Kowalski training John Quinlan and The Boston Brawler in 2000
|Birth name||Edward Władysław Spulnik|
|Born||October 13, 1926|
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
|Died||August 30, 2008 (aged 81)|
Malden, Massachusetts, United States
(m. 2006; his death 2008)
|Professional wrestling career|
|Ring name(s)||Hercules Kowalski|
The Masked Destroyer
The Masked Executioner
|Billed height||6 ft 9 in (2.06 m)|
|Billed weight||290 lb (130 kg)|
|Trained by||Lou Thesz|
Kowalski wrestled for numerous promotions during his career, including the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, now WWE), and was a known villain professional wrestler. He held numerous championships including the WWWF World Tag Team Championship with Big John Studd billed as The Executioners and managed by Lou Albano.
After retiring in 1977, Kowalski started a professional wrestling school in Malden, Massachusetts and trained many professional wrestlers, including Triple H, Chyna, Eddie Edwards, Kofi Kingston, Damien Sandow, Fandango, Brittany Brown, April Hunter, John Kronus, Perry Saturn, and Tommaso Ciampa.
The man later known as "Killer Kowalski" (he legally changed his name in 1963) was the son of Polish immigrants Antoni Spulnik and Maria Borowska; he, his older sister Wanda, and his younger brother Stanley were raised in Windsor, Ontario. Years later, he told interviewers that he never expected to be a wrestler – by the age of 14, he was already 6 feet 4 inches (193 cm), and because he was thin 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 wage.
Professional wrestling career
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 Windsor), 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.
On October 15, 1952, in a 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 gleefully maims his opponents. 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, "God, 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.
Also in the late 1950s, Kowalski fought what was supposed to be a best two out of three match in Fall River, Massachusetts against Mr. Moto. Just before the bell starting the first fall, Kowalski had his back turned to Moto while doing some stretches in his corner. Moto raced across the ring and hit Kowalski over the head with one of the clogs with which he had walked into the ring. Of course, the referee did not see this happen. The bell rang and a seemingly dazed Kowalski staggered around the ring and was quickly pinned by Moto. Kowalski was billed as the heavyweight champion at that time (at least in eastern Massachusetts) and, as such, was not supposed to lose the match. Just after the second fall started, Kowalski was hit in the right eye with a pea or bean shot by someone in the audience using a pea shooter. Semi-blinded and genuinely stunned, Kowalski staggered around the ring covering his eye with his right hand. Moto did not know what to do. Finally, he approached Kowalski, bumped into him and fell to the mat. Kowalski reached down, applied the claw hold and Moto was not only counted out, but deemed by the referee too hurt to continue. The two raced out of the ring to a chorus of boos from the audience and dodged various objects being thrown at them. As a side note, the two had arrived 45 minutes late for the match. The Fall River Herald News reported in its next day morning edition that these two "mortal enemies" were late because the car in which they had ridden together to the match had broken down on the way.
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.
World Wide Wrestling Federation
Kowalski became the main antagonist of Bruno Sammartino in the World Wide Wrestling Federation in the 1960s and 1970s. Kowalski formed a tag team with fellow heel Gorilla Monsoon and took Red Berry as his manager; Monsoon and Kowalski held the WWWF United States Tag Team Championship, winning the belts in two straight falls from Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard on Washington, D.C. television, and later losing to The Tolos Brothers in two straight falls in Teaneck, New Jersey in December 1963. On May 11, 1976, Kowalski won the WWF World Tag Team Championship with Big John Studd. Both men wore black masks and tights and called themselves "The Executioners". However, they were stripped of the championship, following the interference of a third Executioner during a title defense against Chief Jay Strongbow and Billy White Wolf. The Executioners lost a match for the vacant title on December 6 to Strongbow and White Wolf and never regained the championship.
Retirement and training
After his WWF 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, Brittany Brown, Big John Studd, Damien Kane, Killer Kowalski Jr., Ron Zombie, Christopher Nowinski, Tensai, April Hunter, Ace Andrews, RJ Brewer, Kazarian, Nicole Raczynski, Cadillac Joe D, Kenny Dykstra, Damien Sandow and Fandango. 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. Kowalski would remain a fixture on the Northeast independent wrestling scene taking autograph and personal appearances. His last appearance was in Jan 2008 for Top Rope Promotions at an event in North Adams, Ma where he came to the ring and put the claw on local wrestler "Gorgeous" Gino Giovanni and was declared the winner of the segment.
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.
Kowalski married for the first time to Theresa Ferrioli on June 19, 2006. Kowalski, who was 79 years old at the time, joked that he only married 78-year-old Ferrioli after "she told me she was pregnant". He had known her since 1998, and she was surprised when he proposed, since he had been known as a lifelong 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 he did not smoke. He would not even drive with wrestlers who smoked, which limited his traveling options. Reportedly, he also was an all-raw-food vegan for a while. He was a popular speaker in the local Boston Vegetarian Society and Boston-area vegetarian restaurants, including the now-closed Country Life Vegetarian Restaurant, where he discussed both wrestling and his vegetarian values, and appeared on Malden's cable TV station, MATV, where he also shared anecdotes about vegetarian values and his more humorous wrestling experiences and observations.
Kowalski began experiencing escalating health problems in the time leading up to his death. The Sun received the report on Kowalski from his friend, 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. He was survived by his wife and family.
Championships and accomplishments
- 50th State Big Time Wrestling
- Atlantic Athletic Commission
- Cauliflower Alley Club
- Central States Wrestling
- Championship Wrestling from Florida
- International Wrestling Federation
- Montreal Athletic Commission
- MAC International Heavyweight Championship (13 times)
- NWA All-Star Wrestling
- NWA Pacific Coast Tag Team Championship (Vancouver version) (2 times) - with Ox Anderson (1) and Gene Kiniski (1)
- NWA Hollywood Wrestling
- NWA San Francisco
- New England Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Class of 2008
- Pro Wrestling Illustrated
- Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum
- Southwest Sports, Inc. / Big Time Wrestling
- Stampede Wrestling
- United States Wrestling Federation
- USWF Tag Team Championship - with Ox Baker
- World Championship Wrestling (Australia)
- World Wide Wrestling Federation/World Wrestling Federation
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter
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- Solomon, Brian (2006). WWE Legends. Pocket Books. pp. 95–100. ISBN 978-0-7434-9033-7.
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- Dupont, Kevin Paul (1990-10-08). "A Lifetime of Learning". The Boston Globe: 47.
- Marrapese, Nancy (1991-09-29). "A Quiet Life, Wild Memories for Killer". The Boston Globe: NW13.
- Burnett, Thane (2005-01-24). "Confessions of a Killer". Toronto Sun: 34.
- Simonich, Milan (1998-11-13). "Being a wrestling villain was a rewarding career". The Globe and Mail: S7.
- Simonich, Milan (1998-11-12). "Ring of legends: Killer Kowalski and other big names come to town to wrestle up support for charity". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Block Communications. Retrieved 2008-08-31.
- "Mauler Mauled". Los Angeles Times. 1958-08-03: C6.
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- Fitzgerald, Joe (2008-07-28). "Grappling With Mortality". Boston Herald: 2.
- Harris, Barry. "A Vegetarian Travel Guide exclusive interview with the world-famous wrestler...Walter "Killer" Kowalski". vegetarianusa.com. Retrieved 2015-03-15.
- He commented top companions and others while dining in all-vegetarian restaurants; claims confirmed by his friends at the time
- Harris, op cit.
- Eck, Kevin (2008-04-17). "Killer Kowalski in hospital". The Baltimore Sun. Tribune Company. Retrieved 2008-08-15.
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- Iowa Tag Team Title history At wrestling-titles.com.
- NWA Southern Heavyweight Title (Florida) history At wrestling-titles.com.
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- NWA Americas Tag Team Title history At wrestling-titles.com.
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- Texas Brass Knuckles Title history At wrestling-titles.com.
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- NWA Canadian Heavyweight Title (Calgary) history At wrestling-titles.com.
- Stampede International Tag Team Title history Archived 2008-05-05 at the Wayback Machine. At wrestling-titles.com.
- IWA World Heavyweight Title (Australia) history At wrestling-titles.com.
- IWA World Tag Team Title (Australia) history At wrestling-titles.com.
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