Born Fighters: Twin brothers fight for a better life
Editor's note: In 2014, Nick Spanakos ’60 and Pete Spanakos ’60 were inducted into the Daily News Golden Gloves’ inaugural Hall of Fame class in New York. The twin brothers, who combined to win 17 Golden Gloves titles between 1955 and 1964, are members of five halls of fame, including the C of I Hall of Fame. The following feature article is from the summer 2012 issue of Quest magazine.
Nick and Pete Spanakos were born fighters.
The identical twin sons of Greek immigrant parents— neither of whom received an education beyond the 6th grade—grew up in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, a poor, crime-ridden area in the 1940s and 50s. It was a place where opportunities to climb out of poverty or avoid being drawn into criminal activity were few.
Boxing proved to be the Spanakos’ salvation. Instead of succumbing to the violence surrounding them, the brothers channeled their energy, spending nearly every day of their adolescence in a Red Hook gym. Working the speedbags, skipping rope and sparring, Pete and Nick learned discipline and hope.
During their senior year at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton High School, Nick Spanakos said he and his brother got a list of colleges across the country that offered scholarships for boxing and wrote them letters.
“We got responses back from (The College of) Idaho and Wisconsin, which both offered us scholarships,” Nick said. “Coming from New York to Caldwell was a big downsizing, and it was very refreshing. Instead of being filled with despair, it was inspiring to be in this small town and on a campus where everyone was happy and friendly.”
The Spanakos twins— who in 1955 became the first twins to win the Daily News Golden Gloves, amateur boxing’s most prestigious crown— started boxing for The College of Idaho in 1957.
Pete Spanakos recalled the initial shock of arriving at the College, which at the time had approximately 600 students.
“We never knew what western culture was like or how to behave,” Pete said. “The hospitality was amazing and we were a little paranoid at first, thinking people were setting us up because it was so unlike where we grew up.”
They weren’t the only C of I students who came hundreds or even thousands of miles from home to attend the small liberal arts college, dreaming about a better life. Pete said many of his boxing teammates and other student-athletes came from big cities like Chicago, Boston and New York, or from lower income families as far away as Hawaii.
“The College of Idaho gave us an opportunity to see a very different way of life and to fulfill our aspirations,” he said.
The C of I boxing team travelled the country to places such as Washington State, the University of Nevada and California Poly Tech for bouts, while boxing matches on campus were a prime event not just for the campus, but for the entire region.
“They were just starting to get TV in the Northwest at the time, so we would have to drive into Boise to be able to watch a boxing match on television,” Nick said. “We had people coming from Oregon and Washington and all across Idaho to watch our boxing matches at the College, and when they set up a ring in the gym for us, the place was packed full. It was great to box and have people coming from such a distance.”
Ed “Buzz” Bonaminio ’56 was teaching at Caldwell High School when the Spanakos brothers arrived at The College of Idaho and remembers watching their bouts at the old Kirkpatrick Gymnasium (subsequently converted into McCain Student Center).
“They were good, crowd-pleasing fighters as speedy as they were,” Bonaminio recalls. “They were really quick getting in there and mixing it up.”
Representing their country
While boxing for The College of Idaho, the Spanakos twins also traveled the country, competing in AAU and Golden Gloves bouts. Pete was an unprecedented 10-time, undefeated Golden Gloves champion from 1955 to 1964, while Nick won seven Golden Gloves championships between 1955 and 1961.
It was a golden era for boxing, and while representing the C of I, the twins were able to meet and fight alongside the legendary Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay.
Pete first met Ali in 1959 as a teammate on the United States boxing team at the 1959 Pan-American Games, where Pete won a bronze medal. Also on the team was C of I boxer Heiji Shimabukura.
In 1960, the Spanakos twins and Ali each won the Outstanding Fighter trophy in their respective weight classes at the Western Golden Gloves at Chicago’s Soldier Field as well as the National (Inter-City) Golden Gloves at Madison Square Garden.
While Pete lost a qualifying bout to make the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, Nick, alongside Ali, did qualify and boxed in Rome. Nick lost a disputed decision against a Russian boxer—the Rome Olympic Committee removed half of its boxing officials, all from Soviet Bloc countries, the day after his fight—but the U.S. team and his roommate, Ali, did capture gold medals in the Games. Nick also had an exhibition match against the champion of Greece outside of Athens during the last week of the Games.
The brothers continued to box until 1964, when Pete was in law school and Nick was working on his doctorate in business. By the time the twins hung up their gloves, each had racked up 200 fights during careers spent juggling school, work and boxing.
“We have no regrets,” Pete said. “It left us with a rich legacy of wellness: healthy eating, daily exercise and controlling stress, anxiety, depression, fear and hubris. Boxing defined our lives.”
An education for life
The discipline the Spanakos twins learned in the ring complemented their education at The College of Idaho and led each to successful careers: Pete is a counselor at junior high schools in Brooklyn and Nick retired as a tenured business academic for the State University of New York.
Nick said his professors at the C of I such as George Wolf in political economy, Robert Bratz in biology, Edward Allen in business and Joseph Dadabay in sociology were easy to get to know on a personal level, and their example has influenced his own career in education.
“I was inspired to emulate the professors I met at The College of Idaho who were always willing to meet with me outside the classroom and engage with me,” Nick said.
Pete said he was impressed by the College’s diversity and the tolerance displayed by its students, faculty and staff. He and Nick remembered the College’s academic dean at the time telling a local barber to learn how to cut the hair of African-American students after the barber said he didn’t know how.
“Kids from the south side of Chicago blended in with the kids from New York and kids from Hawaii. It was a really interesting cross-cultural experience for us,” Pete said. “I think it may have been a combination of the western attitude and the Presbyterian legacy of the College that carried over into a valuing of diversity.”
Bonaminio, who grew up next to the steel mills on Chicago’s south side, experienced the same cultural adjustment that the Spanakos twins did and, like them, found Idaho to be an invigorating environment.
“[Nick and Pete] were a novelty,” Bonaminio said. “That made them stand out on campus and they were very friendly. They had a great rapport with everyone on campus and with the local community, people really appreciated them.”
Most of all, the Spanakos brothers treasure the relationships that they had with their fellow student-athletes, professors and other members of the C of I family. During their senior year, when the twins missed six weeks of class as they traveled across the country to box and achieve their Olympic dream, their professors did everything they could to help Nick and Pete make up their homework and tests.
“They were in our corner all the way,” Pete said. “The College bent over backwards to help Nick and me. Those were precious years that Nick and I enjoyed and grew from.”