The Phantom of the Ring pays tribute to one of the all time greats of the squared circle. Walter “Killer” Kowalski passed away August 30. All our thoughts and prayers go to his family and friends.
The Phantom of the Ring
Killer Kowalski, The Gentle Maniac
I’ve seen him wrestle more times than I can remember. And not once, whether at Madison Square Garden or at the run-down Elizabeth, New Jersey, Armory, did I ever see him give less than 100%. He once told me that professional wrestling was not just his job, it was his life.
And he did it well. He was the man the fans absolutely loved to hate. Many of his matches ended with riots. Police protection seemed to be the norm; more than one knife was routinely taken from an enraged fan. Folding chairs being thrown at him was as normal as rain. At one match in Toronto, the fans even tried to set the ring on fire – with him still in it. Before a match in Perth, Australia, promoter Jim Barnett told him that it might be a good thing if he didn’t show up. He did anyway, and it took practically the entire resources of the Perth Police Department to make sure the crowd didn’t tear him limb from limb.
Tom Burke once told me about nuns in full regalia yelling at him during a match. Now you’ve got to be bad to be that good.
In the ring he was a pit bull, relentlessly on the attack, never giving his opponent time to even catch a breath. Bruno Sammartino told me that once the bell rang, Kowalski became a different person. “It was almost as if he was on pure instinct,” Bruno said. “To tell the truth we had over thirty matches and every one of them was different.”
I only wish today’s “superstars” could take a page from that book.
He also transcended pro wrestling in that he became a pop culture icon. There is an episode of Seinfeld where Kramer speaks almost reverentially of having watched Kowalski wrestle and the way he used “that stomach claw.”
Many fans do not know that Kowalski was also an accomplished and artistic photographer, or that a book of his photos, Killer Pics [White-Boucke Publishing; ISBN: 1888580186; (August 2001) – still available in paperback through Amazon.com], was published and sold well. His captivating photos include classic poses of André the Giant, George “The Animal” Steele, Chiefs Peter Maivia and Jay Strongbow, Stan Stasiak, and Bruno and David Sammartino, as well as photos of wildlife, children, landscapes, and cityscapes.
Off the mat, he was a complete opposite: a devout Catholic, quiet, meditative and a committed vegetarian.
Walter “Killer” Kowalski was born Edward Spolnik (he changed his name legally to Walter Kowalski in 1963) on October 13, 1926, in Windsor, Canada. His parents were Polish immigrants.
Like most immigrants, he had a dream in life, but it wasn’t to be a pro wrestler. Rather, his dream was to become an electrical engineer, even though he was tall for his age and possessed a body made for wrestling.
“I was what you would call a fitness nut,” he told me at a Cauliflower Alley Club get-together in Elizabeth, New Jersey. “I was always working out at the YMCA, but I never had any athletic goals in mind.”
While working out at the Y, several people told him to look into pro wrestling, but young Edward wasn’t interested. He wanted to go to college, but lacked the money. So he worked with his father at the Ford Motor Company, where he fixed machinery. One day a a coworker told him that there was a faster way to put money away for college, and that was by becoming a pro wrestler. “He told me they made big money and I’d have my college money in no time. I looked back at him and simply said ‘Okay.’”
He worked out with a few wrestlers, including Bert Ruby (who promoted Detroit). Ruby told him to forget it; he thought Kowalski was too clumsy to make it. Kowalski thought otherwise, and, obviously, so did Bert Ruby, because Ruby agreed to train him and Kowalski began his wrestling career working for Bert Ruby. Ruby also give him the handle “Wladek (or Walter) Kowalski,” the better to cash in on his Polish heritage. (Good thing Jack Pfeffer didn’t discover him, or his name may well have been “Count Donoso de Cortez.”)
Now here is where it gets a bit fuzzy. Reportedly, Kowalski began his career in late 1947 as “Tarzan Kowalski” in St. Louis, but the first result I have for him is May 6, 1948, in Windsor, Ontario, where he beat Dean Rockwell. (Keep in mind that Kowalski wrestled over 6,000 times in his career, and since this is wrestling, ambiguity is the word of the day.) Four days later he wins an 8-man battle royal in Detroit, so it’s obvious that Ruby is giving him a push. From May until December 1948, he works the Detroit area, billed as from Hamtramck, Michigan, facing names such as Sky Hi Lee, Frankie Taylor, Bert Ruby, Martin “Blimp” Levy, and Orville Brown.
In January of 1949 he relocated to the Kansas City Territory. I believe it was here that he was first billed as “Tarzan” Kowalski. (At the time, the “Nature Boy” phenomenon started by Jack Pfeffer was spawning many imitations. Given Kowalski’s build, I suppose “Tarzan” seemed like a natural.) He received his first NWA title shot against Orville Brown on January 20, 1949. Needless to say, he lost, but reportedly gave a good account of himself.
It was during a stop in St. Louis that the young Kowalski met the man he would later consider his “mentor.” That man was Lou Thesz. Thesz once told me that whenever he saw a big guy that was being pushed, he’d test him to see just how tough the guy was. Lou said Kowalski could take it, but needed a little polishing, which he gave in the form of advice and a little training (manly how to protect oneself in the ring). It was obvious that Kowalski listened because he caught fire during the next few years, rare for someone with such little time in the game and lacking “athletic” credentials (such as an amateur championship or NFL background). 1949 also saw him expanding his horizons by working Ohio for Al Haft, Toronto for Frank Tunney (where he began his series against the great Whipper Watson), and upstate New York for Ed Don George.
He traveled to Texas in 1950. One of his earliest titles was the NWA Texas Heavyweight title, which he won on August 22, 1950, defeating then-champion “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in Dallas. His next title was more surreal: it was the Texas Tag Title and he won it all by his lonesome, in a handicap match on December 11 against then champions Duke Keomuka and Danny Savich. (During this time in Texas, given his size, Kowalski wrestled handicap matches frequently.) He vacated the titles and Keomuka and Savich once again found themselves champions.
On January 25, 1951, (Tarzan) Kowalski relieved Wild Bill Longson of the Central States Championship in Kansas City. He held the belt until April 26, when he dropped it to Dennis Clary. He also traveled to San Francisco to work for Joe Malcewicz, where he joined up with Bob “Hans” Hermann. Together they were a formidable, to say the least, tag team. They grabbed the NWA Pacific Coast Tag Titles from Gino and Leo Garibaldi in early 1951 before dropping them in September to Hard Boiled Haggerty (Don Stansauk) and Tom Rice on September 5.
In 1952 he traveled to Montreal, working for Eddie Quinn. On April 2, 1952, he defeated Bobby Managoff for the Montreal version of the World Championship (later known as the International Heavyweight Championship when Quinn rejoined the NWA). He would hold the belt until February 25, 1952, when he lost it to Verne Gagne. Overall, he would hold the belt 12 times, winning it for the last time from Johnny Rougeau on July 23, 1967, and losing it to frequent adversary Edouard Carpentier on January 20, 1963.
Also in 1952, Kowalski earned the nickname that would stay with him the rest of his life. On October 15, 1952, he was defending his title at the Montreal Forum against Yukon Eric. Eric won the first fall, possibly by disqualification. During the second fall, Kowalski went for his finisher, a knee drop off the top rope. As Kowalski came down, his shinbone struck Eric’s cauliflowered ear, ripping off a piece of it. He visited Eric in the hospital and reporters caught Kowalski laughing at Eric. It was also reported at first that Eric might not ever wrestle again. And thus “Killer” Kowalski was born.
At the Cauliflower Alley Club dinner in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Kowalski reminisced about that famous turn of events. “I had his leg tied in the ropes and I went for the knee drop, but on the way down, all of a sudden he moves his head and I clipped him with the top of my boots — that’s what severed the top of his ear. I thought I missed him, but I could see blood all over the place. The referee gets him free and Eric starts walking back to the locker room, holding his ear. The ref finds the ear and picks it up. I ask him what that was and he replies ‘his ear’. I just shook my head. Then the ref says what do we do now? And I say, ‘Raise my hand, he’s gone.’ So the ref does, and you should have heard all the boos. I was worried if I’d get back to the dressing room alive.
“The promoter (Quinn) tells me that I owe Eric an apology. ‘For what,’ I said. ‘For what you did,’ he said. And I could see he wasn’t kidding. So I visit Eric a couple of days later in the hospital. He’s got his head all bandaged and all I could think of was that he looked like Humpty Dumpty and I begin smiling. He asks me what’s so funny and I tell him. So he starts laughing and I start laughing with him and pointing at the bandage. The next day, a reporter (From the Montreal Star – wonder if Quinn sent him for the publicity?) who was actually outside the room, wrote that I was laughing at what I did to Eric. And it just took off from there. From then on, I was known as ‘Killer.’”
A little bit of irony: On January 14, 1953, Kowalski was involved in the first professional wrestling match to be televised (from the Montreal Forum) in Canada. His opponent that night was Yukon Eric. (Kowalski won on a disqualification).
The year 1953 also marked a personal milestone in Kowalski’s life, for that is the year he gave up meat permanently for Lent, becoming a vegetarian. In an interview he conducted with Barry Harris for Vegetarianusa, (http://www.vegetarianusa.com/feature_articles/sports/Kowalski.html), Kowalski said that he was reading a lot of books on the effects of food on the body. “At first, I wasn’t too sure about becoming a vegetarian. Then I heard about these two runners, Roger Bannister and John Landy. They were the first two men to break the four minute mile barrier. It was at the British Empire Games which were run in British Columbia. Roger Bannister, from England, won in under four minutes. And the little guy, John Landy, from New Zealand, he was just behind by a foot, so he ran under four minutes also. They both broke the four minute barrier.”
Kowalski then read an interview with Bannister and Landy where both attributed their feat to being vegetarians. “And so I thought, I better give it a shot. Overnight, I became a vegetarian.” Although he did so for athletic reasons at the beginning, he began to meditate further on his choice: “In the beginning it was for athletic reasons, but later I became more concerned about life itself. I won’t go too deeply into it, but there is a religious part and meditative part of vegetarianism for me.
“After I made the change, people asked me different questions about being a vegetarian such as “Where do you get your protein?” I would say to them, “Elephants, they’re vegetarians. They grow up big and strong. And horses, they have tremendous endurance, and they are vegetarians. But meat eaters, like lions and tigers, they have a short life span.” The meat industry cons people into thinking you must eat decaying rotting flesh to get your protein. Bullshit, that’s a lot of baloney. Big, healthy, strong animals get their protein from vegetarian sources, grass even! . . . when I got away from animal foods, I became closer to God. That’s what happened to me. I was more conscious of the good things in life. I was more conscious of other people. And I was conscious of love. In fact, when you eat more animal food, you hate more, you become more aggressive.”
Kowalski often attributed his remarkable recovery from an automobile accident to his vegetarianism (1958?); a recovery so remarkable it astounded his doctors. (So he told me during our chat at the Cauliflower Alley Club.)
His wrestling career continued to prosper. On May 24, 1958, in Boston, Mass., he defeated Edouard Carpentier for the Atlantic Athletic Commission World Heavyweight Title. The promotion was Paul Bowser’s successor to his AWA, and recognized Carpentier (as did a few others) based on his June 14, 1957, victory over NWA Champ Lou Thesz when Thesz was DQ’d due to a “back injury.” I could find no record of any title defenses by Kowalski, except when he lost it to Bearcat Wright on April 4, 1961.
In 1961 Kowalski was back in the Central States area, supposedly winning the Central States Tag Title with Buddy “Killer” Austin from the Medics, though no date is given and cannot find it in the record book. For what it was, Kowalski left the area and Don McClarity took his place with Austin.
We do have a record of him winning the Vancouver version of the NWA Pacific Coast Championship with Ox Anderson. They defeated Guy and Joe Brunetti on August 22, 1961, and held the straps until that September, when Anderson left the area. Shortly thereafter he teamed with Gene Kiniski to take the belts from Whipper Watson and Roy McClarty on January 22, 1962; their reign lasting until March 5, 1962, when Watson and Mr. Kleen teamed to take the belts.
During this time he also worked for Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling (Then known as “Wildcat Wrestling.”) He was recognized as the NAWA Canadian Champion in a November 17, 1961, Calgary match where he defeated Roy McClarty. The record book has him dropping the title to Czaya Nandor on March 9, 1962, in Calgary. On June 20 he dropped the NAWA Heavyweight Title to Ron Etchinson. It’s a bit confusing because there is no record of the title splitting. He’d get the Canadian Title back on July 6, 1962, and drop it back to him sometime later. (When is unknown; it might have been an office change when he left the area.
One of the wildest events in the history of the NWA Championship occurred on November 21, 1962, when Kowalski opposed then NWA Heavyweight Champion “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in a two-out-of-three falls classic in the Montreal Forum. Kowalski pinned Rogers to win the first fall. But Rogers couldn’t finish the match and was taken to Montreal’s General Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a fractured right ankle. Because the contest was a best two-of-three falls match, the NWA didn’t recognize Kowalski as champ. The NWA didn’t recognize a title change mainly because the contest was signed as best-of-three falls. Rogers was out for almost two months, and Kowalski had to take over the champ’s schedule. When he filled Rogers’ date with Lou Thesz in Houston, promoter Morris Sigel billed him as NWA champ. He and Thesz wrestled that night to a 90-minute draw.
When Rogers was sufficiently recovered enough to resume his schedule, Kowalski obligingly did the job on January 21, 1963, in Boston. “I never felt so relieved in all my life,” he told me.
The year 1963 found him mainly in the Northeast, with a lucrative tour of Japan, where his fearsome reputation drew the crowds. “I found the Japanese fans a pleasure compared to the crowds in America and Canada,” he said to me. Returning to America he worked for Vince McMahon and the WWWF. On November 14, 1963, he and Gorilla Monsoon (managed by Wild Red Berry) defeated Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard for the WWWF United States Tag Team Championship, a title they held until December 28 of that year when they lost to Chris and John Tolos in Teaneck, New Jersey, of all places.
In October, 1964, he finished his WWWF commitments and headed Down Under, where he was recognized upon arrival as champion of Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle’s IWA. From 1964 to 1967 he held the title five times, finally losing it to Mario Milano on September 9, 1968, in Sydney. He was also a four-time holder of the IWA World Tag Team Title, holding it twice with Skull Murphy, and once each with Bill Miller and Mark Lewin. Australia during those days was nothing short of a wrestler’s paradise. The crowds and paydays were good, and it was like a vacation compared to the hectic schedules in the U.S. and Canada. In 1967, he was engaged in some controversy with Australian talk show host Don Lane, who managed to irritate the Killer during an otherwise uneventful interview to the point where Kowalski clamped his stomach claw on Lane. It got a lot of publicity in Australia, with threatened lawsuits and suspensions, but the whole thing was merely a work, designed by Barnett to build heat for Kowalski.
He made connections in Australia that paid off with a side trip to Hawaii in 1965, where he won the U.S. Championship from King Curtis Iaukea on September 15, 1965, and lost it to Nick Kozak on January 5, 1966.
The year 1968 was split between Australia, Japan and the WWWF, where he had a hot feud with Bruno Sammartino. In 1969 he continued his hot feud with Sammartino and added former tag partner Gorilla Monsoon, plus up and coming Victor Rivera to the mix.
In the latter half of 1970 he relocated to Texas, where he competed for several local titles. From Texas it was back to finish his commitments in Australia, another tour of Japan, and a stop in the Sheik’s Detroit territory. Heading to Los Angeles in 1972, he is awarded the Americas Belt upon entry and entered into a feud with John Tolos, who won the title from Kowalski on March 10, 1972. He also won the Americas Tag tiles with Kenji Shibuya from Dory Dixon and Raul Mata on April 25, 1972, dropping them to Mata and new partner Rey Mendoza on May 5.
He returned to Canada later that year, wrestling for Lucien Gregoire’s Grand Prix promotion, holding the singles title twice and the tag title twice. He also worked for Frank Tunney and Vince McMahon. His most interesting match before leaving for Florida in 1975 was on May 6, where he and Bruno teamed up as the heels to lose to the team of Giant Baba & Jumbo Tsuruta.
He showed up in Florida as the Masked Destroyer, complete with purple mask and purple tights. He was also sporting a new title, the Southern Championship, which apparently was awarded to him upon arrival. He engaged in a feud with Billy Robinson, the highlights of which were Kowalski losing the Southern Championship on December 16 in Tampa, and December 27 in Tallahassee vs. Billy Robinson, where he was unmasked, though he continued to wrestle with the mask; speculation being that he was vain about his growing baldness.
In February, 1976, he returned to the WWF, working in Toronto at first, mainly against Dominic DeNucci. In April, a new tag team debuted in the WWF, the Masked Executioners, wearing black masks and black tights. Managed by Lou Albano they captured the WWF Tag belts from Tony Parisi & Louis Cerdan in Philadelphia on May 11, 1976. Executioner #1 looked somewhat familiar, especially as fans in the New York area received Championship Wrestling From Florida on UHF Channel 47 and saw Kowalski with a mask. But it was when he was interviewed that the cat leaped loudly out of the bag. There was no mistaking that voice. The only question was as to the identity of #2, but that was quickly solved when it was revealed in the wrestling press that it was none other than Chuck O’Connor (John Minton), a wrestler Kowalski had tutored in the game. They entered into a hot feud with Jay Strongbow and Billy White Wolf, and were stripped of the titles on WWF television (from Hamburg, PA) on October 26 in a match with Strongbow and White Wolf when a third Executioner (Nicoli Volkoff) entered the match. He finished out 1977, but he started a wrestling school in Malden, a town near Boston, in 1978 and the school soon took up most of his time. He returned only once to the ring in 1979, beating Gorilla Monsoon by count out in Johnstown, PA. In 1987 he participated in a Legends Battle Royal (won by Lou Thesz) at the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, NJ. His last match was in 1992 for Atsushi Onita’s Frontier Martial Arts & Wrestling promotion. He battled John Tolos to a double count out on September 19 at Yokohama.
He then turned full attention to the school, which received a big boost in publicity and resulting enrollment when Kowalski made an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in 1982. A list of his graduates reads like a Who’s Who of modern wrestling: Jonah Adelman, Matt “A-Train” Bloom, Brittany Brown, Chyna, Kenny Dykstra (Spirit Squad), Malia Hosaka, April Hunter, Damien Kane, Frankie Kazarian, John Kronus, Chris Nowinski, Nikki Roxx, Perry Saturn, Mike “Norman” Shaw, Misty Blue Simmes, Big John Studd, and Triple H.
He also found time between the school and numerous television appearances to take on a comic role in Michael Burlingame’s surrealist film To a Random in 1986, coming off rather like Zacherly. A music video for the group Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, “Lost in the B-Zone,” was derived from this film, with Kowalski introducing the video.
In 1996 he was inducted into the WWF/WWE Hall of Fame and The Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame. This was followed by his induction in 2003 into The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Latham, New York. On June 14, 2007, he was inducted into The National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.
In the spring of 2006 he proposed to Theresa Dood, a twice-widowed woman he had known for over a decade. They were quietly married at St. Theresa’s Chapel in North Reading, Mass., on June 19, 2006. In Greg Oliver and Stephen Johnson’s wonderful book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, Kowalski revealed, with a twinkle in his eye, that his wife was seventy-six and she told him she was pregnant.
Kowalski was in a rehabilitation center in Everett, Mass., recovering from a knee injury, when he suffered a major heart attack. From then, it was only a case of marking time until the final bell tolled.
We’ll miss the Killer, both professionally and personally. They just aren’t making them like him anymore and he takes a vast legacy with him.