in the face of the savage fire,” reported the Associated Press. The second, for the NBA title, took place at the same venue just a few weeks later, on February 21, Zale winning by 14th-round KO. But there’s more to the story than that.

As Holley reports:

“Before a crowd of more than 14,000, Washington’s Golden Greek was on the attack from the opening bell. Zale was badly cut around the mouth in the first round, and in the fifth a flurry of punches from the young challenger drove the champ to the canvas. Zale made it back to his feet, and young Mr. Mamakos had him reeling under a barrage of lefts and rights to the head. The bell saved him.

“The challenger’s hard-charging style, as much intuitive as tactical, proved to be his undoing. He was leading on points when Zale landed a straight right, followed by a left to the body and then a right-hand punch to the face that sent Mr. Mamakos reeling to the canvas. He was still down at the count of six when the bell rang and his handlers led him to his corner.

“He was only semiconscious when the bell rang for the 14th. Zale knocked him out 26 seconds later.”

“If only he had been able to ‘hide’ for a couple of rounds, he would have been middleweight champion that night,” recalls another friend, Charlie Reynolds.

Mamakos didn’t do well following that second loss to Zale. He lost 11 of his remaining 15 fights, 10 by KO or TKO. “I tried to quit after I fought the champ, but I kept coming back for one more fight, one more fight, until my wife finally made me quit,” he said.

Following his retirement from the ring, Mamakos got a job at the Briggs Meatpacking Co. before finding work in the mailroom of the Washington Times-Herald, purchased by the Post in 1954, retiring in the late 1970s after being injured in a bus accident.

Meatpacker, messenger, whatever—he stayed tough. Says Ellen Walker-Kurz: “My father was friends with him. They worked at the Washington Post. Dad says Steve had hands like ‘ham hocks.’ One day they were horsing around at work pretending to box, dad gave him a smack on the side of the head and Steve returned with a slug to dad’s upper arm. Dad says laughingly, ‘Boy, is that all you got?’ And then went into the locker room and cried while putting cold rags on his arm.”

“If I had to go through life again, knowing what I know now, you can bet your bottom boots I wouldn’t be a fighter,” said Mamakos. “You want to be with your family, not traveling all around, and you take the chance of your life every time you go into the ring, getting hit over and over again, not knowing if you’re going to come up.

“I’m not sorry I boxed, though.”

Neither are we.

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  1. Cornell 03:24am, 04/02/2019

    Hey i was glad to meet the man. I am 53 yrs old now and Mr. Mamokos he lived down the street from my Grandparents on Nash pl. SE in DC.. I had a chance to talk to him several times before he passed about his boxing days, he never bagged about anything and i would love to hear him talk about his career. He did have cauliflower ears as he would call them. But and all around great guy. My Grandfather died in 1994 my Grandma in 2004 and Mr. Mamokos in 2006.

  2. Steve Howerton 07:58pm, 09/15/2017

    Hi,I am the grandson of Steve Mamakos and looking for any family that may come across this comment.My gmail is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  3. Clarence George 07:16pm, 01/26/2015

    Delighted you dropped by, Ginny.

  4. Ginny Herring 05:47pm, 01/26/2015

    Steve Mamakos was my Uncle and my hero.  My mother told me once that Uncle Steve pushed himself hard. His family was poor and his sister was Ill and needed medical attention. He made sure she was taken care of.  His last sibling died in 2014 at the age of 99. He left us with many stories, one of which was he fight with Tony Zale. All of the family that is left including our children and grandchildren know who the Golden Greek is and we are proud of him. The year he died we had a family reunion and my brother read his very impressive obit from the Washington Post, we made sure our children and grandchildren remember Uncle Steve and of course our Greek heritage.

  5. Clarence George 02:19pm, 07/26/2014

    Apropos of nothing, Irish, except that I have nothing else to do:  I was at a street fair today, and bought myself a sausage hero with peppers and onions.  The woman asked if I was from Jersey.  I thought it might be because I was wearing a Tony Soprano shirt, but no.  It was because I asked her to sauce my sausage, and apparently only boys from Jersey do that.  A Long Islander, she don’t take kindly to Jersey eccentricities.  But I got my sausage sauced.  Ah, the famous George charm…that, and nine dollars.

  6. Clarence George 07:56am, 07/26/2014

    I think you’re right, Irish.  His were indeed poignant words.

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:46am, 07/26/2014

    Clarence George-I guess the photo above is fitting…...showing Steve going down in his fight with Zale…..clearly he was never the same after the second fight with Tony…..just maybe his real regret was “I kept coming back for one more fight, one more fight”.

  8. Clarence George 07:02am, 07/26/2014

    By the way, Steve isn’t to be confused with character actor, Peter Mamakos.  No relation that I know of, but irrelevance has never stopped me before, and I see no reason why it should now.  Anyway, here he is with Don Adams in a “Get Smart” episode:

  9. Clarence George 05:41am, 07/26/2014

    Always delighted to have your imprimatur, Beaujack.

    Completely agree with you on Zale, my favorite middleweight.  He was so tough that you couldn’t write it as fiction because nobody would believe you, that’s how tough he was.

    Abrams lost to Zale, as well as Cerdan, but I think he knocked him down.

    I’ll of course try for more, and I very much appreciate your interest, but it ain’t easy.  There’s often so little information on these outrageously forgotten boyos that I either have to content myself with shorter pieces or scrap the idea altogether.

  10. beaujack 05:21am, 07/26/2014

    Thank you Clarence for this article on Steve Mamakos, who fought in a great era of middleweights… What tough fighters the late 1930s, early 1940s produced. And the toughest of those boys was Tony Zale, before his 4 year stint in the Navy…Never saw Zale fight but I saw Georgie Abrams give Marcel Cerdan a hell of a tussle…Keep em comin…

  11. Clarence George 04:44am, 07/26/2014

    By the way, ch., Mamakos returned the compliment, saying that being in the ring with Zale was like being inside a volcano.

  12. Clarence George 04:34am, 07/26/2014

    It is I who thank you, ch.  You are a veritable fount of information.  That Zale quote is fantastic.  If I’d known of it, I certainly would have included it.  But I’m delighted that it’s here for all to see, in the article’s comment section.

  13. ch. 04:20am, 07/26/2014

    BOXING ILLUSTRATED, NOV. 1959. p.16 - “When I hear them talk about gameness, I am always reminded of my fights with Steve Mamakos. Steve was all guts. He was by far the gamest man I ever fought.”- TONY ZALE
    Thanks Clarence.

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