Sam Greco

Interview / Article from Italy Down Under

Slam'em Sam! The former kickboxing champ is taking his killer glance to Atlanta. By James Panichi

The kickboxer formerly known as “Slam 'em” might be apprehensive about his new career, but he isn't planning to change the approach he has honed in seven years of fighting. “There's a gimmick, and that gimmick is Sam Greco”, says Sam Greco, the Melbourne-born fighter who has been using the third person a lot since signing up with one of the largest wrestling organisations around, the World Championship Wrestling. “When my opponents are in front of me, they basically just see my eyes and my nose, and that's it. If looks could kill, everyone would be dead. And that's who I am: Sam Greco”.

After seven years as a professional kickboxer, Greco is taking his killer glance to Atlanta, Georgia, to join the WCW's stable of tough-guys. For week after week he is likely to do battle with stars such as Ric “Nature Boy” Flair, “Bam Bam” Bigelow, Mike Awesome and the curiously named General Rection. Even the ageing “Hulk” Hogan may eventually find himself on the receiving end of some Australian biffo. “People say it's fake, but I don't like using that word”, says Greco, finally slipping into the first person. “I say it's choreographed, because we do get hurt and do take some big falls”.

But lest the uninitiated mistake American wrestling bouts for Swan Lake, there should be no doubt about what really goes on in the WCW and its largest rival, the World Wrestling Federation. A fight consists in large men donning outrageous costumes in a television studio while following a script and pretending to knock each other senseless in a ring. If participants are not members of Actors' Equity, they should be. And the more outrageous and unbelievable their antics, the greater the appeal to an audience of mainly male under-30s. “Look, there's not much difference between this and what I was doing before”, Greco says. “In kickboxing it's me against you with the crowd following; in wrestling it's me and you versus the crowd. There's a good guy, a bad guy, a story-line, and we work with it”.

Yet how Greco ended up becoming the first Australian ever to sign a deal with the WCW is in itself worth a story. At the height of his seven-year kickboxing career, Greco's managers sent a videotape and a CV to the WCW. “They immediately expressed an interest in Sam Greco and asked for more information”, Greco told me in a Melbourne restaurant just days before leaving for the US. “They wanted to add some credibility to the company, and they signed me up”. How much was the deal worth? “I don't want to say, but if it wasn't worth my while I'd still be here”.

However, Greco is prepared to admit that the move from real kickboxing fights in front of 70,000 people in Tokyo to staged performances for the cameras will take a bit of getting used to. “Of course I'll miss the fighting, because I wasn't good at it ­ I was great at it”, he says, dropping into the Sam Greco public persona over his risotto. “I was ranked among the top three fighters in the world, a dual world champion in kickboxing and karate. But it's time to move on”.

While all professional wrestling organisations with a worldwide market are based in the US, few ethnic kids growing up in Australia in the 1960s and 70s would have missed the cheaper and more politically incorrect local version of staged wrestling. Back then, the fights were broadcast on Channel 9 from Melbourne's Festival Hall and its heroes were ethnically diverse ­ surprisingly for the otherwise unadventurous television content at the time. Week after week Mario Milano and Spiros Arion would take on a variety of overweight villains. The bad guys were occasionally “visible” Muslim minorities, such as the allegedly Sudanese Abdulla “The Butcher” who would appear on stage wearing a headscarf. If those early characters are still alive, they should either sue or be sued under the aegis of anti-discrimination legislation. But like most kids, the young Salvatore Greco watched the fights and loved them. “Wrestling was a childhood dream of mine [Š] And when I became a world champion of karate and kickboxing, I knew I could become a wrestling champion too”.

Yet it is hard to guess how the thousands of die-hard WCW fans throughout North America will react to an Australian taking on their heroes. At time of writing Greco's first encounters in Atlanta have yet to be broadcast and they went largely unreported by the organisation's website, other than a paragraph describing how he was egged on by the crowd with an “Aussie Aussie Aussie, oy oy oy!” chant. Greco then reportedly flattened a hapless Shawn Stasiak, forcing the evil “Thrillers” to beat a hasty retreat. Clearly, Mario Milano was with the Australian in spirit on the night.

Yet how Greco's character will develop at the WCW is still anyone's guess. Although he has expressed an interest in remaining a “good guy”, the show's head writer ­ former WWF creative chief Vince Russo ­ is known for his unpredictable story twists. Sam Greco could turn “evil” overnight ­ a move which can often be good for business in a world where true ring nastiness is hard to come by.

The future of the WCW also faces a degree of uncertainty which may affect Greco's career. While the WWF started off as a promoter of wrestling and then successfully ventured into television, the WCW was created specifically for television audiences and has always relied heavily on 1980s personalities who share the word “The” as their middle-name. As a result, the WCW is often contemptuously (and offensively) dismissed as “wheelchair wrestling” by younger fans and its ratings have plummeted. In 2000 the organisation lost over A$144 million and was soundly beaten by a glitzier WWF (which is also pulling no punches in its legal deathmatch with the World Wildlife Fund over the use of the WWF acronym).

In January, plunging profits forced Turner Broadcasting Systems and its parent company Time Warner to cut their losses and sell the WCW to the founders of US cable broadcaster Classic Sports Network, itself recently acquired by sports network ESPN. WCW President Eric Bischoff says the influx of new capital will give the wrestling a badly needed “shot in the arm” ­ although just what part Greco will play in the organisation's future hinges entirely on the story-lines the show's writers decide to embrace. And early indications are that Greco will be making the most of his established Aussie/kickboxer persona.

What Greco's American fans won't be told is that the 33-year-old star was kicking soccer balls long before he was kicking heads (both with and without choreography). The real passion of Greco's Italian-born father Vittorio was soccer, and he encouraged Sam to get involved with the game from an early age. Vittorio, who was born in the eastern Sicilian town of Solarino, near Syracuse, watched Sam become the youngest player ever to sign up with the Australian premier league team Juventus, and was disappointed when his son quit to take up karate. “He was a particularly good player, and he had a bright future ahead of him”, Vittorio says over lunch. “But that's the way we are in our family: we play any sport, even if it's billiards. We get involved, rather than just watch it”.

I first met Sam in 1994 when, like all kickboxers with street cred, he went by a nickname: Slam 'em. He had come into a radio station where I was working to promote a fight in which he and kickboxing legend Stan “The Man” Longinidis were fighting side by side (although not against each other on that occasion). While “The Man” waxed incoherent on how he broke an opponent's leg and on his decision to embrace Protestantism, Greco reflected on why kickboxing in Australia attracts enough ethnic kids to make billboards such as “Tonight: Italians vs. Turks” a common sight. But seven years later, he's still not too sure. “Football, cricket and tennis just don't attract European kids”, he says. “But kickboxing gets them in. Fighting and self-defence are things they want to learn. There is a thrill in learning how to protect yourself”. Yet a level of ethnic sparring does appear to lurk dangerously beneath the surface of kickboxing, just as it had in the early days when Jack Little hosted the Australian wrestling on Sundays (ominously programmed to follow the very Catholic “Point of View” with B.A. Santamaria). Kickboxing in Australia, just like the old wrestling, promotes an awareness of cultural backgrounds which would never be found in mainstream sports, where ethnicity is often downplayed or ignored altogether.

In American wrestling there are similarities, although socio-economic background as well as ethnicity appears to play a part. The WCW's popular “Goldberg” character is known to refer to his Jewish heritage, while “Chuck” Palumbo plays up his Italian-American antecedents by consulting regularly (on screen) with his mother. Redneck characters, which appear routinely in both the WWF and the WCW, are often described as “trailer trash”, much to the delight of young American audiences nurtured on the class finger-pointing of Jerry Springer.

But as an Australian, Greco's persona is more likely to be bound to Crocodile Dundee stereotypes than to notions of Italian-ness, a thought which would certainly amuse members of Australia's ethnically aware kickboxing fraternity who have yet to use the adjective “Australian” as a term of endearment. However, Greco is very keen to assure me that in the case of his rivalry with “The Man” Longinidis, it had always been entirely professional, never ethnic. “With all respect to Stan, I've had 167 fights, and I've fought the best in the world, while he hasn't fought half of them yet. Pound for pound, I'm probably the greatest kickboxer in Australia. That's a big statement to make, but I'll make it”. Australia's Sam Greco is ready for the world.

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