Name: Gene Kiniski
Year Inducted: 2008
Induction Category: Television Era
In 1966, Eugene Nicholas Kiniski became the first man with a professional football background to be officially recognized as the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. Born on November 23, 1928 near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Kiniski was a gifted athlete. Even at a young age, he displayed his natural abilities in football and wrestling at St. Joseph's High School. Tutored in wrestling by Leo Magrill at the Edmonton YMCA, Gene captured several amateur championships.
Despite his success on the mat, Kiniski was courted into playing professional football for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Western Interprovincial Football Union in 1949. At twenty years of age, he was 6'4" and the perfect candidate for the starting defensive line. The maturing of Kiniski's football talents continued at the University of Arizona, to which he received a scholarship from 1950 to 1952. In Arizona, he was tutored in the fundamentals of pro wrestling by a local promoter and former wrestler, Rod Fenton. Fenton, also from Edmonton, broke Kiniski into the professional ranks in Tucson on February 13, 1952, and Gene toppled Curly Hughes.
The Los Angeles Rams scouted Kiniski in 1952. After returning to the Eskimos later that year, Gene suffered a torn kneecap in their first game and this injury ended his season. He abandoned football in March 1953 andspent the next several years creating a colorful and brutal persona that entertained and frightened wrestling audiences. He was amazingly gifted in and out of the ring, demonstrating his wit on the microphone. He was as fun to watch on television as he was to see in live action. Southern California wrestling fans were in awe of the mammoth and powerful grappler in 1954, and word of the new phenomenon spread from coast-to-coast.
Kiniski achieved a number of major wrestling achievements in Toronto and Montreal in 1957 that propelled him into the top tier of heavyweight draws. By the end of the year, he had regularly filled both the Montreal Forum and Toronto's Maple Leaf Garden and captured both the Montreal World Title and the British Empire Championship. Feuding with Billy Watson, Killer Kowalski, and Edouard Carpentier made â€œBig Thunder" Kiniski a household name.
In Minneapolis on July 11, 1961, he won the AWA World Heavyweight Title from Verne Gagne and reigned as titleholder for less than a month. While in northeast in late 1964, Kiniski nearly walked away with the WWWF Title after a close encounter with Bruno Sammartino. Holding the respect of his peers and the leading promoters across North America, Gene was an obvious consideration when it was time for Lou Thesz to step off the throne as National Wrestling Alliance heavyweight champion.
In front of more than 11,600 animated fans on January 7, 1966 in St. Louis, Kiniski dethroned Thesz and became the NWA World Champion. Not since Gus Sonnenberg introduced his flying tackles to wrestling rings thirty-five years earlier did a former football superstar turned major national wrestling champion create as much excitement as Kiniski. He was the ideal antagonist and mauled his opponents with a mix of violence and science that blended perfectly. Kiniski owned a creative repertoire of ring maneuvers, and his backbreaker was a feared finisher.
Kiniski was a versatile, durable and successful titleholder and fulfilled all of the necessary requirements and exemplary standards set by his predecessors. He was a perennial draw for audiences across the globe, and met all comers, including Dick the Bruiser, Bobo Brazil, Johnny Valentine, Pat O'Connor, and Bill Watts. Fans knew that when they bought a ticket with Kiniski on the bill, they were going to witness a world-class athlete in action.
After run of 1,131 days (fourth longest reign in NWA history), Kiniski lost his championship to Dory Funk Jr. on February 11, 1969 in Tampa. Through the 1970's, Kiniski continued to draw fans into arenas, especially in St. Louis, where he was a close friend of longtime NWA President Sam Muchnick. Gene also owned a portion of the Vancouver territory. He served as a guest referee for the Ric Flair-Harley Race championship match at Starrcade 1983, and, in 1987, he participated in a WWF-sponsored legends battle royal. In Winnipeg, on February 25, 1992, Kiniski wrestled his final match, capping a forty-year career that left a tremendous imprint on wrestling audiences worldwide.
After his active ring career was over, Kiniski appeared in Sylvester Stallone's movie, Paradise Alley, as well as on various television shows. He loves to read and still keeps in shape with regular workouts.
- Tim Hornbaker