Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Killer Kowalski, wrestler (1926-2008)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 4, 2008

In the wrestling ring, Killer Kowalski greeted opponents with an elbow smash. This might be followed by an open-hand slap, or a knee drop launched from atop the ropes.

Whatever the mayhem inflicted in a bout, he more often than not ended the battle by using the Iron Claw, his feared submission hold. The trademark grip consisted of Killer clutching a victim by the head or the solar plexus. He squeezed until they passed out, or were spared by a merciful referee.

He once committed an act of such terrible violence that even decades later newspapers published warnings before describing the incident. It was this incident that earned him the nickname Killer.

A mountain of a man at 6-foot-7, 275 pounds, Mr. Kowalski punched and smacked his way around the globe, filling arenas in Japan and Australia, as well as in the United States and his Canadian homeland.

By 1953, he was billed in trade publications as professional wrestling’s top attraction. He starred in early television broadcasts, his popularity not at all diminished by his role as a villain. In the Manichaean world of entertainment sport, where the narrative is as complicated as a comic-book clash, Mr. Kowalski played the heal with a blood-lust befitting the burlesque of overgrown men in tights and masks.

Men booed him, women hated him, children feared him.

“Just because I get over-enthused about my work people hate me,” he told a wrestling magazine in 1961, according to the Slam! Sports website. “Everywhere I go they throw chairs, newspapers, cigar butts, fruit and anything else they can grab. I have been burned, knifed, blinded by pea shooters, and hit over the head with boards.”

If a brave but foolhardy journalist challenged him on his avocation being little more than a sweaty choreograph, Mr. Kowlaski would administer one of his notorious holds as evidence of the seriousness of the endeavor.

A giant who seemed inexhaustible in the ring, he became a symbol of post-war pro wrestling. His name caused shivers on three continents and, long after he had retired, he was remembered as the epitome of a tough guy. He was even mentioned on an episode of Seinfeld.

Unforgiving in the ring, Mr. Kowalski’s true character only became known in recent years. Unlike many of his brethren, he neither drank, nor smoked. He had even once contemplated a life in the priesthood and remained a bachelor until shortly before his 80th birthday.

For someone who caused so much blood to be spilled, the Killer earned notoriety on the circuit for his unlikely diet. He was a vegetarian for more than 50 years, including during his eye-gouging, hair-pulling heyday.

Killer was so much more an exciting name on the marquee than the one with which he was christened. Edward Walter Spulnik (sometimes Spolnik) was born to Polish immigrants at Windsor, Ont. His father, Anthony Spulnik, an immigrant from Lublin, met Marie Borovska, originally from Bialystok, in Canada. He supported a family of three children with a job as a labourer in the body shop of the General Motors plant across the river in Detroit.

Called Ed by his family, the boy became an athletic star at his all-male vocational high school, where he excelled at football and basketball, as well as javelin, discus and the shot put. He grew to nearly his full height at an early age, but lacked musculature, so took up bodybuilding. It was during a workout session at the YMCA that it was suggested he might wish to take up wrestling.

By then, he was studying electrical engineering at Assumption College, while working part-time as an electrician at a Ford Motor Co. plant. Intrigued by the possibility of earning extra money, he joined the stable of Detroit promoter Burt Ruby in 1947.

He had one brief foray in the ring as a boxer. His one bout did not go well and ever after did battle in a sport where the rules were enforced with less rigour.

He took as his name Wladek Kowalski, the hard Slavic consonants making for an ideal Cold War nom de combat. (His Spulnik birth name could easily have been altered to Sputnik if only he had launched his career a few years later.) The nuance of historical Russian oppression of his ancestral homeland was lost on the rasslin’ crowd.

Mr. Kowalski made his Toronto debut at Maple Leaf Gardens in July, 1949. His was the first bout on the undercard in an exhibition of “strength and science.” The bill was topped by the popular Whipper Billy Watson in a team fight touted as “all four men in ring plus two referees.”

Soon, Mr. Kowalski joined the traveling troupe in open-air combat at such venues as the East York Collegiate Memorial Stadium. He sometimes fought as Tarzan Kowalski. Over time, his name moved up the card until he became a headlining attraction.

His triumphs may have been preordained, his occasional defeats necessarily scripted, but there was no denying the physicality of the man. He was a magnificent specimen, whether administering a drop kick or a flying tackle. A highlight of any match came when an opponent was supine on the canvas. Mr. Kowlaski would clamber a corner post, like King Kong ascending a skyscraper, before using the ropes as a springboard. He launched into the air before landing with terrible force on the helpless victim.

A rival wrestler such as Bo-Bo Brazil included in his arsenal a move such as the Ko-Ko Bump, but the theatrical head bump was no match against Mr. Kowalski’s infamous knee drop.

His reputation was cemented during a bout in Montreal on Oct. 15, 1952, two days after Mr. Kowalski’s 26th birthday. The opponent was Yukon Eric, billed as an Alaskan lumberjack. A powerful man, he fought in bare feet, his ragged jeans held up by binder twine, a plaid checked shirt open to expose his mighty chest. A square head was bracketed by a pair of cauliflower ears, puffy from repeated blows, a hazard of the trade.

Yukon Eric lay flat on the mat, stunned by a punch, when Mr. Kowalski sailed off the ropes to deliver a crushing knee drop.

He landed awkwardly, the force of the impact tearing off a fleshy chunk of Yukon Eric’s damaged right ear. Blood spurted from the wound. As Mr. Kowalski and the referee gaped in disbelief, Yukon Eric fled to the dressing room with a towel against the wound.

The promoter arranged for Mr. Kowalski to visit his recuperating rival at his hospital bedside. A reporter was on hand. When Mr. Kowalski spotted Yukon Eric’s head wrapped in bandages, “like a turban,” he said later, he could think only of Humpty Dumpty. Both wrestlers laughed at the absurdity of the injury. A reporter, perhaps egged on by the eager promoter, wrote about Kowalski’s callous behaviour.

At his next bout, he was greeted with more catcalls than usual from a hostile audience.

“Animal!” one shouted. “Killer!”

An alliterative moniker was born.

Crowds flocked to see a brute whose indefatigable exertions in the ring guaranteed a dramatic show. Some undoubtedly attended in the hope of witnessing another horrible incident. Once, in a bout in Boston, a wild kick by the Killer caught referee Jack Dempsey, the former boxing champion, who had to retreat to hospital.

Sports writers fanned the desires of the more morbid spectators, frequently repeating accounts of the incident with Yukon Eric, some even describing the wrestler having bitten off the ear, ignoring his professed abhorrence of meat.

A rematch featuring the two was a guaranteed sell-out and it is believed they appeared in the first televised wrestling bout in Canada, staged in Montreal in 1953.

He seemed to look more fearsome as he aged, the passing years making his eyes ever more deepset, his face betraying little emotion other than fury.

He took seriously the training necessary to remain a convincing grappler. On long drives between shows, he made it a routine to argue with radio broadcasters, taking a weather forecast as an opportunity to harangue the fates, practice for delivering monologues by microphone before and after matches.

He also steered with one hand, freeing the other to squeeze rubber balls, building the muscles with which he administered the feared Iron Claw and Killer Clutch.

A time the hold succeeded only too well came during a bout against Haystack Calhoun, a 600-pound (273-kg) behemoth. Mr. Kowalski dug his hand into Haystack’s formidable belly, the vice-like pressure causing an unfortunate expulsion of intestinal gas.

“The fumes were so devastating, I started to pass out,” Mr. Kowalski told Esquire magazine. “He rolled over, jumped on top of me, and pinned me.”

He won countless titles in a career spanning three decades, defeating the likes of Nature Boy Buddy Rogers and Don Leo Jonathan, the Mormon Giant.

After conquering Canada, Mr. Kowalski outraged American television audiences for his vicious encounters with Bruno Sammartino, the champion whom he managed to bloody but never conquer.

He teamed with Gorilla Monsoon to claim tag-team titles as a duo of bad guys. Mr. Kowalski once even claimed a tag-team championship in Texas as a solo fighter.
In the mid-1970s, he donned a mask to pair with Big John Studd as a duo called The Executioners. They won the world tag-team championship in 1976.

Mr. Kowalski retired from the ring the following year, opening Killer Kowalski’s Professional Wrestling School. The professor of this school of hard knocks, located on Pleasant Street in Malden, Mass., trained such future stars as A-Train, Chyna and Triple H. He sold the business five years ago.

Mr. Kowalski, who legally changed his surname in 1963 and was known as Walter or Wally by friends, was much honoured by his peers. He was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1996, the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2003, and the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame at Hamtramck, Mich., last year.

When he was informed of the latter honour by telephone, he told the caller he looked forward to meeting him in person someday, promising to administer a body slam when he did so.

At a banquet in Las Vegas in 2002, he received the Iron Mike Mazurki Award from the Cauliflower Alley Club, an association of former wrestlers, promoters and “allied personages.” The award, named for the club’s founder, is regarded as the greatest honour that can be bestowed on a retired rassler.

Away from the ring, the kind and erudite loner indulged his passion for classical music, favouring Mozart and Chopin. He wrote poetry and a book of his photographs, titled “Killer Pics,” was released by a Colorado publisher in 2001.

The lifelong bachelor married his longtime companion in a church ceremony two summers ago. The 79-year-old groom was asked to explain his late entry into matrimony. Ever the showman, he said, “She told me she was pregnant.”

Killer Kowalski was born on Oct. 13, 1926, at Windsor, Ont. He died on Aug. 30 at Whidden Memorial Hospital at Everett, Mass. He had suffered a heart attack earlier in the month. He was 81. He leaves his wife of two years, the former Theresa Todd (nee Ferrioli). He also leaves his brother, Stanley Spulnik, of Ottawa. He was predeceased by his sister, Wanda Wojik, of Windsor.


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