VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Long before Bret Hart or Chris Jericho, there was Gene Kiniski. Nearly a decade after his death, a new book is taking a fresh look at Canada’s original wrestling superstar.
Gene Kiniski: Canadian Wrestling Legend is the work of historian Steven Verrier. Growing up in Ontario, Verrier had fond childhood memories of watching Kiniski on TV. However, he found there was much more to Gene than you ever saw in the ring.
“People still talk about favours he did for them,” he explains. “Lending them money, giving them very good advice. He was just a respected person at that level as well as professionally.”
The book traces Kiniski’s humble beginnings in rural Alberta and his brief football career with the Edmonton Eskimos to his heyday as a wrestling world champion and beyond.
“This fellow was not just a wrestling character. He was a young man who did not have things handed to him. He came from a pretty amazing family, his parents emigrated from Poland when that was a very, very difficult endeavour.”
Verrier says his legacy represents a bygone era in the ring. “He’s one of those last, big-time world champions when those championships did not change hands very often,” he explains. “He was a big, rugged face of the National Wrestling Alliance.”
As his wrestling career was winding down, Kiniski tried his hand at acting, appearing in films like Paradise Alley, Terminal City Ricochet, and Double Happiness, among others.
Verrier’s work also has the blessing of the Kiniski family and features forewords written by his two sons, Nick and Kelly.
NEWS 1130’s John Ackermann spoke with Verrier earlier this week on the phone from his home in Washington State.
First of all, easy question. What inspired you to write about Gene?
“I grew up in Ontario and I watched Gene Kiniski for many years on All Star Wrestling when it was syndicated across Canada. I loved this character. More recently, I wrote a book on the history of wrestling in the Pacific Northwest and in the process of researching for that I just came to realize Gene Kiniski was an awful lot more than I saw on television and thought a book of this sort was long overdue.”
What is it about Gene that drew you to him?
“He’s probably one of the great personalities, at least of wrestling locally. Wrestling-wise, I just found him very engaging, as [did] many, many Canadians from that era. He took his craft pretty seriously. I appreciated what he did in the ring, but it was really other details I learned, for example that he had a very difficult childhood during the Depression, just a number of things that that came to light as I researched the other book that really drew me to him as somebody I might want to write about.”
Can you give us a sense of what he was like outside the ring?
“I’ve talked to people who knew him at all stages of his life, going back to the Depression. You know, as a kid of the 30s, he was a regular guy. But in the 1940s, when the family moved to Edmonton, he got into sports and he just seemed to be a very determined young fellow. He played professional football. He went off on a football scholarship to the University of Arizona. He just seemed very determined and driven. And once he made the decision in the early 1950s to get into professional wrestling, he never turned back. But more than that, you know, despite all his ambition he really was somebody that his friends looked up to.”
Edmonton rightfully claims Kiniski as one of their own, but he also had a strong West Coast connection.
“He first came to wrestle in Vancouver in the late 50s, in 1957. He was already a pretty big name. He had done some wrestling in Toronto, as far as Canada goes, and his matches, at least some of his matches, were broadcast on the CBC, so he was a known name. He started coming in and out of the West Coast in the late 50s and through the 60s. The family lived in Vancouver for a time in the early 60s but then he became the main world champion wrestler, the NWA champion, he was based in St. Louis. [But] it was really in 1967 when the opportunity came to buy into the promotion in Vancouver that you could say he was a Pacific coaster for life.”
I noticed that his two sons still live in Point Roberts just to the south of us as well.
“Yes they do. One of them owns a bar and does rescue work and the other runs a small business. They love it there. Gene, I never knew until I researched his life, actually lived across the border in Blaine, Washington. I always associated him with Vancouver but he and his sons are very comfortable on both sides of the border.”
What would you say the legacy of Gene Kiniski is?
“I’ve been asked that question before. I mean, his professional legacy is pretty obvious: he’s one of those last big time world champions when those championships did not change hands very often. He was a big rugged face of the National Wrestling Alliance for three years. So he’s remembered as one of those throwbacks to that era, [when] wrestlers really took the job of being champion very, very seriously, determined to give fans their money’s worth. So Kiniski is somebody respected for being a big part of wrestling history. But I think the legacy he would be most proud of is just the fact that people really appreciated having him in that small town of Blaine, Washington and still talk about the effect he had on them, whether helping them to lose weight, to stay in business or whatever it might be.
“I just want people to know that this fellow is not just a wrestling character. He was a young man who did not have things handed to him. He came from a pretty amazing family. His parents emigrated from Poland when that was a very, very difficult endeavor. He grew up in difficult circumstances. He got into sports. He chose wrestling, probably not because that’s what he loved most in the world, he just thought that was his ticket to the life he wanted for himself, for his family. He was just a many-faceted guy, a fascinating fellow. That’s what I try to get across in the book.”
Look for Gene Kiniski: Canadian Wrestling Legend from McFarland Books.