After my first year in the wrestling business, I had faced the best. I had wrestled Verne Gagne to an hour draw, defeated Sonney Meyers, Fritz Von Erich, and Pat Oconnor. I wrestled Gene Kiniski to a one hour draw in what I still consider one of the toughest matches I ever had. In the finals of a tournament to see who would face Lou Thesz, I defeated Iron Mike Dibiase. Before a sellout crowd in Amarillo, Texas I wrestled Lou Thesz to a one hour draw for the World Heavyweight Championship.
Now it was my fathers opinion that I must prove myself in other places if I were going to climb to the top in the wrestling business. We chose the Vancouver Territory as the place to go. My father had built a reputation there a few years before wrestling as the Texas Outlaw.
My father would make the trip to Vancouver with me for the first week. We would be booked around the territory as father and son tag team. This would be an introduction for me and then he would return to Amarillo and I would stay in the Vancouver Territory. The first week in Vancouver, things were great. We worked main event together to capacity crowds and naturally with my father in the ring, every match was a classic. We wrestled around the territory, Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, New Westminster, Chillawack, and Tacoma Washington.
After the first week I had a meeting with promoter Rod Fenton. He told me, "people here pay to see big men in the ring. Just look at my stars, Gene Kiniski, Don Leo Jonathan, Mike Sharpe, Dale Lewis, and Tex McKinzie." I had some concern that maybe Rod Fenton was doing a favor for my father and doubted my ability.
The wrestlers in Vancouver were great. Mike Sharp, Gene Kiniski, and Don Leo Jonathan were my friends. In the dressing room I would hear Jonathan say, "Okay kid, lets get your pushups done, 300 of them, then Gene and Mike would make me lay on a bench and they would work my neck until I couldn't turn it from side to side. Gene would give me advice, "Listen kid I want to see you in a sport coat every night. Give these people some wrestling that is what they are paying to see, not a bunch of bull shit." Mike would say, "Okay kid work my neck. He would lay down on the bench. "Work it heck, I couldn't even move it."
Now my father was gone and I was on my own. I received my booking sheet, the whole loop for that week I would be wrestling second match against The Viking. Viking was a great guy and a fair wrestler, but he was local from Vancouver and truly was worn out and over exposed in the Vancouver Territory but, "what the heck, I would do my best and at the end of the week I would have someone better to work with.
At the end of the week I received my booking sheet and saw that I would working second match with Peter Whickinoff. I had never heard of him, but I would do my best. Peter Whickinoff was substituted for all week by the Viking. After suffering through my second week of mediocre matches, I went in to get my next booking sheet and saw that I was wrestling second match with Joe Noshow who turned out to be replaced by, you guessed it, The Viking.
I had had it. I was 2000 miles from home with my wife and two kids trying my best and felt like I was going nowhere. I remember getting my pay from Tacoma Washington, it was an all time record low for me. $17 and promoter Rod Fenton looked at me and said, "Don't tell anybody in Texas about this." I told Mr. Fenton, "Please give me a chance. I promise I will do anything if you will let me show you what I can do. The next day I got my booking sheet, Monday in Vancouver was a battle royal and the rest of the week, I was on top wrestling Gene Kiniski. I was thrilled.
I wanted to be spectacular in the Battle Royal, "Impress the promoter." I was in the corner on the top rope with McKinzie and Sharpe in front of me, both 6' 9" tall. From the top rope I would jump over the top of them, land in the middle of the ring, turn and face them. As I jumped from the top, Mike reached up and grabbed at my leg, throwing me off balance. In an effort to land standing in the middle of the ring I reached for the floor with one leg only. As I landed, I could feel the knee break to the inside. As I set there on the mat knowing my knee was busted, my friends picked me up and threw me over the top rope and down to the floor. That's what friends are for. (You know, the show must go on)
The next morning I was in the doctors office. He said, "Check in the hospital tomorrow and we will do surgery." Disappointed and Dejected, I called Rod Fenton to give him the bad news. Fenton said, "Before you have surgery, call Gene Kiniski. I didn't speak much to Gene, I just listened. "Kid, go to a sporting good store and buy some tough skin, some tape, and long wrestling tights. Shave your leg and show up for the show one hour ahead of time. I did what he said.
That night I had to cover up and sneak in the back door. I was on the main event and couldn't let the wrestling fans see that I couldn't walk. Gene was there one hour ahead of schedule. He taped my leg tight as a cast from top to bottom, then said bend it till you get a slight tear in the tape by your knee. As Gene left, he growled, "Okay kid, I will see you in the ring."
Gene Kiniski was there every night that week one hour ahead of schedule to tape my knee before we wrestled, then we would go into the ring and he would whip the heck out of me but leave the knee alone. I owe it to Gene Kiniski that I did not have to have surgery on my knee in Vancouver and he may have saved my career.
Five years later in Tampa Florida on February 11, 1969 I rewarded Gene Kiniski for taking such good care of me in Vancouver by defeating him for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Right now no one could be prouder of my career as NWA Champion that Gene Kiniski.
The last time I saw Gene Kiniski was at the WCW Slamboree show in Atlanta two years ago. Gene was my manager in the legends match against Nick Bockwinkel. As we walked into the ring at the Omni, Gene had his arm around my shoulder, still the boss and still telling me what to do. As we came to the center of the ring, He stopped, looked at me and said, "Look up, Your father is up there looking at us now. Do you see Nick Bockwinkel over there?" "Give'em hell Kid."
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