Thursday, September 04, 2008

Death of a Killer

On Saturday August 31 Walter "Killer" Kowalski left us for that great Squared Circle in the sky. Often times a wrestling name and persona is merely an extension or magnification of the person playing the part. While he was the "Killer" in the ring, outside the ring a kinder, nicer man you would have been hard pressed to find. I was lucky enough to have met the man on maybe a dozen occasions but won't claim we were friends or he could pick me out of a crowd but he always treated me with kindness and respect. I would run into him around Greater Boston in my days back on the periphery of the local wrestling scene between attending or doing security for many local shows. I was fascinated that the tall, slender, well spoken gentleman was the legendary heel "Killer" Kowalski. My friend had briefly attended his school of wrestling so we almost always spent a little time talking to him. Here are some of my personal memories of Walter (it was always Walter outside ring...if you knew him even a little, calling him Killer seemed foolish) as opposed to repeating the oft told Yukon Eric and Haystacks Calhoun stories

-While I had seen Walter in ring without knowing it (as one of the Masked Executioners along with student John "Big John Studd" Minton) in my early wrestling fan days it was really a locally produced and broadcast wrestling program called Bedlam From Boston that I really got a good taste of the Killer. Basically retired from wrestling he operated as the top heel and champion of this group that were mostly his students and was a way to get them television exposure. The show was in many ways laughable versus many other regional shows but once a week Walter would cut a promo that would make you see why he was such a heat magnet in his day. I also remember, almost laughably, that he would do his promo's maskless then wear a hood in the ring, loading it up with a foreign object for the tainted win. As I understood pro wrestling more and more I was told it was because the mask allowed him to not worry about losing his hairpiece. I never found out if that was true and honestly wouldn't ever have asked

-When I got to college and met my friend and wrestling buddy for decades to come he opened my eyes to how stuff really was. He kept me around the whole scene without ever becoming part of it. He only briefly attend the Killer Kowalski Institute of Pro Wrestling but when ever we went somewhere he could pick out a student of Walter's just by watching them work. He say "Walter would make you do this 1,000 times, Walter stressed this, Walter wouldn't let you do that". He taught his students how to wrestle the way he learned through strong basics, in-ring psychology, and high spots where they were appropriate, not all over the place. If you read all those attributes and don't see Triple H you're not paying attention.

-When we did security for ECW in Revere and Waltham Walter was almost always on hand with some of his students whether to simply watch or hopefully to get one of his guys on the under card ( I remember Walter's name being dropped in getting Erich "Mass Transit" Kulas onto the card but Walter was not there and as far as I know, Kulas was not associated with him). He would always be there watching, critiquing, and offering advice. Most of the boys had respect for Walter and eventually they had a night where former students Perry Saturn and John Kronus honored him before the local crowd as the father of extreme wrestling

-I was at a show at a local armory with maybe 50 people in attendance by the time I got there. We stood near the back and watched as a friend of ours was working the show. A guy by the name of Rick Fuller who had a job with WCW at the time was headlining (a talented and damn nice guy btw). In the course of his match he threw a guy over the ropes and through the table where Walter's audio equipment was. This was NOT a planned spot and Walter let him have it giving him a tongue lashing all the way from the ring to the dressing room about carelessness, respect for the industry, and why he'll never be big time. It was a little excessive, a little uncalled for but that was Walter.

-My most personal story. My friend and I had flown to Philadelphia for a big NWA anniversary show. The show was actually about 30 minutes away in Cherry Hills, NJ. All sorts of big names were scheduled to be there including Lou Thesz, Harley Race, Abdullah the Butcher, "Dr Death" Steve Williams, Dory Funk Jr (there with "before they were famous students" Kurt Angle, Randy Orton and many others)and many others. As we puller out of the airport in our rental, there's Walter standing in the pick up/drop off area looking perturbed. My friend rolls down his window and asks if everything is OK and Walter tells him one of his students was supposed to pick him up an hour ago. So we give him a ride. It was great as this fearsome man in his clipped Midwestern totally unique accent, traveling with no more then a small duffel bag and his camera bag, regaled us with story after story. It was a ride I will never forget.

As I said, I won't claim to have been a friend of Walter "Killer" Kowalski but did know him a little. He wouldn't know my name if asked but was always ready with a "thank you young man". He was a simple, kind, respectful man. I don't think he died a wealthy man as his best days in ring ended well before there was big money to be made but from everything I know, have heard or read he was rich with friends, stories, and experiences. Not a bad life.

Rest well Walter