Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wrestlers of Yore: Killer Kowalski

The town of Malden isn’t often thought of when describing the landmarks and tourist points of New England. Its most famous resident may be Van Halen singer-for-a-minute Gary Cherone, and its women battle with those of Revere for “biggest hair worldwide.” But for professional wrestlers, Malden, Massachusetts for nearly 25 years was the Mecca of wrestling knowledge and wisdom, a place where dreams are born and careers are launched. It is because of one man, and one man only, that Malden holds this distinction. That man, currently holding on to the last moments of his life, is the legendary Wladek “Killer” Kowalski.

Wladek (Walter) Kowalski was actually born and raised in Windsor, Ontario, but was trained in St. Louis by legendary NWA Champion Lou Thesz. Kowalski returned to Canada to start his wrestling career, and standing 6-7 and nearly 300 pounds of pure muscle, he immediately became one of the most feared heels (bad guys) of the era. His reputation was further cemented when he knocked off the cauliflowered ear of wrestler Yukon Erik during a 1952 match in Montreal. Kowalski visited Erik in the hospital after the match, and started laughing with his friend, saying he looked like Humpty Dumpty. The press who covered wrestling as a legitimate sport at the time, heard Kowalski laughing from Erik’s hotel room and assumed that this savage man was laughing at Erik, giving him the nickname “Killer.”

That story typified Kowalski. Large, physically intimidating and with a booming voice, the actual Wladek Kowalski was a vegetarian who didn’t drink or smoke, and one of the few fitness enthusiasts of his era. He meditated before every match. Kowalski was also an avid photographer and fan of classical music, though you wouldn’t have known it when he donned a mask and wrestle as one of “The Executioners” or used his patented Iron Claw. Kowalski was often a foe for WWWF champion Bruno Sammartino, but never ended up winning the belt. He did however win championships across the world, including six in Australia.

Kowalski’s biggest impact however came after he settled in Malden during the late 1970s. Wanting to pass on his trade to others, Kowalski opened the Killer Kowalski Wrestling School in Malden. For years, Kowalski’s school was THE place to learn how to become a wrestler, and those such as Big John Studd, Perry Saturn and Chyna learned their trade at the school. A Nashua, New Hampshire-based wrestler named Paul Levesque also trained under Kowalski. Kowalski saw promise in the youngster, but gave him the unfortunate nickname of Terra Ryzin (terrorizing, get it?), which he would later carry into a short-lived reign in WCW. Ryzin however was given a new name when he later signed with the WWF: Hunter Hearst Helmslely. That’s right – without Killer Kowalski, there would be no 11-time champion, husband of Stephanie McMahon and most politically powerful wrestler ever Triple H.

On August 8th, Killer Kowalski had a massive heart attack, one so severe that he wasn’t expected to last through the night. He was taken off life support a week ago, and a feeding tube soon after that. Still, fighter that he’s always been, Killer Kowalski continues to hang on, defying the odds and giving fate one last Iron Claw. Kowalski lived the life of a principled man, and when he does pass, the wrestling world will have lost one of its true giants, in and out of the ring.

Even if he was partially responsible for this:

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