by Stephen Von Slagle
In terms of his ring technique, the monolithic 6’6″ 400 lb. Gorilla Monsoon wasn’t a trendsetter or a master technician inside of the squared circle. He was, however, a tremendously agile athlete who unquestionably helped raise the standard of what was expected of a “big man.” Yet, behind the scenes, as a minority owner of the World Wide Wrestling Federation (as well as the World Wrestling Council in Puerto Rico) and a promoter of many cities within the WWWF’s multi-state territory, the respected Monsoon was perhaps even more influential than he was in the ring. Later in his career, he served as the WWF’s lead play-by-play man, and, in many ways, Monsoon became the voice of the WWF for much of the Eighties. For many years, The Gorilla also served as the promotion’s lead road agent, a booker and one of the chief television production supervisors. Indeed, for more than twenty years, Monsoon had his hands on virtually every aspect of the WWF’s live events during some of the Federation’s most prosperous years. It’s safe to say, outside of his business partners Vince McMahon, Sr. and, later, Vince McMahon, Jr., that Gorilla Monsoon was one of the most important figures in the history of WWE and, by extension, pro wrestling itself.
Robert Morella was born on June 4, 1937 in Rochester, New York and graduated from Ithaca College, where he lettered not only in wrestling, but also track and football. Morella was an exceptionally impressive athlete who possessed incredible speed and stamina for a man of his considerable height and weight. Weighing in at 350 lbs., he took second place in the 1959 NCAA national wrestling championships. Following college, he travelled to Calgary, was trained by Stu Hart and began his career as a professional wrestler in 1958. Almost immediately, the huge, bearded Gorilla Monsoon (who was originally billed as hailing from Manchuria and portrayed a near-caveman type of character) became a box office attraction throughout the northeast and he quickly established himself as one of the most hated men in the sport. That position was cemented when Monsoon formed a lethal team with the even more reviled Killer Kowalski. The two gigantic heels, both of whom stood well over six and a half feet tall and tipped the scales at a combined weight of nearly eight hundred pounds, were one of the most devastating and feared teams of their era. They were, not surprisingly, also one of the most successful, and together Monsoon & Kowalski captured the prized WWWF United States Tag title on November 14, 1963 by defeating the team of Skull Murphy & Brute Bernard.
What separated Gorilla Monsoon from the majority of the other big men who had competed in the pro ranks was his speed and agility, which was quite extraordinary for the times. Additionally, Monsoon had a very solid grasp of wrestling fundamentals, going back to his college days when he had lettered in the sport. When you combined his speed and grappling knowledge with the overwhelming power possessed by the 400-pounder, it becomes clear why Monsoon stood out amongst his plodding, methodic contemporaries. Although he had been a major star in the World Wide Wrestling Federation for several years, Monsoon’s notoriety reached a peak during the years that he was one of WWWF World champion Bruno Sammartino’s primary opponents. In the 6’6″ Monsoon, fans saw a legitimate threat to Sammartino’s World title and their many battles resulted in sold-out crowds in major arenas all along the east coast. Despite Bruno’s legendary strength, the overwhelming size advantage of his challenger was almost too much for “The Living Legend” to handle, and therein can be found the source of the box-office success of the Sammartino vs. Monsoon feud. Throughout much of their famous program, which resulted in more than a dozen Bruno-Monsoon main events at Madison Square Garden, the gigantic Monsoon, who featured a devastating Airplane Spin followed by a crushing Gorilla Splash as his big finisher, would relentlessly pound on the champion, and, occasionally, he would even out-wrestle him. However, the beloved blue-collar champion was always able to fight back against the odds and somehow come out the victor, much to the delight of his adoring public.
After enjoying several good years of main-eventing on WWWF cards up and down the east coast, Monsoon eventually felt the time had come for a change of scenery. Following his lengthy run with the World Wide Wrestling Federation, Monsoon relocated to the west coast and began competing for the Los Angeles-based WWA during the mid-Sixties. Not long after arriving in the popular southern California promotion, Monsoon formed a team with the 6’4″ Luke Graham that immediately ran roughshod over their competition. Then, only weeks after forming their team, The Gorilla and “Crazy” Luke captured the prized WWA World Tag Team championship in January of 1966. However, soon after winning the World title, there was a storyline falling out between the two that resulted in the end of their partnership. The WWA tag belts were held up, and each man was allowed to pick a new partner and then wrestle each other for the held-up title. Monsoon picked the intimidating rulebreaker known as El Mongol, while Graham chose the legendary “Moondog” Lonnie Mayne. On January 23, 1966 the two teams met, with the larger duo of Monsoon & El Mongol coming out the winners and new WWA World Tag Team champions.
While his success in the tag team ranks was impressive, Monsoon was also a very capable singles performer who was seen as a legitimate main-event caliber wrestler by the fanbase of the day. That perception was perpetuated by important victories such as Monsoon’s win over Spiros Arion for the IWA World Heavyweight title on February 16, 1968. By capturing the Australian-based International Wrestling Alliance’s World championship, Monsoon once again set himself apart as one of the best in the business. Eventually, after high-profile runs in several different promotions throughout the world, Monsoon returned “home” to the Northeast and the World Wide Wrestling Federation. Once again, the agile giant proved himself to be a major drawing card for the promotion and eventually the villainous Monsoon’s popularity and level of respect amongst the fans grew to the point where the only logical step was to turn him babyface. The decision proved to be very wise. Once the switch had been made, wrestling fans of the day rallied behind the gigantic new “good guy.” Simultaneously, the heretofore semi-mute, growling “Manchurian” was suddenly able to speak perfect English. This curious development did not seem to matter and Monsoon’s popularity with fans soon placed him second only to Sammartino. Meanwhile, behind the scenes and away from the television cameras, Monsoon’s power within the WWWF’s management structure greatly increased as well. Robert Morella became a minority owner in the successful northeastern group and he also began exclusively promoting several small and mid-sized cities within the WWWF’s multi-state territory, primarily in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
In addition to his great success in the U.S., Canada and Australia, Monsoon also established himself as a major superstar in the Orient, particularly during the early Seventies. The gargantuan Monsoon enjoyed several tours of Japan, wrestling for the Japanese Wrestling Association, which was run by the legendary Rikidozan. Naturally, the 6’6″ 420 lb. Gorilla Monsoon was inevitably paired against the Japanese giant, Shohei Baba. A true box-office attraction, the two monolithic grapplers faced off many times, most notably in the finals of the 14th Annual World League Tournament. Monsoon lost the match to Baba, however, but by fighting valiantly and displaying his tremendous wrestling knowledge, he did not lose his honor, which had traditionally been even more important than pinfall victories in the eyes of most Japanese wrestling fans.
In 1973, Morella continued to expand his influence on the sport by being one of the three original co-owners (along with Carlos Colon and Victor Jovica) of the Puerto Rican based Capitol Sports Promotions, known publicly as the World Wrestling Council. In addition to owning a part of the promotion, Monsoon was also a top attraction for the WWC, and he wrestled there frequently throughout the Seventies. On July 30, 1977, Gorilla Monsoon captured the promotion’s top prize, the WWC North American Heavyweight title. by defeating Hartford Love in San Juan. When wrestling in Puerto Rico, the big Gorilla reverted back to his old heelish ways, and the anything-but-gentle giant held the prestigious North American title for nearly a full year before finally being upset by his old nemesis from the WWWF, Bruno Sammartino. Monsoon came back to defeat Bruno just two months later, though, and would go on to hold the title for another eight months before finally being defeated by Puerto Rican legend (and Morella’s business partner) Carlos Colon on March 3, 1979 in Bayamon.
In 1976, Monsoon gained worldwide mainstream notoriety when he had a very public sparring session (which, not coincidentally, was broadcast on WWWF television programs) with the World Heavyweight Boxing champion, the legendary Muhammad Ali. Ali, of course, was training for his closed-circuit Boxer vs. Wrestler match against Japanese champion Antonio Inoki. Ever the showman, the braggadocious Ali openly claimed that he could (and would) knock out any wrestler on the planet, including Gorilla Monsoon. However, when it came time to actually get inside of the ring against the towering four hundred-pounder, the famous Heavyweight Boxing champion found out, rather quickly, that it’s the wrestler, not the boxer, who has the advantage in this unique type of bout. After a few moments of the lightning quick Ali evading his huge sparring partner, Monsoon finally got his clutches on the legendary boxer and, as the crowd erupted in cheers, hoisted him up over his shoulders. The Gorilla then proceeded to perform his patented Airplane Spin on Ali, who was able to scramble from the ring before receiving Monsoon’s customary follow-up move, the devastating Gorilla Splash. On June 26, 1976, the day of the Ali-Inoki bout, Monsoon also made headlines when he became involved in a major scuffle on the undercard during a match between Andre the Giant and former Heavyweight boxing contender (and the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” character) Chuck Wepner. At the end of their Boxer vs. Wrestler match, the camps for both Andre and Wepner had a frenzied pull-apart, with dozens of trainers involved. At the heart of the planned chaos was Gorilla Monsoon, who instigated the melee by forcefully shoving one of Wepner’s trainers. The spectacle made for some great press and the following day the story was headline news across the world.
The WWWF mainstay became a prime challenger for “Superstar” Billy Graham and was, in fact, the trendsetting, newly-crowned Graham’s first opponent as champion at Madison Square Garden. Throughout the WWWF territory, the Graham vs. Monsoon wars were exciting and intense encounters that always resulted in a sold-out arena. While The Superstar was invariably able to escape with his title intact against the Gorilla, the flamboyant muscleman never did so without having to first put up a major fight against the legitimately dangerous behemoth. During the Seventies, Monsoon also engaged in a noteworthy feud with “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff, as well as several other top Federation “bad guys.” One of his final programs as a full-time wrestler came in 1979 against the impressive young rookie heel known as “The Incredible” Hulk Hogan.
Following his retirement in 1980, Monsoon remained a very visible part of the WWF management team, primarily as a TV announcer. Once the World Wrestling Federation, under the leadership of Vince McMahon, Jr., had begun its national expansion, Monsoon became the promotion’s lead announcer and the host of several successful television programs. In addition to his duties on the WWF’s cable and syndicated programs, Monsoon had the honor of doing the commentary for the first five WrestleMania events, as well as all of the other early pay-per-views in WWE’s history. Gorilla Monsoon also served as the (pre-Monday Night Raw) host of the USA Network’s highly-rated Prime Time Wrestling, with co-hosts Jesse Ventura and, later, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, for over seven years.
By virtue of his constant exposure on WWF programs, as well as his memorable, unique commentary style and entertaining chemistry with both Ventura and Heenan, Gorilla Monsoon eventually became the voice of the WWF during the Eighties. But, with the early-Nineties came a lessened role for Monsoon, at least in terms of his on-air persona. Behind the scenes, Morella was still a fixture at every major WWF live event, making sure that the shows went off in a smooth, professional manner that gave every paying customer his/her money’s worth.
But, later that same year, tragedy struck Morella when his son, WWF referee Joey Morella was killed in a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel. Understandably, the sudden, unexpected death of his young son deeply affected Morella, who took an extended leave of absence from his duties with the WWF.
The respected former grappler eventually returned to World Wrestling Federation storylines a year later, serving as the new WWF President. During his tenure as President, which lasted from 1995 through 1998, Monsoon made several important “decisions” and his rulings were the catalyst behind some of the Federation’s most memorable match-ups. Sadly, though, Monsoon’s failing health continued to be a factor and, eventually, he was forced to withdraw once again from the promotion’s storylines. Monsoon’s final public appearance came at the 1999 edition of WrestleMania, where the popular veteran (who had clearly lost a great deal of weight) served as a judge for the Butterbean-Bart Gunn “Brawl for All” contest.
Bob Morella was honored by the Cauliflower Alley Club in 1994 and inducted to several Halls of Fame, including the Ithaca College Athletic Hall of Fame (1973), the WWE Hall of Fame (1994), the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum (2010), and the International Wrestling Institute & Museum’s George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (2010).
Following years of kidney related health problems, Robert “Gorilla Monsoon” Morella passed away on September 19, 1999 at the age of 62.