Monday, September 1, 2008

Killer Kowalski Dies at 81

Yesterday I heard about the death of this young man, and it made me sad. I'm no wrestling fan, but I did have the chance to do one wrestling story for OAG about ten years ago and Killer Kowalski was at the center of it. I'd heard from my husband (who grew up watching wrestling) that Kowalski ran a pro wrestling school in Malden and I thought that would make a great radio story. It did. 

The main reason why it did was Kowalski himself, who was in his early 70s at the time, still towering at 6 foot 6, and not quite ready to admit that he was getting old. It's hard to imagine how famous he actually was in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, how he and the other wrestlers traveled all around the country to play to packed venues, and then to different television stations around the country to wrestle in tiny studios under hot lights. 

Back then, wrestling was just as much a spectacle as it is now, and yet it was forbidden to admit that they rigged the outcomes or choreographed the fights. The wrestlers had their own jargon. A good guy who was expected by the crowd to win every match was called a baby face. The bad guy who was expected to lose was said to be "on the job." If a manager told a wrestler that he was on the job for the upcoming match, he knew that he had to lose. Kowalski in his 70s never admitted to any of this to me. I think he still considered it bad form to talk about the theatrics of the matches. He considered himself to be an actor, and that this was his life's role. He was the Killer, all his life. And he could recount moves from three decade old matches from memory. He could tell a great story, and put on the mean face as though it were still happening.

Not that he wasn't polite. He may have been a great villain in decades past, but he was unfailingly sweet and courteous. He spoke of his lifelong vegetarianism, how he felt that all people were essentially good, that we should treat others with love and more importantly think of them with love, even those we dislike. We should tell people that we love them all the time, he said. He was vehement on this last point and discussed it until my tape ran out and after. At the time, he believed in the power of vitamins and supplements and took dozens of them every day. He showed them to me. He also acted as a kind of guru to his students. He gave them advice about how to get along with co-workers and friends. He advised them on their diets, how to deal with injuries and medical conditions. He insisted on polite and professional behavior, on courtesy, in his gym. 

And he coached his students on their acting, on choreographing the sound effects of matches. He had specific techniques for stomping while pretending to punch someone so that there was a real sound to go with the fake punch. This is harder to coordinate than you might think. He showed them how to double over after a punch, how to grimace in agony while your opponent twists your arm behind your back. And when they didn't get it right, he'd climb into the ring,and do it himself with his wide, but now skinny shoulders and his haggard, hawk-nosed face, and he was the best one among them. He was still a star.

There are many reasons why I remember doing that story so well. One of them is that I went to a pro wrestling match and saw some of the newly aging stars of the, uh, sport. King Kong Bundy picked me up and shook me during our interview. And Greg "The Hammer" Valentine was really funny during our interview. Here is this guy, all pumped up, shaved chest, wearing a fake tan, reeking of Ben Gay. When I asked him if he was looking forward to the match, I expected Killer Kowalski's professionalism. I expected a man to give me a little of the tough guy villain talk. Instead, he hugged himself and said, "Not really. It's cold in here."

Also, Killer Kowalski kissed me during our interview. I'll never forget it. I was letting him lead the discussion, as I always do. He was charming and entertaining. He told me that on his 13th birthday, he announced to his mother that he would not eat any more meat. That was the day he became a vegetarian. October 13, 1939. I said, "October 13? That's my birthday, too." The expression fell off his face. And he suddenly looked mean. Or mad, or something. I thought he was upset because I'd interrupted him. He leaned forward, never breaking eye contact, took my face in both hands and kissed me lightly on the mouth. He was very serious about the whole thing. He called it a spiritual connection because we were born on the same day. Then he went back to talking about vegetarianism, and I did what any midwestern girl would do. I pretended it hadn't happened.

The day after the interview, Kowalski called me at home. It was fairly early on a Saturday morning. He told me that he regretted one or two of the things that he said that he felt might be considered critical of the WWF management. He asked me not to use them and I agreed. "Thank you," he said. And then he said, "I love you." 

I knew what he meant.

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