My obituary of Killer Kowalski is in today's Guardian, in a slightly shortened format. You might be interested in the uncut version, which basically restores my own personal reminiscence, and that of the wrestler Violet Flame.
The received wisdom of professional wrestling is that to draw punters, wrestlers need to generate 'heat'. Every 'babyface' hero, whether Georgeous George, Big Daddy, or Hulk Hogan, needs a 'heel' the audience can hate, and will buy tickets to see vanquished. For thirty years, and more than 6,000 matches, wrestling audiences hated no one more than the Canadian-born Killer Kowalski, who has died aged 81. Kowalski was arguably the top heel in the era when regional wrestling promotions filled arenas all over North America, and provided hours of programming for the fledgling television industry. He continued to be the man crowds loved to hate well into the start of the modern era of national promotions and cable television.
Everything about Kowalski screamed villain, including his name. Born Robert Wladek Spulnik to Polish immigrant parents in Windsor, Ontario, he followed his father into the Ford factories across the bridge in Detroit, and began wrestling in there in 1947. His physique and good looks saw him billed variously as Tarzan Kowalski, Hercules Kowalski, and even The Polish Apollo, but he had also appeared as 'Killer', and that name stuck after he tore off part of Yukon Eric's ear while knee-dropping him during a match at the Montreal Forum in 1952. At the hospital, the two wrestlers laughed about the mummy-like bandages covering Eric's face; reporters in the corridor heard Kowalski's laughter and his reputation as a heartless 'Killer' was cemented.
It was a reputation he encouraged. Huge for his day, at 6-6 and 20 stone, Kowalski's features could be twisted into a horror-movie type rage. In the ring he was a committed cheat, bully, and thug, his interviews laced with eloquent contempt for both the crowd and its heroes. When he accidentally kicked Jack Dempsey, serving as a celebrity referee for a 1958 match against Pat O'Connor, he was quick to claim he'd been out to cripple the former heavyweight boxing champ. His signature move was 'The Claw,' 'working on to the muscles of the abdominal area,' as the announcers used to scream. In 1967 he used the Claw on an Australian TV interviewer, a gimmick repeated famously by Jerry Lawler on the comedian Andy Kaufman years later, and reprised in the 1999 film Man On The Moon.
Kowalski won his first title, the Texas belt, over Nature Boy Buddy Rogers in 1950. He and Rogers had a long and successful feud, and he did huge business in Canada against Whipper Billy Watson, who called him his favorite opponent. He and Hans Herman, who played a psuedo-Nazi, had huge success as a heel tag team on the West Coast. But Kowalski was biggest in the US Northeast, starting when he and Gorilla Monsoon captured the World Wide Wrestling Federation tag title in 1963. I recall vividly the abuse he dealt out to fan favourites like Edouard Carpentier, Argentina Apollo, or Pedro Morales, but his greatest matches came against New York's champion, Bruno Sammartino, in Madison Square Garden. Sammartino was the master of absorbing punishment before making the 'Superman' comebacks which drove the crowds into a frenzy, and no one was better than Kowalski at dishing it out mercilessly, then cowering abjectly when it was dished back to him.
Out of the ring, however, Kowalski, known as Walter, was considered one of the few truly good guys in an industry not renowned for its integrity. 'Walter is a pussycat,' wrestler Violet Flame told me when she came to Southampton in 2000 for Meridian Television's Transatlantic Wrestling Challenge, for which I did commentary. She had left Minnesota at her first opportunity, to make a pilgrimage to Kowalski's wrestling school outside Boston. He has taken her in, and created her ring name, to symbolise her 'pure flame of dedication'. In 1976 Kowalski and his first star pupil, Big John Studd, donned masks and captured the WWWF tag titles as The Executioners. It was his last big title before he retired in 1977, to concentrate on training wrestlers. Among his graduates was Paul Levesque, now known as WWE champ Triple H.
Unusually for a wrestler, Kowalski was a vegetarian, explaining 'the more you back away from meat, the more you elevate yourself, the vibratory level of your whole body changes and you become more conscious of higher levels of existence. A lifelong bachelor, at 79 he married 78 year old Theresa Ferrioli, telling Esquire magazine 'What could I do? She told me she was pregnant!'
Kowalski died following a heart attack, but his strength saw him live 12 days after being taken off life support. He is survived by his wife and a brother.
Edward Wladek (Walter) Kowalski
born 13 October 1926, Windsor Ontario
died 30 August 2008 Malden, Massachusetts