On Tuesday, ECW Press officially released Wrestling Reality: The Life and Mind of Chris Kanyon, Wrestling's Gay Superstar, which Kanyon (real name Chris Klucsarits) wrote with Ryan Clark before his suicide on April 2nd of last year. It's a very good book that's much different than most wrestler autobiographies, though, as you might expect, it can get pretty depressing.
Kanyon felt that the defining aspects of his life, being both a gay man and pro wrestler, were always at odds, so he went to sometimes ridiculous lengths to stay closeted. This was compounded by something that he didn't learn until 2003, when he was hospitalized after his first suicide attempt: he was bipolar.
Bipolar disorder, formerly but still colloquially known as manic depression, is exactly what it says on the tin, a mental illness characterized by mood swings between severe depression and manic highs. It generally presents itself much earlier than Kanyon was diagnosed—in the teens to mid-20s—and Kanyon recalled various incidents where he was not himself that were clearly manic episodes in hindsight.
There are plenty of dark clouds hanging over the book. Most obviously, the book was released a year-and-a-half after Kanyon killed himself. In addition, while Kanyon wasn't ashamed of being gay, he stayed in the closet out of fear that coming out would cause damage for his career, and the conflict clearly worsened his depression.
Still, the book is fascinating, both as a look at Kanyon personally and a trip through his wrestling career.
As far as his wrestling career goes, he has a lot of different experiences from most wrestlers that truly make the book unique on that end. As a physical therapist who traveled to different parts for the country for 90 days at a time, he made a good living and had his expenses covered. In his free time, he could easily pursue wrestling training and independent bookings in the area during his stay.
After he got a big break with WCW, he was eventually chosen to be part of what Eric Bischoff felt would be a huge part of the company, a Mortal Kombat knockoff feud called "Blood Runs Cold." Promoted for months with cryptic promo videos, it became an afterthought when the NWO exploded. "Blood Runs Cold" ended up as a short mid-card feud before the involved wrestlers were sent into other directions.
After he got experience choreographing wrestling scenes for various movies with ties to WCW, Bischoff put him in charge of recruiting wrestlers for another project that never got off the ground. In this case, WCW would co-produce a show with Saved By the Bell creator Peter Engel about teenagers with their own wrestling promotion.
It's a fun journey, and it's clear that absent of any kind of personal problems, a book that was only about Kanyon's wrestling career would have been excellent. Unfortunately for Kanyon, he had a lot of personal problems.
As I said earlier, while he wasn't ashamed of being gay, he went to ridiculous lengths to hide it out of fear that it would kill his career. Whether it was having sex with female groupies as "proof" of his heterosexuality or fleeing a gay bar when wrestler friends showed up after the other bars closed. He was terrified of his secret getting out.
He also showed signs of mental illness long before his bipolar diagnosis. For years, he'd hoard everything from bottle caps to printouts of email conversations with fans.
As a package, it's a fascinating story. It can get depressing at times, especially knowing that this is a book written by someone who killed himself last year, but that may not even be the point where the book is at its darkest.
The big revelation in the book is what motivated his suicide attempt in 2003 that led to his hospitalization and bipolar diagnosis. I normally don't go into this level of detail about the contents of a book when reviewing it, but I feel that I can't really explain my reactions to it without going over what happened.
After years of desperately trying to stay closeted (aside from confiding in his best friend, Jim Mitchell), Kanyon decided in late 2001 to come out within wrestling and pitched an angle where he'd essentially be himself, a non-stereotypical, openly gay wrestler. His friends liked the idea, but it got no support from the WWE creative team.
After a series of injuries sidelined him, he got back into ring shape in WWE developmental territory (OVW) and was set to return on the February 15th, 2003 episode of SmackDown. When he got to the TV taping, he learned that he would be returning in an in-ring segment as part of the feud between The Undertaker and the Big Show.
As a "gift" from Big Show, Kanyon would come out of a giant box (closet?) dressed as Boy George, sing "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" to Undertaker and get beaten up by him. Kanyon had his qualms, especially since it came off as a vote of no confidence for his idea for a gay gimmick, but felt he had to go along with the angle.
If it was bad enough that the segment was seemingly designed to embarrass him and put him in his place, but it got worse—much worse. While he was the long-time "locker room leader" of WWE and ostensibly a safe veteran wrestler, The Undertaker was clearly reckless in beating Kanyon with the chair, concussing him with the hardest shot to the head you'll ever see.
The angle led to rumors circulating online about him being gay, and he felt he lost control, so he decided to take what he was given and do the flamboyant gay gimmick full time. He was turned down.
Subsequently, he was relegated to the bottom of the card, mainly wrestling on Saturday night C-show "Velocity" (the equivalent of what WWE Superstars is now). Seemingly confirming what Kanyon feared would happen if he came out, he was clearly positioned as the lowest wrestler on the WWE totem pole, even teaming with independent wrestlers in jobber tag teams, something no other main roster wrestler did.
He spiraled out of control over the next few months. In addition to his career's clear downward path, he saw things like his hoarded newspapers (actually a sign of his manic episodes) as another sign that his life was worthless. After months of contemplation, he attempted suicide by downing a full bottle of sleeping pills.
It's shocking, horrifying and a terrible indictment of WWE. While I want to make it clear that what happened doesn't make WWE responsible for Kanyon's suicide attempt (and they obviously didn't know he was mentally ill since he didn't), it's hard to look at the situation and not see it the same way Kanyon did, that he was sent out there to be embarrassed and punished. He did nothing to deserve that, and what happened is an embarrassment to WWE and pro wrestling as a whole.
The narrative of the book ends with his retirement from wrestling on April 5th, 2007, so the last few years of his life, which included a lot of pretty important things, aren't covered. While Kanyon was willing to continue working on the book, he wasn't regularly taking his medication and thus wasn't in the right state of mind to continue his interviews with Clark.
After Kanyon killed himself, here was consideration given to adding a chapter about the last three years of his life. Eventually, everyone involved decided it was best to just leave the book as he left it aside from the addition of a brief epilogue about his death with comments from his family and friends.
With the book ending where it does, it doesn't cover Kanyon's lawsuit against WWE (challenging the independent contractor status of WWE wrestlers) or his declining mental state. It ends with him seemingly in a good place mentally, giving advice to gay kids, etc., and then, bam, it talks about his suicide.
I'm not criticizing the book for this as much as trying to give you a better idea of the big picture. My only real criticism of the book is what often happens with ghostwriters who aren't wrestling fans—various, weird mistakes got in.
These include referring to Orlando Jordan as "Jordan Orlando" and switching from correctly identifying the title Kanyon held in WWE in 2001 as the "U.S. Title" to calling it his "national title." In the grand scheme of things, these are minor complaints, and wrestling fans reading the book will understand what Kanyon meant for Clark to say.
Since the book ends where it does, it's worth picking up the issues of Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer Newsletter (dated April 12th and 19th of 2010) that directly followed his death. The first issue features an obituary that quotes some of Kanyon's friends, while the second includes a letter that Kanyon wrote to Stephanie McMahon in 2006. They are available as part of a subscription to F4WOnline.com as well as in print by contacting Meltzer through the site.
Together, the book and the newsletter articles form a sad portrait of a man tormented by mental illness, and the fear that being himself would destroy his career, which was eventually justified in his eyes. During the tail end of his run, he was definitively positioned as the lowest-level wrestler in WWE, a role that I can't remember anyone else ever filling, so I certainly see where he was coming from as far as that went.
Highest possible recommendation for the book, and make sure to check out those Observers to get a more detailed picture. In addition, some interviews with Kanyon's friends during the writing of the book can be read at WrestlingRealityBook.com.
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