Verrier, Steven. Gene Kiniski: Canadian Wrestling Legend. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2018. Pp. 246. Bibliography and index. $35 paperback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo
Professional wrestling has always been about business. It has evolved from matches in dimly lit carnival tents before a few hundred curious onlookers to WrestleMania 35, which reportedly drew 82,265 fans to MetLife Stadium in metropolitan New York on April 7, 2019. The net worth of Vince McMahon Jr., chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment, rose from $1.7 billion in 2018 to $3.2 billion in 2019, according to Forbes magazine. In mid-April, WWE stock was hovering close to $100 per share.
But long before McMahon consolidated his power and homogenized pro wrestling, jazzing it up with walkup songs, pyrotechnics and lurid story lines, the business was a hodgepodge of regional territories that relied on action in the ring. During the 1950s, matches aired nightly on grainy black-and-white television set. Promoters made their money by putting people in seats at auditoriums and arenas. The Internet was a pipe dream so wrestlers could change their roles to suit different territories.
That was the world Gene Kiniski thrived in.
Billing himself “Canada’s greatest athlete,” the Alberta native was a former football star, ruggedly built and a no-nonsense performer. He was perfect for the gritty, workmanlike world of pro wrestling he entered in 1953, with an aggressive style and a sharp wit that set him apart from other competitors.“(Kiniski) was loud, he was tough, he was scary,” Terry Funk tells author Steven Verrier. “But he had a heart of gold (and) a tremendous amount of class.”
Verrier digs deeply into the life of Kiniski in his latest book, Gene Kiniski: Canadian Wrestling Legend (McFarland), presenting a sentimental look at a hard-boiled competitor who was recognized as a world heavyweight champion by two different organizations — the American Wrestling Alliance in 1961, and the National Wrestling Alliance from 1966 to 1969.Kiniski even earned a spot in 2009’s World Wrestling Entertainment Encyclopedia, acknowledging him as one of the greatest athletes ever to come out of Canada. While Kiniski’s involvement with the then-World Wide Wrestling Federation (now WWE) was minimal, he still had some headline matches against champion Bruno Sammartino.
Verrier, who has written works of short drama, fiction, and nonfiction, grew up watching Kiniski perform on All Star Wrestling, a promotion that originated in British Columbia and was seen on television across Canada. Verrier got the idea to focus on Kiniski during his research for his 2017 book, Professional Wrestling in the Pacific Northwest: A History, 1883 to the Present. He notes that, while Kiniski was a “heel” (bad guy), he proved to be entertaining to a national audience “that was supposed to hate him but found that hard to do.” (p. 5).
The world of 1950s wrestling, author and University of Tampa journalism professor John Capouya wrote in 2008, was “the grunt-and-groan game’s golden age” because the flamboyant Gorgeous George was a sensation on television with his showmanship, feminine robes and masculine features. Kiniski was the direct opposite, exuding toughness and masculinity. He also knew how to manipulate television, using his interviews to hype upcoming matches. Bombast and catchy phrases were important to lure television viewers to live matches, and Kiniski was an expert. “If Prime Minister (Pierre) Trudeau and I walked down the street, they’d say ‘The guy with the crewcut is Kiniski. I don’t know who the other fellow is,’” Kiniski said in a 1978 television interview. “I would have called him Canada’s Greatest Talker,” longtime friend and wrestling friend/foe Don Leo Jonathan tells Verrier (p.116).
Kiniski had a crew cut, a gravelly voice and filled out his 6-foot-4 frame with 270 pounds. His signature move was the backbreaker. He was the youngest son of Polish immigrants and grew up in Chipman, Alberta. He spent three semesters at the University of Arizona, where he played football. He also played professional football for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League, but Kiniski’s first love was wrestling. The cauliflower ears and “road map for a face” was evidence of that.
“Pro wrestling is world of unrelated brothers and Italian noblemen from the Bronx,” journalist Frank Jares, whose father wrestled professionally, wrote in 1974. “Every Indian is a chief, every Englishman a lord, every German a Nazi.” Kiniski did not need a gimmick to become a headliner. His aggressive style and antagonism toward the fans earned him plenty of heat.
Verrier’s research takes many forms, including newspapers, books, websites, telephone interviews, email interviews, digital archives and even via Facebook messaging. Verrier’s telephone interviews included former wrestlers Sammartino, Funk, Jonathan and Dennis Stamp. He also had face-to-face interviews with Kiniski’s sons, Nick and Kelly. Benny Grabow, a Kiniski friend for nearly seventy years, also added valuable insights.
Verrier also had access to Kiniski’s collection of newspaper articles and photographs, which add color and context to a storied career. The difficulty arises when Verrier is unable to document the source of a story. It is in Kiniski’s scrapbook, but Verrier is left to try and pin down a date or source. Verrier has to resort to “further identifying information is unavailable” several times in his bibliography. A little more research might have ferreted out the information, but the sources appear credible.
Reading Verrier’s account of Kiniski’s life is to travel through wrestling history. Kiniski wrestled with or against some of the top names in the business, including Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Wilbur Snyder, Dory Funk Sr., Hard Boiled Haggerty, Whipper Watson, Fritz Von Erich, Pat O’Connor, Edouard Carpentier, Bobo Brazil and Killer Kowalski. Kiniski defeated Gagne for the AWA title in 1961 but only held it for 28 days before losing it. He beat Thesz for the NWA title in 1966 and held it for nearly three years before losing it to Dory Funk Jr. in February 1969. “(Kiniski was) one of the hardest-fighting heavyweight champions that wrestling has ever seen,” wrestling commentator Gordon Solie said after the title loss to Funk Jr.
Verrier’s writing is straightforward and clean. Some of his descriptions of Kiniski’s year-by-year opponents and title shots might be tedious for non-wrestling fans, but those who are interested in how grapplers competed and traveled before the Internet age will enjoy it. It was the era of kayfabe, when wrestlers portrayed staged events as real, and kept their friendships with other wrestlers — particularly “enemies” — a secret. It was a squared circle version of omerta, and while wrestlers worked hard at selling their pain and agony during matches, they mostly did so without inflicting or receiving actual injuries. “The best wrestlers don’t hurt anyone for real,” former star Bret Hart said in a 2018 interview with Forbes.
An anecdote Verrier recounts about Kiniski and Dory Funk Jr. is a prime example. Funk injured his knee during a 1963 battle royal in British Columbia. He consulted with a doctor, who recommended surgery, and Funk called promoter Rod Fenton. The promoter suggested Funk call Kiniski before going under the knife. “I didn’t speak much to Gene, I listened,” Funk wrote on the WrestleZone website after Kiniski’s death in April 2010. “(He said) ‘Kid, go to a sporting goods store and buy some tough skin, some tape, and long wrestling tights. Shave your leg and show up for the show one hour ahead of time.’ I did what he said.”
Funk was wrestling Kiniski in the main event, and he showed up to the arena as instructed, sneaking in through the back door, Verrier writes. “Gene was there one hour ahead of schedule,” Funk wrote in his tribute. “He taped my leg tight as a cast from top to bottom, then said, ‘Bend it ’til you get a slight tear in the tape by your knee.’ As Gene left the room, he growled, “OK kid, I will see you in the ring.’ “Gene Kiniski was there every night that week one hour ahead of schedule to tape my knee before we wrestled, then we would go into the ring and he would whip the heck out of me but leave the knee alone,” Funk wrote, adding that Kiniski’s actions might have saved his pro wrestling career (p. 95).
It’s been said pro wrestlers tell the best stories because of their many years on the road. That is particularly true with Gene Kiniski, and Verrier tells a compelling tale based on the Canadian wrestler’s long and storied career. He writes about action in the ring, but also describes Kiniski’s youth, his parents and siblings, and his wife and children. Verrier writes about Kiniski’s tender spot for children, and his compassion when Von Erich lost one of his young sons. He captures Kiniski’s love for women and guns, and his work as a co-promoter in the Pacific Northwest.
Pro wrestling may be full of glitz now, but it was grit that carried the day more than half a century ago. Verrier shows how Kiniski’s true grit made him a champion inside and outside of the ring.
Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.