Killer Kowalski is considered one of the greatest all around wrestlers ever to enter the squared circle. He kindly agreed to an interview with me back in August, 2002.
– “JerzyGirl” Karen Belcher
“Killer” Kowalski was born Wladek (Walter) Kowalski, on October 13, 1926, in Windsor, Ontario. He was the son of Polish immigrants. He began his career as a pro wrestler in 1947. During his colorful 26 year career, this legend held numerous titles and wrestled all over the world.
Jerzy: I thank you for taking the time to talk to me. Would you tell me about your school first?
Walter: My school? Yeah, I have a school in Malden, Massachusetts, on Pleasant St. Triple H came from my school, Prince Albert, and Perry Saturn.
Jerzy: How did you start the school?
Walter: Actually I was pushed into it quite a few years ago. Some guys got together and we tried some wrestling, and they asked me if I could possibly start a [wrestling] school in the state of Massachusetts. The president of a school there was Polish. He gave us a nice big room in there to put the ring in, and I started training guys there.
Jerzy: I heard that there was a great story about how you got the name “Killer” Kowalski.
Walter: I was wrestling under the name Wladek Kowalski. Wladek means Walter in Polish. I was in a match in the Montreal Forum in Montreal, Canada. I tied Yukon Eric’s leg over the second rope, go underneath the bottom rope, climbed the top turnbuckle to jump on his chest. The referee was underneath me. I leaped over the referee. I’m coming down, Yukon Eric saw me and pulled away. My shinbone scraped his cheek so tight – he had a cauliflower ear – it ripped the left ear right off the side of him, rolled across him like a golf ball.
So this is a Wednesday night. On Friday, I went to the wrestling office to get paid. The wrestling promoter said I should go to the hospital and apologize. He said, “For crying out loud, you tore the guy’s ear off, the least you could do is apologize.”
I said “Apologize! I broke a guy’s leg or his arm, I didn’t apologize! I never apologized in my life!”
He told the office guys,”Take him to the hospital, it’s a block away.”
So I go to the hospital, on the second floor. I’m outside in the hallway and I saw the door to his room, there’s a bunch of people in there. I said, “I’m not going in there,” and I start walking away.
He went down the hall and said, “Wladek Kowalski’s outside.”
I walked over and stood in the doorway. Right across from me, sitting on the edge of the bed was Yukon Eric with his head bandaged around and around and around. First thought that came to mind was Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall. I started laughing at him. He started laughing and I left the room.
In the room were men and women – newspaper people and the tv people too. The next day in the Montreal Gazette appeared “Wladek Kowalski visited Yukon Eric in the hospital and laughed at him.”
So the following Wednesday I’m in the Montreal Forum again, and as I’m walking towards the ring, people are throwing junk at me, and bottles and cartons and all that. When I get to the ring, something hit me, I looked down, it was a sow’s ear, pig’s ear, and in ink “Yukon Eric” written on it.
People started hollering, “You’re a Monster! You’re a Killer!” I used the name Killer Kowalski ever since.
Jerzy: That name has worked very well for you over the years.
Walter: Oh yeah, even back then. One time someone asked me what my real name was. I said, “Killer.” I had imagination, you know.
“No, what does it say on your birth certificate?”
He said, “Killer! How could that be?”
I said, “Well, when I was being born, and the doctor took me out of my mother’s womb, he pulled too hard. I reached out and punched him in the nose. He sat down, and he said, “You’re a little monster, you’re a killer!”
My mother liked the sound of that name, so she got an interpreter. She wrote the name down, “Killer,” and she put it on my birth certificate.
People were going, “Wow! That’s so colorful!” People believe anything, you know?
Jerzy: That’s a great story! You had so many matches with so many great opponents, who was your favorite?
Walter: Actually, Bruno Sammartino was my favorite. Real good conditioning. Many years ago, when he was starting as a wrestler, he was a big body builder, and he could bench press 550 pounds. That was a lot. I tried to pin him, he threw me off his chest like I was a basketball, he was so strong.
I enjoyed wrestling Bruno. Edouard Carpentier, he was another good wrestler, he was in Montreal. And quite a few other good men – Andre the Giant.
When Andre the Giant first came from Paris, he came to Montreal. He was in the office there talking to some other guys in French. I said, “Boy, I can’t communicate with this guy.” He walks over to me and starts talking in Polish! He was a good man, a very good man.
Jerzy: What would you say your favorite match was?
Walter: My favorite match? I had a lot of good matches, I can’t really say what my favorite match was. I’ve had some big long matches.
I remember one time I was wrestling Buddy Rogers in Montreal. He was the NWA Champion. And in that match his ankle broke. And so I got to take away the title. But in the office in St. Louis, Missouri, it wasn’t in the plans for me to have the title, so they wouldn’t recognize me as being their champion.
So I took over some of the dates Buddy Rogers had through the country. Also when I was in Canada, I was the World Champion there, so I took over some of the matches in the big cities and in Canada.
So I’m wrestling Lou Thesz, and Buddy Rogers was supposed to drop the title to Lou Thesz. Since I wasn’t recognized as such, it was a 90 minute match. I went the whole 90 minutes against Lou Thesz.
So finally when I got back about 4 or 5 weeks later, I’m wrestling Buddy Rogers back in Montreal again. I give him the match. He had the title back, so that was it. “Don’t do me no more favors,” I told him. He wrestled Lou Thesz in Toronto and Lou Thesz got the title back from him.
Jerzy: I’ve heard stories that Buddy Rogers was not such a nice man.
Walter: No, not really. You know, in wrestling there’s a little jealousy and what not. People don’t like one guy, they talk about him and what not. In fact, every time he was doing interviews, he’d say, “The meanest guy I ever wrestled is Killer Kowalski, he broke my leg.” I broke his ankle, same thing, so I got the credit for it. Everybody knows I was the guy.
Jerzy: Canadian wrestlers – you’re from Canada originally – have a reputation for being very good technically, and generally better trained than wrestlers in the United States. Do you think that’s true – are they better?
Walter: Well, I was a pretty tough guy, you know. I was trained in Detroit, Michigan with some of the guys I wrestled there. I had imagination, too. I’d go in that ring and dream up new moves altogether. I’d do these new wrestling moves, and they were never seen before. And a lot of times, like every time the dressing room emptied out, some guys that were on the first match had left the building. That’s when Killer Kowalski performed.
So all the wrestlers come back out and watched me wrestle. And they see me do these new moves that they have never heard or seen before. A few days later, in another arena, I’d go there early and see the same guys practicing the moves they saw me do.
I have a good imagination, so in my wrestling school, I’d teach the other guys things they had never heard or seen before. I just knew how to teach guys, and show them what to do in that ring.
Jerzy: I was looking at photos of you when you were in the ring, and I was amazed at all the moves you did in the air, and how high you could leap.
Walter: Yes. I was a vegetarian, since 1954. So the foods I ate, a lot of oxygen was in them. I was a guy who increased the speed of wrestling. I’d get in that ring, and go, go, go. Other guys who were in pretty good shape, you know, they’d jump out of the ring and walk around, they’re pooped – breathing heavily.
Naturally, I don’t want the referee to count my opponent out, so I’d climb the top turnbuckle and threaten to jump on top of my opponent. I’d walk around, you know, away from the ring and everything. And so the referee starts counting me down, to jump back in the ring, off the top turnbuckle. So I’d jump down, and I’d jump around the ring and threaten the referee to punch him.
He’d say, “If you touch me, I’ll give you a stiff penalty, and disqualify you.” After that, my opponent jumped back in the ring. Then we’d start going again.
I had one bout with a body builder – I was going to retire in a couple of years. This was out in California. I’m sitting in the dressing room, and he walks in the room and says, “Who am I wrestling?”
Referee says, “The guy in the corner.”
“Oh, gimme a break.”
“Now take it easy, take it easy, he’s kinda old.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
The guy’s got a little bitty waist, small waist, big muscles and everything. So I walk out there first, and the people start booing me. He walks out there, and people are cheering him, because they’re hoping that he would beat the heck out of me.
The match starts. In five minutes, he’s panting. In ten minutes, he’s, “I quit, I can’t go anymore, give him the match.”
The referee says, “What do you say Walter?”
I said, “I’m not even warmed up yet.” I kept on going on him, and going on him. He crawls on his hands and knees, crawling on the ring, up to the edge of the ring, and threw up twice on the floor. The people at ringside – oh, my goodness! They jumped away, you know.
I grabbed him by the ankles, pull him back in the ring. Pull him up off the floor. I whopped him again, whopped him again. The referee said, “Walter! Walter!”
“What?” I said.
“He’s turning blue!”
Holy mackerel, the guy’s dying on me. So the other guys came out there, grabbed him and carried him back to the dressing room. So when I got back to the dressing room, he looked at me and said, “I didn’t know who you were.”
I said, “You’re gonna remember me for the rest of your life.”
Jerzy: I bet he will. That’s a great story. You must have a lot of them.
Walter: Yes, I do, a lot of them. I traveled alone, no smoking allowed in my car, or beer drinking. I used to take a tennis ball with me, squeeze the tennis ball with my right hand, hold the wheel with my left… [or] hold the tennis ball in my left hand and the wheel with my right, and I’d squeeze and squeeze and squeeze. I had a terrific grip, and my finish hold, I used to put a claw hold they called a stomach claw on a guy.
A guy asked me one time, “How does that work on a guy like Haystack Calhoun?” Great big, big fat guy, big, big stomach and everything.
“Here’s what happened,” I told him – “I had imagination. I’m in the middle of the ring, I’m on my knees. I put the claw hold on Haystack Calhoun. I squeezed. I squeezed. I squeezed. He finally farted. The fumes were so devastating I passed out and he got on top and he pinned me. The best move he had.”
Jerzy: Wrestling has changed a lot over the years. Some people like the changes, some don’t. What do you think about it?
Walter: Today you watch tv, the match is three minutes or three and a half minutes long, they talk for half an hour. In my day, I used to wrestle for half hour, sixty minutes.
I was with Bruno Sammartino for sixty minutes a couple of times. He knew how to go. He used to run just in case he had to wrestle me, he ran every morning four, five miles to keep in shape. He had tremendous conditioning.
Jerzy: I heard you have a book of photographs that you took during your career. [Killer Pics; White-Boucke Publishing; ISBN: 1888580186; (August 2001)]
Walter: I traveled, I took a camera. That was my hobby, photography. And everywhere I went, I made pictures – Japan, Honolulu, Hong Kong. I took pictures walking down the street, of the people, of all kinds of situations. I took pictures of other wrestlers. I had imagination. I had wrestlers posing for me.
I was in Philadelphia one time with George “The Animal” Steele, and I said, “I’m going to take a picture of you.” I went back to the bleachers with a pipe. I broke a hunk of wood underneath the bleachers.
I went back to the dressing room. I chipped the two pieces of wood. He’s sitting on a bench. I said, “Stick your tongue out.” He stuck his tongue out, and I put the two chips of wood on his tongue.
I said, “Now, hold this wood up in your two hands like you’re chewing on it” I snapped a picture of that. That picture was printed by UPI, every newspaper in the country printed that picture. The first time some people heard the name, George “The Animal” Steele.
Jerzy: I guess imagination is a wrestler’s most important asset.
Walter: Yes, it is. Chief Jay Strongbow, I had a picture of him, he had his headgear on, you know, and he’s posing. I said, “Look, you’re a chief, I have an idea. Sit on the floor, cross your knees. Now, put your hand up like you’re giving instructions to your tribe.” I took a picture of that.
I said use this picture, it makes you look like a real chief, Jay Strongbow. He used that picture quite often.
I was over in Africa on a photographic safari, one of the promoters sons was driving. I’m in the back seat. I had the window down. I had my camera on the door. I’m trying to take a picture of a lion. I’m focusing, focusing, I can’t understand why this lion won’t come into focus. Finally I look up and he’s 2 feet away from me, walking toward the car. I pulled the camera up and rolled the window up. The ranger who’s guiding us started laughing like heck.
Another time, in Corpus Christi, Texas, I met a young wrestler, Ivan Bednarski. He changed his name later. The wrestling promoter walks over, and I’m the only one in the dressing room.
I had a jar of honey. I used to always take a tablespoon of honey about an hour before a wrestling match. It energizes the body, it’s very very good. I put it in my bag so the other wrestlers wouldn’t see it. I put my bag down and went out to park the car.
While I’m out there, I see a big poster, it says Killer Kowalski vs. Johnny Valentine, and a special match, Ivan Bednarski and two other guys, I don’t remember their names, vs. a 600 pound black bear.
I said, boy, I want to take a picture of this. Bednarski, he had his name changed to Ivan Putski after. I asked the promoter when he came in, “Look, do me a special favor. The bear sheds hair in the ring, and he slobbers.” They had a muzzle on him, you know.
I said, “He slobbers, you know. I don’t want to have my match after that, and breathing up the hair and slobber in that ring. So put that bear match on after mine?”
The promoter said,”Okay, we can do that, yeah. We’ll have intermission after your match, and we’ll bring the bear out from the truck and put him in the ring.”
So I said to Ivan Putski, “Look, Ivan, stand here in the doorway, and let the other 2 guys in the ring first. While they go in the ring, I’ll tap you and let you know when you should walk out there.” He said okay.
When you feed an animal, he goes to sleep, takes a nap, so the bear was hungry. They do not feed the bear till after the match. The bear was trained, you know, to wrestle the guys, put on a show, and what not.
So those two guys they walk to the ring, and they are in there shaking. The bear is in there, paws on the ground, shaking his head, slobbering in the ring.
I said, “Ivan, I’ll tell you when to walk out.” I opened the jar of honey, I scooped my hand into it, wiped it on the back of his trunks, and said, “Go get him, Ivan.”
He starts walking out. The bear smells honey – he could smell honey two blocks away. The bear rears up – he had a chain around his neck, and another long chain attached to that. There were two handlers holding on to the chain. The bear rears up and starts pawing at the air.
The other two guys are standing in the corner shaking. Ivan Putski walks around the ring, up the steps, puts one leg over the second rope to climb in. The bear lunges, grabbed Putski by the leg, and pulls him face down into the middle of the ring.
Schlup, he licks Ivan on the rear end. Schlup, licks him on the rear end. The other two guys, jump out of the ring. They thought the bear was tasting him before he ate him. The other two guys ran away.
Ivan got away, the bear grabbed him and pulled him back. Schulp, with the tongue. Schlup with the tongue. Finally the handlers got the bear hook on him, and two security people pulled the bear off of Ivan. So Ivan jumps out of the ring, walks back to the dressing room.
Ivan says, “He likes me. He likes me.”
I said, “Ivan, he loves you.”
Over the years years I made 7 trips to Japan. I was in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia. We did tv in Australia, and some of the video tapes made it to the UK and other countries and played on their tv. And every 6 months I came back to Australia.
So we were out in Australia, and we were wrestling in Melbourne. The matches were in Festival Hall in Melbourne. The time for tv is twelve noon, Sunday, live in Melbourne, Australia. But at that time on Sunday, everybody was at the beach, nobody’s watching television.
The wrestling promoter says to me, “Walter, we’re going broke. We’re not selling any tickets whatsoever. Hold back, we’re in a foreign country, we’re going to get chased out of here. Hold back, come to LA. We’re going to go broke here anyway.”
I said okay. The bell rings, I scream, go over to my opponent, grabbed his head and hit him in the nose. Crash! Blood comes pouring out of his nose, tears coming from his eyes. I put my cheek against his cheek.
I looked right into the camera, my cheek against his cheek, blood coming out of his nose, you know, tears coming out of his eyes. I looked into the camera, I said, “This is what I think about the Australian people! Anybody here gives me any flack, I’ll do exactly what I did to this guy, break your nose! I’ll let you know what Killer Kowalski’s like and where I’m from!”
The next day in the paper, headlines, “Wrestler comes from America to corrupt our children!” The people started watching television every Sunday at twelve noon, we sold out in two weeks.
One time in Sydney, a guy put me on a talk show. He wanted me to demonstrate my famous claw hold. So I had him lay down on a table. I put my claw on his stomach. I pushed the table over, and he slid off on the side. I got my rear end up the the air. I got the claw hold on him, he’s laying on the floor, and the camera people start screaming. I was screaming too, you know.
They thought I was hurting him, which I wasn’t. They all come over and start trying to pull me off of him. So that’s what got me over in Sydney, Australia.
I enjoyed wrestling. When I was young, I was going to be an engineer, in fact I was going to college in Detroit, Michigan. Then I started wrestling, and I quit college. I said I didn’t need an education for this. I enjoyed it, I traveled all over the world.
Jerzy: Well, you never would have had all those experiences as an engineer, would you? Thank you very much for talking to me.
Walter: Thank you, it was my pleasure.
– “JerzyGirl” Karen Belcher