John Tolos: Wrestler celebrated as one of the finest ring villains

John Tolos, "The Golden Greek", who has died aged 78, was one of professional wrestling's finest "heels" – a villain in wrestling parlance - for most of his 40-year career. He was a legend in southern California, where his rivalry with "Classy" Freddie Blassie, the self-proclaimed "King of Men" (Independent obituary, 11 June 2003), produced one of wrestling's greatest and most copied angles.

On 8 May 1971, at Los Angeles' Grand Olympic Auditorium, Blassie received a Wrestler of the Year award supposedly voted for by the fans. Tolos, visibly seething at ringside, had captured the Americas heavyweight title from Blassie the night before, when the ring collapsed and knocked Blassie out. That was the culmination of a year-long feud that saw Tolos use a python in one match, and Blassie bite Tolos' head, drawing blood, on Steve Allen's television show. Now, as Blassie addressed his fans, Tolos reached into the ring doctor's bag, left conveniently open, and threw powder into his face. Blassie fell to the mat screaming, covering his eyes, while Tolos destroyed his trophy and the television announcer Dick Lane yelled that Blassie had been blinded.

The ring doctor explained that Tolos had thrown Monsel's powder, used to staunch cuts in boxing before its toxicity to the eyes saw it banned, and that Blassie might lose sight in one eye. In reality, it was talcum, and Blassie, face bandaged, went into hospital for a scheduled knee operation. For the next three months, Blassie rehabbed his knee and wrestled in Japan, while Tolos fought a series of Blassie's champions, intent on avenging his perfidy. After Blassie miraculously regained his sight, they met on 27 August in the Los Angeles Coliseum, and 25,847 fans, still the California record, saw Blassie bloody Tolos with more biting, then win by smashing a chair over his head.

Tolos was always an innovative villain. In Amarillo, Texas, in 1965, he stood as a groomsman when the local favourite "Silento" Rodriquez was married in the ring. When it came time to kiss the bride, Tolos' attentions were so over the top that Rodriquez attacked him, leading to a brawl and a profitable series of matches.

At 6ft 2in and 250lb, and well-conditioned, Tolos worked long matches and wrestled "stiff", or realistically, which made him popular in Japan. He was best as a heel, famously referring to his opponents by using "girlie" names, and insulting the ethnicity of their fans. When a match was over, he would say, "Isn't that right, brother Chris?" and Chris would reply, "That's right, brother John". They'd finish with their trademark mantra: "There's only one way to spell wrestling, and it's T-O-L-O-S!"

John Tolos was born on 5 April, 1931, in Hamilton, Ontario, to Greek immigrant parents. An amateur wrestler, he followed his older brother, Chris, into the professional sport, and was trained by "Wee Willie" Davis. By 1951, they were touring Canada as the Golden Greeks or the Hamilton Wrecking Crew. As champions of Calgary's Stampede Wrestling, they debuted for New York's World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), the forerunner of today's WWE, in 1959. They won the US tag-team title from Gorilla Monsoon and Killer Kowalski in 1963, before losing it to Argentina Apollo and the Irish Don McClarity, a veritable United Nations of scripted mayhem.

The brothers won the inaugural National Wrestling Alliance title in Detroit, before Chris quit in 1967 to wrestle as a single, mostly around Toronto. Tolos moved first to Vancouver, where he married his wife Ingrid in 1967 (they later divorced), then worked his way south until he reached Los Angeles. His first match with Blassie had actually come in northern California, in 1953; their last would be in a Bakersfield cage in 1980.

But as the local territories gave way to national TV, Tolos retired in 1984, wrestling occasionally on independent shows while working a series of jobs, including stage hand at NBC, car salesman, and security guard at Universal Studios. In 1991, the WWE brought him in as "Coach", patterned after the character in Cheers, to manage "Mr. Perfect" Curt Henning, but the comedy angle played against his strengths, and lasted only a few months. He wrestled for the last time in 1992, in a legends match against Kowalski, in front of 30,000 fans in Yokohama, Japan.

Tolos died on 28 May in Los Angeles after a number of heart attacks. His brother died in 2005, and Tolos is survived by his son, also named Chris, and a daughter, Tracy. In a 2003 joint interview with Blassie, Tolos stayed in character to the end. "Blassie was one of the greatest wrestlers ever," he said. "I am the greatest, so he was one of the greatest."

Michael Carlson

John Tolos, wrestler: born Hamilton, Ontario 5 April 1931; married 1967 Ingrid (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 28 May 2009.