Gore was his specialty. He liked to rake his knuckles over an opponent's brow, where the skin was thinnest, and create the old red mask. Blood everywhere. The crowds loved it from Malaysia to Maine, and Wladek Kowalski was one of the circuit's most popular and reliable heels. Even so, he never meant to tear Yukon Eric's ear off. Big ol' cauliflowered thing, all knotted up, "rolling across the canvas like a golf ball," and Yukon's head suddenly like a spigot. That was an accident, no matter what they say.
And what happened next wasn't his fault either, not exactly. The booker for that fight in Montreal insisted Kowalski visit Yukon in the hospital, which was not Kowalski's style at all. If there was one word to describe his style, in fact, it would be unapologetic. But the booker played on Kowalski's last remaining shred of decency. It was just a block away, for goodness' sake.
"I'm grumbling that whole block," Kowalski said, "but I go up to his room, which I now see is crowded with TV and newspaper people, just to say I'm sorry. I don't want to go in but somebody hears, Kowalski's here!, and I get pushed in. Well, there's Yukon Eric sitting on the edge of the bed, and his head is bandaged round and round like a turban. It's huge. And all I can think is, He looks like Humpty Dumpty. I couldn't help myself. I just started laughing. I couldn't stop, I was laughing so hard, so I just backed out of the room and got out of there."
Headline: KILLER KOWALSKI TEARS EAR OFF, VISITS YUKON ERIC, LAUGHS IN HIS FACE. "So anyway," Kowalski says, "that's how I got rid of Wladek and became Killer."
Professional wrestling was enjoying an enormous boom, thanks to TV. Its burlesque was fan-friendly. Nobody had to understand anything more difficult than good vs. evil to enjoy one of these shows. With the exception of the sideshow characters, the midgets and the giants, these men were clearly athletic—Kowalski was a sculpted 6'7", 280 pounds; Bruno Sammartino could bench-press 565 pounds—and capable of pleasingly complicated contortion. But, more than that, they understood that sport had to be about the most basic conflict, stripped bare, compact enough to fit into a 19-inch black-and-white screen in somebody's living room.
Kowalski became a master of promotion. At first he couldn't speak at all, but he trained himself to harangue on car trips as he crisscrossed the country. For hours at a time, however long it took to get from, say, Austin to Dallas, he'd debate the weather report on his car radio. Lots of wrestlers traveled together, sometimes hooking up several blocks from the arena so fans wouldn't be suspicious, but Kowalski was a loner on the road, not allowing any smoking or drinking in his car, preferring to hone his dramaturgical skills in solitude. Imagine the sight of him traveling along Route 66, his fist in the air, declaiming the humidity at full lung.
The grapplers were all learning to be theatrical, to take advantage of this new medium. And the more wrestling became a made-for-TV sport, the safer it was for the wrestlers, of course, who had reason to fear fans above all else. Freddie Blassie, who had given up being a baby face and found stardom as a heel out west, endured a lot of abuse from hostile arena crowds, including the loss of sight in one eye when a fan hit him with an egg, and it all seemed an acceptable part of the game. When one of his detractors stuck a knife into Blassie's calf as he walked into the ring, the assailant was fined $115 in court, whereupon he told the judge that if he'd known it would be that cheap, he'd have stabbed him several more times.
Television, which found wrestling a cheap event to produce live (not unlike boxing, which was saturating the airwaves in 1954 with as many as three weekly national shows), encouraged the cult of personality. Blassie was not the greatest technician, but more important to the game than any wrestling move were his interviews with announcer Dick Lane, in which he promised trouble, most likely a bloodletting, for some "pencil-necked geek."
Stories that were more complicated than good vs. evil (which resonated hugely with the cold war feel of the times) took longer to tell. In 1954 far more people knew about Kowalski's visit to Yukon Eric's hospital room than Bobby Plump's last-second shot to win Indiana's high school championship for Milan High. That win by Milan, a school with an enrollment of just 164—can you imagine?—was the kind of narrative that would take years to acquire shape, slowly emerging from local yarn into national legend.
Wrestling played to the country's new need for instant gratification and clear-cut resolution too. Out west, Ray Kroc was beginning to franchise McDonald's and kick-starting a fast-food empire. Things needed to happen now—moral issues decided within the hurried time scheme of the DuMont Network's programming schedule. Bruno Sammartino, you could bet, would somehow triumph over the wickedness of somebody like Killer Kowalski. And very quickly—probably before the next commercial break.