Book Review: Wrestling Reality: The Life and Mind of Chris Kanyon, Wrestling’s Gay Superstar.

Chris Kanyon was a lot of things. He was a wrestler. He was a physical therapist. He was a wrestling trainer. He was manic depressive. What most remember about him, though, was one distinct fact: Chris Kanyon was gay.

Chris Klucsartis was born to parents of varying Russian descents and spent his childhood living in Sunnyside, Queens, New York. In many ways, he had what you could call a typical childhood: baseball, hockey, all the shenanigans and mischief that lend themselves to young boys, and a growing love of pro wrestling. Indeed, growing up in New York City, Chris gravitated towards wrestling in the form of the WWF. Wrestlers like Superfly Jimmy Snuka captured the attention of the young Chris. Soon, he and his friends were mimicking the very moves they saw on television in their local park. But what really was the tipping point for young Chris Klucsartis was a time when the NWA visited suburban New Jersey. He and his friends attended the event, landing great tickets. His Uncle chaperoned them, and he was your typical “Why do you guys like this? You know its fake, right?” kind of guy. Not one to likely be impressed by any goings-on in the squared circle. Well, on this night, Ric Flair was defending his NWA title against Ricky Steamboat. Steamboat and Flair had their normal great, tight match, and, after 29 intense minutes of action, they had Chris’s Uncle enraptured, not to mention young Chris. It was at this juncture that Chris Kluscartis made up his young mind: He was going to be a pro wrestler, come hell or high water.

All of this reads like a primer in wrestling biographies: Boy falls for wrestling, sees it for the first time live, has epiphany, follows dream. It also reads like a typical childhood. Certainly, pro wrestling is a big part of most male childhoods. Chris Kluscartis, though, was leading anything but a typical male childhood. His world was shot off center by one realization he had at a very young age. From the time he was six or seven years old, when he found himself infatuated with a male friend of his older brother, Chris Kluscartis came to realize that he was gay. Heady stuff for a kid that age in 1970’s New York. Add into this mix that Chris attended Parochial (Catholic) schools throughout his childhood, and it almost seemed an insurmountable cross to bear. Chris dealt with it in probably the best way he could short term, but would essentially ended up crushing any long term enjoyment in his tragic life: he hid it. He denied. He attempted to portray himself as the picture of heterosexual masculinity.

In short, Chris Kluscartis’ life would never be easy.

While Chris was suppressing his natural urges, he found an outlet in professional wrestling. There is a great story in this book in which Chris and his friends attended WrestleMania IV. They witnessed wrestling history (and one of the most boring Mania’s ever) when Randy Savage ascended the WWF ladder and became WWF Champion, beating Ted DiBiase in the finals of a 16 man title tournament. After the event, while staying in a hotel adjacent to the WrestleMania venue that year of Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, New Jersey, while his friends slept, Chris grew fidgety. He had the wrestling bug, and he had it BAD. He left the comfort of his hotel confines and stumbled back over to Trump Plaza. To his astonishment, he found a door ajar, and wandered the labyrinth of corridors until he found himself gobsmacked with astonishment at the site he had stumbled upon: He had come to the ringside area where the event had been held, and nothing, not the ring, not the ring and rafter bunting, NOTHING had been removed yet. He walked that WrestleMania aisle (which, if you recall, was a very long affair with many steps) and found himself smack dab in the middle of the ring where Savage had just made wrestling history. He bounced around the ring for a few minutes, then came to a realization: He needed a souvenir. Initially, he wanted to take the WrestleMania IV banner. The big one. If you remember WrestleMania IV or V, that Mania banner was massive. There was no way Chris could feasibly escape with that monstrosity. Instead, he formed a better plan. He took the top turnbuckle cover that Macho Man had leaped off of in the Main Event to dismiss The Million Dollar Man. Christ, what a memory, what a fantastic piece of wrestling related memorabilia. He hightailed it back to his hotel room, and, come sunrise, showed off his new bounty to his friends.

All was not sunshine and smiles, though. Chris graduated High School and chose to attend the University of Buffalo. He was still gay, and HEAVILY closeted. The lengths he went to to conceal his homosexuality were nothing short of extraordinary. He rationalized that he needed to have sex with a woman, and he picked a winner. After several aborted attempts with various willing co-eds, which resulted in…um…results varying from straight denials to difficulties trying to use a condom (think we’ve all been there) to premature ejaculation (KNOW every man has been there). Once again, add in the gay dilemma and that period must have been excruciatingly agonizing for a young man. Finally, Chris was turned on (and not in a good way for him) to a willing young co-ed from a different, nearby college. She was, what we call in some circles, a slam pig. I know, not a great term, but, apparently this girl was willing to spread her legs for dudes sight unseen. Chris stumbled through the process, and eventually finished the deed. However, there was an unforeseen side effect. Well, not unforeseen to anyone above college age. The girl who took Chris’s virginity had given him something in return: crabs. The gift that keeps on giving. Understand why I called her a slam pig now?

Chris studied physical therapy while at U of Buff, a major he figured would let him get close to pro wrestling. It was a friend of his, however, that led him to the promised land of wrestling training. Chris wanted to attend either Chris Adams or, I am guessing, the Owens (or Barr’s) camp in Oregon, but was told in no uncertain terms to finish college and stay away from this “Godforsaken business.” Chris was dismayed, but certainly not deterred. One day, though, a friend of Chris’s expressed his desire to acquire an actual wrestling ring. Naturally, huge fan Chris was instantly in on the idea. Chris was a subscriber to the old sports periodical, “The National Sports Daily.” Every Friday, there was a wrestling column authored by a certain gentleman named Dave Meltzer. (Honestly, this little blurb is my favorite part of the book. I have been an avid sports fan since, well, basically, infancy. My dad, no slouch himself with sports, started buying me “The National” daily. I loved it, sopped all the information it provided like a sponge. It was the wrestling stuff I most enjoyed, but I was a total mark at the time this publication was dispensed. It always had great stuff that I used to wow my elementary school friends. One instance had me winning a bet with a 4th grader because I had read that Mr. Perfect had won back the IC title from Kerry Von Erich. Another had me correctly predicting that Mean Mark Callous would be Ted DiBiase’s mystery partner at Survivor Series 1990. No one believed me because Callous’ new character was such a departure from his WCW nom: Undertaker.) But it was a visit to the radio studios of John Arezzi, a New York radio jock who specialized in pro wrestling speculation and rumors, that landed them the opportunity to secure a wrestling ring. A guy, presumably an aspiring wrestler, in Arezzi’s waiting room turned Chris and friend to a man named Pete McKay, who had a wrestling ring available. Chris and his friend found Pete’s gym, Gladiator Gym in Manhattan, but it wasn’t a ring they secured. Seeing Chris’s childlike enthusiasm once he stepped through the ropes, Pete McKay offered to train young Chris Kluscartis. Shit had just gotten real for Chris.

Chris trained with Pete, and seemingly was a natural.  So natural that Pete McKay thought Chris was a plant sent to spy on his school sent my Johnny Rodz. No one, he thought, could be this polished at this stage. Chris assured him he wasn’t, and eventually graduated the school…without paying a single dollar.

Chris soon found himself in North Carolina, right after graduating college. He told his parents he went there to pursue a physical therapist position. While that was certainly a bit of the truth, it was far from the whole truth. North Carolina had a vibrant independent wrestling scene at that point, and that was truly where Chris wanted to be. He worked his day job as a physical therapist, and he loved that job, was gratified by it, especially working with stroke patients. But young Chris, by now renamed Chris Kanyon, was in North Cacalack for one reason: wrestling.

Chris had a few contacts in NC because he had become a subscriber to Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter. He found a contact, and that contact brought a man into Kanyon’s life that would become his best friend: James Mitchell.

James Mitchell. What can you say about this guy? Literally, what can you say about this guy? He is a card carrying Satan worshiper and sexual deviant. I stand corrected. To call him a sexual deviant would be a disservice to sexual deviants. The man is off of his rocker, and PERFECTLY suited to the pro wrestling industry. One cute story in this book was a recounting by Kanyon of Mitchell, in his wrestling manager persona of the time, telling a black wrestler that he “felches” his dog. Mitchell meant fetch, but uttered felch. Felching is a weird sexual subgenre that I will allow the reader to follow up. Suffice to say, Mitchell made a mistake in speech, and was dying in hilarity backstage.

Kanyon and Mitchell worked for a brief time in Smokey Mountain Wrestling, run by Jim Cornette. Kanyon, in this book, pegs Cornette dead on as a total hothead. Supposedly, Rick Rubin, of Beastie Boys, Run-DMC and, more currently, Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” was a financial backer of the promotion and wanted a mummy character. Mitchell managed it, and it was a disaster. Picture a wrestler covered in toilet paper that was rubbed in dirt, and you get the picture. Kanyon, at this point, was nothing more than cannon fodder, enhancement talent for SMW and WWF. Mitchell and Kanyon were eventually let go by SMW because of an altercation between Mitchell and Cornette. Kanyon was a victim of circumstance.

It was at this time Kanyon gave up on wrestling. For a brief time. He decided to take a physical therapist position in Connecticut and would shelve up with a childhood friend. While he was moving in with said friend, a box of his moving materials spilled to the ground, exposing some stag mags. Gay sex magazines. When confronted, Kanyon simply stated that Jim Mitchell put them there as a rib. Kanyon was still closeted, and still very, VERY scared of his secret leaking out. He blamed it on sexual…I don’t know what to call James Mitchell…freak? There are no words for what James Mitchell was, and is. Don’t believe me? YouTube (yeah, I used it as a verb) some of his shoot interviews. Whatever. Kanyon felt compelled to call Mitchell, who was one of the few privy to Kanyon’s gay secret, to explain the situation. Mitchell could have given two fucks. When Kanyon’s friend called Mitchell to confront him, Mitchell was concise: “Yeah, those were mine. I am a huge fag. Total fag.” James Mitchell, ladies and gentleman!

Kanyon soon grew tired of the regular 9-5 grind, and found a nearby wrestling school. A great one. It was Afa the Samoan’s school in Allentown, PA. He kept his ring rust off and met a lifelong friend: Billy Kidman. Together, the two toured Memphis and some other places, but fate would soon smile upon the two.

Fate was WCW. Kanyon, because of his 6’4″ frame, was signed quicker than Kidman. Kanyon soon was settled into a groove as a jobber, while also helping to train lost souls at the WCW Power Plant. Jody Hamilton, the Assassin, Nick Patrick’s father, rather grew to like young Kanyon, his abilities and his ability to train others. That was not the doorway to success for Chris Kanyon, though. The doorway was Diamond Dallas Page. Page, who lived next door to WCW puba Eric Bischoff, had some clout in the company. And Page liked Kanyon. Kanyon was soon pegged for what Bischoff, at the time, considered his greatest coup. Bischoff was hoping to capitalize on the Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter video game craze. He had devoted hours of study and resources into this venture, and had come up with characters mimicking the game. Kanyon initially was to have portrayed a character based on reptiles, but it was changed to a skull. Glacier, Mortis, Ernest Miller, Wrath: BLOOD RUNS COLD everyone. Widely panned as one of the worst wrestling gimmicks ever, there seemed to only be two saving graces: Wrath, due to his look and imposing demeanor, and Mortis, Kanyon, who provided the solid wrestling skills. Their push was hurt by the debut and success of another Bischoff creation of the time, the NWO. Kanyon proved he was a good wrestler with several solid matches facing untrained Glacier and Ernest Miller. With the NWO running wild, there was no hope for a mid card act like this.

This is where the book gets dicey. Kanyon was friends with DDP, and as long as that bond was there, Kanyon was never going to flounder. Granted, the NWO basically crushed the non-cruiserweight mid card of WCW for some years, Kanyon was given a stay of execution. He unmasked, became Kanyon, and came up with a decent catchphrase: “WHO BETTA THAN KANYON?!?”  Eventually, this led to a union with Page and Bam Bam Bigelow, who formed the “Jersey Triad.” I personally loved this angle during the waning years of WCW, and still adore it to this day. I was too young to remember the glory years of the three man Freebirds, so this was as close as an approximation that I was likely to get in my formative years. They won the WCW Tag Team Titles, and any two of the three would be allowed to defend them (the Freebird rule).

Unfortunately, both WCW and Chris Kanyon, at this juncture, were coming apart at the seams. Chris was being torn asunder by both his closeted gayness and his undiagnosed manic depressive disorder. Adding to this toxic mix was the fact WCW was about to fold. Kanyon was dismayed and had no idea of what to do or who he really was. Unfortunately, something major was about to change that.

That something major was 9/11. Any American can tell you what they were doing in the hours leading up to the attack, what they were doing when the second plane hit, and what they did in the aftermath. For me, I used to love scaling tall things. Loved going to the summits of tall places; The Empire State Building, The aforementioned Twin Towers; The John Hancock Buildings, both in Chicago and Boston. Since that day, my asshole puckers everytime I see a view of a building from great height. Kanyon took it even worse than I did. His brother worked near the Trade Centers, and he was mortified (see what I did there) when he heard of the attacks. Luckily, Kanyon and fam were safe from the destruction caused by Al-Queada. Unfortunately, Chris Kanyon never truly recovered.

9/11 shocked Chris Kluscartis. Shocked him to a point he should have reached earlier, but never did. He finally came out of the closet to his family. Not to his wrestling family, just the family that matters. It was a tough moment for him, made even more unbearable when his father asked “Are You the Pitcher or the Catcher?” Woof. Imagine your old man asking that. Chris assured his dad that, with his 6’4″ frame, he was the pitcher.

At that point, Chris was a valuable part of the WCW Alliance angle in WWF. The Alliance “MVP.” Unfortunately, WWF, as the book puts it, and I also happen to believe, did not see his talent. Kanyon, for all the bullshit in his personal life, was better than most of the wrestlers who were retained in the WWF/WCW storyline. Kanyon should have had a bigger role. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury that put him out for a while.

It was during this while that Vince McMahon came up with an idea: an effeminate character for Kanyon. Kanyon did not like it upon his return for injury, but, hey, a guy has to make a living, right? But Vince, Vince McMahon, the promotional genius, the rajah of wrestling, well, he had a dense plan for Kanyon. By this point, Kanyon’s homosexuality, while not announced, was fairly well known. And Vince “Master of Tact” McMahon decided to utilize it. He began with telling Kanyon to accentuate his already lispy voice. Uh. Huh. Kanyon told Vince that he wanted to portray a gay character with laurels, admitting his life to the man. And this is where the book turns towards the darkside.

Vince McMahon is a lot of things: business genius, wrestling guru. But a master at the subtlety of human behavior is not one of the saving graces of the man. MAN LIKE WOMAN, MAN PURSUE MAN, MAN CLUB OVER GIRL HEAD.  That is Vince. Pre mastadonian man. Vince did what Vince does: He fired Kanyon.

Kanyon never truly recovered from this shunning, Why should he of? Pat Patterson was RIGHT THERE. The problem was that Kanyon never came clean to his wrestling breathren. (That word has no spellcheck alternative and as a writer I am keeping it there because spellcheck is not infallible.)

Kanyon eventually came clean to his family. He admitted his true self. You would think that it would have solved all of his problems, but, no. Kanyon was as clear of a case as a manic depressive you are ever likely to see. You see, Kanyon was a mess. With the underlying problem of his homosexuality, he had missed out on the fact that he ALSO had a very hard and very real illness. A psychological illness.

With all that was plaguing Chris Klucsartis, it was a wonder he lived a successful life as long as he did. Chris constantly has suicide attempts throughout his life, which are detailed in the book, but he finally succeeded on April 2, 2010.

This book is more a celebration of a troubled man’s life, but at the same time is a tragic coda. Chris Kanyon was an outstanding professional wrestler. But his demons overcame him, and, unfortunately, he became just another wrestling statistic.

Chris Kanyon was not just another wrestling statistic. He was a MAN. A good man. A homosexual man. And his pain, his process, should not be lost on anyone.