Our dream feud Lou Thesz vs. Bruno Sammartino. Walter “Killer” Kowalski breaks it down.
In those long-ago pre-Internet days when I was a kid, both children and adults would kill time by “debating” endlessly over which of their heroes would “whup” the other guy’s favorite. Batman vs. Green Hornet. Kato vs. Robin. Muhammed Ali vs. Rocky Marciano. Ali vs. Joe Louis. Bugs Bunny vs. Road Runner. Even the Jackson 5 vs. the Osmond Brothers.
And for the wrestling fans back in the territory days, there were always those dream matches between great champions which never seemed to happen because of the politics involved.
Well, Killer Kowalski, a dear friend who was a columnist in my Wrestling-Then & Now newsletter was asked to discuss the merits of Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz both of whom he faced in the ring countless times. And if anybody was qualified to write on these giants, it was Walter “Killer” Kowalski.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in the 1997 edition of Evan Ginzburg’s now-defunct ‘Wrestling- Then & Now’ annual. The original interviews were transcribed by Jeff Archer. This is the first time this piece is available in digital form.
Would a Lou Thesz / Bruno Sammartino Feud Have Worked?
“Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz have both played a major part in my own wrestling career. I know both well and have had many inside-the-ring and outside-the-ring experiences with them over the years.
I wrestled Bruno Sammartino all along the northeast and I really enjoyed working with the guy.
When we first began to wrestle each other, I had much more experience than Bruno. He would let me run the match and he went right along with it. We did very, very well every time we wrestled. We never went through the motions; each match was well-presented.
The first time we ever wrestled in Madison Square Garden, the old Garden, was a prime example of how Bruno adapted to the business. During the match, I jumped up in the air and my knee hit him in the chin. That was his first match in the Garden. When we got back to the dressing room, he was spitting out blood. He was still kind of green then, and he did not complain. He just took it as he was still lacking experience.
Later on, when he became better, he and I had tremendous matches every place we wrestled. Sometimes, I would wrestle him five days a week. The fans always got their money’s worth from a Kowalski/Sammartino match because each of our matches was a great match.
I remember one time we wrestled in the Pittsburgh area. That’s where Bruno is from. I’ll always remember this. After wrestling five times in and around Pittsburgh, the Athletic Commissioner came up to me and said, “I can’t believe it. Five matches and five entirely different matches.” Some of the other guys would wrestle one night and repeat the exact same match the following night. Bruno Sammartino and I had an entirely different match every time we entered that ring. He had a great imagination as well.
In addition to his wrestling skills, Bruno possessed a generous and humble nature. We wrestled all around the northeast and had varied finishes. I would get disqualified or there would be a double count-out or something.
He came up to Montreal to wrestle. I held their version of the world’s championship in Montreal. When we first wrestled in Montreal, I approached Bruno and said, “We’ll do a double count-out.” He snapped, “No we won’t. I’ll put you over in the middle of the ring.” That was Bruno. He put me over in the middle of the ring in Toronto. He told me. “I wrestled you in all the places we’ve gone. You treated me well … put me over. It’s my turn to show you how much I appreciate it.”
I was the champion in Australia for awhile during the ’60s. Bruno came to Australia. He was down there for quite a few weeks. We went around all the towns and he put me over every place around. That’s Bruno Sammartino.
I have nothing but nice and good things to say about Bruno Sammartino. At the beginning of his career, I was the biggest star he was wrestling at the time. To me, he was one helluva good guy.
Bruno’s wrestling skills were far from deficient. We did things in the ring where we could follow up. I handled the match. I put him where I wanted him to be and I put myself where I should have been for him. We always had great matches so he must know something about wrestling to keep up with all that.
As far as Bruno carrying someone of lesser skills than his own, I could not tell you what kind of worker he was because I never saw Bruno wrestle other people. If I was there and Bruno was there, we wrestled one another.
People talk about legendary feuds in the ring. Our feud was long and creative. It lasted from the time he started until I retired.
My relationship with Lou Thesz was different from that of Bruno. Lou Thesz basically started me in the business. He was my teacher.
We used to go to the gym together and work out. I was just a green kid out of Detroit.
I came to St. Louis with Sam Muchnick and Lou Thesz owned part of the office. He would take me to the gym and teach me. One day, he said, “Walter, over the years people will try to challenge you; see what you’re worth. So here’s some moves.” He started showing me some real shooting moves. Later on, I got a bit of a reputation — don’t screw with Kowalski, you might get hurt.
I remember one time I wrestled Buddy Rogers in Montreal, Canada. He was the NWA champion. In that match, Rogers cracked his ankle or broke his leg. I had to go over. I leapt off the top rope and jumped on his leg. Finally, the match ended and I was given the title in Montreal. However, the fact of the matter was that the NWA did not recognize me as champion — it was not in their books — but I had to take over some of Buddy Rogers’ bookings.
I went to Houston, Texas and wrestled Lou Thesz in place of Rogers. It was not a title match and it lasted 90 minutes. The combination of Rogers’ bookings and my own made it seem like I was wrestling 20 times a week.
After Buddy Rogers got better, I put him back over. I then told him, “Don’t do me any more favors,” in regard to my accelerated schedule.
When Rogers got the title back, he then lost it to Lou Thesz in Toronto, Canada.
During my double-duty stint, the NWA would not recognize me as champion. Magazines wrote it up and everything, but it wasn’t in their books.
I wrestled Lou Thesz quite a few times. When I learned to work pretty good, with Lou Thesz’s help, I used to travel around the Arkansas/Oklahoma/Texas territory a lot. They would build me up really big. I’d beat all the local guys, then they would build up the big match with Lou Thesz and me. Lou Thesz was the champion then; he would come in and I would do the job for him.
Thesz was a very scientific wrestler. He would insist that I do more holds and moves. Bruno, on the other hand, was more of a brawler. There’s a tape of Bruno and me at Madison Square Garden where all the guys come out and try to separate us. The match was called a no-contest.
The fans liked the brawling. They were screaming and hollering. When the wrestlers jumped in, Arnold Skaaland, who was Bruno’s manager then, jumped in too. He tried to interfere and I took a swing at him.
Later on, in my career, I did not wrestle Lou Thesz much. I went with the WWF and he did not wrestle for McMahon.
Bruno Sammartino was more than just a regional star. He did very well all over. The magazines all wrote about him. He drew big money in California when he wrestled Ray Stevens. They sold out the Cow Palace. His aura was not diminished anywhere. He was built up as a big star everywhere he went.
Thesz and I had great matches. He was in great shape. We went 90 minutes and we didn’t lay around. We used to do stuff that people never saw before.
One time, I was near the ropes. He came over and jumped on me and his knee hit my chest. I grabbed him, backed up, and went over the top rope backward. I almost killed myself on the cement floor. There was no padding in those days. I laid there, feeling myself, and thought, “I’m still in one piece.”
Outside the ring, Thesz was a great guy with me. He always treated me fine.
Many people talk about a Bruno/Thesz feud. Lou Thesz was very, very tough. At the same time, Bruno Sammartino was a very strong guy. He was bench-pressing almost 600 pounds. He had tremendous endurance because he ran every day. I could never get him tired or blow him up.
I don’t really know how a Bruno/Thesz feud would have worked. In my opinion, all the guys in the dressing room would have wanted to come out and see the match. However, the fans just wouldn’t have understood.”
It is very hard to wrap my head around the fact that my childhood hero, Bruno Sammartino, is gone, as is my friend Killer Kowalski and the great Lou Thesz. Yes, giants once walked the Earth.
Editor’s note: Despite having an NWA title match at the Toronto Maple Leaf Gardens in ’63 with Thesz defeating Sammartino with a top spread in 25:44, the two legends never had a proper feud. According to Thesz’s book, Hooker, promoters in the mid-seventies tried to get a Thesz vs Sammartino feud going. It never got off the ground because of money. Thesz also stated that he felt he could’ve beaten Bruno without any trouble because of their previous match in Toronto.