LAS VEGAS — One of the baddest men in pro wrestling is also one of its most-liked and most revered personalities. And now, after Saturday night’s 36th annual Cauliflower Alley Club Banquet, Walter ‘Killer’ Kowalski is in even more select company.

Kowalski, who hails from Windsor, Ontario, and now lives in Massachusetts, was presented with the Iron Mike Mazurki Award, the CAC’s top award, named in honour of its founder. The Killer knows that he’s gone from being hated to being loved.

B. Brian Blair, left, listens to Harley Race and Pat Patterson as he accepts an award from Cauliflower Alley Club. The Destroyer Dick Beyer looks on. (Greg Oliver/For SLAM! Wrestling)

“I went through a lot, but I always ended up on top,” Kowalski told the packed banquet hall at the Riviera Hotel. “I was a big, mean, mean guy in my career … but now they look at me as being an angel.”

On hand were many of the previous nine Iron Mike Mazurki Award winners, including last year’s recipient Stu Hart.

The only other Canadian honoured during the evening’s ceremonies was the WWF’s recuperating Chris Benoit, who hails from Edmonton. His former trainer and good friend Bruce Hart told the audience that Benoit “might be the best that ever came out of the Dungeon.”

“He exudes class and is a tremendous ambassador for the sport,” Hart said.

A number of the award recipients expressed their appreciation for the Cauliflower Alley Club and the family atmosphere that it tries to encourage.

Ox Baker made reference to Superstar Billy Graham during his acceptance speech. Graham is awaiting a donor for a liver transplant, and sent a greeting to the assembled masses that he intends to be at the banquet in 2003. Up for auction during the weekend were a pair of Graham’s boots, which eventually fetched almost $500, with all the money helping the Superstar with his mounting medical bills.

Famed Mexican lucha libre star Frey Tormenta also was presented with an award, and donations were encouraged for the wrestling priest’s continuing efforts to run an orphanage in Mexico.

Former Killer Bee B. Brian Blair was easily the funniest and best-spoken of the mat greats up on stage. “I truly believe that pro wrestling is the greatest show on Earth,” Blair said, after getting his plaque from Harley Race and Pat Patterson. “You guys are truly my Supermen.” Judging from his speaking skills in front of a large audience, things bode well for Blair in his planned November 2002 run for county commission in Hillsboro County, Florida.

There were a few somber notes during the evening as well. The widows of Johnny Valentine, Tex McKenzie and Lou ‘Shoulders’ Newman were all on hand and received a nice round of applause from the CAC members. Tom Burke and Jason Sanderson read off the longest list of deceased wrestlers from the past year ever, with 57 names. Two awards were made posthumously to ladies wrestling star Nell Stewart and Spanish great Hercules Cortez.

Acknowledgement was also made of Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan, who was unable to co-host the banquet with Mike Tenay this year because of his battle with throat cancer. Tenay told the crowd that Heenan has gone through chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Heenan sent word that if the late, great Gorilla Monsoon couldn’t shut him up, then cancer wasn’t going to either.

Amateur wrestling was in the spotlight on two significant occasions as well. Nick Ackerman was the recipient of the CAC’s Scholarship Award, and was moved by the award. Ackerman’s story was enough to make the crowd cheer loud, and donate more money to the scholarship fund. He is the 174-pound Division III National Wrestling Champion, out of Simpson College, but he did so with two prosthetic legs, having lost both limbs to a life-threatening, fast-moving form of meningitis when he was just 18 months of age.

Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award was Mike Chapman, a longtime writer and journalist whose speciality was amateur wrestling, and who spear-headed and now runs the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton, Iowa.

Other honoured included Tim ‘Mr. Wrestling’ Woods, Judy Grable, Jimmy ‘The Boogie Woogie Man’ Valiant, Maria Deleon, Juan Hernandez, and actor Alan Koss.

On Friday night, the Baloney Blowout was held, with light dinner for the many attendees. CAC President Red Bastien handed out two joking awards that night.

Angelo Savoldi, looking great at 87, was awarded the Golden Crowbar Award for being too stiff in the ring. “I know I stiffed a lot of them, for which I’m very sorry,” said Savoldi, who started wrestling in 1936.

Irish wrestler Paddy Barrett was given the Golden Potato Award for inadvertently ‘potatoing’ his opponents. Bastien credited Barrett’s Irish upbringing for all the potatoes over the years. Barrett thought that when his opponent cried ‘Potato’ in the ring that it was meant as a compliment, a tribute to his heritage. “When they shouted potato, I just thought they were being friendly,” he deadpanned.