Killer Kowalski and the death of kayfabe

When We Were Marks
Yes Virginia, Wrestling is Fake
Killer Kowalski and the Death of Kayfabe

by Michael D. Ryan

Killer Kowalski died on August 30th and in all the many articles that have appeared about him since, no one has really delved into how Kowalski went from Tarzan Kowalski to Killer Kowalski. Sure everyone has the cursory story:

In Oct. 1952, at the Montreal Forum, Kowalski kneedropped Yukon Eric, and severed a piece of Eric’s ear. – SLAM! Wrestling.

Some have gone so far as to mention that the incident was an accident, but none – at least none that I have seen or read – have explained why it was an accident and more importantly why the incident was important. Because that moment is one of the great moments in wrestling kayfabe; a moment that simply could not happen today; a moment that symbolized Kowalski’s era.

Kowalski had two finishing moves. The first was a claw to the stomach, a move accepted completely at the time, but that now appears somewhat comical, as though Kowalsi won matches by viciously tickling his opponents in the gut.

But his other finishing move? His other finishing move was a piece of art then and now. Kowalski’s other finisher was a top-rope knee stomp to his opponent’s throat. So vicious did this move appear that in every promotion that Kowalski appeared this move was either immediately outlawed or in the process of being outlawed or there would be calls for it to be outlawed.

In his first book, Mick Foley describes the four types of wrestling moves, reserving his highest praise for the wrestling moves that look deadly but don’t hurt at all. Kowalski’s knee stomp fit firmly into that category. To the audience it appeared that Kowalski crushed his opponent’s throat, but in truth Kowalski hit his opponent in the throat so lightly with his knee that if a butterfly landed on his victim’s windpipe just before Kowalski’s knee connected, the butterfly trapped between windpipe and knee would still escape unharmed to fly away.

On the night in question, Kowalski landed the move perfectly. The problem was that as Kowalski flew through the air, Yukon Eric’s body betrayed him and he FLINCHED, turning his head. The “accident’ was entirely caused by Eric. Kowalski was aiming for a point just above Eric’s throat, with Eric’s head turned to the side and with Kowalski unable to adjust in mid-air, Kowalski’s shin collided full-force with Eric’s much cauliflowered ear, knocking it off and leaving Eric mutilated with blood pouring out the side of his head.

From that point on, the world of kayfabe sprang into motion. The referee began screaming at Kowalski that his top-rope knee drop was an illegal move, Kowalski heeled it up and Eric sold the injury like his life’s blood was leaking onto the canvas.

He [Kowalski] did visit Yukon Eric in the hospital, however, but began laughing at Eric’s huge headdressing for the severed ear. Reporters caught him laughing, and called him sadistic (despite the fact that Yukon Eric was laughing too). – SLAM! Wrestling.

It seems like a direct violation of kayfabe doesn’t it? Kowlaski visiting his victim in the hospital. Some might interpret that as a feeling of concern.

Eric’s head was wrapped like one of Boris Karloff’s Mummies. He looked so ridiculous that both Kowalski and Eric laughed. Now, there are many possible stories that could have emerged from that hospital room. How fortunate for the wrestling promoter that the story that emerged was consistent and unanimous and designed to sell the most tickets possible to the Montreal Forum the following Saturday night: Kowalski is a sadistic killer who came to the hospital to taunt and laugh at his victim.

And so the following Saturday night, a sold-out Montreal Forum chanted as one “KILLER! KILLER! KILLER!” and Tarzan Kowalski becomes Killer Kowalski forever more. On such flimsy foundations are a nickname earned; a career made; stardom bestowed: a flinch, an accident and a laugh misinterpreted.

Great piece of luck for the promoter that all the reporters in the room put that interpretation on the events right?

No, there was no luck at all.

Every reporter in that room knew that wrestling was fake. Every reporter understood that what happened to Eric was an accident. The reporters probably laughed with Kowalski and Eric. Every reporter in that room was in on the conspiracy and acted to continue and extend the gentle conspiracy that wrestling was real.

It was a different era of course. No one wrote that Jack Kennedy slept with every pretty girl in sight – 35 years later Bill Clinton was almost impeached for one *******. No one wrote that Mickey Mantle was a drunk – now every time a Cincinnati Bengal opens a beer it is reported on ESPN. No one wrote that Rock Hudson was gay – now today’s gossip is that Lindsay Lohan is getting married to a girl.

So the conspiracy that made Kowalski a Killer and a star might not have survived, but we do indulge in similar conspiracies even today. We practically make an international holiday of a glorified rat popping out of a hole to somehow predict the weather and we take this prediction at face value. We waste valuable newspaper space on Astrology. We somehow all agree on the convenient fiction that someone 18 years old is somehow smarter and better able to choose the future of their country than someone 17 years and 364 days old. I am certain that you can think of other similar conspiracies. There was a time when wrestling results were found in most newspapers, when writers and editors took part in the kayfabe conspiracy. Now that conspiracy might have been doomed in any case, but one man killed it.

In 1989, New Jersey was planning to tax wrestling events as part of a category of sporting events. Vincent K. McMahon, the owner of the then WWF, testified under oath to the state committee considering this tax that wrestling should be exempted from the tax because it was not a sport, it was entertainment. The irony was that the committee agreed with him… but taxed wrestling anyway.

Until that moment, wrestling was a sport for eight year olds. As you got older, sure you realized that wrestling was rigged, but unless you were a grouch you did not spoil it for the kids by declaring it was fake, until Vince McMahon burst the conspiracy once and for all. The son of Vince McMahon, grandson of Jess McMahon, heir to Toots Mondt betrayed the conspiracy that had served his family for three generations.

Is it any wonder that to this day, sports reporters and editors want nothing to do with wrestling? With one sworn statement Vince McMahon revealed them all to be either liars or fools. And ever since wrestling has been trapped between two stools – the entertainment section won’t cover it because wrestling is a sport and the sports section won’t cover it because wrestling is entertainment.

So while we remember Killer Kowalski and mourn his passing, let us also remember his era and mourn the death of that gentle conspiracy called kayfabe that could turn a flinch and a laugh into a sold-out crowd yelling for blood.

KILLER! KILLER! KILLER!

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