At the height of his professional wrestling career, Hulk Hogan may have had the most famous arms on the planet.
The charismatic giant traveled the world, selling out arenas to fans that paid to see him dispense of evildoers and then celebrate by flexing his biceps and triceps that together he claimed measured 2 feet in diameter, giving his arms the nickname “the 24-inch pythons.”
If not for 83-year-old Tampa native Hector Morales, Hulk Hogan might not ever have existed. He might have remained an obscure man known only by his birth name — Terry Bollea.
In his 2002 autobiography “Hollywood Hulk Hogan,” the pop culture icon who grew up in the Tampa Bay area credits the West Tampa gym owned by Morales and his wife Elisa — Hector’s-Elisa’s Health Club — for his physique. It was Morales who took a chubby out-of-shape teenage Hogan under his wing, taught him how to pump iron and sculpt his legendary arms.
“He was so shy back then,” recalled Morales of Hogan. “But as he got bigger, he came out of his shell and got confident.”
For close to five decades, Morales and his wife helped countless men and women from all walks of life, providing them with advice or simply a comfortable, no-frills place to work out.
But on Aug. 2, the gym on Cypress Avenue in West Tampa closed suddenly. A few days earlier, Morales said, a developer made him an offer he could not refuse. He does not know the developer’s plans for the property.
“When I woke up the morning after I said yes, I thought I made a mistake,” said Morales. “But then I thought, no, it was the right thing to do. It’s time to move on. I wish I had more time, but the buyer wanted it right away.”
He has since been busy refunding members what he owes them on their memberships, selling his equipment and consoling those who are devastated by his closing.
“Some members have stopped by to say goodbye and cried,” Elisa said. “We were like a family here. We’ll miss everyone.”
“He is one of the old guard,” said former gym member and professional wrestler Joe Gomez. “Back in the day, we had Hector’s gym, Harry Smith’s and The Boddy Shoppe. Those were the gyms where all the hard-core weight lifters went. Now they are all gone.”
Harry Smith’s Health Club opened in 1956 and shut down in 2013. The Boddy Shoppe opened in 1977 and closed in 2005. The oldest gym in Tampa, said Morales, is now probably Beach Park Health Club, owned by Leo Ocean. It opened in 1977.
“That’s where I’ll hang out now,” said Morales. “I like Leo. He’s a nice guy. He used to work out here before he had his own place.”
Ocean said he was there the day Hogan first walked into Hector’s-Elisa’s Health Club.
It was probably 1968, Ocean said. Hogan was with one or two other guys and spoke with Morales for a few moments. Morales grabbed a pen and paper, showed them around the gym and wrote down a workout routine.
“There was nothing about him that made you think he’d one day become Hulk Hogan.” Ocean said. “It’s crazy that he got his start there.”
Even after he became a star, said former gym employee Tracy Scholes, Hogan worked out at the gym from time to time.
“He was just great,” she said. “He didn’t mind everyone fawning over him, and he’d sit at the juice bar and drink his shakes while talking to everyone for as long as it took.”
Hogan was not the only “Hulk” who lifted weights at Morales’ gym. Bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, who earned fame as television’s Incredible Hulk, would visit when he was in the area. Ferrigno’s first impression of the gym was not a good one.
“I told my clients to leave him alone,” Morales said. “I figured he didn’t want to be bothered when he was training. When he was done I asked how it went and he said, ‘Fine, but your members were rude. No one talked to me.’ ”
Ferrigno’s autographed photo hung on the wall from that day forward, along with numerous other celebrities who either lived in the area and frequented the gym or trained there when in Tampa.
A sampling of names include Tampa native and former New York Yankee Tino Martinez, comedian Joe Piscopo, actor John Schneider from “Dukes of Hazzard,” MTV personality “Downtown” Julie Brown, champion bodybuilder Franco Columbu and Los Angeles Raiders defensive end and actor John Matuszak.
For former member Gomez, it was the professional wrestlers who drew him to the gym.
In the 1970s, Tampa’s Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory was a hotbed of professional wrestling. WWE Hall of Famer Dusty Rhodes has referred to it as the “Madison Square Garden of the South.”
Gomez said when certain popular wrestlers were in Tampa, fans knew they could be found at Hector’s, Harry Smith’s or the Boddy Shoppe.
“It was great,” he said. “You’d see them performing one night and then would be working out with them the next. These were big-name guys like Rocky Johnson, Hercules Hernandez and Magnum T.A. And the atmosphere was always friendly. They’d talk to you and give you tips. That is why I got into wrestling. I owe those old gyms a lot.”
Longtime member Leo Alvarez said it was the close-knit feel of the gym he will miss most.
“It was a true West Tampa neighborhood gym,” he said. “Everyone seemed to know one another dating back many years. Father and sons worked out there and then the sons brought their sons. It was a family. It will be missed.”