Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gene Kiniski

When the sad news came early this morning that Gene "Big Thunder" Kiniski, “Canada’s Greatest Athlete,” had passed away during the night, I felt a numbness wash over me. Not that it came as a surprise … the former world champion had been diagnosed with cancer years before. And while it was in remission and under control for a substantial period of time, the disease had come back with a vengeance over the past year.

My introduction to Gene Kiniski, other than through the mark magazines of the 1960s, was on a Friday night in November, 1968. At that time, he was the NWA heavyweight titlist, and for the first time in more than a decade, he was appearing in Los Angeles. That evening, Kiniski was defending the belt against the equally large and rugged Bobo Brazil. The match was 2-out-of-3-falls, and the two men fought to a 60-minute draw before a sell-out crowd at the Olympic Auditorium.

While the match itself was relatively slow-moving (some would actually call it ponderous), it was not boring. Yes, it can be said there were more than a few spots that saw each man clamp on a leg hold, a body scissors or a side headlock and work it for minutes on end. We didn’t mind watching with growing interest and tension, waiting to see how much damage had been done in this wearing down process.

It’s the type of wrestling you won’t find much in 2010. In today’s pro wrestling climate, such an exhibition wouldn’t be tolerated by those expecting constant movement and acrobatics. But then, bouts that emphasized tests of strength, endurance and ring psychology mattered to the fans. A crowd appreciated the grueling exchange of holds and counter-holds every bit as much as the faster-paced wild brawls.

Gene Kiniski was recognized by the vast majority of wrestling promotions as the legitimate world heavyweight champion, and he received the respect accorded that lofty title. It meant something! So, on that night in ‘68, with the majority of fans pulling for Bobo Brazil, the champion was also given his due. Even though there was no winner or loser (each man having won a single fall), both competitors were loudly cheered when the final bell rang.

Well, that may not be exactly accurate. Today, a solitary bell is ringing everywhere wrestling fans gather. The memories of the man are bright and vivid, with plenty of stories to be found about Gene’s remarkable skill, both in the ring and when manipulating the media. Many of his interviews are the stuff of legend, whether they were conducted as part of a wrestling program or a mainstream radio show.

And while one can always question Gene’s declaration of being “Canada’s greatest athlete,” there’s no doubting his legitimacy as a top rank pro wrestler and genuine character. The final bell may have indeed tolled, but Gene Kiniski will be with us for a long time to come.

On behalf of the wrestling community everywhere, I offer my sincere condolences to Gene’s family and friends. And a heartfelt thank you to Big Thunder, for providing so many of us with so many nights of excitement. Gene Kiniski was not only a professional wrestler ... he was a true professional in every aspect of the word.