Every week, the Masked Man, Deadspin's pro wrestling correspondent, honors the sport's fallen and examines their legacies — famous and obscure alike. Today: Chris Kanyon, who was found dead Friday in his Queens, New York, apartment after an apparent suicide.
Chris Kanyon was the prototypical performer of his era in all the wrong ways. He was a midcarder with constantly mutating gimmicks and schizophrenic allegiances, simultaneously afforded television time by the bloat of late '90s wrestling television and yet perceived as criminally underused by the "smarts" of the wrestling message boards — an upwardly mobile jobber with nowhere to go.
One can hardly get past the headline of any of the multitude of Chris Kanyon obits in recent days without being confronted with Kanyon's "idiosyncrasy" — which is to say, his apparent homosexuality. The irony of this is that Kanyon was never a particularly eccentric on-screen personality. That his personal life belied his public persona — and defied the strictures of the two-dimensional character wrestling had created for him — seems to have eventually spelled his end, both in career and, sadly, in life. The wrestling world has always had a hard time handling idiosyncrasy in three dimensions.
Born and raised in New York, Chris Klucsaritis was a physical therapist before he jumped into the biz. He worked a few weekend shows before he committed to the craft full-time, and he worked as "enhancement talent" several times in the WWF — which means that he existed to be demolished by the established stars of the day. But his full-time career functionally began in WCW in 1997, when he debuted as "Mortis," a cartoonish Grim Reaper, in the painful-to-watch "Blood Runs Cold" story. WCW was attempting, blatantly, to rip-off Mortal Kombat and its burgeoning popularity, and the story saw Mortis and his partner "Wrath" feud with a babyface named "Glacier" in a sort of alternate WCW universe. "Blood Runs Cold" was plainly a product of the pre-nWo era, and its debut was pushed back by the sudden arrival of Scott Hall and Kevin Nash to the promotion. (What is too often overlooked about the innovation of the nWo is how unbearably bad some of the dreck it replaced on WCW TV actually was.)
Post-Mortis, Chris Kanyon (as he was now called) embarked upon a fairly lengthy feud-cum-partnership with Raven and his Flock. (For the uninitiated, imagine Pearl Jam, muscled up and less musically inclined.) Subsequent to that was a protracted partnership-cum-feud with Diamond Dallas Page that began with their teaming up (along with Bam Bam Bigelow) as the Jersey Triad and continued for months as the two exchanged punches right up until WCW was yanked off the air.
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A noteworthy sidebar to his WCW tenure: Kanyon worked as a sort of an in-house trainer, teaching the basics of the wrestling trade to the procession of celebrities that climbed inside the ring for WCW during their ongoing endeavor to gain mainstream attention. Kanyon was a true student of the craft — he had studied at the legendary Lower East Side Wrestling Gym and under both the Fabulous Moolah and Afa, the Wild Samoan — and he was known at times as "The Innovator of Offense" for his imaginative moveset. So it must have been something of an honor to mentor the likes of Dennis Rodman, Jay Leno, Karl Malone, and (sigh) David Arquette in their entrées into the sport. Surely he brought out the best in them. But it also saddles his career with some of the disgrace of those ill-fated ventures — unquestionably among the worst matches in wrestling history. When Arquette (with whom Kanyon had worked on the set of the pitiable wrestling film Ready to Rumble) actually won the WCW championship on the April 27, 2000, edition of Thursday Thunder, WCW had somehow found a new way to make a mockery of an enterprise that had, in recent years, already become a self-parody.
Kanyon transitioned to the WWF roster as a part of the WCW Invasion angle. The companies had joined in real life when Vince McMahon purchased his struggling rival in 2001. The two factions were portrayed as being bitter co-inhabitants of the new, bigger WWF, like AOL and Time Warner but with swinging steel chairs. It was a disappointing time for fans (the real WWF-WCW feud had considerably more angst and enmity than this fake one), but Kanyon was something of a standout of the Invasion/Alliance era. He was bequeathed the WCW United States Championship, and he had a good run as the "Alliance MVP," playing a bristly loudmouth who would come into the ring and, in his thick Queens accent, ask the audience, "Who betta than Kanyon?"
The question wasn't rhetorical. That period of wrestling television was fat with call-and-response catchphrases, and this one was no different. The "desired" reply from the audience in this case was, of course, "Nobody!" The real answer, obviously, was lots of people. When the crowd wised up and started shouting "Everybody!" back at Kanyon, he cunningly changed the question to, "Who's not betta than Kanyon?" and he relished in the perceived endorsement bestowed by the double negative.
From there, though, his career fizzled, and he was released in February 2004.
It wasn't a unique or unexpected fate for a grappler of his level and vintage. He later claimed to have been improperly fired and subsequently blacklisted from the WWF, but in the words of Rick Scaia, "It's unlikely Kanyon was as ‘blacklisted' as he thought." Many wrestlers have been released or fired for significant offenses, only to be re-hired by the WWF at the first opportunity to make a buck. More than anything, it seemed to be Kanyon's persecution complex that kept him at arm's length from the wrestling mainstream.
At an indie show in 2006, Kanyon outed himself as gay. There's some dispute as to his authenticity — he eventually backtracked, saying it was part of the character he was playing, and he later went on to recant that disavowal. More likely the waffling was evidence of an increasingly unsettled personality. He appeared a couple of times on The Howard Stern Show, where they played up his homosexuality and the seeming incongruity of a gay man in the pro wrestling business. I'll leave the issue of wrestling's homoeroticism for another day, but suffice it to say that despite Stern's fascination, this was not exactly wrestling's Stonewall moment. Many of his WWE coworkers have since said that they didn't know Kanyon was gay but that it wouldn't have bothered them. (Some of McMahon's top lieutenants, it should also be noted, are purportedly gay.) But that's beside the point: However accepted he might've been within wrestling, it's worth wondering if he did irreparable damage to his career by breaking wrestling's fourth wall. The era of kayfabe may be over, but when the spotlight is on, we expect our fighters to keep their reality to themselves. All successful wrestlers are closeted in one way or another.
In any case, if Chris Kanyon was gay — and he almost certainly was — it's easy to see how being closeted in an overly-aggro locker room could lead to powerful feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement. And small wonder that such feelings ballooned after his release, when the WWE was the only major wrestling outfit left, and as his increasingly erratic public profile cemented his estrangement from the company.
This rift was fortified in early 2009, when Kanyon, alongside Raven (aka Scott Levy) and Mike Sanders, sued the WWE. The pro wrestling industry is built on a profitable but morally suspect framework that designates all the wrestlers as "independent contractors," meaning that power rests lopsidedly in the hands of the wrestling company. Wrestlers can be fired at will, are definitionally denied health insurance, and are burdened with innumerable other inconveniences like having to file tax returns in every state in which they perform. (Various calls over the years for wrestling talent to unionize have largely gone nowhere, for obvious reasons.) It would be a sorry system even if the industry weren't centered on its "independent contractors" risking life and limb on a nightly basis. With the WWE as a monolithic near-monopoly, the workers' power is almost entirely diminished (as is the WWE's argument, first broached in the territorial era, that it couldn't afford to make concessions that its major competitors weren't making.) A suit like Kanyon's was a long time coming. But the status quo makes it dangerous for any current or potential employee to sue — if they lose, the resultant hostility will render them unemployable. So the threesome that lodged the complaint were minor players — in WWE terms, anyway — and they hadn't been under WWE employ for years. (It remains to be seen if history will judge them the Curt Floods of the squared circle.) Statue of limitations took precedent over the ethical legitimacy of the claim, and the lawsuit fizzled.
So, sadly, did Kanyon's career. He did a short stint in TNA and wrestled in a number of "major" independent shows, and more or less faded into wrestling oblivion. He had gone up against the greatest villain in all of wrestling — the all-powerful Corporation, the WWE — and he had lost. Insofar as the average wrestling fan was aware of the lawsuit, it was seen not only as an assault on tradition but as another betrayal of wrestling's code of secrecy: It doesn't do much for the idea of wrestling as a self-contained universe to point out that all these oiled musclemen in singlets are actually contract laborers.
In a metaphorical sense, Kanyon's professional career had a reverse life trajectory. As Mortis, he started off as death in caricature, a one-dimensional villain who later evolved into a regular guy and, as he outed himself, into a fully formed, multilayered human. Human frailty is an all-too-real thing, however. The coroner's report is still outstanding, but all evidence points to Kanyon having taken his own life last weekend. He was 40 years old. Supposedly he was making plans to put his craftsmanship to good use and open his own wrestling school; the potential for a strong second act seemed real. But after his dreams of wrestling stardom dissipated, his self-perpetuated segregation from the wrestling mainstream left him ever more despondent. His death was a sad end to an imperfect career.
So we bid you farewell, Chris Kanyon. At times, nobody was betta. We only wish you had been stronger.
The Masked Man works in publishing.