Pedro Morales, a Hall of Fame professional wrestler who in the 1970s and ’80s became the first to win all three of what were then wrestling’s premier championships, died on Monday in Perth Amboy, N.J. He was 76.
His wife, Karen Morales, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.
Morales, who wrestled professionally for nearly three decades, became a star in the early 1970s. He was known as a vigorous puncher and a master of the Boston crab, a debilitating hold in which he grabbed his opponent’s legs, turned him facedown to the mat and pulled the legs back toward his opponent’s head.
Morales tangled with wrestlers like Mr. Fuji, Bruno Sammartino and Ivan Koloff, whom he beat in Madison Square Garden to win the World Wide Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) title in 1970.
Fans were enthusiastic about the new champion. According to an article in The New York Times in 1972 about one of Morales’s matches, “The biggest problem is not how or if he will win, but how he will get past his adoring fans to his dressing room after the victory.”
In 1980 Morales and Bob Backlund defeated the Wild Samoans at Shea Stadium to win the World Tag Team title. He won the Intercontinental Championship a few months later by defeating Ken Patera.
Morales retired in 1987 and for a time was a Spanish-language commentator for WWE and World Championship Wrestling. He was inducted into what is now the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995.
“Pedro Morales, probably one of the greatest-loved World Wrestling Federation champions of all time, because Pedro was genuinely a nice guy,” Monsoon said. “Both inside — well, inside the ring at times he could be a handful. But outside the ring he was Mr. Politeness, Mr. Etiquette.”
Pedro Morales was born on Culebra, a tiny island to the east of the main island of Puerto Rico, on Oct. 22, 1942, to Pedro and Theodora (Rivera) Morales. His mother owned a restaurant on Vieques, a neighboring island, and later a bakery on Culebra, and his father worked as a mental health aide in New York and sent money back home.
Morales moved to Brooklyn as a teenager and completed high school in East New York. He first wrestled professionally in 1959 and became a regional champion on the West Coast during the 1960s.
In one of Morales’s best-remembered matches, he faced Sammartino, who was often his ally, in front of more than 20,000 people at Shea Stadium in 1972. A curfew ordinance forced the marathon 75-minute match to end in a draw.
He met Karen Johnson after a match in 1965, and they married in 1972. In addition to his wife, with whom he lived in Woodbridge, N.J., he is survived by a sister, Aida Morales.