Still Fighting Proud

Toronto Sun – March 3, 2001

Back when men were men and women were used to it, one man stood out as the brute we all loved to hate.

Gene Kiniski was a professional wrestler for more than 40 years, tossing opponents around the ring from 1952 until he finally hung up his battered tunic in 1994 at the grandfatherly age of 64.

He’s just one of the grappling legends featured on the Comedy Network’s nostalgic new series Wrestling With The Past. The second episode, featuring Kiniski, airs tomorrow at 8 p.m.

“I’d still be wrestling if it wasn’t for my knees,” Kiniski told me last week when we met for an interview at a fancy Toronto restaurant.

I wasn’t about to argue with him, especially after shaking his giant catcher’s mitt of a paw.

The 72-year-old, who now lives near Vancouver, is still fit and, more to the point, cranky. He works out with light weights five times a week and swims twice a week, too.

In his prime, Kiniski was named Canada’s Greatest Athlete. He attended the University of Arizona on a football scholarship and played in the CFL. He was also a boxer.

The big money, in the ’50s, was in wrestling.

“I’d have to say we were the highest paid athletes going,” Kiniski says. “Hockey, baseball players, they weren’t making anything then. We could write off our hotel rooms, cars and other expenses.”

And see the world. Kiniski travelled throughout the U.S. and Canada and even to such far-flung places as Japan and New Zealand during his ring career.

As Kiniski points out, wrestling was perfectly suited to the new medium of television. “It didn’t cost much to put up a wrestling ring and the crowds always came out.”

They sure did in Toronto to see the likes of Gorgeous George and Whipper Billy Watson, whom Kiniski fought so many times he has long ago lost count.

“George could wrassle, don’t kid yourself,” Kiniski says of the flamboyant grappler with the long peroxide locks. “He just wasn’t that big.”

At 6-foot-5, 275 lbs, Kiniski fought in the super heavyweight division. There he’s faced all the big guys — Haystack Calhoun, Tex McKenzie, Andre The Giant and Yukon Eric.

Kiniski rates Eric and Andre as wrestling’s strongest men. Rotund Calhoun, whose big finish was to sit on his opponent, was surprisingly strong, too.

“You had to be very, very careful with him,” Kiniski says. “Once his endurance went down you could take a few liberties with him.”

Kiniski was just the guy to take a few liberties. Opponents — and often audiences — hated him.

“Don’t tell me about that Kiniski,” one fan once yelled. “He was a troublemaker on the boat with me.”

Kiniski still laughs at that one. He was born in Alberta.

He doesn’t watch today’s goofy brand of wrestling, where super-sized women like Chyna now star, but has no problem with it, either.

“We all like to look at the ladies,” he growls. “At least I know I do.”

He’s met The Rock, and found him to be “a fine gentleman, very articulate.” Kiniski used to fight his father, Rocky Johnson. “His dad told him I was a son-of-a-bitch,” smiled Kiniski.

It’s a rap he wears with pride. “My son used to say, ‘I never heard one wrestler say anything good about you.’ And I’d say, ‘where are they and where am I?'”

In fact, Kiniski makes no effort to impress anyone. “Even today, I wear old clothes,” he says, drawing attention to his possibly grey leisure suit jacket. “Who the #%&!@# am I going to impress by wearing a thousand dollar suit?”

Maybe me, grandpa, I said.

Kiniski’s forehead started sizzling like a hot hamburger. He reached across the table and flung me the length of the restaurant like a used Beanie Baby.

When I came to, he was towering over me like a lumpy TD Centre. I tried to smash a chair across his arthritic knees but I couldn’t reach them. Scrambling onto a stack of tables, I leapt on his back and tried for an eye gouge or a camel clutch but I couldn’t get my arms around his ears, let alone his neck.

Kiniski was about to toss me down, stomp on my head and put me in a lethal scissors lock when the check arrived. I saw my opening and made for the door, but Kiniski beat me to it. He was last seen picking cabbies up by their nostrils and flinging them up Yonge St.

Or something like that. Tune in and see mean Gene reminisce tomorrow night at 8 on Wrestling With The Past.

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