It is legendary
Elliott’s palms are sweaty against the phone receiver. He’s interviewed movie stars, novelists, TV actors from years past, women who appeared half-naked on classic album covers, country stars, famous bassists —
But he’s never talked to a Killer.
“Oh, he’s a pussycat,” the press agent assures Elliott. But that isn’t enough, Elliott thinks as he adjusts his glasses with a shaking finger. He looks the switchboard for assurance, tries to let the ticking hands of the clock comfort him, and tries to feel safe in the comforts of a broom closet turned FM studio. His mind goes over the stats, the fights he witnessed on a flickering black and white TV (back when ALL sets were black and white) or read in one of his magazines in cheap newsprint: Tearing off part of Yukon Eric’s ear during a knee drop; putting boxing legend Jack Dempsey in the hospital; a battle with Mr. Moto, downing him with the claw hold; even pinning Andre the Giant.
Kowalski is a mount of a man, almost seven feet tall and 300 pounds, with a voice like broken glass. He is more than just a villain, a heel, or the baddest of the bad —
He has been the stuff of Elliott’s nightmares since he was a kid living in the middle of nowhere.
Killer Kowalski is a terror of legendary proportions.
When I was the age my father was when he first witnessed Kowalski, I thought my old man was legendary.
I was determined his wrestling bouts were not limited to occasional grappling matches in the house (his biggest setback: an inflamed rotator cuff caused by his second oldest — and pudgiest — son). He was a masked wrestler; it was confirmed in my six year-old mind, and I confided in a friend at a company picnic or other shortly after.
Wrestling in the early ’80s was closer to the 1950s than today: the characters, bigger than life, with divisions cemented as “good” or “bad,” were a rogues gallery of stereotypes. There were the goodguys, Hulk Hogan, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Hillbilly Jim, Andre the Giant, Tito Santana, and Captain Lou Albano; the Heels, still embracing a vaudeville label, were the kilt-wearing Rowdy Roddy Piper (before his fine turn in John Carpenter’s absurdist They Live), The Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, Mr. Fuji —
Then, there was Ivan Koloff, the Russian Bear, himself. He scared the piss out of me. Hunched over, chains draped over his neck, the “Russian Bear” was always putting America down. The Cold War was still in swing through the ‘80s, although waning, and Koloff was a badguy of Ivan Drago proportions.
Dad never warned me what I was in for, not that stormy night we faced the elements to make a wrestling match held in a high school gym.
The evening started with a lightning bolt striking a tree trunk next door, and the resounding thunderclap an advance guard for intense wind and rain.
It was over in a short hour, and it wasn’t enough to scare Dad from taking my two older brothers and I to witness an inevitable showdown after showdown, good vs bad, in the coliseum of a wrestling ring.
The storm subsides and we’re left to drive like maniacs through the aftermath: wet roads, overblown foliage, uprooted trees, a sodium color sky with humidity you feel below your skin…Luckily, we’re riding in the radio station’s Jeep and manage the country roads with ease, until a tree blocks our path.
Not about to let the corpse in the road keep up from witnessing mayhem on the mat, we get out and — as a rare collective unit — lift it up in a light rain and push it out of the way.
And we arrive.
The high school gym is far from packed, yet we climb to a vantage two-thirds of the way up. It felt like the time I saw the independent circus out in the country, under a threadbare big top, with acrobats who served concession (and hardly spoke English). That exotic charm was lacking in this baby boomer era gym, but it had something else.
This wasn’t seeing a large stadium show — this was like catching a traveling vaudeville show with everything from wrestling ladies to acrobatic wrestlers (the only one that appealed to this Simon and Kirby Captain America fan. To my disappointment, he lost).
The main event was where it was at: A wrestler in Native American headdress (who began his wrestling career when they were typically referred to as “Injuns”) and his partner faced off against Ivan and Nikita Koloff.
Ivan Koloff. He comes out whipping a giant chain forged by the Communist Gods. Two high school kids boo him from the front row and he stops in the middle of the ring. The chain goes out, the end links banging against the mat in a sonic boom while Koloff points to the kids, veins popping out of his neck and forehead.
“I’LL GET YOU! WHEN THIS IS DONE! YOU’RE NEXT!!!”
He was scary as all hell.
The curtain was broken when, after Ivan and his “nephew” Nikita lose the match, they start signing autographs, Ivan’s natural Canadian accent obvious.
It’s 2002 and Elliott Irving is a Career Day guest at the elementary school I’m teaching at. Things wrap up around 12:30 and he catches up with me between classes. As we walk through the cafeteria, I have him sit with a class of waiting fourth graders while I grab a cup of coffee from the teacher’s lounge.
“That’s him,” Keenan mutters to another kid at the table. “You’re him, aren’t you?”
“Sorry?” Dad asks.
“It is Irving the Terrible!”
“Uh, excuse me?”
“That’s him! I told you! Irving the Terrible! We LOVE your wrestling!”
“Can you do us a favor?” Keenan asks. “Can we get your autograph?”
“Sure,” Dad sits, trying to play it off.
Twenty three fourth graders instantly get up from their seats and surround him, each holding a drawing of him flexing his muscles in a pair of wrestler’s trunks.
It’s five years later when Elliott is sitting in that tiny studio, his palms sweating. He used to flick his right wrist as if throwing a pitch — a Queeq-like nervous tick taught by his high school baseball coach.
There is quiet. Dead quiet on the other end of the line for an eternity, before Killer comes on.
“Hello?” the broken glass voice asks.
“I nearly pissed myself,” Elliott admits later, sitting in his captain’s chair recliner in the living room. “I’m a man over 50 and I turned into a scared kid all over.”
How was the interview?
“She was right,” he leaned back. “He really was a pussycat.”
It was legendary…