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Ring of legends: Killer Kowalski and other big names come to town to wrestle up support for charity

Thursday, November 12, 1998

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They say Killer Kowalski tore off another wrestler's ear and then laughed about it. The story is accurate. It's not exactly true, though. Kowalski's legend grew beyond all reason because he played the bad guy to perfection in his 30 years as a professional wrestler. He seemed as cold-hearted as Michael Corleone and more savage than Mike Tyson, another well-known abuser of ears.

 
  Walter "Killer" Kowalski: The wrestler fans loved to hate.

Now, at 70, Kowalski will return to Pittsburgh as a hero.

He is one of a dozen or so famous old wrestlers who will be honored Friday and Saturday in a series of public appearances to support the national Cauliflower Alley Club, a nonprofit charitable organization made up of wrestlers, boxers and movie actors. The events are being organized by Marlene Breegle, a wrestling promoter based in West Mifflin.

In addition to Kowalski, other ring legends coming to town for the bash will include Lou Thesz, Ivan Putski, The Fabulous Moolah, Big Cat Ernie Ladd and Handsome Harley Race.

One of Pittsburgh's own, Jumpin' Johnny DeFazio, will receive a special tribute. DeFazio gave up what might have been a lucrative wrestling career in the 1970s to become an international union representative for steelworkers.

In the ring, DeFazio was always a crowd favorite. Kowalski was the one the fans loved to hate.

A brawler who stood 6-feet-7 and weighed 260 pounds, Kowalski became one of wrestling's biggest stars during its first great television run half a century ago.

"He was a hell of an attraction," said Thesz, the legendary champ who is now 82. "He had a great body back then. He was not a sophisticated wrestler, but every promoter wanted him because he made a lot of money."

Kowalski's first name is Walter, but he was billed early on as Wladek Kowalski, a Cold War modification to imply that he was a menace from Europe.

Kowalski, born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, to Polish immigrants, was never what he seemed.

 
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A vegetarian whose interests ranged from poetry to public speaking, he was respectful of just about everybody, including his opponents. The fans, though, knew him only as a rough rule breaker.

They were calling him Killer Kowalski even before he severed most of Yukon Eric Holmbeck's left ear in a 1954 match at the Montreal Forum.

Kowalski never meant to hurt Yukon Eric, a bear of a man whose years in the ring had left him with brittle, cauliflower ears.

"I had him caught in the ropes," Kowalski remembered. "My gimmick at the time was jumping off the top rope and down onto the other guy. The referee tried to get between us and Yukon Eric turned his cheek a little bit."

That caused some unplanned contact.

"My shin and boot grazed his head," Kowalski said, "and his ear came off, just like you knock a fly across a table. It rolled across the ring ... glub, glub, glub. The blood squirted everywhere."

 
Pittsburgh's Jumpin' Johnny Defazio, below, pictured with tag team partner Geeto Mongol, will be supporting the Cauliflower Alley Club. 

In the world of professional wrestling, where outcomes are predetermined, this bout provided a rarity - the surprise finish.

Yukon Eric, declared the loser because he could not continue, was hustled to the emergency room. Kowalski's hand was raised to boos that were louder than ever.

His villainous reputation was sealed two days later when the promoter ordered him to apologize to Yukon Eric, who was still in the hospital.

"I told him I don't ever apologize," Kowalski said. "These things happen. Wrestlers get broken arms and broken legs. These things are part of the business."

But the boss was an insistent nag, so Kowalski walked the two blocks to the hospital to say hello to Yukon Eric.

He arrived as newspapermen and a female television reporter were milling outside Yukon Eric's room. These journalists became responsible for one of the most unfair stories in wrestling history, if such a thing is possible.

Yukon Eric, whose ring personality was that of a friendly lumberjack, was seated on the edge of his bed, his head wrapped in bandages.

"I swear, the first thing I thought of was Humpty Dumpty on the wall," Kowalski said. "Yukon Eric looked at me, shook his head and smiled. I started laughing and he laughed, too."

The reporters, who missed the nuances between two co-workers, rushed out to file their stories. Next day, the headlines screamed something like this: Kowalski visits ailing Yukon Eric, laughs at him.

They met in the ring many more times, the severed ear providing a natural story line for a feud that was replayed in town after town.

But poor Eric Holmbeck lost his zest for it all somewhere along the way.

He killed himself in 1965 outside a Georgia church, apparently because of marital and money problems.

"It was a shame. Yukon Eric was a pretty nice guy," Kowalski said.

Truth is, Kowalski was no villain.

He never married, but he received countless proposals from women who watched him wrestle across the states, and in Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and South Africa.

He retired from the ring in 1977, but he could never get wrestling out of his system. Eager to teach others how to put a hammerlock on fame, he still runs a wrestling school in the Boston area.

One of Kowalski's more successful graduates is Hunter Hearst Helmsley, a foppish bad guy of the World Wrestling Federation. Another of his proteges was the late Big John Studd, who was plain old John Minton when he was born in Butler.

Kowalski, a naturalized U.S. citizen, enjoys a status in Massachusetts that's normally reserved for old Celtic and Red Sox greats. He can still work a crowd, and these days they cheer him.

"Nobody's more popular than the Killer," said Eddie Paleski, an aide to Joe Malone, who ran unsuccessfully this year for governor of Massachusetts. "The Killer helped us in the campaign, and the lines for him were always the longest."

Kowalski said coming back to Pittsburgh inspires memories of Bruno Sammartino, a man he rates as one of the three best wrestlers he ever faced.

The other two were Thesz and the late Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, a sculpted, strutting blond whose style might be the most copied of any wrestler.

Kowalski was harder to imitate. He made a nice living by being mean. Even as a senior citizen, he can still talk the wrestler's talk.

"Make sure you come by to see me," he said. "I'll bodyslam you."



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