Shannon: The Legend of Killer Kowalski

The HeadLocker — Jay Shannon

Legends: Killer Kowalski

Our resident philosopher, Jay Shannon, pays tribute to a great man who left us over the week-end.

Wladek “Walter” Kowalski was born in October, 1926, in Windsor, Ontario. He went to work with his father in an automobile factory before being discovered by wrestling scouts. Kowalski was trained by perhaps the most talented all-around wrestler of all time, Lou Thesz. Kowalski began his wrestling career in 1947.


Becoming a Killer:

Kowalski moved to the United States in the early 50s and began to journeyman around the country. He took the NWA Texas title from Buddy Rogers in Dallas, Tx. He also held gold in St. Louis, San Francisco and Canada. Some sources list Kowalski as the man who taught Fritz Von Erich the “Iron Claw”, which Kowalski also used. Kowalski also shared the distinction of being in the first wrestling match to be televised in Canada. He faced Yukon Eric. Eric would also become a important part in the legend of “Killer” Kowalski.

Kowalski had been using the ring name of “Tarzan” Kowalski. In 1954, Kowalski battled Yukon Eric in Montreal. Kowalski used his regular finisher, The Flying Knee Drop. to try and finish the match. Eric turned his head as Kowalski came down. Eric’s severely cauliflowered ear was ripped off. This was similar to what would happen to Mick Foley, decades later. The local television announcer made a comment to the effect of “What a killer!” The name stuck. Wladek gave up his Tarzan identity for that of a brutal brawler known as “Killer” Kowalski. It wouldn’t be the only ring names that he would use during his career.

The many faces of Kowalski:

When Kowalski went to the WWWF after a huge successful run in the AWA, Vince McMahon Sr. decided to give Kowalski several different identities, to make the roster look larger. Not only did Kowalski wrestle under his Given Name, he also donned a mask as one of the original Executioners (along with his student, “Big” John Studd). Kowalski came extremely close to ending the reign of Bruno Sammartino. He was the biggest heel of his era. It was such a change from the actual person behind the facade.

My wife, who grew up in Ohio, met Kowalski during a few of his passes through the area. She told me that Kowalski, much like Waldo Von Erich, had a ring-side and a regular-side. He was a gentle person who was very kind to the people that came to see him. My wife talks very kindly about the big Killer. Kowalski’s kindness would be evident as he went from full-time wrestler to part-time wrestler/part-time trainer.

The Trainer of Champions:

In 1977, Wladek, now known as Walter, moved to Salem, MA following his retirement from active competition. He opened the Killer Kowalski Institute of Professional Wrestling. He ran the school for 25 years, until selling the school, in 2003, to the Chaotic Wrestling Federation, They combined it with their own training academy, Chaotic Training Center.

During his 25-year run as a trainer, Kowalski trained some of the biggest names in the industry. His alumni list includes: Frankie “KAZ” Kazarian, Triple H, Chyna, Perry Saturn, “Big” John Studd, April Hunter, Slyk Wagner Brown and Giant Bernard (Albert), among numerous others. Triple H has talked about his original ring name coming from a comment that Kowalski made during his training. Kowalski told Trip that during a match that during a match you had to make the audience believe you were terrorizing the opponent. Triple H became Terra Ryzing.

Walter was never one to reject anyone who really had the heart and desire to become a wrestler. He believed in giving a person a chance. That doesn’t mean that everyone who approached Kowalski ended up one of his students. Kowalski was a proud man who demanded that his students be as dedicated as he was. Kowalksi had a reputation of never turning out a loser.

The Award Winner:

Over the years, Kowalski won numerous titles. He also won several awards. In 1996, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. He was one of the first Legends to receive a WWE action figure. He was inducted into the Canadian Wrestling Hall of Fame. In 2002, Kowalski received the Cauliflower Alley Club’s top award, the Mike Mazurki Award. In 2007, Kowalski was inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame. Kowalski also received recognition from the Canadian television industry for being a trend-setter in the early days of television. Kowalski was recognized by the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame for being one of the most active wrestlers to ever compete (he fought in over 6,000 matches). He was also recognized for having one of the longest male wrestling careers in history (60 years, with a few breaks).

The last few years:

After selling off his wrestling school in 2003, Walter made appearances at conventions and special wrestling events near his home town. Walter actually won his last series of matches in 2007. He teamed with Ox Baker in the United States Wrestling Federation to take part in a tag tournament. They got a bye in the first round. In the second round, their opponents stepped out of the ring to allow Ox and Killer to get a count out win and spot in the finals. The second round opponents were “Superstar” Richard Byrne (one of Kowalski’s first students) and Gino Martino (who had been friends with both Ox and Killer for many years). In the finals, Ox nailed his opponent with the Hurt Punch and Killer locked in The Claw to take the championship. Kowalski won the title at the tender age of 80 years old!

Kowalski injured his knee not long after winning the championship with Ox Baker. He underwent an extensive knee surgery that kept him in rehabilitation for several months. Sadly, Kowalski’s health continued to degenerate over the next few months. On August 8, 2008, Kowalski suffered a major heart attack and was rushed to a local hospital. 10 days later, Kowalski was taken off life support and received hospice care for the next 12 days. Wladek “Walter” Kowalski died in the morning hours of August 30, 2008. The wrestling world lost one of it’s last Old-Timers.

The entire staff here at Online World of Wrestling would like to extend their deepest condolences to the friends, family and fans of the great “Killer” Kowalski.

In Conclusion:

There will never be another “Killer” Kowalski. His ability to encite a crowd was legendary. His power and strength in the ring were only matched by his softness and caring outside the squared circle.

In my 36 years of watching this great sport, I’ve met many wrestlers. I’ve share a class with Steve Austin at The University of North Texas. I’ve been a student of World Class announcer Bill Mercer. I met Laci Von Erich when she was barely out of diapers. Iconsider Peter Maivia, Jr as a dear friend. One of my few regrets is that I was never lucky enough to meet and thank the great Walter “Killer” Kowalski for his dedication to this great sport. I hope this little column will say what I never got the chance to tell Walter.

May you spirit fly to the next reality on the most gentle of breezes. May your memory bring nothing but smiles to all who knew and loved you. In life, you were many things: a friend, a teacher and a hero. One thing that you are and always will be…is a Legend. You will never be forgotten but you will always be missed. Rest now.

–Jay Shannon
[email protected]
(9/1/2008)