January 24, 2005
Confessions of Killer Kowalski
By THANE BURNETT - Toronto Sun
Listen carefully to the confessions of an aging Killer. And meet the female accomplice he doesn't want you know about.
It's been a half-century since Walter Kowalski became Canada's most hated man. Years since crowds in Montreal and Toronto -- and onto cities from Houston to Honolulu -- chanted for his pain. Cut him. Tried to burn him alive.
Walter "Killer" Kowalski was more than a wrestler in his days of blood and glory.
At 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds, he was a looming cultural presence -- one of the first TV-created icons whose name and fierce mug in the '50s, and beyond, were as well known among Canadians as Fidel Castro or the Polio Vaccine.
"If (Prime Minister Pierre) Trudeau and I walked down the street, they'd say, 'The guy with the crewcut is (Killer Kowalski), but I don't know who the other fellow is'," he mugged to interviewer Peter Gzowski in 1978.
The Killer's reputation even lingers on as hip trivia -- he and his favourite "iron claw hold" have found odd resting places, including on game shows and a Seinfeld episode.
GENTLER OLD MAN
Even in Japan, still recovering from atomic bomb blasts, the Killer was feared.
Today, fighting poor sight and arthritis, the indestructible young bruiser this country used to follow with awe and contempt is now a somewhat gentler old man, who's still in the game -- though sitting just outside the ring. And while the years have made him less of a heel, don't you dare -- we're warning you -- ask about the tiny widow he now shares his life with. But first, some important Canadian history.
The son of Polish immigrants, Wladek Kowalski was born in Windsor in 1926. As a young man he worked at his dad's automobile factory. But his inhuman size pushed the electrical engineer into a far different path. In 1947, at 21, he made his grapplin' debut as "Tarzan Kowalski" in St. Louis.
He was very good at being very bad. A villain even villains feared. Here in Canada, he was billed as an American -- because it riled people up more. But it took ripping off a man's ear for average Canadians to sit up and really listen.
In the early '50s -- around the time both appeared in the first ever televised wrestling match in Canada -- Kowalski took on Yukon Eric at the Montreal Forum. An ill-timed knee-drop saw Kowalski's booted shin graze Eric's already mangled and cauliflowered left ear -- tearing a good chunk off. All that was left was an earlobe. The rest was shoved in the ref's pocket. When Kowalski went to visit his injured peer in the hospital, he took a look at his head bandaged up, and the two big men began laughing. But reporters outside only heard Kowalski. The story took up almost the entire sports section of the Montreal Star the next day.
His vile reputation -- and "Killer" nickname -- were born.
Wrestling wasn't so much the working class' guilty pleasure, straddling entertainment and sport, as much as a cultural obsession. Wrestlers were the first TV stars in this country. And every mother and son loathed the Killer. He was so very bad. He'd cheat. Draw blood. Beat good guys until they begged for mercy, which the script seldom delivered.
At one match in Toronto, fans tried to set the ring on fire.
Tossed folding spectator chairs routinely fell on the Killer like hard praise for a night's good work.
Guarded by local police, they wrestled a six-inch knife from one enraged vigilante approaching the Canadian villain.
In Toledo, Ohio, a woman embraced the Killer after he managed to make it through another angry crowd.
"She said, 'I'm glad you're alright,' then reached out and cut me with a blade," he now recalls with pride and some pain.
"I'd walk out of matches, and people would say, 'We know the other fights were fake. But yours was real'."
He wrestled for 26 years -- 6,000 fights. Many ended in riots. Most with bruises, broken bones and battered shoulders and elbows which will no longer allow him to raise arms, still as big as light posts, up very high.
In 1977, he left his bad side -- and took off his disguise which he wore late in his career as the "Masked Executions" and "Masked Destroyer" -- and became a celebrated trainer to grapplers like Triple-H and Chyna. While earning more pay, and a wider audience, none have engraved their names into a era the way Kowalski and his compatriots did.
So we've cornered the Killer inside a wrestling school in North Andover, Mass., a small town just north of Boston.
The Chaotic Training Centre sits on the other side of railroad tracks and one fight floor below a dance studio. If you can drown out the sound of nearby men in tights tossing one another against the ropes and down onto the canvas ring, you can hear the softer sounds of ballet above.
Most of the early legends of the ring have long died away. Some spent their grey years in poverty and solitude. If they got that far. Yukon Eric drove himself into a church parking lot in 1965, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. While he was away wrestling, his wife had sold their house, taken his assets and their two children, before disappearing.
Kowalski survived the demons, he now says, for reasons those who hated the Killer could never have suspected -- away from the ring, he lived like an angel.
"I didn't live like other wrestlers -- I was a loner," he says -- his big frame still formidable, but slightly hunched now.
He hasn't taken a drop of alcohol in decades. Doesn't smoke. Loves romantic, classical music and good books. He champions God when ever he can. On his lapel today, he wears a tiny, carved cherub, which watches over him. At 3 a.m. each day, he wakes up to pray and meditate.
And since the 1950s, he's been a steadfast vegetarian. Ask him, and he'll tell you a blue joke, involving oral sex. And then he'll laugh and laugh in a voice that owns any room.
Nearby, quietly listening, sits 75-year-old Theresa Dodd. She watches him with amusement and gentle adoration. Nothing like the way wrestling fans once saw him.
She is just slightly over 5 feet tall. A New England widow.
They met seven years ago, when he ran a school in Malden, Mass. They now live in the same house.
"We're domestic partners," she says, after an awkward pause, looking over at the big man, whose amazingly clay-like face is becoming increasingly hard as these questions push him towards a corner.
During a 1974 CBC radio interview, the articulate bruiser talked about music and injury, but was stunned when the interviewer asked: "No romance in your life, Killer?"
"You notice the quietness," he answered. "I won't commit myself to that. I like to keep my personal life a secret."
Besides, he continued: "The image I portray is not someone (women) want to bring home to their mothers."
Today, the legendary villain of the ring is still as guarded.
It's an alter ego he doesn't want you to ever see.
Talk to him about being hated -- you are on safe ground.
But ask about the kindness of a woman, found after a life as a bachelor, and be ready for a fight. And, yes, she understands.
He has a quick sense of humour, a love of children and the Virgin Mary, and has a temper -- but tries to hide it -- Theresa says as he painfully climbs into the nearby ring for our photographer.
"He's a true showman," she knows.
He talks about what they'd do if he ever won the lottery, but she knows where Kowalski feels his best -- as the Killer.
If he couldn't come to this gym twice a week, to train others, he wouldn't know what he'd do with himself.
In the ring now, the Killer grabs student Todd "Handsome Johnny" Smith hard by the nose, before tossing him like a rag to the mat. This is madness, fans. Down goes the Killer's boot -- right to Todd's groin. Oh, the inhumanity.
This is a world champion who took on Whipper Billy Watson 14 consecutive Wednesdays in London, Ont. This is the man who bested "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers for the Texas Heavyweight title. Now he's beating on a 20-year-old warehouse worker who spends his days "putting clothes in boxes." Someone call a ref. Ring a bell. Do something.
But Smith couldn't be happier for feigning the pain.
"The man's a legend -- I shook when I first met him," he says of the Killer at his side -- sweat pouring down Smith's stubbled cheeks. "His hand completely covers yours when you first shake his hand. It's a dream to learn from him."
Near the ring, 20-year-old security guard Fletcher Hillman keeps a close eye on the Killer. He wants to sign up.
"I've heard about him since I was in first grade," he gushes. "You don't get bigger than Killer Kowalski."
It takes a hurting effort for Kowalski to get in a ring. But once there, his muscles and reactions find themselves. He moves quick as he teaches. His game face is on. His timing convinces some outside the ring, he's really hurting Smith.
The Killer is loose again.
Theresa watches Kowalski, too -- holding his money clip and autographed pictures so he doesn't lose them in the ring.
"This is where he's most comfortable," she's come to learn.
Today, the Killer is unrepentant about how he became Canada's most hated man -- ready to confess to anything.
Except how he feels about the woman he'll go home with.
"Wrestling will always be his first love," Theresa whispers.
The one and only thing Walter "Killer" Kowalski has always seemed to fear in life, is that you would think any different.
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