The golden years of wrestling in Australia were between 1964 and 1978 when World Championship Wrestling was on Channel 9 every weekend. It was a magic time and it had life long consequences....
The legendary professional wrestler, 'Killer' Kowalski, who died aged 81 on 30 August this year, had a big impact on my life.
This came about through an article in TV Week around 1965. It told of how in real life Kowalski was a university graduate, with a deep interest in spirituality and philosophy. I learned from this that a man can be tough and strong and also be an intellectual. This was an important lesson for someone who was into ideas at a young age. It made me feel less marginal and okay about continuing in a scholarly direction.
I first saw him in 1964, when I was thirteen and Channel Nine's 'World Championship Wrestling' program had just started. The televised bouts advertised grudges that we viewers would pay big money to see in full gory glory at venues like Festival Hall and the Sydney Stadium.
I was there, at the old Tin Shed, which was colloquial Melburnian for Festival Hall, when Kowalski took on the likes of the 'Golden Greek' Spiros Arion, the 'Flying French Canadian' Emile Dupre, Domenic De Nucci, Dick Steinborn, Tex McKenzie, Larry O'Dea, Ron Miller and Mario Milano.
The Killer's winning manoeuvre was a submission hold called the claw hold. Kowalski would pummel his opponent, stomp and knee-drop to their mid-section, and then clasp both hands onto the abdominal region, digging in deeper and deeper with his fingers until he was manipulating their intestines. To develop the strength and skill to do this, he trained each day by squeezing tennis balls with his fingers until the balls popped. At any rate, that's how I remember him explaining it to the late great wrestling commentator, Jack Little, one Sunday lunchtime.
Kowalski enthralled me by his physique and strength. He stood at two metres and weighed 127 kilos. There was no flab, and the proportioning of his muscularity was just how my mates and pencil-necked me wanted to be. The problem was Kowalski was one of the bad guys in the ring; a 'heel' to use the lingo of the business. We admired his strength but wanted to see him beaten.
Kowalski was brilliant in tapping into the mass psychology of the audience. He needed no fancy gimmicks or costumes. He struck fear into us with a glance.
In August 1965, I wrote a fan letter to the Killer care of channel 9. The reply came from Nine's Publicity Department. I still have it. It said: "... time does not permit Killer Kowalski to answer any letters. I hope you are not too disappointed... but he did appreciate receiving your letter".
"Not TOO disappointed"!!! Of course I was disappointed, VERY disappointed. And for some reason, I kept the letter, not realizing that three decades later, it would allow my life, momentarily, to intersect with that of the man himself.
In 1996, I came across a report about a wrestling school run by Kowalski in Boston, so I decided to write again - enclosing a copy of the 1965 letter from Nine. I told the Killer how he had helped keep me on a scholarly path in my early teenage years. I also told him that I had become a father and had a two year old son named Joey.
It was an absolute surprise and delight to receive a reply two weeks later. There, in large format, was a stunning photo of Kowalski, in his sixties but still a magnificent specimen. The photo was inscribed in his handwriting with the words: "To Joey and Barry York, two great champions. Best of luck, Killer Kowalski".
The autographed photo is now framed and hangs in my study, where I continue to read, research and write.
Thank you and Vale: Walter 'Killer' Kowalski.
(Credit: ABC Radio National)
Canberra based historian
Ron Miller web site
Media Man Australia Profiles
Walter 'Killer' Kowalski