“You don’t know what it’s like to be in my head.”
Those words from Chris Kanyon, relayed through pro wrestler manager and close friend James Mitchell on the latest episode of Vice’s “Dark Side of the Ring” docuseries, speak so much to the life of the pioneering pro wrestler.
Kanyon’s pro wrestling career spanned 18 years, ending with his untimely death in 2010. He was a fan favorite during the famed Monday Night War era of the late 90s/early 2000s, wowing millions of fans in both WCW and WWE with his knack for offensive innovation, busting out moves that have become modern standards.
But outside of the ring was a different story for Kanyon. The fun-loving and giving man also struggled to come to terms with his identity as a gay man, remaining firmly closeted except to select close friends throughout most of his career.
In today’s world, where the LGBTQ pro wrestling movement is growing and cultural attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals in wrestling have shifted for the better, maybe Kanyon’s experience would have been different.
Perhaps the internalized homophobia that inspired such self-hate and paranoia of being outed wouldn’t have felt so strong. Maybe the mental health struggles made stronger by the belief that a vital piece of himself was inherently bad and worthy of ostracization wouldn’t have felt so untenable.
Maybe he would still be here today to see the impact of his presence in pro wrestling, LGBTQ or otherwise.
Chris Kanyon was one of the most innovate and versatile performers of his era, living with a secret he protected to a tragic end.— Dark Side of the Ring (@DarkSideOfRing) September 23, 2021
Featuring @RealDDP, @IAmJericho, @MinisterReal, @youngbucks, @MrGMSI_BCage, @LukeHawx504 and others.
Tonight at 9pm on @vicetv and @CraveCanada. pic.twitter.com/1s7V20Ye8y
In some way, though, those hypotheticals don’t need to be asked because Kanyon has become an icon to the very community he wanted to help when he finally came out publicly in 2006. Kanyon is an icon within the pro wrestling community. He was one of the first out gay active pro wrestlers in the industry’s history. His memory lives on every time one of the hundreds of current out LGBTQ pro wrestlers steps into the ring.
This reputation is why I felt some trepidation when his name was announced as a topic for season three of “Dark Side of the Ring.” The show explores the more controversial and abhorrent topics in pro wrestling history with an amount of care and heart, but it also has a tendency to lean into more sensational aspects of its subjects.
Kanyon’s story marked the first time the show tackled a queer figure in the industry to any real degree, and the episode weaves its way through Kanyon’s life in an authentic way for the most part.
The program moves between visceral accounts of Kanyon’s struggle with bipolar disorder, enhanced by internalized homophobia, and being cast off by the WWE (though not before having him dress up like Boy George while the Undertaker destroyed him on live TV in 2003) and showcasing his legacy as an out pro wrestler and the admiration he engendered from every interview subject.
You simultaneously get a completed picture and a small slice of Chris Kanyon the man.
But like so much in the history of pro wrestling the show covers, there was a notable vocal exclusion in the program recounting a queer wrestling icon: queer voices. Every subject interviewed in the program deserved to be there due to their close relationships with Kanyon, but leaving no space for queer voices to speak to the groundbreaking nature of his career or the all too familiar experience that so many of us have lived through to some extent can only be classified as a severe oversight.
Mitchell and AEW wrestlers Matt and Nick Jackson pull tears out of the audience when they recount how pro wrestling’s historic attitudes toward LGBTQ communities enflared Kanyon’s already existing struggles. But no heterosexual ally can speak to the experience of being told your very existence in sinful, undesirable or invisible.
Likewise, they can’t speak to the true meaning and vulnerability attached to coming out and finding acceptance and love in a community that you thought would hold nothing but hate for you.
But those voices aren’t there to speak to it alongside all of the valuable contributions of those featured. Former WCW champion Diamond Dallas Page brings up the cultural shift in pro wrestling and the presence of numerous LGBTQ wrestlers near the episode’s close, but none of those talents were featured alongside small collages of AEW footage featuring the Jacksons and Brian Cage.
AEW rosters multiple out wrestlers (Nyla Rose, Sonny Kiss, Anthony Bowens, Leyla Hirsch, Diamante) that could have easily been featured alongside them, putting a face to the movement Kanyon so desperately wanted to spearhead.
Telling Kanyon’s story without the community so much of his legacy remains intertwined with is the last piece of the heart missing from the presentation. Kanyon’s own purported words sum it up best:
“You don’t know what it’s like to be in my head.”