#46 Gene Kiniski
Nicknamed "Big Thunder" and billed as being "Canada's Greatest Athlete" Gene Kiniski was a great big bear of a man who went on to become the top heel of the late 1960s. Kiniski came very close to missing the 1966 cutoff date for qualifying, but considering his three year title reign as NWA World Heavyweight Champion was from 1966-1969, I decided to include him.
Kiniski grew up in Edmonton where he was a standout in both football and amateur wrestling. His skills on the gridiron attracted the attention of the Edmonton Eskimos, and eventually led to a scholarship to the University of Arizona. It was in Arizona where Kiniski first got introduced to pro wrestling and through the help of Dory Funk Sr. and he made his debut in 1952.
6'4" and a solid 270 lbs, Kiniski cut a striking figure in the ring and also had the amateur background to back it up, making him an immediate success as a professional wrestler. He achieved some notoriety during the early days of television working in the blossoming Los Angeles promotion, forming a devastating heel tag team with John Tolos and winning the territory's version of the Tag Team Championship. It was in Los Angeles were Kiniski got his first big break, wrestling then NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz in 1954, when Kiniski was still very much a rookie.
It was in his native Canada however, that Kiniski would build his legacy. He debuted at the famed Maple Leaf Gardens in 1956 where he had quite a start, teaming with Buddy Rogers against Billy Watson and Pat O'Connor. Kiniski began to enter his prime during the golden age of Canadian wrestling, working with top names such as Watson, Yvon Robert, Edouard Carpentier, Yukon Eric and the similarly built and talented Killer Kowalski. Working out of the red-hot Montreal territory, he captured the Montreal version of the World Heavyweight Championship in 1957 from Carpentier. He then worked a program with Kowalski before dropping the title to Kowalski in front of 22,000 fans at a sold-out Delormier Stadium in Montreal.
It was with the greatest star in Canada's long history of wrestling, "Whipper" Billy Watson that Kiniski had his most memorable feud. Nobody knew how to work a crowd quite like "The Whip", his ability to sell and fight from underneath was unparalleled during this time period, and working with a larger, bully heel like Kiniski was the perfect matchup to smash box offices all over Canada.
Now a mainstream name on both sides of the border, Kiniski began to make a mark on the more national promotions in the 1960s. He joined up with Verne Gagne and his upstart American Wrestling Association and immediately became the top rival to Gagne. Gagne, who was arguably the top babyface in the United States at the time, was a gifted amateur wrestler and his clashes with Kiniski set new standards of athleticism and mat wrestling for the AWA. Kiniski became the first man to wrestle the championship away from Gagne, but Gagne of course would win it back shortly thereafter, but the success that Kiniski had with Gagne helped establish the AWA as a legitimate challenger to the NWA.
After moving on from the AWA, Kiniski would head to New York City to go help out another fledgling promotion and their top babyface champion. Kiniski became one of the first real long-term rivals for WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Bruno Sammartino, making his debut in Madison Square Garden in 1964. In late 1964 Kiniski pinned Sammartino in a 2 out of 3 falls match to win the first fall. Thinking he had won the match and the championship, Kiniski left the ring with the championship. While he was counted out, Kiniski held onto the championship, causing a controversy in New York over who really was the champion. The return match the next month, where Sammartino got his revenge and tore into Kiniski to "regain" his championship was one of the most indefinable moments of Sammartino's career and helped establish him as a major star in New York, which in turn established the WWWF and its world title.
During that same time period, Kiniski began working in the Pacific Northwest and working for the NWA out of Vancouver. Kiniski established Vancouver as his home base and thanks to his rapidly growing success in the United States, Kiniski became a bit of an icon to his native Canadians. In 1962 he wrestled the hated Buddy Rogers for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in the main event of a massive show held at Empire Stadium in Vancouver.
By 1966 Kiniski had become one of the top heels in the world, and he was soon rewarded with the most prestigious belt in the world, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Lou Thesz had held the championship for over three years and at age 49 he was looking to reduce his schedule. Thesz took wrestling with the utmost sincerity, and he was very adamant about the champion being someone who could really handle themselves in the ring. The NWA was also wary of putting a novice as the champion because of potential double-crosses, so they wanted a shooter in the ring as their champion. Needless to say, it was huge honor for Kiniski to be chosen as the next champion.
Kiniski defeated Thesz in St. Louis at the famous Kiel Auditorium on January 7, 1966. Kiniski went full throttle as the NWA Champion, wrestling all over the country and clashing against a slew of top babyfaces in territories across the continent. Frtiz von Erich in Arlington, Texas, Bobo Brazil in Chicago, Archie Gouldie in Calgary, Don Leo Jonathan, Haystacks Calhoun and others. Not only was Kiniski wrestling all throughout North America, he was also making stops in Japan and the Hawaii territory.
Eventually, the difficult schedule got to Kiniski and after over one thousand days as champion it was time to move on. Kiniski announced at the yearly NWA convention that he was stepping down as champion, and the search for a new champion began. The NWA decided on Dory Funk Jr. and Kiniski submitted to Funk's spinning toe hold in Tampa Bay.
After his reign as champion ended, Kiniski cut back on his schedule but still remained a prominent figure in the wrestling landscape. He worked mostly out of his home promotion in Vancouver, where he held the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Championship seven times. He was also a stalwart for the NWA in St. Louis and also worked some other shows for the NWA around the country. He continued to wrestle sporadically into the 1980s, often teaming with his two sons, Kelly and Nick.
Kiniski was the classic heel for the late 1960s. He was a big, physical, legitimate athlete and nobody questioned his physical or mental toughness. When the AWA needed a heel to help establish their champion and their company, they called on Kiniski to get the job done. The same can be said for Vince McMahon Sr. and the WWWF. When Thesz wanted to drop the championship and the NWA needed a horse to carry the championship for a long period of time, they gave Kiniski the ball and let him run with it. Kiniski filled a very important role in wrestling history, and will go down as one of its finest all-time performers.
Next week, #45 will be revealed, a rebellious star whose style would influence countless wrestlers to this very day.
The Top 50 so far:
50. Ted Dibiase
49. Superstar Billy Graham
48. Akira Maeda
47. El hijo del Santo
46. Gene Kiniski