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Canada's Greatest Athlete
Gene Kiniski

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Gene Kiniski

From Edmonton. Widely considered to be one of the world's best wrestlers in the 1960s. Recognized as world champion by the NWA (1966-69), WWA (1965), and AWA (1961). Nicknamed "Big Thunder" and referred to himself as "Canada's greatest athlete." Big and strong -- about 6'4" -- and also very good on the mat.

Joined the WIFU Edmonton Eskimos in the 1940s but left for two years to attend the University of Arizona, where he played football. Rejoined the Eskimos in 1952 but was injured in the first game of the season. The team -- which also included future wrestling stars Wilbur Snyder and Joe Blanchard -- made it to the Grey Cup final.

Became a pro wrestler in 1953. Teamed with John Tolos to win the International TV tag team title in Los Angeles in 1954. Challenged NWA champion Lou Thesz in November 1954. Formed a tag team with Lord James Blears that won the San Francisco version of the world tag team title three times in 1955. Went to Texas and wrestled as Gene Kelly, winning the Texas title in 1956.

Made his Toronto debut in November 1956, wrestling in the opening match. Stayed in the area and moved up the card, appearing in his first Maple Leaf Gardens main event in January 1957, teaming with Buddy Rogers to take on Whipper Watson and Pat O'Connor, in a battle of past and future NWA world champions. It was the beginning of a long feud with Watson that was one of the greatest in the city's history and which was taken across the country (other than Quebec) because the Gardens matches were sometimes seen on CBC TV, giving them a national audience. In 1957. Kiniski and Watson would wrestle each other in main events in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, and probably many other cities.

Early in the feud, Kiniski started a riot at the East York Arena (in what is now part of Toronto) by tearing up a $1,000 cheque that Watson had won by defeating Dick Hutton -- another future NWA world champion. Would make appearances in Toronto every year from 1956 to 1970.

Challenged NWA champions Watson, Thesz, and Hutton between 1955-57. Started working regularly in the Minneapolis territory in the summer of 1960 -- juggling appearances there with matches in Canada -- and defeated Verne Gagne for the AWA title in July 1961. Lost the belt back to Gagne a month later.

After leaving Minnesota, he wrestled out of Vancouver and would make regular stops in other Canadian cities. Wrestled NWA champion Buddy Rogers in a Vancouver main event in 1962, and took on Thesz again in the city in 1963. Wrestled Thesz several times in various cities for the belt. Toured Japan in 1964, and regulalrly wrestled Shohei "Giant" Baba (who would also go on to be an NWA champion). Won the Hawaiian title before coming back to the mainland and wrestling in the northeast U.S. for a few months. Challlenged Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF title several times in 1964-65, including two Madison Square Garden main events in November and December 1964.

Began making regular appearances in Indianapolis in 1965 and won the WWA world title there in August, defeating Dick the Bruiser. Held the belt for four months before dropping it back to Bruiser.

Two weeks later, in January 1966, defeated Thesz in St. Louis for the NWA title. Defended the belt across Canada and the U.S. for three years, facing top challengers in territories from coast to coast. Lost the title to Dory Funk Jr. in Tampa in February 1969. Funk's father had been one of Kiniski's earliest trainers in pro wrestling.

Had bought into the Vancouver promotion with Sandor Kovacs and Don Owen, and would be based in the area for the rest of his career, although he would still make appearances in Japan, Toronto, St. Louis, and other cities. Held Vancouver's Pacific Coast title repeatedly between 1970-79.

Took on The Sheik in two Toronto main events in 1969. Won the Missouri title in March 1973, defeating future world champion Terry Funk. Lost the belt seven months later to Harley Race, who had been NWA champion earlier in the year. Returned to Toronto in 1976 after a six-year absence to team with Mark Lewin to wrestle The Sheik and Ox Baker and wrestled the Sheik in three more Maple Leaf Gardens main events that year.

Came back to Toronto in December 1978 to wrestle Dino Bravo for the newly-created Canadian championship, won by Bravo. The match was held on Whipper Watson Appreciation Night, and the two old rivals faced off with each other one last time before the match (Watson had been forced into retirement years earlier). Was also booked to wrestle Ric Flair in Kitchener while in the area.

After Bravo left the area, Kiniski came back to Toronto to participate in a tournament for the vacant Canadian title. He put Dewey Robertson over in the semi-finals, and Robertson would go on to win the title and become Toronto's top star for a strong run.

Made regular appearances in St. Louis in 1982, including a match against Flair in April. Returned to Toronto in June to feud with the city's latest top draw, Angelo Mosca. Mosca and Kiniski wrestled each other three times at the Gardens, with Mosca going over each time.

Made his final Toronto appearance in May 1983. Was in town to attend the funeral of promoter Frank Tunney and wrestled on the first show promoted by Jack Tunney.

Made a few special appearances in St. Louis from 1983-85 and appeared in the WWF legends battle royal in November 1987. Was a pallbearer at Whipper Watson's funeral in 1990.

At age 66, wrestled a few matches for Winnipeg's West Four Wrestling Alliance in 1992, giving Kiniski matches in five decades. Worked as Dory Funk Jr.'s cornerman in May 1993 in a legends match between Funk and Nick Bockwinkel on the WCW Slamboree pay-per-view.

His sons Kelly Kiniski and Nick Kiniski were both professional wrestlers. His mother, Julia Kiniski, was a long-serving municipal politician in Edmonton, and there is a public school in the city named after her.

"On the promotional side, Gene was great. He'd listen to different ideas, and if he like your idea he'd use it. Gene was a money man and wasn't so full of pride that he wouldn't bend a little to make money, just because an idea wasn't his.Gene took on Sandor Kovacs as a partner and between the two of them they did some fantastic business." Dutch Savage, dutchsavage.com

Prominent Titles:

  • 3-time World tag champion (San Francisco), with Lord James Blears, 1955
  • Texas champion, as Gene Kelly, 1956
  • Texas tag champion, as Gene Kelly, 1956
  • 2-time British Empire champion (Toronto), 1957, 1959
  • 2-time Canadian tag champion (Toronto), 1957, 1959
  • NWA tag champion (Indiana), 1960
  • AWA World champion, 1961
  • 2-time AWA World tag champion, with Hard Boiled Haggerty, 1961
  • 9-time Canadian tag champion (Vancouver), 1963, 65, 71-76
  • Asian tag champion (Japan), with Ciclon Negro, 1964
  • U.S. tag champion (Northeast U.S.), with Fritz Von Erich, 1964
  • 2-time Hawaiian champion, 1964, 72
  • WWA World champion (Indiana), 1965
  • NWA World champion, 1966-69
  • North American champion (Hawaii), 1969
  • 7-time Pacific Coast champion (Vancouver), 1970-79
  • Missouri champion, 1973

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