Former multi-time World Heavyweight Champion Gene Kiniski, billed as "Canada's Greatest Athlete" and known also as "Big Thunder", passed away Wednesday, April 14, 2010, at the age of 81 after a long bout with cancer that had spread to Kiniski's brain.
Kiniski died at his Blaine, WA home, with his family by his side.
Kiniski, born Eugene Nicholas Kiniski on November 23, 1928, outside of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, was the youngest of six children to Nicolas and Julia Kiniski, a barber and an alderman for the local city council.
A tall and rugged youth, Kiniski was already over six feet tall and 200 pounds by age 17 and played football and was on the wrestling team at his high school. Although he did win some amateur wrestling titles in high school, his large frame would make it difficult to find opponents. However, he excelled in football, a sport much better suited for a person of his build.
Kiniski excelled in football, attracting the attention of Annis Stukus, a scout for the Edmonton Eskimos, then of the Western Interprovincial Football Union, which later merged with the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union to form the Canadian Football League. Kiniski, however, had other plans than playing football with the Eskimos, and instead opted for a scholarship to the University of Arizona, playing for coach Bob Winslow from September 1950 until leaving school in January 1952 when local promoter Rod Fenton recruited Kiniski for professional wrestling.
Like many wrestlers of the era, he also played football to augment his earnings, returning to his native Edmonton to play football for the Eskimos. However, his pro football career didn't last long, as he suffered a torn kneecap in the team�s first game against Saskatchewan in August 1952, prompting Kiniski to retire from football in 1953 to wrestle full time.
In a 1969 interview, Kiniski discussed the differences between football and wrestling as it relates to injuries in the two sports.
"Football is tougher. In this business, you know where the blows are coming from. In football, you'll be going one way after the ballcarrier and whap! Somebody will hit you from the blind side."
Kiniski trained for the ring with Dory Funk Sr. and Tony Morelli, making his pro debut on February 13, 1952 in Tucson, Arizona, picking up the win in his debut match against Curly Hughes.
Kiniski received the nickname, "Canada's Greatest Athlete" from Dick Beddoes, a well-known Canadian sports reporter during an interview.
Kiniski excelled in wrestling as he did in football, challenging National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Champion Lou Thesz on November 3, 1954 and capturing his first major championship, the International TV Championship in 1955, a mere three years after turning pro, teaming with "The Golden Greek" John Tolos. Also in 1955, Kiniski travelled to San Francisco, teaming with Lord James Blears to win the NWA World Tag Team Championship (San Francisco version) three times and in Texas captured the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship the following year. (For many years, the National Wrestling Alliance was broken into many small territories, each territory controlling a version of the NWA title, with the sole "world" Champion touring each group. Promoters were not allowed to cross their designated territorial boundaries, risking the loss of the large payday that would come when the NWA World Champion would wrestle in their territory, and also the fact that other NWA promoters would band together to push the rival out of the occupied territory, themselves facing the same risk if they did not cooperate.)
It took Kiniski until 1956 to make his Canadian wrestling debut, wrestling fellow Canadian Whipper Billy Watson in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens for Toronto's Maple Leaf Wrestling promotion, run by promoter Frank Tunney, who was the uncle of future World Wrestling Federation on-camera "President" Jack Tunney. He was in the main event match for the territory shortly thereafter, in January 1957, teaming with original "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers against Whipper Billy Watson and New Zealander Pat O'Connor. Kiniski would frequently challenge for the NWA Championship during the years 1955 through 1957.
Kiniski's next title win was the British Empire Championship, which he defeated Pat O�Connor for on May 2, 1957, and the Montreal version of the World Championship from Frenchman Eduardo Carpentier on June 12, 1957, which he held for a little over a month before dropping it to Killer Kowalski on July 17, 1957 in front of 21,000 fans at Delormier stadium in Montreal, where he headlined the card. In 1959, Kiniski won another tag team title, teaming with Don Leo Jonathan, "The Mormon Giant" to win the Canadian Open Tag Team Championship.
Kiniski joined the American Wrestling Association (AWA) from there in 1960, early in the promotion's existence, defeating AWA World Champion Verne Gagne to win the title on July 11, 1961, as well as capturing the AWA World Tag Team Championship twice with Hard Boiled Haggerty. Although the tag team title reign lasted less than a month, Kiniski won another title in West Texas a year later.
In 1962, Kiniski went to Vancouver to join NWA All Star Wrestling, winning the NWA British Empire Heavyweight Championship twice and the Pacific Coast Tag Team Championship three times, and also again challenging for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, now held by Buddy Rogers in the main event at Empire Stadium in Vancouver on July 30, 1962, and also challenging Lou Thesz in 1963. Kiniski continued to wrestle across North America and Japan while making Vancouver his home promotion. He worked for the
then-World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment) in 1964, challenging WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino several times, although never quite capturing the belt, with the exception of a single disputed reign when challenging Sammartino on November 16, 1964 at Madison Square Garden. In a "best of three falls" match, Kiniski had won the first fall, and thinking he had pinned Sammartino in the second fall, Kiniski took the belt and left the ring. Despite being counted out, Kiniski continued to hold onto the title until a rematch on December 14 settled the championship dispute. In December 1965, Kiniski travelled to Dick the Bruiser's Indianapolis-based World Wrestling Association and captured the promotion's Heavyweight Championship, holding it for four months.
The pinnacle of Kiniski's career came on January 7, 1966, when he defeated Lou Thesz to finally capture the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship in front of 11,612 fans at the Kiel Auditorium in Thesz' hometown of St. Louis, MO. Kiniski reigned as Champion for three years, defending the strap across the world, as was the custom of the "World" Champion of the time. During his reign as Champion, he appeared in the Los Angeles territory for the first time in more than 11 years. He would finally lose the belt to Dory Funk, Jr, (Dory and Terry were the only brothers to ever capture the NWA Championship) in Tampa, Florida on February 11, 1969.
However, just because Kiniski lost the NWA World Championship didn't mean his winning ways ended. While still in St. Louis, he won the NWA Missouri Heavyweight Championship from Terry Funkon March 16, 1973 before travelling back to Vancouver, where he won the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Championship a whopping seven times from 1970 to 1979, and also won the Canadian Tag Team Championship ten times between 1963 and 1976, teaming with with Mr. X and Bob Brown twice, and Don Leo Jonathan, The Brute, Dutch Savage, Mr. Saito, Dale Lewis, and Siegfried Steinke one time each. Kiniski also travelled back to Japan where he captured the NWA International Heavyweight title in 1970.
In the late 1960s, Kiniski would get involved in the promotional aspect of wrestling when he joined forces with Sandor Kovacs and Portland promoter Don Owen to acquire the Vancouver territory and would make the territory a wrestling hotbed for many years after. Kiniski retained his ownership stake in the promotion until the early 1980s. Never one to hide his feelings, at the same time he was beginning to get into promoting his own teritory, he famously slammed NWA promoters at the 1968 convention, accusing them of being pimps. In a June 2009 interview, Kiniski elaborated on the story.
"I tell them, the way they were treating me, [censored] me with my payoffs. I told them off and [censored], they stopped using me," he said. "They were [censored] me on my back payoffs. I'm not that stupid. I know what's in the house, what I should be getting and what their share is. All of a sudden you'd wrestle, then you'd have to wait a month to get your cheque and all that [censored]."
Certainly there are many wrestlers to this day who would agree with Kiniski, and likely just as many promoters. The fact that Kiniski would slam other promoters while himself getting involved in promoting shows only makes the anecdote that much funnier. Of course, as a promoter, you are opening yourself to plenty of criticism from the wrestlers, even (especially) if you happen to be a wrestler yourself. Kiniski was no exception to the criticism of the wrestlers who accused Kiniski of making himself the top dog of his own promotion, a complaint frequently leveled against promoters who are active wrestlers.
Kiniski still remained active in the sport for a few more years, teaming with his sons, Kelly and Nick. He also appeared as special referee for the main event of the inaugural NWA Starrcade in 1983 (two years prior to WrestleMania), which featured Ric Flair vs. NWA World Champion Harley Race in a steel cage. He dabbled in acting, appearing alongside Sylvester Stallone in the 1978 movie Paradise Alley, among other movie roles. He also did some TV commercials in Vancouver, and did some interviews for The Comedy Network series <U>Wrestling with the Past</u>, as well as the A&E documentary <u>The Unreal Story of Pro Wrestling</u> (available from us). Kiniski demonstrated he was more than just the thug he portrayed on television by making an appearance in an episode of the CBUT arts and entertainment magazine show, <u>Zero Avenue</u> in 1993, discussing art with host/interviewer Christine Lippa in a Vancouver-area art gallery.
Kiniski solved the problem encountered later by Terry Funk, Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan by never actually having a retirement match and never actually claiming to be retired. He continued wrestling well into the 90s, competing in Winnipeg's West Four Wrestling Alliance on February 25, 1992, defeating "Bulldog" Bob Brown and Randy Rudd in singles matches and also teaming with Chris Jericho and Lance Storm to battle Brown, The Natural, and Gerry Morrow to a no-contest in a six-man match at a TV taping.
Kiniski also appeared on WCW's inaugural Slamboree pay-per-view in 1993, during the "Legend's Reunion", acting as the cornerman for Dory Funk Jr. for his match against Nick Bockwinkel and his cornerman, Verne Gagne.
Kiniski was honoured by the Cauliflower Alley Club ("The Ring of Friendship", an organisation for those associated with the wrestling industry) in 1992. He has been inducted into every major wrestling Hall of Fame. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame in 1996; the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Newton, Iowa, which typically honours professional wrestlers with a great amateur background, in 2004; the St. Louis Wrestling Hall Of Fame in 2007; the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, NY in 2008; and the National Wrestling Alliance Hall of Fame in 2009.
Although his television character was a mean-spirited thug, Kiniski was quite the opposite, a very well-read man who would arrive in town early enough to grab a newspaper or listen to the local radio in order to find something he could use to antagonise the crowd.
Over the past decade, Kiniski's health would begin to deteriorate, but he still found time to stay active, biking and swimming. As his health began to further decline, he would be hospitalised with congestive heart failure, and shortly after, he would be diagnosed with the cancer that eventually took his life.
Knowing the end was near, Kiniski voiced his sole complaint about his life: "I can't do it again."
Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter opined that Kiniski was "one of the top villains of all time."
Kiniski leaves behind a wife, Marion and two sons, Kelly and Nick, both of whom were also successful amateur wrestlers before turning pro during the 1970s, and occasionally worked in tag teams with their father.
Kiniski boasts a Championship record that reads like no other. With the wrestling industry split into various independently-owned territories across the United States and Canada, it offered wrestlers active in those days a real chance to shine that wrestlers in today's near-stranglehold of the sport cannot accomplish. His honours include all of the wrestling Halls of Fame, and numerous tag team and singles titles that includes the American Wrestling Association (AWA) United States Heavyweight Championship twice, the World Tag Team Championship twice with Hard Boiled Haggerty, who he would team with again to capture the NWA Pacific Coast Tag Team Championship (Vancouver Version) twice. He picked up the AWA World Heavyweight Championship defeating Verne Gagne.
In his home promotion, NWA All-Star Wrestling, he won the NWA British Empire Heavyweight Championship (Vancouver version) as well as the NWA Pacific Coast Tag Team Championship (Vancouver Version) with Killer Kowalski and Hard Boiled Haggerty, as mentioned above. He also won the NWA Pacific Coast Heavyweight Championship (Vancouver Version) seven times.
He travelled across all of the major NWA promotions, picking up Championships along the way, such as the NWA World Tag Team Championship (Chicago Version) once with Dick the Bruiser, who he would later work with in Indianopolis' World Wrestling Association, where he would win the promotion's top Championship. In St. Louis, he captured the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from legendary Lou Thesz, and also the NWA Missouri Heavyweight Championship. In Texas, he worked with the promotion that would later be World Class Championship Wrestling, winning the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship and the NWA Texas Tag Team Championship. Continuing his way through Texas, he won the NWA International Heavyweight Championship (Amarillo version). Working his way west, he won the NWA Los Angeles International Television Tag Team Championship with "The Golden Greek" John Tolos and the NWA World Tag Team Championship (San Francisco version) three times with Lord James Blears, who he would team with again in NWA Hawaii when he would win their tag team Championship. He would also win the NWA Hawaii Heavyweight Championship twice and the NWA North American Heavyweight Championship (Hawaii Version) three times. In his native Canada, he would win the Montreal Athletic Commission International Heavyweight Championship once and in Toronto, he would win NWA British Empire Heavyweight Championship (Toronto version) twice and the NWA Canadian Open Tag Team Championship twice, once each with Fritz Von Erich and Don Leo Jonathan. Internationally, he won the Japan Wrestling Association All Asia Tag Team Championship and the NWA International Heavyweight Championship. His sole Championship in the World Wide Wrestling Federation was the WWWF United States Tag Team Championship, teaming with Waldo Von Erich.
The loss of this highly successful wrestler will certainly be felt in our sport.
Kiniski in his famous "Canada" ring jacketNow on Facebook!:
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