November 18, 2003
USA Today AP Wire

Pro wrestler now grows tomatoes in Woodbridge

Published in the Home News Tribune 11/13/03

WOODBRIDGE: Question: Who was the first professional wrestler to hold heavyweight, intercontinental and tag-team championship belts?

Pedro Morales
AUGUSTO F. MENEZES/Staff photographer
Former professional wrestler Pedro Morales at a recent workout at The Club at Woodbridge.
Here's a hint: the retiree grows tomatoes in his garden in Woodbridge, has been married to the same lady for 37 years, and spent three decades slamming opponents (a difficult task when they weigh 300 pounds) and getting bounced by rivals (in those cases, knowing how to fall properly is the key to avoiding serious injury).

The answer: Pedro Morales, a 5-foot 11-inch, 250-pound man with salt-and-pepper hair and beefy hands that are gentle and soft in a handshake.

The question about Morales' belts was once posed by a radio station announcer during a trivia contest, said the native of Puerto Rico who spent 30 years as a professional wrestler, worked as a Pay Per View wrestling announcer for Spanish-language broadcasts, and is listed as a legend on the Professional Wrestling Online Museum Web site.

The 59-year-old, who said he was the first Latino to be named a Worldwide Wrestling Federation champion, was born on La Isla de Culebra, off the coast of Puerto Rico's main island. "I have 85 first cousins on my mother's side," he said. "Sixty-five percent of the island is related to me. I just lost a cousin -- 104 years old."

Morales left the small island of Culebra years ago, when his mother sent him to live with an aunt in Brooklyn, N.Y., so he could finish high school. But he speaks of his homeland with pride, returns there several times a year, and hopes to eventually divide his time between Woodbridge and Puerto Rico.

"I (am) retired and I don't want to work for the rest of my life," he said. "I (am) just waiting for my wife to retire and (we are going) to watch the fish jump in the Caribbean Sea."

Pedro Morales
Courtesy Pedro Morales/1978
Morales in his wrestling heyday, circa 1978.
Morales said he became a professional wrestler at 17 after his father signed papers required by the New York State Athletic Commission.

"My sister (had) a girlfriend from school -- she had a couple of brothers in the wrestling club (and) they introduced me to wrestling," he said. "I was a fantastic athlete because I was ready for professional baseball in the island. They drafted me when I was 16, but I was here and decided to stick with wrestling."

Morales said he lived in more than a dozen cities during his career. But he and his wife, Karen, who teaches elementary school in the Avenel section of Woodbridge, settled in Central New Jersey when it was time for their now 29-year-old son, Pedro, to start kindergarten.

When Morales talks about his days in the ring, he describes matches in detail and rattles off the names of former wrestlers and old friends: Freddie Blassie, Bruno Sammartino, Gorilla Monsoon.

"When Ivan the Russian Bear (Ivan Koloff) beat Sammartino for the title, they (brought) me back to the East Coast to contend for the title, and a couple of months later, I was a contender," he said. "And the rest is history."

Morales performed before sold-out crowds at Madison Square Garden and toured the Middle East, Australia, Korea and Hong Kong. He lived in Japan for a few months and spent one Thanksgiving in Hawaii because of a special holiday match.

"You see the whole world," he said. "You travel around. You make money. You educate yourself about the country."

He said he participated in roughly 250 matches a year, spent some time in the hospital with dislocated shoulders and torn muscles, and dealt with days when he had trouble getting out of bed because of injuries.

"A lot of people don't realize how tough you have to be to wrestle for 30 years," he said. "Mentally, it was hard work, when you're wrestling in front of 30,000 people. . . . But I enjoyed every moment. I loved being near 50,000, 40,000, 30,000 people and having them in my hand."

As he spoke, he stretched his arms out to the sides and smiled.

"I (would) go there to please the people and have a good match," he said.

But in those matches, a wrestler's knees, hips, elbows and shoulders often take a beating. During Morales' days in the ring, there were no mats for protection and wrestlers did not use knee or elbow pads for fear of being labeled a wimp, he said.

Because of old injuries, he no longer lifts heavy weights. These days, when he heads to The Club at Woodbridge, he concentrates on cardiovascular exercises. He was recently working out in red shorts, white New Balance sneakers, white socks and a black Corona T-shirt that read: "Save the pumpkins, carve a lime."

"I'm still in good shape for old age and wrestling," he said. "I used to be very strong when I (was) wrestling. But now -- no more. I do exercises for my heart."

Morales goes to The Club every afternoon, where he pedals eight to 10 miles on a stationary bike, lifts light weights, and seems to know nearly everyone else in the place.

"Hey," he called out, stretching out his arm and pointing his finger as he walked past men on treadmills and at weight machines. But his motion was no longer that of a wrestler staring down an opponent. Morales smiled as he greeted the other guys.

"This is my friend," he said over and over, introducing fellow gym members and shaking their hands.

He had compliments for everyone: other gym members, Club employees, residents of Woodbridge. They are all nice people who are nice to him, he explained.

Mike Eisenbeil, a Fords man who goes to the gym and has known Morales for at least a decade, described his friend as a good man who is very sociable and well-liked.

Rita Chamberlin, The Club's membership coordinator, said the retired wrestler brings her tomatoes from his garden every year.

"I've been here 13 years -- I don't ever think I've seen him mad," she said. "He's a sweetie."

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