Gene Kiniski, who passed away Wednesday morning at 81, was one of my all-time favourite interviews back when I was typing for the Toronto Sun. The hulking ring legend was helping to promote the series Wrestling With the Past on the Comedy Network when I caught up with him in 2001.
I met Kiniski at a restaurant at Yonge and St. Clair in Toronto. He was a big angry bear of a man, pissed at being retired, pissed at having bad knees, pissed at me. We hit it off fine.
What I loved about the Sun was you could type up any nonsense just as long as it fit, met your deadline and readers were tickled. Read the full 2001 article here, but here is the fun part:
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.
Wrestling was just the ticket for those early days of network TV. It was cheap vaudeville and came with a built in cast of good guys and, like Kiniski, bad guys (and plenty of politically incorrect ethnic stereotypes). Commentators used to crackle plastic cups to add bone-crunching sound effects to the mayhem.
Later, in the ’60s and ’70s, guys like The Sheik (and his fez-wearing manager, Abdulla Farouk), Andre The Giant, high stepping Tex McKenzie, Haystacks Calhoun and my favorites, Hartford and Reginald, the paisley-pants-wearing Love Brothers (left–two guys from Newfoundland named Wes Hutchings & John Evans who weren’t really brothers), would snarl and throw folding chairs and gouge each other with illegal objects in the early days of colour TV. I can still hear “The Sabre Dance” intro to the CHCH Channel 11 wrestling show out of Hamilton, where Lord Athol Layton (we used to call him Lord Athol Latent) would always threaten to take off his bad suit and drop kick or karate chop his way back into the ring.
They were cartoon characters, what we watched before we watched celebrities lapse into rehab before they went on Dancing with the Stars.
Kiniski never got into any of that sissy stuff. He just showed up, scared the crap out of somebody, took his cheque and headed for the next rodeo. May he rest in pieces.