Class of 2018
Perhaps the most exciting thing about growing up as a wrestling fan in the early 1990s was the opportunity to save pocket money to buy SilverVision’s library of past WWF events that happened before I first discovered the industry, and that was really how I developed my lifelong love for Gorilla Monsoon’s announcing style, particularly from his work between Wrestlemania III and Wrestlemania VI, when he was absolutely untouchable as a play-by-play guy. Monsoon was the perfect announcer for the way that wrestling worked in the 80s and 90s; he had such a deep understanding of kayfabe and how to present each individual wrestler or tag team to the people watching at home, and he instinctively understood how to translate the story taking place inside the squared circle for the audience. Gorilla was far more than a simple play-by-play announcer; he was the storyteller of WWF as it reached its first boom period.
What I always loved about Monsoon’s style was that it was so deeply rooted in the shared universe of the Federation. An up and coming tag team might be said to move closer to a shot at the titles if they won a curtain jerking tag match, as with The Can-Am Connection at Wrestlemania III, or a short match between two singles wrestlers who were put together because they had little else to do would be invested with importance by references to prize money. I think Monsoon realised that Vince McMahon’s vision of sports entertainment needed to retain the veneer of sporting realism that wrestling had surrounded itself with like a shield in earlier decades, and stayed true to that with his announcing. He also understood that a wrestling match only mattered if people cared about the performers in the ring, and he was always careful to explain the strengths of faces and heels alike, as well as selling their finishers with the classic phrase “if he hits that, it’s over”.
Speaking of classic phrases, Monsoon had an entire library of them, which considerably enlivened even the most run of the mill match. Heels would take shots “right in the kisser”, low blows would be in “the bread basket”, a sneak attack was a “Pearl Harbor Job”, and a heel winning was almost always “a miscarriage of justice”. Body parts gained new and colourful terms, some from medical science, like Macho Man planting a knee “right in the high cervical vertebrae area” of Ricky Steamboat or any shot to the back of a wrestler’s head being “right in the external occipital protuberance”, a phrase I used extensively when calling my own moves when my friends and I used to play wrestling at school or in the back garden! Of course, it was the chemistry Monsoon had with his heel co-commentators, first Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, and later, Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan which really took things to another level. The half-respectful, half-squabbling dynamic they adopted has been much imitated over the years, but never bettered. With Ventura, the conversation would often turn to their wrestling careers as comparison material for the action taking place right there in the ring, whereas with Heenan, Monsoon was often forced to chide his companion in the booth with a terse “will you stop?” whenever The Brain’s wit overstepped the mark. I always like to think of the definitive Monsoon/Ventura commentary track being the Steamboat/Savage classic from Wrestlemania III, and of course, the classic Monsoon/Brain collaboration is Ric Flair’s epic Rumble win from number 3 in 1992, though the Survivor Series 93 match between the Hart brothers and Shawn Michaels’ “Knights” certainly runs it close!
As I mentioned earlier, as with many WWF personalities of that first Golden Age, Gorilla Monsoon was a wrestler for Vince McMahon Sr’s WWWF during the 1960s and 70s. The New York territory had always specialised in super heavyweight wrestlers, and the 6’5” and 440ibs Gorilla fit right into that mould, and worked as both monster heel and sympathetic babyface through his long and distinguished wrestling career, which included a run as tag champion alongside Killer Kowalski. What I didn’t realise until I read Bret Hart’s autobiography a few years ago was that Monsoon had also been a minority shareholder of WWWF for many years when Vince McMahon Jr first bought the company from his father; in exchange for buying out Gorilla’s shares, McMahon guaranteed him employment for life, and so Monsoon became a key backstage adviser to the young and ambitious McMahon as well as taking up his role in the broadcast booth. Bret Hart describes himself, Jim Neidhart, Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith meeting with Vince and his advisers to sign with WWF after Vince bought out Stampede, and the respect Bret had for Monsoon is writ large through the early part of the book. Monsoon was the ultimate professional in this business, and the staging area beside the curtain at any arena WWE hold a show in is called “The Gorilla Position” to this very day in his honour.
By the mid 90s, Jim Ross had come over from WCW, and Gorilla wound down his commentary duties, although he retained his backstage responsibilities, and also adopted the on screen kayfabe role of WWF President in the summer of 1995, where he would appear to solve disputes and propose solutions to whatever shenanigans were taking place at the time. Most famously, it is Monsoon who appears at the end of the 60 minute Ironman Match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels to rule that an overtime period must begin. When the great man’s health began to fail around the summer of 1997, they retired the role of President out of respect to Monsoon and instead installed the new role of Commissioner. His final appearance on WWF television was at Wrestlemania XV as a judge for the Brawl For All finals, where his fragile appearance is both sad to see, and mercifully covered up by the camera moving swiftly away from him after the standing ovation he received upon his introduction. Gorilla Monsoon died in October 1999, and the next Raw afterwards was dedicated to his memory, with Vince McMahon describing him as one of the greatest men he’d ever known. The respect the wider wrestling world felt for Monsoon was so great that at the very height of the Monday Night War, Bobby Heenan was allowed to give his own tribute to his former broadcast partner on Nitro: “Gorilla will be sadly missed. Now he was one big tough man. He was a decent honest man. And we’re all gonna miss him very much. And you know the pearly gates in heaven? It’s now gonna be called ‘the Gorilla position.’ Goodbye, my friend.”
In a day and age when WWE commentary is largely atrocious, detracting from a match rather than enhancing one, the legacy of Gorilla Monsoon, the greatest play by play man in history, is even more important to recognise. It has long been my wish that the current generation of announcers be chained to a chair in front of the WWE Network and be forced to watch several days worth of Monsoon/Ventura called matches. The fact that he was also widely acknowledged as a classy, stand up guy in an age when there was an awfully dark, hidden side to the pro wrestling industry, and the way he dedicated almost his entire life to the business makes him even more deserving in my view.
It is an honour and a privilege to induct Gorilla Monsoon into the Lords of Pain Hall of Fame class of 2018.
THIS PLACE IS GOING BANANAS!