Late Friday, Walter “Killer” Kowalski suffered a heart attack in his nursing home outside Boston. He was admitted to Whidden Memorial Hospital in Everett. Saturday night, his wife and his brother were optimistic.

“I had prayed all night that he would fool everybody and get over it,” said Theresa Kowalski. “We have to wait and see, but he was better today, and even the nurses said there was an improvement.”

Killer Kowalski in the 1970s

Sounding tired after a full day at the hospital, Theresa shared the roller-coaster ride of an experience. “He was in very bad shape last night after a massive heart attack that they said affected his brain, plus he had pneumonia,” she said.

“He wasn’t himself all day yesterday and I asked if he was okay and he said he was. When the nurses put him in the chair at around 6:00, after they left I saw his face go slack and white and I screamed for the nurses. They started pounding on his chest and called 9-1-1 and took him to the hospital. The doctor told me it was a matter of hours or days.

“This morning when I went in, he looked better. His eyes were clear, and they said that his problems seemed to have dropped down a little bit”

“It seems like he is improving,” said Stan Spulnik, of Ottawa, debating when to leave to go his his brother.

They both explained that Killer is having difficulty trying to speak, and continues to have heart rate problems. Four wrestlers came to visit today — two from Connecticut and two from New York — that prompted Kowalski to try to talk, which is a good sign, said Theresa: “That’s something that he couldn’t do at all yesterday.”

The 81-year-old wrestling great had been hospitalized in the Everett Nursing Home in Everett, Mass., for a few months. Confined to to bed because of wonky legs, and problematic knees, doctors refused to conduct surgery of his knees due to Kowalski’s age and the pacemaker installed in his heart.

Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, Walter Spulnik — his birth name — was a tall, skinny kid, weighing 160 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame at age 14. He found his way to the local YMCA, where others convinced him that weightlifting would easily add pounds to his frame. It worked, and he grew into a 6-foot-7, 270-pound man.

Kowalski enrolled at Assumption College (now part of the University of Windsor), studying electrical engineering, and found part-time work with the Ford Motor Company in Detroit.

While at the YMCA, someone suggested that professional wrestling was a good career for him. Kowalski hooked up with Detroit promoter Burt Ruby, who saw something in the giant. Over the years Kowalski claimed his first match was against Lou (Klein) Bastien, in 1948.

St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick saw something in “Tarzan” Kowalski, and matched him up against world champion Lou Thesz. A conflict with getting time off from Ford to wrestle abroad let to Kowalski quitting his “day job.”

In those early years, known as Tarzan Kowalski, he fought to get better known. “He was a hell of an attraction,” said Lou Thesz in 1998. “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.”

“Killer Kowalski — when I first saw him I thought he was the most magnificent specimen of a human being I’d ever seen in my life,” Joe Hamilton told Rich Tate of Georgia Wrestling History. “He was working out at the gym and was six feet six and about 280 pounds, and he was ripped and just looked phenomenal. You know, back then they called him Tarzan Kowalski, and he looked like Tarzan should look like — big and powerful.

A rare photo of a smiling Killer Kowalski from 1964. Photo by Bob Leonard

Incredibly famous as a bad guy wrestler, few fans realize that he was a popular fan favorite for many years. “Kowalski, who has made quite a sweep of rivals and has become popular with the fans,” reads one write-up. Kowalski always maintained that he turned fully heel simply because fans started booing him.

“He was such a good looking guy. He 6-foot-8, weighed over 300 pounds, and had long hair and looked like Tarzan. He looked real good at whatever he did,” said Paul “Butcher” Vachon. “The women just loved him and the men hated him. I heard about women fainting when Killer Kowalski came into the ring.”

“Just because I get over-enthused about my work people hate me,” Kowalski said in a 1961 article in Wrestling Revue. “Everywhere I go they throw chairs, newspapers, cigar butts, fruit and anything else they can grab. I have been burned, knifed, blinded by pea shooters and hit over the head with boards.”

Though never recognized as one of the “big three” world champions (AWA, WWWF, NWA), Kowalski held claim to the world title out of Australia six times from 1964-67 and a variant of the AWA World title based out of Boston. He also held a plethora of other belts: NWA Texas tag team (by himsef!) in 1950, the Central States champ in 1951, the Pacific Coast tag team champ in California in 1951, the International champion in Quebec a remarkable 11 times from 1952-63, the Big Time Wrestling champ 1958-61, the Pacific Coast tag team champ in B.C. twice in 1961-62, the Stampede Canadian champ in 1962, the WWWF U.S. tag team titles in 1963, the Hawaiian U.S. Heavyweight belt in 1965-66, the IWA tag team belts in Australia four times from 1967-71, the NWA America’s title in 1972, the Grand Prix heavyweight and tag team titles out of Montreal two times each from 1972-73, the NWA Southern title in Florida in 1975, and the WWWF tag team belts in 1976 (under a mask as the Executioners with John Minton, a.k.a. Big John Studd).

Retired from the ring since 1977, Kowalski has been a trainer of wrestlers for years. His biggest name students are Triple H, Big John Studd, Chyna and Mike Shaw (Makhan Singh, Norman the Lunatic, Bastion Booger).

“Kowalski had a great school. He spent a lot of time with us,” said Shaw.

Kowalski was presented with the Iron Mike Award in 2002 by the Cauliflower Alley Club, considered the top award in professional wrestling. He was inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2003, both the Wrestling Observer and WWE Halls of Fame in 1996, and the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame in Troy, Michigan in 2007.

Though he never released an autobiography, Kowalski did publish a book of his photography in 2001, entitled Killer Pics.

SLAM! Wrestling will have much, much more on Kowalski in the near future, as writer Jason Clevett went to visit Kowalski and his wife Theresa at the nursing home last weekend.

— with files from Jason Clevett