A 10-bell salute to Kenny Jay!

Marc Elliott

Kenny Jay versus Muhammed Ali in a Boxer versus Wrestler exhibition in 1976.

LARSMONT – Sometimes when you see something as a young kid you have absolutely no idea how big a part of your life that thing might become. For my brother Paul and I that encompassed watching TV wrestling as young boys.
During some shows we just wrestled right along with the action on the screen, but most of the time we were offering our utmost attention to our heroes of the squared circle. One of those heroes was an unassuming young guy by the name of Kenny Jay.
Little did we know how the career of Jay would unfold through the years, but suffice it to say that he went on to become one of the biggest stars of the American Wrestling Association during the next three decades. That is a pretty good run for a wrestler that rarely won any matches. But that was OK. He wasn’t supposed to.

Kenny John Benkowski hailed from Holdingford, Minn., near St. Cloud and was a star football player and amateur wrestler in his high school days. After high school Jay moved to Milwaukee and went to work, then served in the army and upon discharge soon got back to doing that one thing he really loved and that was wrestling. He wrestled there and eventually made his way to bigger venues like Chicago.

In the early '60s Jay returned to Minnesota and continued forth in the wrestling business, working for Wally Karbo and Verne Gagne in the AWA. That’s when my brother and I got our first glimpse of Jay in the ring. He was known as a “jobber” and that was a wrestler who would take on any opponent whether it was a “baby face” (good guy) or a “heel” (bad guy) and lose the match.

If you were going up against a heel wrestler on a given night it wasn’t always a fun experience, even if match outcomes were somewhat choreographed. That fact didn’t mean you weren’t going to get the starch beat out of you that night. In fact, it likely guaranteed it.
But Kenny took them all on anyway and he endured. By the time I was on my way out of high school Jay was still prominent on the TV show and at AWA auditorium matches. In fact my brother and I were regular attendees at AWA shows whether they were in St. Paul or Minneapolis. We were hooked. I’m not sure why but there just seemed to be something about watching a 250 lb. wrestler get lifted overhead and slammed to the mat to a thundering crescendo.

But wasn’t TV wrestling a soap opera designed for guys anyway? It was Greek theater personified. The good guy and bad guy were well defined along with the plots of their “feuds” against each other.
And who could ever forget that on days where the TV show coincided with an auditorium event that night there was going to be at least one mass chaos event on the show where the bad guy attacked the good guy or vice versa during an interview or match. There were multiple occasions where Jay found himself right in the middle of that chaos.

Jay died late last week at the age of 85. Upon hearing the news I began to look up some old AWA matches on YouTube. I wanted to honor Jay’s passing by watching one of his best matches ever. I quickly found one that featured Jay and another all-time popular jobber, George “Scrap Iron” Gadaski, and they were up against a heel tag team of Adrian Adonis and our former Governor Jesse Ventura.

Career-wise, I think that between the two of them Jay and Gadaski were something like 5-4684. But who was counting? We were there for the entertainment!
With the ever-popular Rodger Kent calling the match the two teams went tooth and nail. The Jay-Gadaski team was actually getting the better of the proceedings.
You’ve also got to remember that Kent was half wrestling announcer and half Shakespearean expert. He wove the two together when he called matches.
Also bear in mind that a great many AWA wrestlers actually had amateur backgrounds. Gagne demanded that. He wanted the in-ring action to be as real as possible.
So Gadaski and Adonis are going at it in the ring and there is a series of moves-counter moves that was quite impressive actually prompting Kent to state that, Gadaski’s “ring expertise” was coming to the fore!
This was a September 1981 match, but I recall seeing it the first time it aired. Now, I knew what Kent was saying and where it was coming from but I can only imagine that half of the viewing audience was suddenly thinking to themselves what in the H-E-double hockey sticks did he just say?
Yup. Coming to the fore! I still smile and laugh every time I see this video and hear that!
After some more maneuvers and a couple of tag-offs, the Scrapper had Adonis in a bad way. He sensed it and tagged off to Jay, who quickly came in and slapped a victory roll on Adonis and got a quick three count from the unflappable “third man in” Marty Miller to win the first fall!
The TV audience went berserk!
For the second fall Adonis and Ventura were clearly incensed and began to pound the snuff out of the two hapless jobbers. At one point they ran out of patience and threw Miller to the mat. This brought in a few other jobbers in an attempt to restore order but to no avail. They were flying out of the ring like crappies jumping out of the water at Lake Miltona.

Kent was ringing the ring bell non-stop with no one paying any attention. Finally, Karbo and Producer Al DeRusha entered the ring to halt the proceedings and Karbo had his suit jacket ripped off of his back before Greg Gagne jumped in to save the day! It was priceless!
Once the smoke had cleared Karbo “banned” Adonis and Ventura from ever wrestling again, although I recall seeing Ventura back at it with his new partner Mr. Saito a few months later. This whole scene was repeated all over with the two heels going against Jay and Baron Von Raschke. Same script, same result.

In the late '70s and early '80 Jay began to get his due as a constant on the show. He was doing some refereeing too at various shows. For anyone viewing he was getting as much applause as some of the big names in the game were. He was most gracious to the fans for that and was loved right back by them. His dedication to his craft was more than evident.

Kenny, I can only thank you for all of the entertainment through the years. I saw you on TV and in person countless times. You were the real deal. You weren’t a snobbish star who was bigger than the game, but a man of the people. You never forgot where you came from. We loved you and always will... PEACE

THE MINNESOTA WILD return to action after the All-Star Game break and for the upcoming week will face ARI in Tempe, DAL in Dallas, then Vegas and New Jersey in St. Paul. That’s a tough week! OVER & OUT!