Walter Kowalski has always been known to be a battler. But the Malden, Mass., resident and WWE Hall of Famer’s biggest battle continues to be the fight for his life, after having a massive heart attack Aug. 8.
Walter Kowalski has always been known as a battler.From his early days breaking into the wrestling business, to his years as a top trainer to some of today’s biggest WWE superstars, “Killer” Kowalski has certainly left an indelible mark on the wrestling world. But the Malden, Mass., resident and WWE Hall of Famer’s biggest battle continues to be the fight for his life, after having a massive heart attack Aug. 8.
Since that time, Kowalski, 81, has been in critical condition at Whidden Hopsital in Everett, Mass. With his condition showing no signs of improving, Kowalski’s family decided to take the wrestler off life support Monday, Aug. 18.Kowalski’s wife, Theresa, as well as his family and friends have been by the wrestler’s side during this very difficult time. Among Kowalski’s closest friends holding vigil at the hospital has been Richard Byrne. “Walter was a showman,” said Byrne, a Malden native, Tango Soo Do grandmaster and veteran of the local and international wrestling circuits. “He knew how to promote pro wrestling. He knew how to promote the image of ‘Killer’ Kowalski and there was nobody better at the game. I thank God my first match was with him, because as hard as it was, it made every match that I’ve had in my career seem like a walk in the park.” According to Byrne, when news first broke of Kowalski’s illness, calls from across the wrestling industry began streaming in from grapplers, past and present, all wanting to pay their respects and lend their support to the legend. Among the old-time wrestlers who checked in was Nick Bockwinkle. A veteran of the squared circle, Bockwinkle, 73, was just 14 years old when he first caught a glimpse of the then 22-year-old Kowalski, who was entering his second year in the business. “I saw Walter Kowalski enter the ring in a long purple robe,” Bockwinkle recalled. “And when he took it off he turned to the audience, he lifted up his arms and roared. It was the most magnificent sight I had ever seen.” Birth of a ‘Killer’ Standing in a lean and mean 6-foot-7, 285 pounds, Kowalski’s intimidating stature gave him instant credibility with wrestling fans. But it was his infamous run-in with Yukon Eric at the Montreal Forum in 1954 that earned him his infamous nickname. During the match, Kowalski knee dropped Yukon Eric, severing a piece of his cauliflower ear in the process. The move horrified fans and “Killer” Kowalski was born. Over the next three decades, Kowalski continued to pummel the opposition, gaining legions of fans worldwide. Wielding a wild array of signature moves including the Killer Clutch — a crippling stomach vice which left opponents powerless — a devastating diving knee drop, a powerful dropkick and relentless piledriver. Kowalski proved to be unbeatable, while also possessing a strong sense of theatrics in the ring, which also earned him the distinction of being one of wrestling’s biggest heels. “He maintained his work ethic,” Byrne said. “He worked as hard in front of 35 people as he did in front of 3,500 people and there was no slacking because he was an entertainer. When talking to old-time wrestlers, about who was the toughest, “Killer” Kowalski’s name always came up because he never let you rest.” Byrne speaks from experience. He first faced Kowalski in a memorable match at the Malden Armory in 1978. At the time, Byrne was a 6-foot-4, 225-pound third degree black belt in Korean karate, just breaking into the wrestling game himself, but was taught a thing or two by the then 52-year-old Kowalski, who entered the ring in the guise of his infamous alias, the masked Executioner No. 1. “I’ll never forget it,” Byrne said. “Here I was a 28-year-old guy, I thought I was in good shape, being the karate expert. I got in the ring with him; we did 29 minutes for a double disqualification. But it was 29 minutes of non-stop action, which is unheard of now — if you watch television, it’s 10-minute matches. But you’re talking about a guy who on a regular basis in the olds days would go for a one-hour time limit. To be able to do that for an hour is incredible.” After retiring from the ring, Kowalski turned teacher, opening up a wrestling schools in both the Salem and Boston YMCA before setting up shop in Malden, where he spent the next 30 years of his career training the stars of today, including current WWE heavyweight champ Triple H and former women’s champ Chyna. Although he was as mean as they come inside the squared circle, Kowalski was nothing but a gentleman outside of it. “The thing with Walter was, the more horrible a human being he could get in the ring, the nicer he was outside the ring,” Byrne said. “He never turned down an autograph; he was never too busy to talk to somebody. He was always a standup guy and if he could help you some way he would. That’s just the way he was.” Kowalski fundraiser Plans are already under way to hold a wrestling fundraiser in Kowalski’s honor at the Malden Irish American, Sunday Oct. 26. All money raised will go to Kowalski’s wife to help with medical expenses. “Everybody is donating their services,” Byrne said. “The ring and the hall are already donated; the stars are flying in on their own money to be part of it. It’s probably going to be the biggest gathering of talent that Malden’s ever seen.” “We’ve got a lot of big names who are very interested in coming and paying their respects and being there for Walter,” he added. “I think it’s going to be a great send off. It will definitely be the biggest event at the Irish American. It will be packed wall-to-wall.” For more information on the Kowalski wrestling fundraiser, call 781-324-9568.