Bob Marella ’59, arguably the most famous professional wrestler to come out of Rochester as the globally known Gorilla Monsoon, died October 6, 1999, of complications from a recent heart attack. He was 62.
Marella had been a star athlete at his high school and at Ithaca College before becoming one of pro wrestling’s best-known and best-paid performers in the 1960s and 1970s. He weighed around 300 pounds as a football player, wrestler and track and field athlete at Jefferson High School in Rochester and was in the 350-pound range at Ithaca (where he was affectionately nicknamed "Tiny"). He topped 400 as one of the top drawing cards in pro wrestling.
He was a road agent and prominent television commentator for the World Wrestling Federation for many years after retiring from the ring, often sharing the microphone with current Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura. His last ring and TV appearance was at this year’s Wrestlemania.
"I was a physical education major at Ithaca, and the only thing I regret about becoming a professional wrestler is that I missed the opportunity to teach youngsters," Marella said in a 1978 interview. "Of course, there aren’t many $100,000-a-year teachers."
Marella’s size and athletic ability attracted the attention of western New York pro wrestling promoter Pedro Martinez. Marella made his pro wrestling debut at the Rochester War Memorial in the summer of 1959 and 6,000 fans — four times the normal turnout — saw him quickly pin "bad guy" Pauncho Lopez.
Marella was a "good guy" in the early years of his pro wrestling career but didn’t hit it big until his Gorilla Monsoon gimmick began in 1963. The story line said he was born on an isolated farm in Manchuria, earned his keep wrestling bears with a gypsy caravan, arrived in America speaking no English, and ate raw meat washed down with the blood of his victims. He dwarfed most wrestlers of his era and had a full beard and fierce growl that made fans genuinely afraid of him. "I was a guy the fans loved to hate," he said.
Marella’s most publicized fling in the ring was a confrontation with Muhammad Ali in the summer of 1976 in Philadelphia. "Ali was trying to get publicity for an upcoming gimmick fight for a fortune against a Japanese wrestler (Antonio Inoki) and he apparently wanted to use me as a warm-up for publicity," Marella recalled. "I was in the ring, waiting for my regular match, when Ali jumped through the ropes, kicked off his shoes, tore off his shirt, and began screaming at me. I picked him up and tossed him to the mat with a ‘giant swing.’ But I gave him a break and didn’t use my ‘Manchurian splash.’ " Marella insisted the episode was not contrived: "I never saw him (Ali) before and haven’t seen him since."
A shrewd businessman, Marella predicted 20 years ago that pro wrestling would someday enjoy a mammoth revival on cable TV. He was a major player in that becoming a reality as a minor partner and confidant of WWF boss Vince McMahon Jr.
At Ithaca, Marella finished second in the NCAA wrestling championships in 1959 and an 18-second pin win remains the quickest in the school’s history. He set school records in the discus and shot put that lasted almost a decade after he graduated. He was inducted into the Ithaca College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1973. He proudly brought a WWF show to his alma mater in 1987.
Excerpted with permission from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, October 8, 1999
Created and updated by Andrejs Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications 2. Jan. 2000