Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wrestling's worst villain a proud Canadian fans loved to hate

"The Creation of Mean Gene Kiniski" as depicted by Bob Krieger of the Vancouver Province.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 21, 2010


Gene Kiniski was a mean, nasty, vicious scoundrel.

Fans threw shoes and chairs at him. One stabbed him in the back with a shiv.

More than once, a Kiniski match began in the ring only to be settled in the parking lot. He once drove an opponent’s head into a parked car, leaving a large dent and bent chrome featured prominently in a photograph in the next morning’s newspaper.

His favourite move was known as the back-breaker.

For almost four decades, he was hated in three lands as the worst villain in professional wrestling.

In 1960, the Toronto Shoe Repairmen named him Heel of the Year.

Everyone called him Mean Gene.

Gosh, but he was a swell fellow.

A crew-cut behemoth with a baked potato nose, cauliflower ears and fingers as thick as kielbasa, Kiniski brought to his sport a wit as sharp as a hidden razor. He knew how to ballyhoo. He was under no illusions about the wrestling racket.

“Say you saw me in a fight on the street,” he once told the Vancouver Sun’s John Mackie. “Regardless of whether you knew me or not, you’d say, ‘Look at that big ugly son of a bitch kicking the [bleep] out of that guy.’ I could care less what they said, as long as they paid to see me.”

Kiniski succumbed to cancer last week, his own body defeating him as no rival ever could.

He was an unforgettable character on television, standing 6-foot-4, weighing 275 pounds, his speaking voice a rasp that sounded like he gargled with crushed glass.

Even his name was tough, those Polish consonants grinding against the vowels.

One of his schticks was to take over an interview with his own aggressive patter, cutting up his challengers with sharp words, teasing the fans who loved to hate him with promises of future mayhem, before handing the mike back with kind words about the skills of the interviewee.

Kiniski claimed the championships of the two major pro wrestling circuits, becoming one of the most familiar, if infamous, sporting figures of the 1960s.

The sportswriters called him Big Thunder. He took as his own the title of Canada’s Greatest Athlete, the conceit being that any challenger first had to wrestle against Kiniski before competing in their own sport.

Who could beat Kiniski? The baseball pitcher Ferguson Jenkins? The golfer George Knudson? The jockey Sandy Hawley? Don’t make me laugh. Only football’s Angelo Mosca, or hockey’s Gordie Howe could have lasted more than a minute in the ring with Mean Gene.

He was also a greater entertainer. He promised $10 of pleasure for every dollar spent on a ticket.

He once initiated a riot in Toronto by tearing up a $1,000 cheque presented to Whipper Billy Watson, his frequent rival and a beloved fan favourite.

Kiniski was engaged in a 12-rassler Battle Royal at a jam-packed Winnipeg Auditorium when his noogie on a fellow wrestler was interrupted by an enraged customer who threw both his shoes at the crew-cut villain. Police were about to eject the fan from the building when they realized he had no shoes and a February night in Winnipeg without shoes was too harsh a punishment.

Kiniski was the youngest of six children born to a poor family in hardscrabble rural Alberta. His father worked as a $5-per-week barber, while his Polish-born mother sold cosmetics door to door and managed a cafe. When Gene was 15 she went back to school to complete her education, interrupted in Grade 7. She contested 11 elections before winning a seat on Edmonton city council, where she proved a formidable advocate for the poor. Every year, on her birthday, Gene made sure she received a bottle of Joy perfume. Long after her death, her son said even the slightest rose-and-jasmine whiff of her favourite perfume reduced him to tears.

He spent three seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos, earning a college scholarship with the Arizona Wildcats. He learned he could make more money in the ring. Incredibly, his first ring nickname was Skinny Gene Kiniski.

Mean Gene settled in Vancouver in the early 1960s, touting the city’s beauty at every opportunity. He was a proud Canadian, even after establishing his residence just across the border. He owned the Reef Tavern in Point Roberts, a popular watering hole for thirsty Canadians, especially on Sunday in the days when British Columbia’s liquor laws were still influenced by Prohibition.

Kiniski finally retired from the ring at age 64 because he said no one wanted to see an old guy beat the crap out of a young guy.

Wrestling World magazine once featured a full-colour photograph on its cover of Kiniski using a ring rope to choke into submission some hapless opponent. The headline read, ‘I’M NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING, by Gene Kiniski.’

True, he was not afraid of any man. But Kiniski admitted to being intimidated by the movie camera.

He appeared in “Double Happiness” as Man at Bus Stop and as a wrestler in Sylvester Stallone’s “Paradise Alley.” He portrayed a sadistic cop in “Terminal City Ricochet,” released in 1990.

“It was humbling experience,” he told me afterwards. “I was completely out of my element.”

He did not think he had much of a future on the big screen.

“”With my face, my voice and my features, maybe I can get a character role. My capabilities are limited. Even on a commercial, there’s a goddamned cattle call. Who needs it?”

On Sunday, fans and friends and, one hopes, some old-time rivals will gather at Kiniski’s Reef Tavern to remember a Canadian original.

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