by Irvin Muchnick
Outsize personality J Michael Kenyon — an accomplished conventional sportswriter who was also a maniacally obsessed historian of pro wrestling — died recently at 73. Below are some of my interactions with Kenyon, along with general notes on his dinosaur archetype.
I recommend the quick-hit overview of Kenyon’s extraordinary life by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, at http://www.f4wonline.com/other-wrestling/wrestling-historian-j-michael-kenyon-passes-away-73-235066.
I exchanged quite a number of emails with Kenyon in 2006, in the run-up to the publication the next year of my first book, Wrestling Babylon. One of the things he said to me was illustrative of his far-ranging popular culture knowledge and connections: “Didja know that there is a corollary between Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and pro wrestling? That Patrick (Lord Lansdowne) Finnegan was alleged to have been an escort of Thelma Todd’s on the night of her (still unsolved) death in Hollywood?”
No, I did not.
Five years ago, in eulogizing Bert Randolph Sugar (who wrote the foreword for Wrestling Babylon), I called him a Damon Runyon character, the third guy from the left in the chorus of Guys and Dolls. (See https://concussioninc.net/?p=5433.) But compared to Kenyon, Bert was a piker — for the most part, just a fast talker and macher of the Mad Men generation with an ecumenical embrace of all forms of American folly. He lived a monogamous suburban life in Chappaqua, Westchester County, north of New York City. Sugar’s version of Runyonism was self-conscious, mannerized.
J Michael Kenyon’s version was something else … more like Runyonism on steroids. He was married, at minimum, six times. As Meltzer recounts, the very name was a social construct after he ditched Michael Glover, that bestowed by his parents. The change in nomenclature was mid-career, after he had already established a brand as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s seminal beat writer for the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics and an early practitioner of local sports talk radio.
When I thanked Kenyon for his help in reviewing the death list appendix in Wrestling Babylon, and said I’d be acknowledging the contribution of “J. Michael Kenyon,” he set me straight. “There is no period after the ‘J’ in J Michael Kenyon,” he emailed back, “since it has approximately the same value as the ‘S’ in Harry S Truman, i.e., zero.”
And Kenyon did not ostentatiously slosh beer, like Sugar, or sip his way through rounds of cocktails at Toots Shor’s, like Red Smith. In the old fraternity joke, J Michael sobered up on wood alcohol.
Kenyon also offered this regarding my chronicle of the off-the-charts mortality rate of pro wrestlers from the period of, roughly, 1985 through the 2007 double-murder-suicide of Chris Benoit:
“One observation I can make, based on what I know about the untoward deaths of wrestlers during the 1925-1985 era: the past was prologue (as usual). There may not have been quite as many under-50 demises in that bygone era, but there were far more than what actuarial odds might have predicted for a group of men (and women) in that age category.
The underlying reason is something I have gleaned from years spent studying the species: professional wrestlers are palpably insane, bordering on the sociopathic, and a high percentage of them are stupid to boot. Thus, their waltz with the nastier fates has been conducted at an accelerated pace from the get-go.
Only ‘better living through modern chemistry’ — and the can-you-top-this? mentality (the extraordinary attempted ringside suicides of Sabu leap to mind) — have combined to create the startling list of dead grapplers you have accumulated. These guys, for the most part, were all walking pharmacies. And the false sense of bravado provided by the chemicals lent itself to the hair-raising maneuvers they attempted in the ring. Personally, I gave up even watching them on TV nearly a decade ago, because I didn’t want to watch anyone break their neck (which everyone seemed intent on doing).”