Saturday, August 30, 2008

Killer Kowalski RIP

Tribute photo by poster "JHawk" at

From Wikipedia:
Wladek (Walter) "Killer" Kowalski (October 13, 1926–August 30, 2008) was a Canadian professional wrestler. Kowalski wrestled for numerous promotions during his career, including the NWA and WWWF, and was a known heel wrestler. He held numerous championships including the WWWF World Tag Team Championship with Big John Studd. After retiring in 1977, Kowalski started a professional wrestling school in Malden, Massachusetts and trained many professional wrestlers, including Triple H.

The man later known as "Killer Kowalski" (he legally changed his name in 1963) was born Edward Walter Spulnik on October 13, 1926. The son of Polish immigrants, he and his brother Stanley were raised in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Years later, he would tell interviewers that he never expected to be a wrestler. By the age of fourteen, he was already 6 feet 4 inches (193 cm), and because he was skinny for his height, he began working out at the local YMCA, but he had no plan to go into athletics at that time. When he entered college, his major was electrical engineering. He worked part-time at the Ford plant in Detroit to help pay his way.

There are several stories of how he became a wrestler. The most common one is that while attending the University of Detroit (some sources say Assumption College in nearby Windsor, Ontario), he heard that there was an opportunity to make good pay by wrestling. He was only being paid $50 a week at the plant and was told he could make more as a wrestler. Since he already had an athletic build, he decided to give wrestling a try and began attending a wrestling school. When he first wrestled professionally, he was known as Tarzan Kowalski, but was also called Hercules Kowalski, Killer Kowalski (this nickname is used as early as 1950) and even The Polish Apollo, according to newspaper reports from 1950–51. During the Cold War, his name was changed to Wladek Kowalski, which was supposed to sound more menacing. Kowalski wrestled from 1947 to 1977 in a number of organizations, including the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and American Wrestling Association (AWA) as a heel.

Kowalski's rise in the business came quickly. His first recorded match occurred on May 6, 1948, and by November 29 of the same year, Kowalski was facing NWA champion Orville Brown in a heavyweight championship match. Kowalski stood out in his era for his larger-than-normal size, and for a faster-paced style in the ring. He wrestled as a demonstrative "heel," or villain, except when facing the even-more-hated Buddy Rogers. In his matches with Rogers, Kowalski would adopt a more serious "babyface" approach. Out of the ring, however, Kowalski was considered so friendly and polite that some wrestling promoters complained about the way he would "drop character" in public.

In a 1952 match in Montreal versus Yukon Eric, Kowalski ripped off a part of Yukon Eric's ear while performing a knee drop. In reality, Eric's ears were already badly cauliflowered due to years of abuse and the injury was an accident, but it fortified Kowalski as being a ruthless villain who ripped his opponent's ear off. Kowalski attempted to visit his opponent in the hospital and began laughing along with Eric at how silly the bandages looked, with Kowalski recalling years later, "I swear, the first thing I thought of was Humpty Dumpty on the wall. Yukon Eric looked at me, shook his head, and smiled. I started laughing and he laughed, too." When the incident was reported in the paper the next day, it stated that Kowalski showed up at the hospital and laughed at his victim rather than with him, furthering Kowalski's image as a heel. The incident sparked a long-running series of grudge matches between the two wrestlers which took place throughout North America. By the time the feud had run out of steam several years later, Yukon Eric joked to Kowalski about the small size of an audience, "Shit, that's a lousy house. I might have to sacrifice another ear."

Kowalski also gained some notoriety in Boston for an incident in late June 1958 when he was wrestling Pat O'Connor. The guest referee was former boxing great Jack Dempsey, who suffered a kick to the diaphragm and had to be hospitalized. Dempsey did not blame Kowalski, and both said it was an accident, but this further cemented the Killer's reputation as a villain. In 1967, the top-rated Australian television talk show host Don Lane irritated Kowalski during an apparently friendly interview and was attacked with the Kowalski claw hold.

In December 1972, Kowalski became the first wrestler to pin André the Giant in North America, in what was billed as a "Battle of the Giants." Photographs from the Quebec City match helped to establish André's reputation in American wrestling magazines, since they showed him towering over the better-known Kowalski. Kowalski had done much the same to boost Giant Baba's fame in Japan, with a televised 1963 match.

Kowalski became the main antagonist of Bruno Sammartino in the World Wide Wrestling Federation in the 1960s and 1970s. On May 11, 1976, Kowalski won the WWWF World Tag Team Championship with Big John Studd. Both men wore black masks and tights and called themselves "The Executioners". They lost the title in December of that year to Chief Jay Strongbow and Billy White Wolf.

After his WWWF retirement in 1977, Kowalski started a professional wrestling school in Malden, Massachusetts. Due to his health, he ceased to be involved with it in 2003, and the school subsequently moved to North Andover, Massachusetts. Among the alumni of this school are Triple H, Chyna, Perry Saturn, John Kronus, and Brittany Brown. Kowalski also trained Big John Studd, Damien Kane, Chris Nowinski, A-Train, April Hunter, Frankie Kazarian, Nikki Roxx and Kenny Dykstra. Kowalski continued to wrestle on independent shows into the early 1980s, and worked only sparingly after that. His last match took place in 1993, when Kowalski was 66 years old.

He also made numerous post-retirement television appearances, including Late Night with David Letterman in 1982, and was featured in a comic role in Michael Burlingame's surrealist film To a Random in 1986. "Lost in the B-Zone," a music video for Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, which was derived from this film, also prominently featured Kowalski.

On June 14, 2007, Kowalski was inducted into The National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.

Kowalski married for the first time to Theresa Ferrioli on June 19, 2006. He had known her since 1998, and she was surprised when he proposed, since he was known as a life-long bachelor.

He became a vegetarian in the late 1960s and claimed to be the only one in professional wrestling. He would not drink milk or alcohol, and did not smoke. He would not even drive with wrestlers who smoked, which limited his traveling options.

Kowalski began to suffer escalating health problems in the time leading up to his death. The Sun received the report on Kowalski from his friend, another wrestling legend, Bruno Sammartino, that Kowalski had to go to a rehabilitation center in Everett, Massachusetts, where he was recovering from a knee injury. It seemed he was getting better, until he suffered a heart attack on August 8, 2008. According to Slam! Sports, the Quincy Patriot Ledger, and other sources, Kowalski's family was apprised that he would not recover. When Kowalski was taken off life support on August 18, subsequent news reports erroneously stated that he had died. Kowalski died on August 30, 2008.