This Day In History (October 6th): Gorilla Monsoon Passes Away

On this day in professional wrestling history (October 6th, 1999), Robert James “Gino” Marella, best known to the wrestling world as Gorilla Monsoon, died of heart failure brought on by complications brought on by diabetes in his home in Willingboro Township, New Jersey. He was 62.

Born June 4, 1937 in Rochester, New York, Marella was a three-sport athlete in high school, and despite weighing over 300 pounds, he was affectionately called “Tiny” by his teammates. At the University of Ithaca, he set school records in college wrestling and finished 2nd in the 1959 NCAA Championships. During the summer months, Marella worked in construction; one of the buildings he helped construct was the Rochester War Memorial, where he’s now a part of their wrestling hall of fame.

Marella after college began working for New York promoter Pedro Martinez. Debuting as Italian-American babyface Gino Marella, he gained a modicum of popularity, but his monster heel gimmick caught fire. Standing at 6’5″ and 350 pounds and now growing a beard, Gino Marella became Gorilla Monsoon, a terrifying giant of a man born on an isolated farm in Manchuria that spoke no English, ate raw meat, and drank the blood of his victims. His heel gimmick got him over with fans–as in fans were legit afraid of him–and found himself face to face with Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF Championship in 1963 in Jersey City, NJ. Monsoon won by disqualification, setting off a series of matches in Madison Square Garden between the two.

Around this time, the WWWF, the dominant promotion in the northeastern United States, broke away from the NWA. Marella would strike a friendship with WWWF owner Vincent J. McMahon and became a 1/6 shareholder of the company. Marella as Monsoon would become one of the company’s top heels and despite weighing over 400 pounds, often kept up with Sammartino, wrestling the WWWF champion to a number of one-hour draws.

Monsoon teamed with Killer Kowalski and briefly held the United States Tag Team Championship, and in the late 1960’s became the first-and possibly only-team to defeat Bruno Sammartino and Victor Rivera. As a babyface in the 1970s, he feuded with Superstar Billy Graham, Killer Kowalski, Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd, and as a heel again in 1977, Andre the Giant. He even airplane spun and slammed Muhammad Ali in 1976 in Philadelphia. In June 1980, in front of a rabid Madison Square Garden crowd, Hulk Hogan quickly defeated Monsoon, and the rabid crowd became unruly, chasing Hogan out of the building and tipping over his car.

In August 1980, after losing to Ken Patera, Monsoon retired from full-time competition. He would wrestle just four times more, last competing in an old-timers battle royal in 1987 won by Lou Thesz.

In 1982, Vincent K. McMahon took over his father’s company, but was asked by his father to take care of his longtime employees that were loyal to him. Vince, Jr. did so by buying Marella’s shares in exchange for guaranteed lifetime employment. In addition to being a confidant of the younger McMahon, Gino would pair up on commentary with Jesse “The Body” Ventura, calling five of the first six Wrestlemanias together.

When Ventura left in 1990, Monsoon would be paired with another charismatic heel in Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. The duo would form a real friendship away from the ring and booth, with Heenan speaking of Monsoon highly during his Hall of Fame speech in 2004. Monsoon’s pro-babyface “voice of reason” would seamlessly mesh with Ventura’s and Heenan’s pro-heel commentary. Monsoon would serve as lead commentator for four WWF programs in the 1980s and 1990s: All-Star WrestlingWrestling ChallengeAll-American Wrestling, and Prime Time Wrestling. He also served as the co-host of Georgia Championship Wrestling with Vince McMahon for a brief period. Many of Monsoon’s quips would become a part of wrestling lore: “History has been made!”, “right in the kisser”, “Pearl Harbor job”, “Will you stop?”, and most famously “the irresistible force meeting the immovable object”.

Monsoon stepped away from the lead commentary position at Wrestlemania IX to make room for Jim Ross, but would call PPVs for WWF Radio. He returned to television commentary briefly in the summer and fall of 1994 calling that year’s King of the Ring with Randy Savage and Survivor Series with Vince McMahon. Marella transitioned once again to a backstage role, appearing frequently on WWF programming and becoming the on-screen authority figure in the summer of 1995. Roddy Piper was briefly WWF on-screen president in early 1996 before Monsoon assumed the post again. Health concerns forced Monsoon to step away from the role in the summer of 1997. Monsoon’s final television appearance was at Wrestlemania XV, when he was introduced to a standing ovation as one of the three judges for the Brawl for All match

Marella was married to his wife Maureen for more than forty years and had three children together, one of them adopted. Their adopted son, Joey Marella, was killed in an auto accident on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1994 after refereeing a WWF event, just one month after Monsoon was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame.

On October 6, 1999, Marella died of heart failure brought on by complications of diabetes. He was 62. Gino is buried next to his son in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. Both WWF and WCW paid tribute to Monsoon following his death, with Vince McMahon calling Monsoon on the RAW is WAR following his death “one of the greatest men [he’d] ever known”.

Monsoon’s legacy lives on in the wrestling world: The recently retired Anthony Carelli was given the gimmick name Santino Marella when he debuted in the WWE in 2007 as a tribute to Gorilla. The staging area just before the entrance was often where Gorilla was found at WWF events and is now appropriately named “the Gorilla position”. Monsoon is also a member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame class of 2010 and a member of the professional wing of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2011.