When Gene Kiniski’s friends and colleagues recall his lengthy wrestling career, it’s his rough style and his tremendous conditioning that come up again and again. And his sense of humour.
He knew how to get the job done, what was necessary to do in the ring — and outside it as well, to keep life light and interesting.
Kiniski’s influence was felt through the years, with the similar styles adopted by admirers or the welts and bruises absorbed by others.
“I kind of adhered to the old Kiniski stuff, bing, bang, bam bam bam, and get your stuff done and get on out of there,” said Blackjack Mulligan. “You don’t need all night to prove it, although Kiniski could go an hour if he wanted to. He’s my guy as far as I’m concerned as a prototype wrestler. He got it all done, anyway he wanted to do it. He didn’t spend all night doing it either. … He just drew money, that’s all there was to it.”
“The man was a tremendous psychologist,” continued Big John Quinn. “He wasn’t a powerhouse, he didn’t come across as a big, strong man — but he was. And he never developed into what looked like a fit man — but he was. He had a mouth on him that wouldn’t quit.”
At six-foot-six, 275 pounds, Kiniski was very big for his day.
“He was probably one of the better physically-conditioned wrestlers in the country. He’d blow you up in a heartbeat if you didn’t know what you were doing,” said longtime Pacific Northwest mainstay Dutch Savage. “Gene’s the one that got me in really, really top physical condition, whether I wanted to be there or not. I had to work with him every single night for years, in singles and tag matches. If it was a preliminary match, it always went 30, 35 minutes. If it was a main event, it went close to an hour every single night. Up and down, up and around, around and about, all in the centre of the ring with him.”
“He had a goofy-looking body, but he was the best conditioned athlete I’d ever run into,” said Hurricane Smith (Bob Grimbly). “He had me blown up in about 10 minutes and I was amazed at the physical condition of that man.”
“He was like a machine, non-stop. Non-stop, but he had timing,” said Leo Burke.
Or, as former NWA World champion Jack Brisco wrote in his autobiography, “He was stiff and moved in only one direction, forward.”
Kiniski’s first big run came alongside Lord James Blears in an odd tag team in California, which off and on from 1954 to ’56.
“We looked different. He was a big, rugged bastard. A big, rugged tough guy. He’d go plowing into 50 people. We were attacked every night,” Blears said in 2002. “Gene and I, I’m not kidding you, had to fight our way out of the ring. We couldn’t get out of the ring. The fans wanted to kill us. In those days, you could go out swinging. Now, you hit one guy, you’ll get sued. Back then, you just battled your way out of the ring. Gene, he’d say, ‘Let’s go! Okay Lordski, let’s go!’ He always called me Lordski…. Boy, he’d go swinging those arms, and I’d be behind him, protecting his back.”
But there were times when Kiniski could be rough on his peers — on purpose — said Savage.
“You know what that dirty rat did to me? I came back from Japan and I had a pulled groin muscle. And I told him. He said, ‘You’re coming in, we’ve got everything set up for you. Be in good condition.’ I said, ‘I am Gene, but I can’t move around.’ I came in and somehow or other, my luggage got lost on the plane and I was supposed to work with him the night I came in over in Chilliwack. I get to Chilliwack and the place was jammed. I had no tights or anything, so I had to use his. He had those old, woolen short tights. I had to wear those, and I didn’t have any shoes. I had to work barefoot with the rat. He stomped on my feet! He knew I had a pulled groin and couldn’t get away from him. He stretched me a couple of times. We almost had a riot. And he’s laughing all the time that he was doing it.”
Savage got his revenge on Kiniski, though. “About two weeks later, after I healed up, I got him back. I got him back good. I potatoed him against a ring post and cut him wide open,” Savage said laughing. “Then he says, ‘Finish! Finish!’ ‘No, no, you’re going to work a little while. I made him work another 20 minutes before I did anything to him. And he’s the boss too.”
Kiniski inspired loyalty in friends. Old wrestlers like Duncan McTavish, Guy Brunetti, Moose Morowski and George Scott regularly talked to Gene at his Blaine, Washington, home.
Bernie Pascall was the ring announcer for Kiniski’s All-Star Wrestling for 15 years, doing it “only because Gene asked me to ‘help him out.'” He kept in touch with Kiniski right to the end.
“Gene was a wonderful man,” wrote Pascall in an email. “He was my co-cost for the BC Games coverage provincially on BCTV. He was very popular.”
Kiniski sure had a playful side though. Though not a notorious ribber, he was known for more lighthearted fun.
Phil Watson shared a story on Kiniski, who was a guest speaker at a dinner in Whipper Billy Watson’s honour after his passing. Kiniski told the story about how Whipper was in North Bay doing an interview. “The air conditioning was down in the studio, so they had the back door open and everything,” Watson started. “He was just pouring sweat. Dad never went on and did an interview unless he had his suit jacket on. So he put the suit jacket on the chair like this, so when they said, ‘Whipper, 10 seconds,’ all he had to do was take the jacket, put it on, do it up and quickly do the interview. Well, Kiniski was there, and Kiniski took the sleeve and stapled it. So Dad, he took the jacket and goes, ‘Oh.'” The Whip, flustered though professional, simply moved his arm behind his back, and continued the interview.
Nick Kiniski said his father was “pretty witty,” that it was always more about “needling” people than being abusive.
Nick then launches into a story. “We go in Denny’s one time, and the guy says, ‘Hey, there’s Kiniski, that big, fake wrestler!’ My dad goes, ‘Hey, how you doing? We sure had a good pool game when we were down at the massage parlor last week. We had some real fun there! You’ve got to stop by again.’ He’s with his wife and kids. ‘I’ve never been to a massage parlor!'”
And Dad wasn’t adverse to taking advantage of the situation away from the ring either, said Nick. A friendly game of pool between father and son turned into a life lesson. “I have my back to the pool table and I’m chalking up the cue. I look in the mirror and I see he’s moving a ball. I turn around and go, ‘Dad, you’re cheating me!’ He looked right at me and said ‘Let that be a lesson. If your own father will do that, just think what other people will do to you!'”
Collecting Gene Kiniski stories is a lot of fun and could be a full-time job for someone. Oh, to have more time. Email Greg Oliver at [email protected]