Robert James Marella got his start at Jefferson high School, becoming a standout athlete in football, track and field, and of course wrestling. Standing 6’5” and weighing in over 300 lbs, his teammates affectionately called him “Tiny”
He continued his wrestling career at Ithaca State College, setting several athletic records such as an 18 second pin. In 1959 took second place in the NCAA Wrestling Championships. During this time he caught the eye of New York wrestling promoter Pedro Martinez and started what would be a long career as a pro wrestler.
Robert originally billed himself as Gino Marella; a proud Italian Wrestler who would sing in Italian prior to a match, but soon realized there was more money and fame to be made at being the villain. He rebranded himself as Gorilla Monsoon a terrifying giant from Manchuria.
As the story went, Monsoon was born on an isolated farm, traveled with a gypsy caravan wrestling bears, spoke no English, ate his meals raw, and drank his victim’s blood. His manager, Bobby Davis, supposedly discovered the giant bathing naked in a mountain stream. He dominated the square circle with gruesome holds and chops and his signature moves, the Manchurian Splash and the Airplane Spin.
In 1963, Vincent J. McMahon started the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). Marella, who had built a strong friendship with McMahon, became a 1/6 shareholder, booking and managing along the Northeast and other territories.
Monsoon’s character switched between hero and villain frequently, teaming up with a number of wrestling stars over the years for the U.S. Tag Team Championships. In 1977 he began a feud with Andre the Giant. The two even fought in a special boxing match in Puerto Rico.
One of his most famous moments came in 1976 in Philadelphia, when Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring during one of his matches. Ali, preparing for his upcoming crossover bout with Antonio Inoki in Japan later that month, jumped into the ring and was soon sent packing with an Airplane Spin. 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.”
In the early 1980s, Vincent J. McMahon’s son, current WWE Chairman 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.
Marella teamed up with Jesse “The Body” Ventura and later Bobby “The Brain” Heenan as color commentators. Monsoon’s colorful announcing style proved a perfect fit for the character-based WWF while, at the same time, maintaining the sporting aspect of pro wrestling. Many times, Monsoon would also substitute simple words with needlessly complex and obscure equivalents – for example, he memorably used “external occipital protuberance” as an alternative to “back of the head.” His style of commentating has become the gold standard for wrestling announcers and is often emulated.
Marella stepped down as the WWF’s lead commentator at WrestleMania IX to make way for WCW recruit Jim Ross. He commentated with Jim Ross on WWF Radio for the broadcasts of Summer Slam 1993, Survivor Series 1993 and Royal Rumble 1994.
Marella remained in his backstage role and appeared on-air frequently, becoming the storyline WWF President in the summer of 1995. The WWF President’s role was to arbitrate disputes between wrestlers and make matches, similar to the current WWE general managers. Health concerns forced him to relinquish this role during the summer of 1997. Instead of naming a replacement, the WWF decided to retire the role of “President”
Marella died on October 6, 1999 of heart failure brought on by complications of diabetes, at his home in Willingboro Township, New Jersey. He was 62 years old. In a tribute that aired on WWF television after his death, McMahon described Marella as “one of the greatest men I have ever known.”