Killer Kowalski: Hard man of American professional wrestling

In an era of great American wrestling villains, Killer Kowalski could stand on the podium with his contemporaries George Walker (better known as Gorgeous George) and Dr Jerry Graham.

He was born Edward Walter Spulnik in 1926 in Windsor, Ontario, the son of Polish immigrants, and educated in Detroit. Accounts vary of how he got into wrestling, but it seems he tired of working in a factory for $50 a week and as he developed physically, he was tutored by the great champion Lou Thesz, first appearing in the ring in St Louis in 1947. It was the beginning of a career that would last 30 years.

Kowalski was sufficiently good looking to start as a "babyface" – a good guy in wrestling, as opposed to the "heel", or bad guy. He fought his first bouts as "Tarzan Kowalski" or "Hercules Kowalski" and, as late as 1951, as "The Polish Apollo", but he soon found his metier. At 6ft 7in and weighing nearly 20st, wearing purple tights with gold flashes and gold boots, he became a "heel", fighting as "Killer Kowalski", to which he later legally changed his name.

Three incidents, two of them certainly accidental, stamped him as possibly the best villain in the ring. One of Kowalski's trademark moves was to leap off the ropes and appear to land on his opponent's throat. This required exceptional timing to ensure that one foot landed on the canvas first. Unfortunately, in a 1952 match in Montreal against Eric Holmbeck – "Yukon Eric" – Kowalski mistimed his leap and tore off Holmbeck's cauliflower ear. He went to see Holmbeck in hospital but was said to have burst out laughing when he thought the bandaged Yukon resembled Humpty Dumpty. Holmbeck also saw the funny side, but it made for crowd-pulling grudge matches. In the second incident, while Kowalski was wrestling Pat O'Connor, a flying boot caught the ageing referee, Jack Dempsey, in the stomach, putting the former world heavyweight boxing champion in hospital.

A man of great stamina, Kowalski spent much of the central period of his career in no-time-limit matches, which could last up to an hour and a half, with the champions Bruno Sammartini and Pedro Morales. He rarely won but did ensure crowd satisfaction. He would also appear with Gorilla Monsoon as a tag partner.

To be a successful heel, a wrestler must have the ability to "heat" a crowd into a state of near frenzy as he abuses their hero. He must also expect to be abused himself, verbally and physically, inside and outside the arena. Kowalski said that over the years, apart from being the target of apple cores, cartons, chairs and cigar butts, he had been burned, blinded by pea-shooters and even stabbed.

Towards the end of his career, in the late 1960s, Kowalski was one of a number of American wrestlers who toured Australia, where imports topped the bills in preference to home-grown talent. A television interview in 1967 with the comedian Don Lane produced the third incident that made his reputation. The interview had not gone well and, asked to demonstrate his other signature move, a "claw hold" in which the victim's stomach was stretched, Kowalski left Lane writhing on the floor as he walked out of the studio. The incident was generally assumed to be genuine when Lane did not appear on the following week's programme. Naturally, none of this did any harm to his status as top villain.

In 1976, the year before he retired, Kowalski donned a mask and formed a tag team, "The Executioners", with his protégé Big John Studd. Together they won the World Tag Team Championship. In 1977 he opened0 a wrestling school in Boston and among those he trained to success was Michael LaVesque, better known to fans as "Triple H".

As with many "heels", Kowalski was gentlemanly outside the ring. A vegetarian, at the height of his career he temporarily gave up wrestling to spend time in a retreat. He was also an accomplished photographer and worked with special needs children. In 2006 he married for the first time, aged 79.

James Morton

Edward Walter Spulnik (Killer Kowalski), professional wrestler: born Windsor, Ontario 13 October 1926; married 2006 Theresa Ferrioli; died Everett, Massachusetts 30 August 2008.

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