Words on Voices: The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object - How Gorilla Monsoon & Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura Blurred the Line Between Reality and Fiction
A sports commentator is a storyteller. Whether it’s an end-to-end ice hockey game or a 50km race walk, our job is to find the narrative. Sometimes that narrative is staring you right in the face; it’s the gymnast who wins their final competition with the performance of their life. Sometimes that narrative is a little harder to find; it’s the bronze medallist who’s most interesting, but only if you know the real story behind their tears of joy. And sometimes you stare at the screen as two football teams play out a mind-numbing 0-0 draw, wondering what on earth the narrative is, other than, ‘Please don’t change the channel.’
I grew up fascinated by stories, and I didn’t care how they were told. I loved stories in books, stories in songs, stories in paintings, and stories that moved. I loved stories that were real and stories that were not. And I loved professional wrestling. Deep down, I knew that it wasn’t as real as it pretended to be, but I never really understood why adults kept trying to tell me that whilst I was watching it. I didn’t sit next to them and say, ‘That’s all fake, you know’ whilst they watched Coronation Street or read their favourite novel. A 1987 VHS tape was my first introduction to the WWF (now WWE) and to the commentary partnership of Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura. Working from 1985 to 1990, they were the voices that talked wrestling through its transformation from dimly lit niche interest to something that sat at the heart of popular culture. They were the voices for marquee moments with Muhammad Ali, Cyndi Lauper, and Aretha Franklin. But most importantly of all, they were the voices when Hulk Hogan slammed André the Giant.
Jesse 'The Body' Ventura in his wrestling days
Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s pairing of Monsoon (Robert Marella) and Ventura (James Janos), as he tried to attract mainstream interest in wrestling and capture the MTV generation, was shrewd. For one, they were both former wrestlers and well-known to the old-school fans the WWF couldn’t afford to lose. At 6’5 and over 300lbs, Marella was a decorated NCAA wrestler before he found stardom in sports entertainment. He had started life as an Italian-American ‘babyface’ – wrestling slang for the hero – before his metamorphosis to ‘heel’ in his later in-ring years, playing a vicious monster from Manchuria. After retirement, he kept the Gorilla Monsoon name but became a surprisingly eloquent play-by-play commentator. Favouring his fellow babyfaces, and serving as a moral compass for fans, Monsoon was always immaculately dressed in tuxedo and bow tie. Most significantly, though, he did something that almost no pro-wrestling commentator after him would try to; he spoke in words that elevated wrestling. It was through listening to him that wrestling fans the world over learned that the bump at the base of the skull was called the external occipital protuberance, and that we first heard the lyrical phrase, ‘The irresistible force meets the immovable object’ to describe a showpiece main-event match.
Yes, the late Monsoon was a touch repetitive, and there are a variety of drinking games to be found as proof; don’t take a sip every time he misuses the word ‘literally’ or you’ll end up unconscious. The perfect colour commentator for him, therefore, was the razor sharp and verbally dexterous Ventura, whose arrogant heel persona added a necessary showmanship. Ventura told the villain’s side of the story, with his gruff, deep, booming Minnesota voice the opposite of the lighter-sounding Monsoon. Their great – but hidden – respect for each other was the security blanket that allowed them to engagingly attack the other’s argument and present a three-dimensional story told from both hero and villain’s point of view. As a well-known actor, starring in Predator and The Running Man, Ventura was recognisable to exactly the sort of new fans that the company was reaching out to. His spell with the WWF was a successful chapter in a diverse career that included being a US Navy SEAL, bodyguard to the Rolling Stones, and – perhaps most famously – Governor of Minnesota.
Never was their work better than when Hulk Hogan faced André the Giant at the Pontiac Silverdome in March 1987. The main event of WrestleMania III has gone down in pro-wrestling history as one of its great stories: the all-conquering hero facing the unbeatable colossus in a rematch from Greek mythology. So effectively do Monsoon and Ventura tell that story that it’s easy to miss that virtually nothing happens in the entire match. An ill and in-pain André could barely walk unsupported as Hogan, Monsoon, and Ventura all played their part in helping him have the greatest moment of his career.
WrestleMania III: Hulk Hogan Faces André the Giant
For a generation of fans like me, Hogan-André is the moment where we fell in love with wrestling – when we close our eyes we can see Andre’s legs flail as he is lifted in to the air, having just instructed his lifelong friend Hogan that it was time to finish the match with the words, ‘Slam, boss’. Yet I was always more interested in the words I could hear than in the match itself; Gorilla Monsoon’s erudite and composed delivery made me believe that there could be a place for a voice like mine in such a hyperbolic world. More than anyone else, he is why I first picked up a microphone.