Gene Kiniski is as big in death as he was in life.
After the wrestling superstar died at 81 on April 14 there have been dozens of news stories and reminiscences, recalling a legendary wrestler, an exceptional athlete, and a charismatic wit.
Kiniski called himself “Canada’s greatest athlete” and there are plenty who would agree. Kiniski’s son Nick is expecting up to 1,000 people at his Kiniski’s Reef Tavern in Point Roberts for an April 25 celebration of life from 1 to 4 p.m. “And he hasn’t been on TV for 40 years. That’s what amazes me,” Nick said.
Born in Edmonton, Kiniski learned amateur wrestling at the local YMCA but started his athletic career playing football, first at the University of Arizona and then for two seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos.
He was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, Nick said, but then a knee injury put him on the bench for the season and when he was back in shape he took the more lucrative path into professional wrestling. He made his professional debut in Arizona in 1952.
Kiniski’s career may have started in the U.S. but it was in Canada that he built his fame as a bad guy. His feud with “Whipper” Billy Watson stirred crowds from coast to coast into a frenzy.
“I wrestled him 14 consecutive Wednesdays in London, Ontario and for the 14 times I wrestled him the matches never finished because it always ended in a riot and we had 14 consecutive sell-outs,” Kiniski said in a 1978 CBC interview with Peter Gzowski. “Now you figure that one out.”
Kiniski is the only wrestler to have held the championship title for both the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and American Wrestling Association (AWA), Nick said. He beat Verne Gagne in 1961 to win the AWA title and in 1966 defeated longstanding NWA heavyweight champ Lou Thesz. He also challenged World Wide Wrestling Federation champion Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Gardens, but was bested in a rematch.
In 1962 he moved to the Vancouver area and joined NWA All Star Wrestling, eventually building a home in Blaine. As the NWA world champion he wrestled throughout North America and Japan, battling well-known wrestlers such as Killer Kowalski, Bobo Brazil, Abdullah the Butcher and Johnny Valentine.
According to Kiniski’s Wikipedia entry, after agreeing to step down as world champion in 1968 and losing to Dory Funk Jr. he still continued to wrestle and win championships throughout the ‘70s.
Both Nick and his brother Kelly entered professional wrestling and sometimes teamed with their father. Kiniski also stepped into the business side of his sport, buying into the Northwest promotional territory, NWA All Star.
“He loved it. He loved being in good shape,” Nick said, describing his father as a fitness fanatic who was still doing 2,000 crunches a day well into into his 80s.
Kiniski also loved the dramatic side of professional wrestling, enjoying the show out of the ring as much as in it. In 1969, sports writer Trent Frayne is reported to have written that “As an entertainer Kiniski is one of the world’s most successful in his game, a big, quick, furious, exciting performer with a big round tough-looking kisser who comes on like a demented storm trooper.”
In online blogs several fans remember Kiniski’s signature interview style who, when approached by TV announcer Ron Morrier, would grab the mike and spin an articulate self-congratulatory speech without allowing Morrier to speak and would end with the words, “As always, Ron, thanks for a great interview.”
Fans, friends and family remember the Kiniski charisma as much as the athleticism. “Fame never really got to him,” Nick said. “He’d always just sit down and talk to you, whoever you were.”
Where he did leverage his celebrity was in learning about everything from training dogs to shoeing horses. “He loved animals and got to be good at a lot of stuff because he was famous and got to learn from the best,” Nick said.
When Nick ended his own wrestling career and bought the Reef Tavern in Point Roberts in 1988, his father would come up and tend bar, leaving many patrons with memories of being served a cold beer by their childhood icon. That’s where crowds will gather to say goodbye to him this weekend, sharing memories and enjoying some of Kiniski’s favorite things: some sun, a game of pool, and maybe someone should pick up a few gallons of maple nut ice cream.
To see the classic CBC Peter Gzowski interview with Gene, visit http://archives.cbc.ca/sports/wrestling/clips/6835/