Kiniski to be inducted into hall of fame
by Tavish Bradbury
During his career as a professional wrestler, local man Gene Kiniski was best known for his arrogant bravado and tough demeanor. Love him or hate him, most agree his popularity derived in large part from articulate interviews and his sincere appreciation of the sport and its fans.
Kiniski is such a wrestling success that he has been named to such organizations as the SLAM! Wrestling Canadian Hall of Fame, and this summer will be inducted into the Lou Thesz Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Iowa.
Kiniski started his career as a football player. After attending the University of Arizona on athletic scholarship, his stint with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League was cut short by a knee injury. It didn�t take long for Gene to find a new calling and in 1953 he joined the ranks of professional wrestling. Under the alias of Gene Kelly, he went on to win regional circuit titles during the 1950s. After reclaiming his real name and adopting the moniker �Big Thunder,� Kiniski pinned down several more prestigious titles.
Even in his youth, Kiniski was equal parts performance and persona. �I would wrestle anybody, and I usually won. No one wanted to get out there with me. So I began wrestling local coaches, older men, and I beat them. They couldn�t believe my strength and endurance and wanted to know who this kid was. I�d tell them my name is Kiniski.�
Standing six-foot-four-inches and 275 pounds, Kiniski was and still is a physical specimen. �I was a brawler,� says Kiniski. �At 15, I was bigger and stronger than everyone else. I would be wrestling 30 and 40-year-old men at the YMCA, and I cleaned the mats with �em.�
The name Kiniski alone is tough. Three sharp syllables roll off the tongue. It is no surprise that Gene Kelly bowed out allowing Big Thunder Kiniski to storm wrestling. Although he had always been a fundamental grappler, Kiniski recognized the opportunity to learn from some of the biggest names in the sport.
�You start out getting the s--t kicked out of you�then you learn a move and it works. It�s exhilarating,� he says.
Kiniski loved to learn from the best, and one of his greatest tutors, and admirers, was the legendary Lou Thesz. �Lou was a very technical wrestler and one of my toughest opponents. I learned a lot from my matches with him, including how to be a professional in all aspects of the sport,� he says.
Eventually Kiniski would beat Thesz for the National Wrestling Alliance world heavyweight title. He would hold this honor, the greatest in pro wrestling, from 1966 through 1969.
Kiniski wrestled the biggest names of the time, including Whipper Billy Watson, Haystack Calhoun, Tex Mckenzie, Andre the Giant and countless others. He battled the fathers of today�s wrestling stars. He took on Rocky Johnson, whose son �The Rock� is one of the most popular wrestlers today. He fought Vince McMahon Sr., whose son is the orchestrator of the World Wrestling Experience. Before long the name Kiniski was as famous as any of them.
The money wasn�t bad either. �The mini tours were very profitable, we would get full capacity in all the towns we went to. It was the big arenas in the big cities that didn�t pay well,� he says.
Kiniski understood his charisma. �The reason I was so popular was because I was controversial. You have to be in this sport. Sell yourself, treat it as a business.�
Never mind that he was selling himself as a villain. �Wrestling is fun,� declares Kiniski. �Where else can you get 1,000 people to buy a ticket to boo you?�
But it wasn�t all fun. Traveling the continent year-round proved a challenge. In the early days, traveling took place in cramped propeller planes. �You never knew what you were going to get with those planes�weather would cause delays. You had to move with the matches though, it was part of the job,� he says.
The rigors of travel in part convinced Kiniski to make a move to Vancouver in 1960. Two international airports and quality schools suited his young family. It also would prove to be a great career move. West Coast wrestling was a fit.
Vancouver would showcase his charisma on the popular TV show All-Star Wrestling. Little kids and little old ladies alike tuned in Saturday mornings to cheer and jeer. Kiniski was at his best when it came to playing to the crowd. With Canada emblazoned across his chest, he dominated All-Star�s interviews as well as matches. One of his beloved routines involved ring announcer Ron Morrier, who when holding the mic for Kiniski, couldn�t get a word in. After challenges and proclamations were through, Kiniski would thank old Ron for doing �such a great job interviewing me.� The fans ate it up.
Kiniski�s last match, in his early 60s, was in Japan in 1994. Wrestling in a packed Tokyo Dome, he was greeted with great respect. �What a thrill to stand in the middle of a ring on the other side of the world, hearing fans chant, Kin-is-kay! Kin-is-kay!,� he says. �They wanted a star, that�s why I was invited. I was scheduled to wrestle one match during the night. After the first match the promoter asked me to go another, then another. I wrestled three matches in a row that night.�
True to his reputation, Big Thunder gave the fans all he had. They asked for a star and the star showed up thrice. A fitting end to an illustrious career. But end is an inappropriate word. Kiniski will forever be revered in pro wrestling.
Kiniski is not a fan of retirement. �I�d be up there at SFU working out with the wrestling team today if my knees allowed it. I have to stay active,� he says. His activities today include swimming and weight lifting, and he enjoys trap shooting, reading, and politics. Kiniski readily shares his philosophies and progressive views on sports and life.
�Wrestling was such a diverse profession. I matched up against all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. There was never any prejudice,� he says.
Gene Kiniski � the man, the brawler, the villain, looks back on his career with great satisfaction, but it is easy to see his true joy lies in the relationships that he has known both personally and professionally.
�I�ve had a great life,� he says. �I couldn�t think of a better way to make a living.�