Three generations of Tesmers with Killer Kowalski (Bernie on far left)
Reporter: Ralph Grasso, Executive Editor Marlboro Enterprise
The Little Leaguers at the Kane School Field last night weren’t even born yet when Walter “Killer” Kowalski won the heavyweight wrestling championship of the world in Montreal against Yvonne Robert but they knew there was something special about this hulk of a man who was a visitor to their game.
They looked in awe at this giant of a man who earned the nickname of “Killer” when he tore off an opponent’s ear in a match in Montreal. They crowded around him as he arrived at the field with Bernie and Mary Tesmer and “Killer” who by no means lives up to his nickname outside of the ring, immediately began handing out lollipops and balloons to the wide-eyed youngsters.
Bernie had taken his baseball team to a police benefit wrestling show featuring Kowalski. After the show Mary asked Kowalski if he’d come out front to meet some of the youngsters. He did, signing autographs and posing for pictures with them. When he was told some of the players hadn’t made the trip that night he agreed to meet the rest of the team at a game later in the season. Arrangements were made and last night the Tesmers had a guest for dinner.
Kowalski, who has been a vegetarian since 1954, disposed of a vegetable casserole, antipasto (without fish or meat) and fruit salad along with several glasses of water. “The strongest animals in the world eat no meat and when I was younger and wanted to be the strongest wrestler in the world, it made sense to me to become a vegetarian,” he explained.
Born Walter Kowalski in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, he began a wrestling career as an 18-year-old in nearby Detroit, Michigan. He was a six foot 200 pounder in those days and had to forge his age as 21 in order to get a license. By the time he reached 21, he was 6’4 and 240 pounds. Through weight training he later built himself up to 275 and wrestled at that weight throughout most of his career.
He claims he was actually a 98 pound weakling as a youngster and turned to body building when he was 15. In less than a year, he built himself up to 200 pounds and was an outstanding high school athlete in football, basketball, and track. After high school, he really became serious about weight training and joined a YMCA where he also received his introduction to wrestling. By the time he was 18, he was already attracting the attention of professional wrestling promoters in Detroit and had his first match that year.
“I was a bad guy right from the start because I was bigger than most of the guys I was wrestling. The image was right for me, too, and I began to get a lot of good matches. Originally, I started out as Tarzan Kowalski and later that was changed to Killer Kowalski,” he recalled.
Did you really bite Yukon Erik’s ear off?” the interviewer asked. “That story went around and it was good for my bad guy reputation but actually Yukon’s ear, which was a real cauliflower ear, popped off when I caught him with a knee while jumping at him off the ropes. The ear rolled right across the ring and it really shocked me. From that day on I was “Killer Kowalski” and the name stuck with me,” he replied.
The former champ retired as an active professional in 1975 but still makes guest appearances at shows like the recent one in Framingham. He now goes under the name “Executioner 1”, a tag he picked up late in his career when he donned a mask and won the tag team title with Big John Studd, a title he had held earlier in his career with Gorilla Monsoon.
Who was the toughest man he ever faced in the ring? That was easy for Kowalski who answered without hesitation, “Bruno Sammartino was the strongest and toughest I ever faced. He was the greatest and still is wrestling.
Another good one in Kowalski’s opinion was Jay Strongbull who Killer once wrestled to a 60 minute draw in Canada in what he remembers as “one of the most grueling matches” he ever had.
The next question was the obvious one, is wrestling on the up and up or is everything arranged beforehand? “Let me tell you, “ he answered. “Most of the times when I went into a town to wrestle someone, I didn’t even know who I was meeting until I climbed into the ring. There is an unwritten law in professional wrestling that you never intentionally try to injure someone and this wouldn’t be hard to do with men that size, but other than that, when you go in the ring, you wrestle to win,” he said.
Unlike some of the old-time athletes, Killer doesn’t begrudge the bigger salaries pro wrestlers are making today. “With inflation, they have to get more today, but let me tell you, I did alright for myself. I saw the world and had a great time. If I had to do it all over again, I’d still become a professional wrestler,” he proclaimed.
What about those fans, particularly those ladies who swung their handbags and umbrellas at him? “Those points on the umbrellas used to hurt when they poked you in the ribs but I’d simply yank it out of their hands and bust the umbrella over my knee. I can’t count the umbrellas I broke during my career,” he said with a wide grin.
Kowalski keeps active in wrestling by conducting a school for professional wrestlers at the Salem YMCA. He resides in Reading and still works out daily to keep in tip-top shape. He said the key to becoming a good professional wrestler is learning how to take the falls without getting hurt and learning not to be tense in the ring.
“When you tense up, that’s when you get hurt,” he explained.
He laughs when he hears people say that amateur wrestlers would mop up a pro wrestler in a legitimate match. “Professional wrestlers are much more sophisticated and far advanced in techniques than the amateurs. I wrestled some young college champions in my career and they couldn’t stay in the ring with me for more than 15 or 20 minutes,” he said.
He has wrestled in all parts of the world and has had more than 3,000 matches during his star-studded career that saw him hold the heavyweight title on two different occasions along with the tag team title twice.
He recalled appearing on the same card some years back with a wrestler named “El Kapitan”, Marlboro’s own Kappy Kales, who wrestled professionally for many years retiring in the early 60’s. “A good wrestler doesn’t reach his peak until he’s 35 and some can wrestle until they are 60, “ said Kowalski.
He said he retired because the traveling was getting to be too much and he wanted the opportunity to work with young wrestlers. He had more than his share of injuries in the ring but other than the standard cauliflower ears and a kink in his neck (two vertibrae fused together from an injury) he is none the worse for wear and still looks fit enough to climb into the ring with anyone.
“Like I said if I had to do all over again, I’d be a professional wrestler again. The sport has been good to me and I do everything I can to promote it.”
It was hard to picture this gentle man as the same one we saw in the ring at Mechanic’s Hall in Worcester one night 20 years ago when he looked like he was ready to tear off his opponent’s head and maim anyone else in the packed arena who would have been foolish enough to climb into the ring with him.
He was “Killer Kowalski” that evening but last night at the Kane School Field as he talked with youngster and parents, he was Walter Kowalski, as gentle a man as you’d ever want to meet.