MINNEAPOLIS — To Minnesotans of a certain age, Verne Gagne is known as “The Champ,” a former gridiron and mat great at the University of Minnesota who parlayed his status as hometown hero, along with a keen mind for both the in-ring and business sides of wrestling, to helm the American Wrestling Association for 30 years. As the AWA World Heavyweight Champion, Gagne faced all of the top challengers and remained a household name in Minnesota for decades.
He also trained dozens of top pro wrestlers over the years, including his son, Greg, and local athlete Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell, who combined to become The High Flyers and hold the AWA Tag Team titles on numerous occasions in the ’70s and ’80s.
To use a phrase coined by long-time AWA interviewer Marty O’Neill, it was indeed “a special bombshell announcement” that The Champ, Verne Gagne, now 85 and suffering from dementia, would be making a handful of rare public appearances to accompany his son, Greg Gagne, who was slated to host showings of the 1974 Gagne-produced film, The Wrestler at the Historic Parkway Theater in Minneapolis.
In The Wrestler, playing a thinly fictionalized version of himself, Verne is aging champ Mike Bullard, whose promoter, Frank Bass (Ed Asner, then enjoying huge success as television’s Lou Grant) is under pressure from other promoters to find a more youthful and telegenic challenger who might be able to wrest the belt from Bullard and compete in a “World Series of Wrestling” to unify the championships of the three major wrestling leagues. Enter British wrestler, Billy Taylor, played by Wigan Snake Pit product and hall of famer Billy Robinson, here showing his acting chops with a sensitive and nuanced performance.
While never receiving any Oscar nods as did a later film of the same title starring Mickey Rourke, it’s pure bliss for fans of the AWA, who followed wrestling when it was viewed as a legitimate sport, not something for the theater pages.
I attended a showing with some friends and we were thoroughly entertained by the action on the big screen, and even more so by the yarns spun by Greg Gagne. Alas, I could not make it out the night Verne Gagne came out.
Fans called out questions, and Greg, who knows how to please a crowd, gave them what they came for. A few stories involved AWA tough guy and hall of famer, Mad Dog Vachon, who according to Gagne, hated bodybuilders. This animosity was clear when future Minnesota Governor and then AWA superheel Jesse Ventura climbed between the ropes to face The Dog, who used his spade-like paws to tear flesh from Ventura’s oiled physique. Gagne told us that a terrified Ventura jumped out of the ring to escape, only to be hit in the back of his head by the ring bell hurled after him by Vachon.
In his version of a now-infamous story showing why dogs aren’t allowed on airplanes, Gagne recounted how Vachon’s erratic behavior nearly resulted in a plane crash on a flight home after a night of wrestling. Apparently Vachon had consumed plenty of liquor and beer, and was then given narcotic pain medication by another wrestler. Then, another wrestler supplied The Dog with marijuana to help calm his nerves, but it apparently had the opposite effect as Mad Dog opened the door of the plane and began hurling the contents of his luggage into the night. The pilot made an emergency landing, and Mad Dog engaged in a fistfight with The High Flyers on the runway, as planes whizzed by.
Greg Gagne shared the advice his father Verne gave him on surviving a match with Vachon: “It’s simple,” said the elder Gagne. “Hit him twice as hard as he hits you!” Greg followed his father’s advice, earning the respect of Mad Dog.
Gagne also told the tale of being a passenger in Wahoo McDaniel’s SUV, along with Ray Stevens and Baron von Raschke, hurtling down the road at 80 miles an hour one icy night. Fueled by vodka and grapefruit juice, McDaniel lost control of the vehicle, which spun into a ditch. The shaken wrestlers were fortunate to be able to get the vehicle back on the icy road, and were quiet as they traveled in a much more subdued mood when Ray Stevens jolted Wahoo by slapping him the back of the head and yelling “Bang!” resulting in another spin-out into the ditch. The wrestlers exited the vehicle to relieve themselves, only to slide down an icy hill, further delaying their arrival in the next town.
According to Greg Gagne, Andre the Giant and Chris Taylor were nearly equals when it came to drinking. “Chris passed out and fell off the barstool after 144 beers. Andre had 148, took a bottle of vodka and went up to his room.”
Remembering Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Gagne explained how Heenan would show up at the airport and pretend to be confined to a wheelchair so he would be allowed to sit in the first class section. When entering the plane, Heenan would take a bump to get sympathy from staff, earning his richly-deserved nickname of “The Weasel.” Heenan, always loyal to members of his family of wrestlers, would tell the airplane staff that they had to sit with him during the flight to provide assistance. Once seated, Heenan and Ray Stevens would enjoy cocktails to relax during the trip.
Many sons who follow in their father’s footsteps often struggle to break free of the strong possibility of a career spent in his shadow. Greg Gagne achieved that by becoming an accomplished athlete and professional wrestler in his own right, his in-ring skills being praised by many of his opponents, including Nick Bockwinkel. Greg Gagne was excellent as the host of this event, showing an ease with the fans gained from years of experience working before a live audience.
Thanks to Greg Gagne, all of us in attendance walked away feeling that magical sense of nostalgia that comes with seeing heroes of our childhood. To the loyal fans of the AWA, and people of Minnesota, the Gagne name still generates deep feelings of pride.