Pedro Morales, former WWWF Heavyweight Champion, WWE Hall of Famer, and the first Latino to win the WWF World title, has died aged 77. He held the WWE Title for a staggering 1027 days before losing it to Stan Stasiak in December 1973. Morales puts his name in the record books again in 1980 when he won the World Tag Team Titles with Bob Backlund and then the Intercontinental Title to become the first Triple Crown Champion in WWE history.

While born in Culebra, his Puerto Rican heritage, build and charisma made him the very epitome of a New York wrestler and the living embodiment of the house style of Vince McMahon Senior. Raised in a large family he began an interest in the sport in the ’50s. A natural athlete, he excelled as an amateur wrestler. He was also scouted for the Puerto Rican Baseball leagues, but it would be wrestling that would be his profession. Having moved to New York to complete High School, he began his training at aged 17 under Barba Roja and debuted in 1959.

His story after that debut is typical for a young trainee of the time; finding work in territories across the country British Columbia to the Carolinas, building his resume and looking for a place to catch on. By 1965, he found himself at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles California working for the Aileen Eaton and moving on into 1965, Mike LeBell, brother of Gene LeBell, he of the LeBell Lock and an early Mixed Martial Arts pioneer. They saw in Morales a Spanish speaker who could connect with the large Hispanic audience in the LA territory.

At the time, the LA Office had split from the NWA to form World Wrestling Associates, creating their own world title and picking up a working agreement with the JWA in Japan, which helped establish the belt as a true World’s Championship. On March 12th, 1965, Morales beat The Destroyer to take the title. Morales was in the right place to succeed. LA had become a crucible where stars were formed. From Gorgeous George to John Tolos and on to Classy Freddie Blassie, a long line of great names came out of LA and onto the wrestling map.

Later, the Guerrero Family and a young heel called Roddy Piper would rule the roost, but Morales looked like the perfect champion for the diverse populated Southern California region. His success did not go unnoticed. By the late 60s, perennial WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino was worn out. His run as champion had been dynamite at the box office but his family and outside commitments had suffered. He requested an end to his run and that left Vince Senior looking for a new top draw. He chose Pedro.

It is worth looking at Vince Snr.’s motivation though. Like the LA Office, in fact even more so, the paying customers of New York were a diverse lot, and an ethnically resonant champion had become a must. Having proved he could do the job in LA he would be the man for Vince. Vince had taken over the territory from longtime promoter Toots Mondt.

While Toots had been an innovator in his day, in fact, a large proportion of what you see in a wrestling ring today was invented by Toots Mondt, Vince needed a TV-ready champion. Pedro’s language skills, charisma and presence worked in the exact same way to the Hispanic audience that Bruno had to the Italian fans and once again it was box office heaven. After a brief run as WWWF United States Champion, on February 8th, 1971, he would defeat Ivan Koloff for the WWWF Heavyweight Championship.

Vince applied the New York formula, a strong babyface who stood up to wrestlers but managers too, The Grand Wizard being the premier example. Every month, at Madison Square Garden, The Wizard would be being out a new challenger to bring down the champion. He would invariably fail, but it meant fresh challengers with no loss of momentum in the feud. Wrestlers who didn’t work out could be farmed down the card or to another territory. The ones that it could be repackaged, it worked with Bruno and Pedro and was more or less in place to the end of Hulkamania. Swap The Wizard for Bobby Heenan and you can see the dynamic.

The biggest match of his run came against the returning champion Sammartino. In an intriguing “What If?” scenario, the two friends were set at odds and a championship match was put in place at Shea Stadium, the home away from the Garden for the WWWF. It would be a draw, but it was the kind of old fashioned booking that epitomised the era; don’t try babyface vs babyface until you know you have something special. It was. A 75-minute curfew draw that had the fans rocking in the bleachers. The fans were also angry about the inconclusive finish, but McMahon had their money by then. Morales run ended against Stan Stasiak on December 1st, 1973.

He went back on the road for the AWA, Championship Wrestling From Florida and New Japan, but would resurface in the WWWF in 1980. Seven years after his first run he received top billing as a former champion and with another former champion Bob Backlund, they took the WWF tag belts from The Samoans in another thriller at Shea Stadium.

That second run, however, is best remembered for his Intercontinental Title run that established the belt as the secondary championship to have in North American Wrestling. Vince Snr. once again worked his magic, appealing to the Hispanic crowd and it helped establish a title that could have been so easily lost in the ether like so many secondary championships do. His run with the company ended in 1983 as Vince Jnr. took over and looked to pastures new.

He would continue in various promotions, including his native Puerto Rico. Morales hung up his boots in 1987 but continued on as an ambassador for sports-entertainment. He later became a commentator for both WCW and WWE’s Spanish announce teams, and in 1995, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. A twenty-seven-year career that could not be classed as anything less than a resounding success, yet his legacy remains an enigma. While fans laud Sammartino, quite rightly, as the defining WWWF Champion, Morales is always seen as lesser somehow. However, time shows us that he was a vital part of building the WWWF dynamic that would become the WWE. He was a bridge to the future, and he will be sadly missed.

All pics and videos courtesy of WWE.com