New book chronicles life of wrestling legend Gene Kiniski
A brute in the ring, the one-time Edmonton Eskimo player was a genuine character
Sometimes introduced as the meanest man in Canada, the late professional wrestler Gene Kiniski remains the stuff of legend.
The former world heavyweight champion became infamous as a brutish, trash-talking villain with a cutting wit and a bulldog scowl. His signature move, the back-breaker, was sure to draw boos from the crowd.
His legacy as a man wrestling fans the world over loved to hate is being honoured in a new biography, Gene Kiniski: Canadian Wrestling Legend.
"I watched Kiniski as a wrestler over the years and I found him, as many Canadians did, to be a very entertaining character," author Steven Verrier said in an interview Monday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.
"But I learned he was a great deal more than I thought, and I just wanted to chronicle his life."
'Larger than life'
While he was known as one of the era's biggest wrestling heels, in real life Kiniski was an endearing man, Verrier said.
Beyond the ring, Kiniski — often billed as Big Thunder or the Greatest Athlete in Canada — was a gregarious man, a survivor of Depression-era poverty, a father, husband and professional football player.
"He was a larger than life kind of character," Verrier said. "He attracted people whether he was in an arena or on television. He just drew people to him. He spoke his mind.
"One longtime friend called him the ultimate child.
"At first, I just saw him as an entertaining character. That's what drew me to him at first. But I would not have spent all this time working on this book had I not realized he was more than that."
Born in 1928 in Lamont, Alta., the youngest of six children, Kiniski was raised in nearby Chipman, Alta., where his family struggled through the Depression.
They moved to Edmonton when Kiniski was 11, and within a few years he was a promising athlete.
As a teenager, he started learning amateur wrestling holds at the YMCA in the late 1930s. He wrestled and played football at St. Joseph's High School, and soon caught the attention of CFL coach Annis Stukas.
Kiniski played football for the Edmonton Eskimos and got a full ride football scholarship at the University of Arizona.
The family has strong ties in Edmonton. Kiniski's mother, Julia, served four terms on city council between 1963 and 1969. His brother, Julian, also served on city council.
Kiniski started his pro wrestling career in 1953 after a knee injury forced him to quit the Eskimos after three seasons.
His six-foot-four, 272-pound frame and freight-train fighting style propelled him quickly to wrestling's top rung.
After his debut in Tucson, Ariz., on Feb. 13, 1952, he went on to win individual and tag-team championships across North America and Japan.
He beat Verne Gagne for the American Wrestling Association world title in 1961. His biggest win came on Jan. 7, 1966, when he conquered Lou Thesz to become National Wrestling Alliance world champion.
His big personality made Kiniski a favourite among reporters and radio broadcasters.
"He was considered entertaining and he was a main-eventer everywhere he went," Verrier said.
"He didn't just ad lib. He prepared for his interviews. He was considered one of the best of his era at that.
"He worked at that. He just sold himself."
After retiring from the ring at 62, Kiniski settled in Blaine, Wash. Even in his final years, his wild personality was never tamed.
He was sometimes spotted in his backyard shooting targets with guns from his collection or going out of daily jogs in tiny Speedo.
He died of cancer in April 14, 2010 at age 81.
"He was the kind of guy who made people take notice," Verrier said. "I think he would be proud of the legacy that he left."