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Profile – Gene Kiniski

Holding the NWA World Heavyweight Championship for 1,131 days, former Canadian football star Gene Kiniski was one of the most successful champions in the record books.  In a time when champions were known as squeaky clean good guy wrestlers, with his aggressive nature and natural charisma, “Big Thunder” broke that precedent.

Kiniski was born on 23rd November 1928 in Lamont, Alberta, Canada before moving onto the nearby town of Chipman at an early age.  Times were hard financially for his family after the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and they moved to Edmonton by the time that Gene was 11.  By the time he was a teenager, At six feet tall with a robust build, Kiniski was a promising athlete practising amateur wrestling and football at St. Joseph’s High School.

By the time he was 20, Gene was recruited by the Edmonton Eskimos, sporting the number 50 and played defensive lineman in the Western Interprovincial Football Union, which was the predecessor of the Canadian Football League.  Quoted as making a paltry $200 a year with the Eskimos, Kiniski moved onto college at the University of Arizona and played lineman for the Wildcats and became a strong NFL prospect.  His aggression was highlighted after being chucked out of three games for unnecessary roughness.

While staying in Tucson, Gene and close friend Steve Paproski needed jobs and became working for wrestling promoter and Edmonton native Rod Fenton as ushers and selling programs at his events.  Kiniski became an asset at the events due to his size protecting the wrestlers from over-excited fans and began to start to work out at the local gyms with fellow wrestlers and Fenton and got involved in the basics of wrestling training.

It is rumoured that Kiniski and Paproski started wrestling in different towns under pseudo names so that the University would not find out, but eventually, their cover was blown and the Wildcat coach Robert Winslow demanded they immediately stop.  Later that year, although it was against the wishes of his family back in Edmonton, Kiniski decided to trade in the football pads for wrestling boots and was set to make his debut on Fenton show.

So, on February 13th 1952, donning the cover of the programs he used to sell, Kiniski made his in-ring debut at the Sports Center in Tucson defeating Curly Hughes in around 12 minutes. Gene went on to gain in-ring experience in Tucson, El Paso and Albuquerque working a few times per week.  Kiniski began working out with Dory Funk Sr. and Dory Jr. in a friendship that would work out well for both parties in the future.

By 1954, Kiniski was plying his trade in Los Angeles working NWA Hollywood TV shows frequently against a young Bobo Brazil before moving onto Hawaii to form a tag team with Lord Blears to face Japanese duo Kokichi Endo and Rikidozan.  Moving onto Dallas, Kiniski and his aggressive nature became a great draw, he was ruthless with sharp wit and possessed a mean streak.  With the vicious back-breaker as his signature move, fans were buying tickets to see Gene get beat up but much to the crowd’s dismay, Kiniski usually came out on top.

At the age of 29, Gene returned to Canada and received his first NWA Worlds Heavyweight Title shot against Lou Thesz and managed to hold the champ to a draw in front of thousands packed inside the Maple Leaf Gardens. Kiniski started to get massively over proclaiming himself as “Canada’s Greatest Athlete” and grappling with former world champions Bill Longson, Pat O’ Connor and “Whipper” Billy Watson. His trash-talking rogue persona started to turn promoter’s heads and he was booked across the States and Canada. Come 1960, Minneapolis promoters Wally Karbo and Verne Gagne broke away from the NWA and created the American Wrestling Association and they contacted Kiniski to headline their events.

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Gene alternated between AWA and NWA promoted events and on 11th July 1961, Kiniski dethroned Gagne to win his first world championship, the AWA World Title.  Although the reign did not last long and less than a month later, inside the confines of a Steel Cage, Gagne regained the title.  Gene’s career went from strength to strength winning singles titles in various territories and received a WWWF title shot against top draw Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden in November 1964 with over 18,000 in attendance. Kiniski believed he had pinned Bruno and left ringside with the title belt, but he was counted out. Gene kept the belt until a rematch a month later in which Bruno regained possession of his championship.

St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick booked Kiniski to wrestle Fritz von Erich, Johnny Valentine and Dick the Bruiser. After clinching a win over former champ Pat O’Connor, Gene was awarded another shot at Lou Thesz’s NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship. The bout, booked by Muchnick was set to take place at the Kiel Auditorium on 7th January 1966 in front of a packed house and the NWA board voted to give “Big Thunder” a run with the strap.

In a best of three falls match, history was made. Thesz went ahead with the first fall but was disqualified for throwing Gene over the top rope tying up the bout at 1-1.  After less than two minutes inside the third fall, Kiniski pinned Thesz and referee Joe Scheonberger slammed his hand on the canvas three times and Gene had become the world champion. Kiniski was the first man in history to hold the AWA and NWA World titles.

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In a true contrast to Lou Thesz, Kiniski was a natural bad guy and his heel behaviour made him a very successful touring champion. He drew big crowds in all the NWA territories including the JWA in Japan where he faced Antonio Inoki and Shohei (Giant) Baba, even challenging the latter for his NWA International Heavyweight belt.  However, like many champions, the schedule became exhausting to Gene and at the NWA convention in November 1968, he told the Alliance members that he wished to drop the title.  Being a close friend to the Funk family, Gene ended his three-year reign to Dory Funk Jr. via spinning toe-hold on 11th February 1969 in Tampa, Florida.

After resting up, Gene travelled back to Japan to win the International Heavyweight championship from Baba in Osaka for a short 16-day reign before failing to the big man in Los Angeles in a rematch.  Throughout the 1970s, Gene was still a profitable draw for the NWA promoters and received many title shots against Dory, Harley Race, Jack Brisco and Terry Funk but failed to clinch that second reign.  He started to book his own shows with Vancouver All-Star Wrestling promoter Sandor Kovacs, buying out his trainer Rod Fenton’s share, and he brought many World title matches to the British Columbia area.

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He vastly eased up his schedule by 1976 and climbed into the ring intermittently in the early 1980s until quietly heading into retirement come 1985.  Always being the athlete for all his life, Kiniski stayed fit later in life training daily. However, in early 2010, congestive heart failure hospitalised Gene and his weight massively decreased.  He had been secretly battling cancer for years and it had grown to his brain. He passed away with family at his bedside on April 14th 2010.  He was 81 years old.

Kiniski was a true champion, a true athlete and to fill his bank account, a true heel.  Fans paid to see Gene get beat and he didn’t.  For over three years he was World Heavyweight Champion and in his own words, Gene made sure that even if the fan went home sulking, they got their money’s worth.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Source: Tim Hornbaker – National Wrestling Alliance, Steven Verrier – Gene Kiniski Canadian Wrestling Legend

The National Wrestling Alliance 1948-1979

In the 1940’s, the popularity of Professional Wrestling was growing within the United States. Many ambitious entrepreneurs had created their own regional wrestling promotions and each promoter claimed to have their own World Champion, however, the plethora of titles was damaging the sport as none of the belts were deemed legitimate.

The very influential Paul “Pinkie” George, a promoter in Des Moines, Iowa proposed a meeting with other selected promoters to try and regulate the business and create one true World Champion. The promoters would share this champion and use him as an attraction to keep the interest in wrestling growing.

The meeting was held on July 18th 1948, located in the Gold Room within the Hotel President in Waterloo, Iowa. George invited Sam Muchnick (a St. Louis promoter), Orville Brown (Kansas City), Maxwell Clayton (Omaha), Fred Kohler (Chicago) and Wally Karbo (representing Joe Stecher of Minneapolis). They all agreed on nine pledges which formed the National Wrestling Alliance and George was declared the first president of the NWA.

The newly created NWA Worlds Heavyweight Title was awarded to Brown, who ran the Midwest Wrestling Association in Kansas, where he held his own version of the World Championship. Undefeated for eight years, Brown went on to conquer many other regionally recognised World Champions in a way to try and unify into the NWA title.

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The legendary Lou Thesz

On the way, Brown needed to beat the National Wrestling Association World Champion Lou Thesz. The Association (the other NWA) was created by the National Boxing Association in 1930 as a way to try and regulate professional wrestling bouts.

On Thanksgiving night, 25th November 1949, Brown and Thesz were to compete for the NWA title at the Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis, Missouri. Devastatingly for Brown, this match would never happen. Travelling to his final warm-up bout in Des Moines on 1st November, he was involved in a horrendous automobile accident that forced Brown to retire from in-ring competition. Thesz was awarded the NWA Worlds Heavyweight title by default. Brown continued to book his promotion in Kansas until 1958.

Thesz was a legit tough-man and he excelled with the belt around his waist. On many occasions, Thesz had to force rebel competitors into submission when outlaw promoters would try and prove that their regional champion was the best in the world. For trustworthy NWA promoters, Thesz had to put on believable impressive matches but more importantly, make the regional headliners look good so that business would not drop in that area.

By 1950, the NWA had 26 members and had massively exceeded George’s expectations. George wished for the NWA to manage all the Midwest promotions and he had no plans for national expansion, so he stepped down as president in September and recommended that Sam Muchnick lead the alliance in his place. Muchnick, a successful promoter in St. Louis, booked Thesz into a full schedule and he became a credible title holder defeating all opponents across all the territories unifying all the belts.

The scheduling of the champion was the most important duty of being the NWA president. Muchnick’s task was incredibly difficult as every NWA representative wanted the champion on their events as much as possible. This became a political issue and although promoters were supposed to be in collaboration with each other, money talks and Thesz was a great draw.

Throughout the 1950s, Thesz held onto the championship until March 1956. Taking six months off while nursing an ankle injury, he lost the belt to “Whipper” Billy Watson at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Thesz returned to claim the title back in November that year in St. Louis. Dick Hutton, Pat O’Connor and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers all went onto reigns with the title but by the start of 1963, Thesz was back in charge of the championship.

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“Big Thunder” Gene Kiniski

Finally, on 7th January 1966, Thesz ended his final reign at the age of forty-nine by dropping the belt to former Edmonton Eskimos star “Big Thunder” Gene Kiniski on a Muchnick show in St. Louis. Billed as a bad guy, Kiniski was an innovative, captivating powerhouse that carried the championship well until dropping it to Amarillo-based star Dory Funk Jr. in February 1969. Funk was a profitable champion for the territories with a real knack of making his opponent good – usually the promotions’ top star.

However, by August 1972, Funk had become tired of the constant travelling and a successor was earmarked in former national collegiate wrestling champion Jack Brisco. A bout was set for 2nd March 1973 in Houston, Texas but unfortunately for Brisco, the match was cancelled after Dory suffered an accident at his home in Umbarger, Texas around a week before the scheduled match.

After a 1,563 day reign, the second-longest in NWA history, Missouri star Harley Race dethroned Funk on 24th May 1973 in front of his home crowd of the Memorial Hall in Kansas City. Race held the title for only a few months as Brisco was crowned by July that year in Houston, but this was only the beginning for “Handsome” Harley and for the belt.

Before the bout, Race was presented with a new title belt by president Muchnick. The new NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship was created by Mexican jeweller Manuel Sabala with a “domed globe” and featured five flags of countries where the championship was defended the most: the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia and Japan. In future years, the belt became known as the “Ten Pounds of Gold” (but we will discuss that in forthcoming articles in our chronological journey).

Due to his past NCAA championship success, Brisco was well regarded instantly and Shohei “Giant” Baba quickly signed up to the NWA with his new promotion, All-Japan Pro Wrestling – founded in 1972. This gave him exclusive Japanese promotional access to Brisco and the belt and Baba, also an in-ring performer managed to convince Brisco to pass the title to him for a week while on tour. Giant Baba was champion from the 2nd until the 9th of December 1974 before dropping back to Brisco. This gave the championship further credibility overseas and the Japanese press lapped it up.

Just over a year later, the 14-month reign of Terry Funk began. Funk, younger brother of Dory Jr, had actually brokered the deal to book Brisco to face Baba, much to the disappointment of the NWA brass who had not previously been consulted. Dory Funk Jr. had been scheduled to challenge Brisco on 10th December 1975 however, he was in the middle of a three-week tour with Baba. The wild brawler Terry stormed the ring in place of his brother and cradled Brisco up for the win. History was made as Terry and Dory became the only brothers, as of the time of writing, to hold the NWA Worlds title.

The only man to defeat two brothers for the title was Harley Race, as his second reign ended Terry’s only possession of the belt in Toronto on 6th February 1977. Race held on to the gold for 926 days until he strolled into Eddie Graham’s Championship Wrestling of Florida in the summer of 1979. The popular uber-charismatic “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes blossomed in the ’70s and although this went against the grain for the usual title holders, Rhodes pinned Race in front of over 9,000 elated fans in Tampa.

History proved that the bad guy champion entering the territory to face the much-loved local guy was a recipe for success and drawing the big bucks. Dusty was the opposite, throughout the 70’s he was a major box office attraction, he’s connectivity with the audience made him easy to love. He was very much the epitome of a babyface and the NWA handed him the opportunity to be champion for only five days before it was returned to Race. For Dusty to hold the title, was merely a favour to Florida promoter Graham from the NWA board.

Harley Race

The year 1979 brought one of the most important events that formed the face of professional wrestling across the United States for years to come. NWA affiliate Georgia Championship Wrestling became the first wrestling program to be nationally broadcast on cable TV on the WTBS network. This caused many regional promoters upset and feared that Georgia would expand their shows nationwide. However, the Georgia company kept to their agreement and continued to just book shows in their territorial area.

By the beginning of 1980, Harley Race remained the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion which represented a total of 26 promotions across the territorial system.

This is where our journey will begin.

We will relive all the highs and the lows, the good, bad and the ugly of this wonderful business we call professional wrestling. This will be a long journey, we have hours of content to review, we have thousands of stories to tell, come with us, I’m sure you will find something you will enjoy.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Sources: Tim Hornbaker – National Wrestling Alliance, Dick Bourne – Ten Pounds Of Gold, Cagematch.net