Robert Marella, 62, Wrestler Known As 'Gorilla Monsoon'

Posted: October 07, 1999

Robert "Gorilla Monsoon" Marella, 62, a professional wrestler whose demeanor in the ring resembled Atilla the Hun's but whose deeds and personality were more akin to those of Santa Claus, died yesterday at his Willingboro home after being ill for the last month.

During his career, which lasted from 1959 to 1980, the name "Gorilla Monsoon" was often used to describe people who were more than just big or tough.

He wrestled in more than 8,000 matches worldwide and was inducted into the World Wrestling Federation Hall of Fame in 1994. His nickname came from his manager, "Wild Red" Barry.

Mr. Marella and "Killer" Kowalski once held the title of world-champion tag team. Mr. Marella was a co-holder of the world tag team title on other occasions and also was the North American and U.S. heavyweight champion at different times.

Weighing about 400 pounds, Mr. Marella stood 6-foot-6 and specialized in a sport where the tools of the trade included chops to the Adam's apple and jabs to the eyes.

But to his neighbors in Willingboro, Mr. Marella, a longtime resident, was known as a husband who prided himself on his lasagna, as a father of three children, and as a man who enjoyed tooling around town on the motorcycle he gave himself on his 40th birthday.

Raised in Rochester, N.Y., Mr. Marella started wrestling at the Y at age 8. He excelled in wrestling, track and football in high school and at Ithaca College, where he set state scholastic records in the shot and discus.

At Jefferson High, he was an honors student and student body president. At Ithaca, he was on the dean's list in college and graduated with a degree in physical education and physiotherapy.

In college, he played center, tackle and fullback well enough to attract pro-football offers but turned them down because of a knee injury. Later, he toured the country and abroad in a promotion for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team. He was proficient in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.

He taught high school briefly before a promoter offered him $500 a week on the pro-wrestling circuit.

Mr. Marella began his wrestling career playing the bad guy but became one of the good guys. Throughout his career, he was known for his charitable endeavors, including arranging benefit matches and playing Santa Claus.

In a 1981 Inquirer interview, he recalled one of his most memorable Christmas activities in the early 1960s:

"I was asked by an orphanage in Rochester if I would play Santa Claus. I was extremely excited; however, I had a great deal of difficulty in obtaining a Santa suit that would fit me. Finally, after doing some renovation on a suit, I got all dressed, and, to my astonishment, with all the padding, I was unable to get in my car.

"So my dad went down to the factory and got a truck. Then he loaded me in the back of the truck. I tried to come in from the top floor through the fire escape, but in coming down the stairs, my belt caught on the bannister, and I proceeded to fall down 14 stairs.

"The faces on the children were unbelievable. But, being an athlete, I didn't get hurt. The afternoon went on to be a most pleasurable experience, and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again."

William Kearns, a Willingboro resident and the community's solicitor, recalled working with Mr. Marella in the 1970s arranging wrestling exhibitions for Willingboro Jaycees scholarships and charitable programs.

"He was the kindest, gentlest person you would ever want to meet," Kearns said. Though many decry the sport as a sham, "you see these guys wrestle and the falls they take and you know they have to be superb athletes to do these things without killing someone."

Mr. Marella's charitable endeavors also included volunteer work for the Mount Holly Home for Children and the National Juvenile Diabetes Campaign.

In recent years, he had continued his association with pro wrestling as an announcer and commentator.

A video on the wrestling career of Jesse Ventura released in December included an interview with several of the great television wrestlers, including Gorilla Monsoon.

He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Maureen Hess Marella; son, Victor Quinones; daughters, Sharon Byrne and Valerie; four grandchildren; his mother, Connie; and three sisters. He was the father of the late Joseph Marella, a World Wrestling Federation referee.

Friends may call between 7 and 9 p.m. tomorrow and after 9 a.m. Saturday at the Goes-Scolieri Funeral Home, 212 Levitt Parkway, Willingboro. A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Burial will be private.

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