Pedro Morales was not Bruno Sammartino. No, far from Bruno in many ways with popularity when it came to what was then known as the WWWF championship. Morales was the first Puerto Rican holder of that title when pro wrestling was not entertainment from what is today.
Morales, 76- years of age passed away quietly Tuesday morning in Puerto Rico after a long illness. This was not a wrestling death that was attributed to long use of pain medications or using those cycles of steroids that have been causes of deaths to many wrestling legends.
Morales was a natural in the ring and outside the squared circle where he lived a quiet life in Puerto Rico since his retirement in 1987. Not in the spotlight, Morales was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995 and did some color commentary for WCW and the WWE Spanish announce team.
And there will always be the debate. Was it Bruno Sammartino or Pedro Morales as the wrestling icon? He wrestled at a time in the 1970’s when the industry appeared more real than what the writers produce now for television every week.
Ask the Italians? That wrestling fan and to many more, it was Bruno Sammartino the icon. They would hear nothing to the contrary. Ask the increasing wrestling fan base of Puerto Rican descent and to them it was always Pedro Morales as the icon.
Later, after their epic match at Shea Stadium in 1972, Pedro Morales became the icon. Not for long, as Sammartino temporarily would pass the torch to Morales because the late Hall of Famer needed time to give the body a rest.
That epic battle before 22,000 Italian and Puerto Rican fans resulted in a curfew. An old draw in the record books. That wasn’t a script that was supposed to played out in a ring situated at second base on the field at Shea Stadium. Then, the New York State Athletic Commission supervised these events over the promoter, Vincent J. McMahon and imposed curfews that read no event should surpass the 11PM hour.
The fans base consisted of adults. Children under the age of 14 were not permitted to pro wrestling events in New York unless they were accompanied by an adult.
Again, that was then. Morales and Sammartino wrestled at a time in New York City when the NYSAC regulated the wrestling industry. Years later the wrestling event was no longer an exhibition and known as sports entertainment. Vincent K. McMahon, the son, inherited the business and made this into a billion dollar industry.
Pro wrestling today is deregulated and the superstars are entertainers. On an evening at Shea Stadium, Morales the hero from Puerto Rico and Sammartino, the hero from Abruzzo Italy made it look as real as it gets.
Headlock after headlock. Body slam after body slam. A rush off the ropes and the Bruno Sammartino bear hug with the flying off the top rope that Pedro Morales began to perfect. It was the old school wrestling match and two icons changing the industry as the outdoor stadium also became a revenue stream for the WWWF.
That match became a turning point for the industry. Years later, when this columnist worked in the business, Sammartino said to yours truly “I had the fortune of being in a historic wrestling match and Pedro Morales was the difference.”
Though the difference was Pedro Morales and the demographic change of pro wrestling. Diversity started and the WWWF would soon appeal to the Latino market.
However, Pedro Morales was speaking now to his audience in Spanish. He was appealing to his fans and they followed him at box offices in the small venues of regional territories that were considered a monopoly of the WWWF. He sold out Madison Square Garden numerous times and rivaled Sammartino at the box office.
And the Bruno Sammartino-Pedro Morales rivalry continued in the 1970’s. There may never be another one like that match up in pro wrestling. Not even the feuds that are entertaining now will ever top what Pedro Morales and Bruno Sammartino accomplished in their era.
Sammartino passed away last April at his suburban home in Pittsburgh. The two WWE Hall of Famers would hardly speak and that had nothing to do with animosity or the competitiveness they exhibited week after week and sometimes three or four times a week.
The pro wrestling business is a small fraternity and Pedro Morales will be looked upon as one of the all-time greats. Had he wrestled in this era of television and WWE Network events perhaps we are talking about one of the top three that stepped in the wrestling ring.
Yes, it was staged. But you would never know when Pedro Morales put on a classic headlock. He changed a landscape in the business and took the torch from Bruno Sammartino. It worked and as a result the WWE has a Latino audience that spans world wide.
Rest in peace Pedro Morales. New York City will never forget that epic match with Bruno and the pro wrestling business never forgot what you accomplished.
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