An agile performer with great strength and size, Gorilla Monsoon worked in the ring as one of the great heels of the 1970’s and behind the scenes as an owner and executive of the WWWF.
Real Name: Robert “Gino” Morella
Stats: 6′ 6″ 400 lbs.
By Steve Slagle
It’s no secret that pro wrestling is a business that has historically attracted some of the largest athletes in the world to its ranks. And, of the many ‘giants’ who have competed in the ring throughout the years, few have been big (or as important) as the monolithic 6’6″ 400-pound Robert Morella, who was known worldwide as Gorilla Monsoon.
In terms of his ring technique, Monsoon was a genuine trendsetter who unquestionably helped raise the standard of athleticism expected of a ‘big man’. However, 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 as 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 successful and 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 the WWF and, by extension, pro wrestling itself…
Robert Morella began his career as a pro wrestler during the early sixties after graduating from Ithica College, where he lettered not only in wrestling, but also track and football. Morella was an expectionally impresive athlete who possessed incredible speed and stamina for a man of his considerable height and weight. Almost immediately, the huge, bearded Gorilla (who was originally billed as hailing from Manchuria) 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 succesful, 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 (pictured) 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 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 World Wrestling Alliance during the mid-sixties. Not long after arriving in the popular southern California promotion, Monsoon formed a team with the 6’5″ 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 capturing the World title, there was a major 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 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 legitmate 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 Heavyweight championship, Monsoon once again set himself apart as one of the best ‘big men’ in the business.
Eventually, after high-profile runs in several different promotions throughout the world, Monsoon (pictured, with Sammartino protégé’ Tony Marino) returned “home” to the East Coast and the WWWF. Once again, the agile giant proved himself to be a major drawing card for the promotion, and eventually the ‘hated’ 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, and once the switch had been made, wrestling fans of the day rallied behind the gigantic new ‘good guy’.
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 and was the predecessor of both All Japan and New Japan Pro Wrestling. Naturally, the 6’7″ four hundred-pound Gorilla Monsoon was paired against the 7’0″ Baba the Giant. 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, which was held on March 23, 1973 in Tokyo. Monsoon lost the match to Baba, however, 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, later known as the World Wrestling Council. In addition to owning a part of the promotion, Monsoon was also a top wrestling attraction for the WWC, and he wrestled there frequently throughout the seventies. On July 30, 1977, Gorilla Monsoon captured 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 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 when he agreed to have his training session (which was broadcast on WWWF television programs) with Monsoon.
Ever the showman, the braggadocios Ali openly claimed that he could (and would) knockout 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 champion found out, rather quickly, that it’s the boxer, not the wrestler, who is at a disadvantage in this unique type of match.
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 big Gorilla then proceded 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.
Monsoon also made headlines when he became involved in a major scuffle on the undercard of the Ali-Inoki bout, during a match between Andre the Giant and former Heavyweight boxing contender Chuck Wepner. At the end of their Boxer vs. Wrestler match, the camps of both Andre and Wepner had a big pull-apart, with dozens of trainers involved. At the heart of the ‘incident’ was Gorilla Monsoon, who had started the melee by shoving one of Wepner’s trainers. The spectacle made for some great press, and the following day the story was headline news all over the world.
Throughout the seventies, the now-beloved Gorilla Monsoon continued on as one of wrestling’s biggest stars…
The WWWF mainstay was a prime challenger for then-champion “Superstar” Billy Graham (pictured). The Graham vs. Monsoon wars were exciting and intense encounters that always resulted in a sold-out arena. And, while The Superstar was invariably able to escape with his title reign intact against the Gorilla, the flamboyant muscleman never did so without having to first put up a major fight against the legitimately tough behemoth.
During the seventies, Monsoon also engaged in a noteworthy feud with “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff, as well as several other Federation ‘bad guys’. One of his final programs as a full-time wrestler came in 1979 against the impressive young up-and-coming heel known as “The Incredible” Hulk Hogan.
Following his retirement in 1980, Monsoon remained a very visable part of the WWF 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 TV 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 the WWF’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 (pictured) and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, for over seven years. By virtue of his constant exposure on the WWF programs, as well as his memorable, unique commentary style and entertaining chemistry with Ventura and, later, Heenan, Gorilla Monsoon eventually became “the voice” of the WWF.
With the nineties came a lessened role for Monsoon, at least in terms of his on-air persona. Behind the scenes, Morella was a fixture at every major WWF live event, making sure that the shows went off in a smooth, professional manner.
In 1994, the WWF honored Monsoon for his many years of service to the Federation by inducting him into the World Wrestling Federation Hall of Fame.
But, later that same year, tragedy struck Morella when his son, WWF referee Joey Morella was killed in a car accident after falling aslepp 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 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.
Following years of kidney related health problems, Robert Morella, known worldwide as Gorilla Monsoon, passed away on September 19, 1999 at the age of 62.
HistoryofWrestling.com is proud to posthumously induct this most influential wrestler, a feared grappler who was also a respected owner/operator and visionary wrestling mind, the legendary Gorilla Monsoon, into the H.O.W. Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame……