Old School Spotlight: Corporal Kirchner

Corporal Kirchner

In the long storied history of professional wrestling, many spandex clad gladiators have grabbed our attention and captured our imaginations. These colorful characters remain in the deepest recesses of our minds years after their glory days in the ring have passed. The most memorable grapplers from our years of wrestling fandom are often those that we encounter early on in our initial discovery of the mat game. This column will take a look at some of the most bizarre, flamboyant, charismatic, and downright terrifying pro wrestlers of all time.

The 1980s national expansion in the world of professional wrestling saw many larger than life characters emerge and become familiar faces to fans all around the world. The 80s was an interesting decade that had its share of political strife. That unstable political climate made for some of the best villains to ever set foot inside the squared circle. Who could forget the dastardly Russians like Ivan and Nikita Koloff? As beloved as he is now, The Iron Sheik was just as hated during the days of the Cold War. His partner in crime, Nikolai Volkoff, was the WWF’s answer to the NWA’s Koloff family. Ethnic heels that push the buttons of social and political consciousness have always been a staple of professional wrestling. Those anti-American antagonists always had the red, white, and blue babyfaces that were waving Old Glory proudly to vanquish them and their evil doings.

One of those such babyfaces came along in the mid-80s cartoonish land of the WWF almost by accident. Sergeant Slaughter had left the WWF after a dispute involving his likeness being used in the popular GI Joe cartoon series. That opened the door for someone to fill the role of US military hero. Enter Corporal Kirchner. Michael Penzel was born September 7, 1957 in Chicago, Illinois. He entered the United States Army as a teenager and became a paratrooper in the 82nd airborne division. Penzel left the Army in his early 20s and found himself living outside Minneapolis, Minnesota working at a machine shop by day and working as a bouncer at a bar during the night. While working out at a local gym, Penzel met pro wrestler, Hulk Hogan. The Hulkster, not yet the father of Hulkamania, was still working for Verne Gagne and the American Wrestling Association at that time. Hogan liked Penzel’s look and intensity in the weight room and arranged a meeting with Gagne. Penzel completed Gagne’s grueling training camp and began doing work as a preliminary wrestler and enhancement talent.

Penzel first appeared on WWF televison in the early 80s under the ring name, RT Reynolds. After Slaughter’s departure, Vince McMahon knowing Penzel’s history in the Army, came up with the Corporal Kirchner character. Kirchner debuted in the WWF in 1985 and was an instant fan favorite. His most high profile feud came against Nikolai Volkoff. That rivalry culminated with a victory over Volkoff in a flag match at the Chicago portion of the triplecast of WrestleMania 2. Kirchner quickly became known as one of the toughest most physical competitors in the WWF and also one of the stiffest in the ring. His in ring career somewhat stalled because many other stars refused to work with him for fear of injury. He was suspended for a drug test failure in 1987 and when his suspension ended Kirchner refused to return to the company and asked for his contractual release. After parting ways with the WWF, Kirchner had a brief run in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling promotion in Calgary, Alberta, Canada as Colonel Kirchner.

Kirchner then made his way to Japan and carved out a nice career for himself as one of Japan’s most notorious hardcore wrestlers. Kirchner transformed into a new persona, Leatherface, the chainsaw wielding madman from the 1974 cult classic movie, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. American movie monster characters were very big in Japan for several years. Leatherface originally made his mark in Victor Quinones’ W*NG promotion. Just as he began to become a big star in W*NG, Kirchner was sentenced to six months in jail after a physical altercation with a fan left the fan with severe facial injuries and fractures. While Kirchner served his jail sentence, the character of Leatherface was given to another wrestler, Rick Patterson. When Kirchner was released from jail, he appeared at an IWA Japan show in the crowd as Leatherface while Patterson worked as the new Leatherface in the ring. This set up a short program with a tag team of the Leatherfaces. In one of the most iconic hardcore matches in Japanese history, the team of the Leatherfaces took on the unit of Shoji Nakamaki and Hiroshi Ono in a Double Hell Deathmatch on December 13, 1994. This match featured blood, gore, and ultimate brutality. Kirchner reportedly broke kayfabe and ripped off a chunk of a bed of nails and placed it across Ono’s throat before executing a legdrop and then powerbombing Ono onto the bed of nails. Kirchner left the IWA promotion after the match with the promotion claiming that he had been fired in order to save face for Ono. Kirchner then moved onto the Frontier Martial Arts promotion continuing his hardcore style with a modified version of the Leatherface character known as Super Leather. Kirchner remained with FMW until the promotion until it closed in 2002 and he retired from the ring in 2004.

In one of the more bizarre stories in recent years, on October 16, 2006 the WWE reported that Kirchner had died. The promotion had somehow inexplicably gotten Kirchner mixed up with a man named Thomas Spear from Maryland. It was believed at the time that Kirchner’s real name was Thomas Spear and WWE records showed such.┬áKirchner’s mother actually heard about the WWE’s announcement of her son’s death and immediately called her son to inform him. Kirchner and his mom then contacted the WWE to tell the company that Kirchner was still alive and in good health. Kirchner, who was working as a long haul truck driver at the time, later remarked that he was honored and surprised that people still remembered him 20 years after his brief rise to fame in wrestling. Even though Corporal Kirchner only had about a two year stint in the WWF, he remains a fond memory of all 1980s wrestling fans as one of the most memorable patriotic characters of all time.

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