Gene Kiniski, who died Wednesday, was my favourite person to interview — ever.
I loved to call him. The Word file with just transcripts of our conversations runs more than 30 pages. We’d talk about many of his colleagues, his health, his days as a promoter, and even delicate things, like about his wife’s suicide and raising his two sons, Kelly and Nick, on his own.
Though we never met until 2008, he’d always remember me when I’d call, asking about Toronto and the book business.
When my first book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians, came out, he mailed me a type-written note on his letterhead.
Many thanks for sending me a copy of your book, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame.
You sure put a lot of work into it.
I am sure the book will do well for you.
If I can be of any help to you let me know.
Then he listed his phone number and signed it.
Like many oldtimers, he loved, loved, loved to talk about the wrestling business.
With his gruff growl, constant use of profanities, and lack of pretension, the talks could verge from the serious to the hilarious. He was a proud, proud man, confident in his stature in wrestling history, and thankful to the people who helped get him there. He was appreciative of the media in a way few others ever are, and he knew the importance of the fans to his career.
A few gems and bon-mots for your enjoyment:
- “I used to get so much fan mail telling me what a no good bastard I was. I loved it.”
- Heading to St. Louis for a birthday celebration for promoter Sam Muchnick, Kiniski was flying with his son, Nick. Before boarding, a steward recognized Gene, and they started chatting. Gene asked for a favour.”‘After we’re seated, have the stewardess come up with the extensions.’ They have these extensions belt for the big, fat people. So, anyways, everybody’s sitting down. I pretend I don’t know who my son Nick is. I said, ‘Gee whiz, I make a trip once a year and I have to sit beside some big, fat slob.’ Nick turns to me, ‘What’s your problem?’ I said, ‘No problem, provided your blubber doesn’t go in my seat.’ God, the people are just sitting there scared to death. So we settle down and the stewardess comes by with the extension belt for the big, fat guys. God, Nick was biting his lip. The people all gasp. You have to do stuff like that when you travel a lot, because I spent half my life on airplanes.”
- He was not thrilled about traveling cross-continent to Amsterdam, NY (near Albany), to be inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. “To be honest and truthful, this is just a pain in the ass. That’s all I’ve done all my life, getting on a fucking airplane; Where are you going? Take off your shoes. It’s a bunch of shit, that security shit. For 50 fucking years I’ve been traveling around, all of a sudden, they want to protect me. Protect me from what?”
Back to The Canadians book. I have taken some flack from people over the years for the rankings in it, and I’ve admitted that I might change some things having learned what I have since 2003, when it came out.
But I’ve told this story often, and it speaks volumes about the respect Kiniski had for his peers, and, I hope, for me.
Here’s roughly what went down:
“Gene, I’ve got you ranked as the Number 6 greatest Canadian wrestler ever.”
“Who’s ahead of me? Not that I give a shit.”
I list the Top 5: Whipper Billy Watson, Yvon Robert, Killer Kowalski, Mad Dog Vachon, Earl McCready.
There’s momentary silence.
“I’ll buy that.”
He continued, ever the self-promoter.
“I held every goddamn world title you can name. I held the AWA, the NWA and the one based out of Montreal,” he said. “What difference does it make as long as they spell the name right!”
So Gene Kiniski, I feel privileged to have known you, to carry on the tradition of such Canadian journalistic legends as Dick Beddoes, Jim Coleman, Peter Gzowski and Ward Cornell who knew you were an easy — and sensational — interview.
And, I’d like to take the liberty of bastardizing your famed sign-off line from Vancouver’s All-Star Wrestling.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Canadians and American promoters for allowing you into our TVs, and as usual Gene, you did a superb job.”
Greg Oliver will miss Big Gene.