Killer Kowalski, who died a week ago on August 30, was always a rather solitary man on the road, happy to seek out enlightenment rather than excitement. Few knew him as well as Don Leo Jonathan, who at first served as an apprentice to Kowalski and then became a partner, opponent and friend.
Just a week before Kowakski passed at the age of 81, Jonathan shared some of his memories of “Wally.” The respect between each wrestler is obvious.
“He was really a good friend,” started Jonathan. “I thought he was a real gentleman and a real friend.”
In 2003, Kowalski introduced Jonathan at the Cauliflower Alley Club banquet, and recalled their early days. “He was so green then. But we kept together and I led him the best I could,” Kowalski said. “He was the most athletic wrestler I ever came across. He comes up the steps, stands on the apron, hands on the rope, does a flip right over top and lands in the middle of the ring. He was the most athletic guy I’d ever come across. We were a tag team, all over, everywhere. And, what did I do? Quite a few times, just to make sense of a match, I double-crossed him. So-called, anyways. We’d wrestle one another that way. We enjoyed it, wrestling one another. We’d go on the road, we’d be a team again and I’d do the same thing again and we’d wrestle one another here, there and everywhere. We’re acting like more than family. He was my brother, I was his brother. We wrestled like that all over the country. We’d just keep on going. We became really close as friends, very, very close, as two wrestlers rarely become. I’m honoured to honour Don Leo Jonathan.”
A second-generation wrestler, Jonathan admitted to being in awe when he initially laid eyes on Kowalski. “When I first saw him, he blew me away. He was built like Mike Sharpe, big, wide shoulders and real thin waist. He was just an impressive fellow.”
At 6-foot-6, Jonathan was an equal to the giant Kowalski, though five years Kowalski’s junior. They had some epic battles.
“Oh, I beat the hell out of him,” said Jonathan. “Of course, he enjoyed it too. He always liked to see me bleed.
“I remember one night I finally got him in the [Montreal] Forum, pounding on him across his back. His shoulders were raw and blood was seeping out of his back. He just kept coming.”
In 2002, Kowalski told this writer of a bout with Jonathan at the same Forum.
“I remember one time, an episode in Montreal, the Montreal Forum. Summertime, no air conditioning, it’s hot in there. So it’s a two-out-of-three fall match. Picks me up to bodyslam me, the sweat, I slip out of his arms. I landed crooked. From here down (chest down), I was paralyzed. My whole damn back shifted, pinched all my nerves in my spine. I told him, ‘I’m paralyzed, I can’t move.’ So he pinned me one-two-three. They got a stretcher, put me on a stretcher, carried me to the dressing room. There’s a bang on the door. ‘I’m a chiropractor. I know what’s wrong with him.’ ‘C’mon in.’ I was lying on a table. He adjusted me. Crick, crick, crick. All of a sudden, I’m back. So I’m walking back there for the second fall. ‘Fake! Fake! (laughing) I was carried out on a stretcher, and walking back they call it fake.”
The story confirms Kowalski’s reluctance to consult doctors for medical advice. He was very much into his own thing, challenging his body, whether through his strong belief in vegetarianism or his 1955 fast.
“I watched him go through his diets and that kind of stuff, talked to him a lot about it. He was in that metaphysics,” said Jonathan.
The fast was something else, said Jonathan.
“I was afraid he was going to die. He was down to around 150 pounds. Just a skeleton. Hans Hermann — remember the name Hans Hermann? Hans went over to see him. He said he was laying on his couch, and he was living on juice, grape juice or something. He was going try and live on air. Somebody told him he could do it, and he went to the limit. Man, I’m telling you, he looked like he just came out of Dachau.
“Being a good friend, and understanding him maybe a little better than some of the other guys did, it was shocking.
“He scientifically took his weight off,” Jonathan concluded with a chuckle.
Jonathan knew Kowalski long enough to remember a time when Killer wasn’t a vegetarian.
“He and I used to go out and get those big steaks and everything. Then when he changed, he tried to talk me out of eating meat. I said, ‘Well, Walter, that’s one thing I ain’t going to do!'” Jonathan laughed. “‘I can cut back, but I’m not going to do without.'”
Yet Kowalski wasn’t one to push his beliefs on others. “If I asked him anything, then would be gracious enough to explain to me his beliefs. That that was what he believed in,” Jonathan said. “We would just talk about it, and he’d tell me the advantages of it if I didn’t eat meat. But that was his cut at it. We all kind of got our cut at things, and generally, a lot has to do with the way you think by what you really want. I didn’t want to give up meat! I was raised on it.”
Jonathan, who still loves to hunt and fish, wasn’t converted. “I’ve always been a sort of a rebel when it comes to converting to anything. But it was interesting. He took me up to the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, or Anne-de-Bellevue, there in Quebec at that monestary where they have all the crutches and the braces and stuff that people have walked up the stairs and were cured,” he said. “We were in there and he lit a few candles and we talked about things. He was interested in religions for a time. He was looking for many things.”
Kowalski was “a student of theology” and a “mental physicist” said Jonathan.
“Wally was in another realm. While I was with him, he went through three or four different religions,” he said. “We used to talk about religion a lot. He took his religion very seriously. Not to say that he was looking for the true church as much as he was looking for enlightenment. He was very deep that way. When he decided to do something, he’d go all the way.”
According to Jonathan, Kowalski never had a lot of close, close friends in the business. He said that he was fortunate to know Killer as well as he did. “Wally was sort of an individual. He certainly didn’t go along with a lot of the stuff that the guys did,” Jonathan said. “He was, I don’t want to say a loner, because he could be quite charming and he got along good with everybody, but if you done something that he really didn’t like, he would let you know about it — especially if it would hurt the business. He was very conscientious about wrestling.
“A lot of these guys, they never spent the time to get to know the guys. You know when you’re busy tooting your own horn, you don’t hear the music.”
The colour purple is always something that Jonathan will associate with Kowalski as well. “Purple was his thing, the royalty. Purple, the royal colours.”
Jonathan also has a special memento from Kowalski obtained in a trade decades ago.
“I have a rifle that Kowalski used to have. This is a rifle that he used when he was down shooting at Remington. He used to go down there. At Remington, they burned up a lot of ammunition, they tested ammunition. He would go down there sometimes and that’s what he done all day, was shoot. Then when he quit shooting later on, I had some jade here. He traded me the rifle for some jade. I still have the rifle, and every year I shoot it, sometimes several times a year. I always think of him when I’ve got his rifle. As a matter of fact, the rifle’s name is Killer!”