Sunday, March 18, 2012

Gorilla Monsoon

Robert James "Gino" Marella (June 4, 1937 – October 6, 1999), better known by his ring name of Gorilla Monsoon, was an American professional wrestler, play-by-play announcer, and booker. He is famous for his run as one of the great super-heavyweights, and later as the voice of the World Wrestling Federation as announcer and backstage manager during the 1980s and 1990s, and added on-screen President to his duties in the latter decade. In professional wrestling, the staging area just behind the entrance curtain at an event, a position which Marella established and where he could often be found during WWF shows late in his career, is named the Gorilla Position in his honor.

Marella originally billed himself as Gino Marella, a proud Italian-American babyface who would sing in Italian prior to his matches. Even after changing his stage name, "Gino" stuck as Marella's nickname among friends and colleagues, including Jesse "The Body" Ventura, who would call Marella "Gino" on the air. Marella garnered moderate popularity, but soon realized that fans paid more attention to outlandish monster heel gimmicks, and they therefore made more money. Marella totally revamped his image, growing a long beard and billing himself as Gorilla Monsoon, a terrifying giant from Manchuria. Supposedly born on an isolated farm, "Monsoon" traveled across the countryside with a gypsy caravan wrestling bears, spoke no English, ate raw meat, and drank his victims' blood. The story given on WWWF television was a bit different: his first manager, Bobby Davis, claimed to have discovered Monsoon in Manchuria wading nude in a mountain stream. The Monsoon character was infinitely more successful, and fans were genuinely afraid of him, sparking a huge financial windfall for Marella. In the ring, Monsoon dominated opponents with vicious chops, the dreaded Manchurian Splash, and his signature move, the Airplane Spin.

Marella first wrestled Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World Championship on October 4, 1963, at Roosevelt Stadium, in Jersey City, NJ. Monsoon qualified by winning a partially televised Ring Wrestling Magazine tournament, where he pinned Killer Buddy Austin in about a minute. Monsoon's disqualification win over Sammartino in NJ triggered a series of rematches at Madison Square Garden, and they would renew the feud again there in 1967.

In 1963, Vincent J. McMahon reformed the Capitol Wrestling Corporation into the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) (currently known as World Wrestling Entertainment), breaking his territory away from the National Wrestling Alliance in an attempt to create a new national powerhouse. At the time, the WWWF was the dominant wrestling promotion in the Northeast U.S. Marella formed a friendship with McMahon, and became a 1/6 shareholder in the WWWF, controlling bookings in several WWWF territories. He also became one of the promotion's top heels, feuding with popular babyface champion Bruno Sammartino in sellout arenas across the country. Despite his huge size, which was now in excess of 400 pounds, Monsoon had great agility and stamina, often wrestling Sammartino to one-hour time-limit draws.

Monsoon teamed up with Killer Kowalski with success. In November 1963, they defeated Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard to win the U.S. Tag Team Championship. The following month, the duo lost the belts to the Tolos Brothers (Chris and John) in Teaneck, New Jersey. Monsoon and Kowalski reunited in the late 1960s to defeat champion Bruno Sammartino and Victor Rivera 2 falls to 1 in Madison Square Garden in a main event, marking the first, and possibly only time, that Sammartino & Rivera lost as a tagteam.

In 1969, Monsoon became a babyface, befriending his former arch-rival when Sammartino rescued him from an attack by Crazy Luke Graham. The stage was set for Monsoon to become a fan favorite of the 1970s and feud with top heels of the decade, including champion "Superstar" Billy Graham. He also feuded with André the Giant, and the two engaged in a special boxing match in Puerto Rico (where Monsoon owned stock in the territory) in 1977, which André won.

On June 2, 1976, a very famous incident occurred in Philadelphia involving boxing great Muhammad Ali. Ali, preparing for his upcoming crossover bout with Antonio Inoki in Japan later that month, jumped into the ring as Monsoon was concluding a short match against Baron Mikel Scicluna. Ali removed his shirt and started dancing around Monsoon while gesturing and throwing jabs at him, to which Monsoon responded by grabbing Ali in his Airplane Spin and slamming him to the mat. Incidentally, a very young Vincent K. McMahon narrated the fight. Marella would never reveal whether the incident was preplanned. In an interview, he commented, "I never saw him before and haven’t seen him since."

A kind of torch bearer of the Vincent J. McMahon-era WWWF, Gorilla Monsoon was rabidly supported by New York audiences. On June 16, 1980, a young and up-and-coming Hulk Hogan was booked to face him at Madison Square Garden. At the time, Hogan was a widely followed heel character, while Monsoon was still a babyface. However, in order to push the new talent, McMahon told Hulk Hogan to beat Monsoon in under a minute. Upon that outcome, the crowd became livid and chased Hogan when he was leaving the arena, turning over his car. Policemen on horses had to be summoned to quiet the mob.

As the 1980s began, Marella's in-ring career wound down. On August 23, Monsoon put his career on the line in a match against Ken Patera. Monsoon lost the match and stayed true to his word, retiring several weeks later and returning just four times: wrestling a match in 1982 as a substitute for André the Giant, taking part in Big John Studd's "Body Slam Challenge" in 1983,a six man tagteam match at Madison Square Garden, and participating in a special "old timers" battle royal in 1987 which was won by Lou Thesz. The next phase of his career began, as the voice and backstage manager of WWF.

In the early 1980s, Vincent J. McMahon's son, current WWE CEO Vincent K. McMahon, began assuming the reins of the promotion from his father. The elder McMahon asked his son to take care of long-time employees that had been loyal to him. The younger McMahon agreed, and in 1982, Vince bought Marella's shares in the company in exchange for a guarantee of lifetime employment. As he had been to his father, Marella became a close confidant of the younger McMahon, and assumed a prominent backstage role. In addition, McMahon needed a new announcer team to head up his television programming, and installed Marella with the recently retired Jesse "The Body" Ventura as the new announcing team.

Marella and Ventura had great chemistry, with Ventura as the pro-heel color commentator and Marella as the pro-face "voice of reason." Marella and Ventura called five of the first six WrestleManias together (the notable exception was WrestleMania 2, where Marella commentated on the Chicago portion of the event with Gene Okerlund and Cathy Lee Crosby while Ventura commentated on the Los Angeles portion with Lord Alfred Hayes and Elvira). The Ventura/Monsoon duo of heel and babyface were the original broadcast duo that everyone tried to emulate, especially Ventura's charismatic pro-heel character. When Ventura left the WWF in 1990, Monsoon was paired with villainous manager Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, another duo that subsequent wrestling commentary teams have often tried to emulate. The two also formed a real-life friendship which Heenan often recalls fondly.

Monsoon called the first eight WrestleManias from 1985-1992. Monsoon was the lead announcer on the syndicated show, WWF All Star Wrestling, its successor WWF Wrestling Challenge, and the USA Network weekend show, WWF All American Wrestling, as well as hosting the WWF weeknight show, WWF Prime Time Wrestling. Monsoon also served as co-host of Georgia Championship Wrestling on WTBS during McMahon's short-lived ownership of the promotion.

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