'Big Thunder' Gene Kiniski earned his nickname the honest way.

Fence match vs Whipper
with Hutton on the floor 1957
When he came into Toronto in 1956, it was with a thunderous entrance and the storm stuck around for a long time. On and off for 27 years in fact, much of those in the midst of the action at the top of the cards here.

His first appearance here came in the opening bout on the November 8 1956 card which saw a main event of then NWA champ Whipper Watson vs Mr Moto. Kiniski beat Ken Kenneth in the curtain raiser and the Whip beat Moto in the main. Watson would lose his title the very next night in St Louis but he and Kiniski would be tied together for many years to come.

Right from the start Kiniski looked unbeatable. His only loss in the first weeks was a dq when he wouldn't stop attacking Shaq Thomas after beating him in 54 seconds.

On Jan 3 1957 Kiniski would trounce local favorite Pat Flanagan with his 'Prairie Paralyzer' and return to the ring for the main event between Whipper and Buddy Rogers.

Big Gene, not known for his quiet demeanor, stepped into the ring before the introductions and challenged Whipper. Rogers backed him up declaring 'Kiniski will pick up the pieces after I've finished with you.'

Kiniski would exit but return to the ring when Whipper captured Rogers in his 'Canuck Commando' and the future looked bleak for the 'Nature Boy'. Kiniski attacked Watson and special ref 'Jersey' Joe Walcott took at swing at big Gene. Pat O'Connor, who had wrestled earlier in the card came to Whipper's rescue and Walcott ended up disqualifying Rogers for outside interference.

That earned Kiniski his first main event a week later. Teaming with Rogers to face Watson and Pat O'Connor the heels got disqualified but Gene had injected himself into the midst of a very active Toronto scene in this era.

Getting air on the ramp
vs Claude Dassary (Cortez) 1957

That would set the feud in motion with the two going to battle on the next card at MLG and later a wire fence bout (early type cage match). Dick Hutton would side with Kiniski and draw himself into the bouts and team with Kiniski against Whipper and Yukon Eric on a subsequent card as well as interfere in each others bouts.

The Fence match on Jan 24 ended in a wild finish with Kiniski and second Hutton going after Whip and ref 'Jersey' Joe who was again part of the action. Kiniski had previously tried to interfere in the Hutton-Dick Beyer bout earlier in the night before being ejected by ref Bunny Dunlop.

A bout at East York Arena between Watson and Hutton the following week led to another incident involving Kiniski. In front of a standing room only crowd of 2,500 with 1000 turned away, Watson beat Hutton to win the $1000 check that Hutton had been offering to anyone who could beat him within 20 minutes.

Whipper would be the first in Toronto to beat Hutton, but after the bout Kiniski jumped in and tore up the check while he and Hutton attacked ref Bunny Dunlop. Big Gene would also spend most of the bout inciting the fans who were picking up chairs and swinging them over their heads.

The chairs started flying and Joe Perlove reported that Gene had to be 'the gamest and no doubt the craziest character in history - to pull that stuff in the Whipper's backyard.' Whipper of course lived in the area and was known as the 'Pride of East York.'

The riot ensued and Kiniski and Hutton were said to be 'fielding them (flying chairs) in the best Mickey Mantle style.' Ref Bunny Dunlop and announcer Jerry Hiff escaped while the Miller Brothers (Ed and Bill) came out to aid police and ushers in restoring order. Both Kiniski and Hutton were cut and left bloody by the chairs they couldn't 'field.'

Program 1963

This led to Kiniski being given a $500 fine by the OAC, said to be the steepest penalty handed down at the time. Kiniski was also given a 4 week suspension from wrestling in Metro Toronto.

Ontario Athletics Commissioner Merv McKenzie was also said to have curtailed the license of Tunney to promote at the East York Arena for 6 months. It was all likely legit (that's a whole other story that will be covered elsewhere on the site) as Tunney didn't return to East York until Oct 1957, though they only used it when the Gardens was not available anyways. Les Lyman and others ran the smaller Arena in that era also. Tunney admitted fault saying 'I'm not apologizing for Kiniski. He was way out of line in engineering the rumpus. However we erred by not having the chairs anchored to the floor as required by the rules.'

In a Milt Dunnell column in March 1957 he mentioned that Gene's admirers: 'both of them -will welcome him back to the Gardens tonight.' Dunnell goes on to call Kiniski 'the hottest box-office item in Canadian sports, and thats not excluding national heroes such as Jean Beliveau and Rocket Richard.' Kiniski himself brags 'Over in Buffalo they're gonna give me a pair of golden trunks for drawing more than 100,000 people to 10 wrestling shows. Those people who write to me may say I'm a jerk, but the bank manager addresses me as 'Mister.'''

He was making money in Toronto too. The first 4 main events he was in solos or as a part of a tag bout- drew more than 48,000 fans. He was the anti Whipper Watson and the crowds came out to see him. A note in 1965 quoted Kiniski as saying his best year (to date) was making $89,000 in 1957. It attributed his success not to gimmicks, trick holds. weird get-ups, or racial exploitation' (but that) 'In the ring he is simply a miserable so-and-so.'

After serving out his 4 week suspension he was back for the long awaited main event against Watson which ended with both wrestlers counted out while brawling on the floor.

Getting air vs Carpentier 1966

Kiniski had attacked Watson before he could enter the ring, Watson heaved Gene over the ropes and onto the announcers table. When Gene got back in Whip again heaved him out the other side. Ref Bunny Dunlop hadn't even made it to the ring yet. When announcer Jerry Hiff came in to make the introductions, Kiniski grew impatient with the pace and again ran at Watson who sidestepped and Kiniski flew between the ropes. He stamped up the corridor and waved his arms as if to say 'get somebody else.' When he finally returned the two brawled it out for another 17 minutes.

In the paper the next day it said that while the bout lasted 17 minutes -Kiniski 'found a way to brawl through half an hour.'

The feud with Watson is covered in more detail at Genesis of a Feud: Whipper vs Kiniski

Next up was NWA champ Lou Thesz. Kiniski used his brawling to try to counter the champ but Thesz responded with a series of dropkicks, one of which landed up on the 6'5 Kiniski's teeth drawing some cheers. The spectators were no fans of Thesz either with all the history between he and Watson, and were heard to cheer Kiniski a bit as he took the offensive. At the end Thesz flattened Gene again with a big dropkick as the curfew time was called at 32:58 ending the bout in a draw.

Kiniski made his presence known all over Southern Ontario working the circuit and making trips to Ottawa as well. Though Ottawa had turned over to Eddie Quinn, Tunney still had a working partnership and many of the Toronto stars would appear in the nations capital.

In addition to his feud with Whipper which traveled the province (and country), he would also meet Yvon Robert and Buddy Rogers while appearing in Ottawa. He would also appear as far north as Fort William (now Thunder Bay) as he moved across the country with success from the CBC TV that was helping Tunney's stars go nationwide.

Tying up Carpentier 1966

For the balance of the 1950's Gene would star solo and in tags with partners including Hutton, Don Leo Jonathon, and Fritz Von Erich. The team with Von Erich would especially enrage the fans, with near riots ensuing at many a card. Gene, like others would often find his escape route jammed and take refuge under the ring.

Later a Slam! chat (see below in article) had him saying the fans tried to throw lit paper under there to smoke him out. They had done that with Nanjo Singh and I have photos of Kiniski hiding under the ring but don't see any record of the smoking out thing. Still, it was more than likely it had happened, he could really get the fans going.

He and Whipper would also feud over the British Empire Title, trading it back and forth and vying for it in the other cities across the country as well. One bout in April 1959 saw Tunney come up with some new rules to control the action at MLG.

Kiniski and Whipper would meet in a Texas Death Match 'Toronto Style.' The first two rows at ringside were removed and the area roped off, there was a 2 minute rest between falls, no 5 count, and two referees. In addition there was no count-out, no holds barred, and they would wrestle until one couldn't continue. Kiniski would take advantage of the extra space between him and the customers to go out and try to start another riot but Whipper would win when Kiniski was knocked out cold after a pile-driver.

A note in 1960 starts with 'Have no fear, Kiniski is here'. 'This is the way the gregarious, ebullient, belligerent, and occasionally berserk Gene Kiniski greeted wrestling promoter Frank Tunney when he hit town the other day. That is the always the way Kiniski arrives - he hits town,'

another bout vs Carpentier 1966

A 1963 Program feature has Frank Ayerst saying that 'Even such a violent character as Kiniski has a group that loves him dearly and that's besides the promoters. They're the sports interviewers, who'd not hesitate to name him The Most Valuable Player of the Year, as he is never at a loss for a ferw thousand words on sport or his favorite subject -Kiniski. Once Gene gets the mic or a reporters ear, the guy's lucky to get a word in without making smoke signals.'

After Gene won the World title in 1966 he would make quite a few appearances in Toronto as champ. Kiniski wouldn't change his style much though and in 17 defenses in Toronto between 1966 and 1969 he would face Valentine (3 times), Ernie Ladd (2 times), Edouard Carpentier (4 times), Mighty Igor (2 times), Brower (2 times), Tiger Jeet Singh, and The Assassin (Guy Mitchell). He would also appear in the circuit towns during his title run.

When he came back in 1969 without the title he would enter into a series with Ivan Koloff and hear the cheers for a change. In one of the bouts the fans, previously ready to kill Kiniski, would come to his aid!

He would also face the newest star in Toronto - The Sheik. The bout hardly got started before it was over after Sheik attacked Kiniski on the ramp before the bout even started. After nearly choking him out and the bell was rung to start the bout, Sheik's manager Abdullah Farouk interfered and Sheik pinned Kiniski in just 2 minutes of official action. In a reflection of the changing times, the fans staged a mini riot trying to get at Sheik and Farouk while Kiniski became another stat in the Sheik's 5 year winning streak.

After the title had passed to Dory Funk Jr. he would get two shots at Funk in Toronto in 1970. Their first meeting drew 15,000 to see the two engage in what was described as 'a grueling highly scientific bout.'

slim and trim 1976

Sandwiched in-between were two turns as a special referee for bouts between The Sheik and Lord Layton.

The first bout with Kiniski as ref didn't go so well. Kiniski was distracted by Farouk while Sheik hit Layton with a foreign object, went for the pin, and Kiniski counted Layton out. The 15,000 fans erupted in a chorus of boo's and Whipper Watson ran into the ring, shoved Kiniski aside, and then put his Commando hold on The Sheik. That brought out all of the 'bad guys' on the show and Layton and Whipper would fight them off to the delight of the fans. Big Gene meanwhile was said to 'shrug his shoulders' and depart.

He would return a month later to fill the same role and with pretty much the same result.

The Funk bouts were the last times he challenged for the World title here but his Toronto days were far from over.

Though he was set up his home base around Vancouver in the 1970's he would still make it to Toronto for some big shows. In 1976 he stepped into the Sheik/Mark Lewin feud to team with Lewin against Sheik and Ox baker in a cage match for the main on Tunney's 40th Anniversary show. He would stick around for an extended main event series against the Sheik and would hear the cheers again.

In Dec 1978 Gene was brought in to kick off the new Canadian Heavyweight Title by challenging Dino Bravo to determine the inaugural champ. The night was also 'Whipper Watson Appreciation Night' and the two would revive their feud when Kiniski argued with Whip before the bout. Kiniski would once again earn the fans wrath as he berated the 'Pride of East York.' Bravo would win the bout and get a bit of a rub in beating Kiniski, called the 'Canadian Champ' in many circles.

He would stay on the next day to face Ric Flair in Kitchener and return again in Sept 1979, again to vie for the Canadian Title. This time it was a tournament to decide a new champ after Bravo had left the area and been stripped of the title. Kiniski won his first round bout by forfeit when Lord Alfred Hayes didn't show and then got pinned by the eventual winner Dewey Robertson in the second round. Again the new champ gets by Kiniski on his way to the title (Dewey beat Greg Valentine in the finals).

Still nasty 1982 vs Mosca

When Gene returned to the Toronto mat wars in 1982 he got right back into the thick of things with a main event run with Canadian champ Angelo Mosca. The two former CFL'ers would have some good battles at MLG and around the region. The bout at MLG saw Mosca covered in blood and both men going all out in a full-tile brawl. Kiniski still went all-out and looked tough for a then 53 year old.

Defying the age thing, Gene's son Kelly was also wrestling in the area, but as a fan-favorite. The two would appear on the same card on Jun 6, Gene vs Mosca and Kelly teaming with Johnny Weaver against The Privates, Nelson and Kernodle.

In his short time here during 1982 he was back at the top. The ad for that June 6 bout vs Mosca had Gene's updated mug spotlighted. He was smiling in the pic but he would still play the heel vs Mosca who was the #1 face here at the time. The next night in Buffalo he beat a young Jake Roberts and then appeared at the TV taping in St Catherines the following day on two bouts. In one he beat both Chris Jones & Nick DeCarlo in a handicap bout.

The re-match against Mosca was a Texas Death match and Gene would go on the road appearing in Kingston vs Jay Youngblood and again in St Catherines for TV bouts against King Parsons, and Porkchop Cash. He would repeat a month later at MLG with a Lumberjack bout vs Mosca and a road trip including Ottawa, ON for his last area appearance for the run.

When Frank Tunney died in 1983 Kiniski flew in from Vancouver for the funeral and was one of the pallbearers alongside Billy Red Lyons, George Scott, Fred Atkins, Norm Kimber and CFRB announcer Bob Hesketh.

Kiniski, on Tunneys laid back demeanor, said 'I'm one of the few guys Tunney ever got mad at. He was just a little bit annoyed but, for him, that was a temper tantrum.'

He related a 'yarn' too.
'Gene,' Tunney implored, 'you've got to stop slugging my customers.'
'How come?' Kiniski retorted. 'You've got lots, it won't hurt you to lose the odd one.'
Tunney sighed and said, 'it's the lawsuits that are killing me.'
'We haven't lost one in months,' Kiniski argued.
'That's right,' Tunney agreed, 'but i'm going broke paying the lawyers.'

vs Mosca 1982

While he was here he filled in a couple of un-expected openings on two cards that had been arranged before Tunney's death. At MLG he teamed with The Executioner (Donn Lewin) against Sal Bellomo and Nick DeCarlo, and then replaced Angelo Mosca in a main event in St Catherines. Those would prove to be his last appearances in the area.

In a 2000 Slam! Wrestling 'chat' Kiniski was asked about Frank Tunney. 'Frank Tunney was one the great promoters, a good payoff man, great host, great to socialize with.'

On wrestling in Toronto ' I have to say that wrestling in Maple Leaf Gardens had to be one of the highlights, with all the old Maple Leafs like Turk Broda, and all the great stars of yesterday. It was a magnificent place, with wonderful crowds. It was a wonderful place. One of my greatest matches was against Whipper Billy Watson and the fans tried to decapitate me. I had to protect myself. They ignited newspapers, trying to suffocate me. All in an effort to destroy this great body.'

When asked about his 'worst experience' he had this to say. 'What always bothered me was audience participation. They bought a ticket to see me, not for them to participate. It cost me nothing but money from lawsuits. I always had to retaliate. I've been hit with chairs, stabbed.'

For more of that great 'chat' see Slam - Gene Kiniski chat - link opens in new window

I asked MLG Photographer Roger Baker about his memories of 'Big Thunder'

'At various meetings that we had, to name a few, when Frank Tunney would throw a luncheon banquet at The Gardens Hot Stove lounge, to do a photo shoot for a wrestling magazine, or to shoot a match that Gene was appearing in, and probably was at ringside for at least twenty, to twenty five of his matches in Toronto back in the sixties. I found Gene to be very affable, and we hit it off well, Gene loved to be in the public's eye, and due to the fact that I was up on my wrestling coverage made any encounters that I had with Kiniski enjoyable.'

When Gene passed on in 2010 the local papers paid tribute by mentioning his impact on the local scene, still remembered after all those years. 'Canada's Greatest Athlete' was 81.

Pics from top
vs Dassary and fence bout - Burns photos, thanks to Roger Baker
3 vs Carpentier by Roger Baker
candid 1976 by Roger Baker
action vs Mosca mag pic

More of Roger's photos included at Slam! Gallery - Kiniski - link opens in new window

Program 1964


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