Verne Gagne, one of the biggest stars ever in professional wrestling, and later a promoter for decades of the American Wrestling Association, died on Monday night in Minneapolis. He was 89.
There is no announced cause of death yet, though Gagne suffered from Alzheimer’s and dementia in recent years. The Minneapolis Star Tribune is reporting that he died surrounded by family.
Though the details may be unknown at this time, there can be no doubting that Gagne is one of the most important figures in the history of the game.
Most fans today only known Gagne as the promoter of the AWA, which he ran out of a Minneapolis hotel from 1960 until 1990.
But he headlined cards from coast to coast in the 1950s, a handsome star, seen by millions on the DuMont network. “You take this kid Vern Gagne,” Jim Londos once said. “Well, he could have tied most of the wrestlers of 20 years ago in knots.”
That Gagne might have been the top pure babyface of the early years of professional wrestling on television. He had it all, ballyhooed SPORT Magazine in its Annual 1953, Vern Gagne Is No. 1 Wrestler: “In the opinion of most unbiased observers, the dark-haired, good-looking Gagne who had made the greatest strides during the year. Regarded by most experts as a genuinely competent wrestling, and scorning the ‘ham-actor’ role embraced by so many grapplers, Gagne was gaining on Thesz. It might not be long.”
In his autobiography, Thesz gave props to Gagne. “He and I worked a ‘feud’ for several years in the early and mid-1950s when he was the junior-heavyweight champion, and those matches did big box-office wherever we appeared. I guarantee you they wouldn’t have drawn a dime if Verne hadn’t have been so credible.”
Gagne’s authenticity was indeed his biggest calling card in the early days.
Born Laverne Clarence “Verne” Gagne in Corcoran, Minn., on February 26, 1926, Gagne can trace his lineage back to France in the 1600s, when his forefathers came to Canada, settling in Minnesota in 1854. Gagne grew near Hamell, toiling on the family farm. In high school, he claimed a pair of state heavyweight wrestling championships, despite only weighing in at 185 pounds, and was also all-state in football.
Recruited by the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, Gagne played each side of the field, as a defensive end and tight end. But it was in wrestling that he made his name, winning a Big Ten wrestling title at 175 pounds in 1944 as a freshman. Up next, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, and was assigned to Santa Ana, California, where he played football for the El Toro Marine team and taught hand-to-hand combat to soldiers. With World War II concluded, Gagne returned to the Gophers and became the first-ever four-time Big Ten champion. To top it off, the three-time All-American also won two NCAA championships.
For the 1948 Olympic Games, Gagne made the U.S. Greco-Roman team, but, in one of the greatest frustrations of his life, didn’t get to grapple. “I made the team, but they wouldn’t let us compete, they wouldn’t let us wrestle,” Gagne said. “We came right down to the night before we were supposed to wrestle Greco and they pulled us out. They said, ‘We don’t think you guys know enough about Greco-Roman wrestling.’ This is ’48, right after the War, and we really didn’t, but we sure as heck trained hard and wanted to wrestle. We were in the parade and were in the Olympics.”
Yet he always treasured the memories, and it was there that he first met an 18-year-old Maurice Vachon, competing for Canada, who would become one of his greatest adversaries as a Mad Dog. “It was a great experience. Wembley Stadium was the big parade. It was the first Olympics after World War II and it was a real focal point for the world at that moment in time and most of the world was there,” he said. “It was a big disappointment not getting to wrestle.”
Back home, he listened to the overtures from the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, with the teams feuding over who had his contractual rights, but opted for pro wrestling, debuting in 1949. Gagne’s first stop away from home was traveling between Texas and Oklahoma, his young family living in a trailer.
“When I came out of amateur wrestling, I didn’t know the submission hold,” Gagne said. “But you learn it quick.” (They also didn’t teach the sleeper hold in school, but by the end of 1951, Gagne was using it as his finisher.) In his rookie year, he won the tournament to crown a new NWA world junior heavyweight champion, as the title was vacated when titleholder Leroy McGuirk lost sight.
In 1951, he was invited to compete in Chicago. “Fred Kohler didn’t think he was big enough. He was the junior heavyweight champion down in Oklahoma at the time for the NWA. And he was about 215,” said his son, Greg. “They brought him in Chicago and Fred told him about the big TV network and said, ‘What I want you to do is we’re going to dress you up what we think a Martian would look like and have you come out of the ceiling into the ring. We’re going to lower you down.” Naturally, Gagne balked, listing his credentials for Kohler, and vowing: “You can line up everybody on the card and I will take on every one of them, one after another. If I can’t beat them, I’ll quit wrestling. But if you want me to go in the ring, I’m going in with my wrestling boots and my tight and if I can’t make it as a wrestler like that, I’ll give up the sport.”
The reach of television through Kohler’s show on the DuMont network surprised the wrestlers. Gagne often told a story about traveling to Buffalo with Pat O’Connor. A snowstorm prevented them from getting to the arena, which they expected to have been empty anyway. Instead, thousands had been turned away. “That’s when he knew what the strength of the network TV was,” said Greg Gagne.
Wrestling historian Mike Chapman was a 10-year-old boy when he first got to see the speedy Verne Gagne live, at the Hippodrome in Waterloo, Iowa in 1954. “I had watched Verne Gagne several times on the Dumont Television Network out of Chicago and could not wait to see him in person. My dad took several neighborhood boys and me to see Verne wrestle Hans Schmidt,” said Chapman. “Schmidt arrived first, walking down the aisle to a chorus of boos and jeers. He stood towering in his corner, wearing a short, black jacket. He had his arms folded across his chest and scowled as Verne came down the aisle, waving to the wildly cheering fans. Verne leaped into the ring, did a little spin around with a wave, and the place went wild. My dad leaned over to me and said, ‘Verne was an NCAA champion at Minnesota. You’ll get to see some real wrestling tonight!'”
Well-spoken on his interviews, Gagne talked about the sport of wrestling, competition and his desire to be the best; he spoke as an athlete, not as a performer. That lead to him being one of the first athletes — not just wrestlers — to be on mainstream TV, appearing on shows with the likes of Art Linkletter, Arthur Godfrey, Steve Allen, and even Howdy Doody.
His son said it was the real thing with his dad. “I think the way he was projected back in the 50s and throughout his career was that who you saw on TV was who he was. He was a good guy, he loved being around people, he was very charismatic.”
Football star and coach Bud Grant was a friend of Gagne’s at Minnesota, meeting on campus after the war. “I can remember him borrowing a shirt when we wanted to go somewhere. I don’t mean a dress shirt or something fancy — just something to cover himself,” Grant told the Minneapolis Tribune in 1981. “Verne didn’t know where he would sleep some nights, or how he’d eat. Whatever he’s got now, I don’t begrudge him one cent of it. And he’s the same person he always was, a great companion, always enthusiastic, always helping somebody. He puts somebody on his feet and never mentions it. You hear about it by accident.”
Not one to brag, Gagne did master the marketing aspect of the pro wrestling business. Always friendly with the media, he also leant his name to any number of products, from a donut shop in Minneapolis to fishing equipment, to years later, “DynaPower!” on AWA broadcasts. Some promos are a little less clear, such as this March 1957 ad from Syracuse, NY: “Hi — This is Verne Gagne. I have recently entered into a business that is growing by leaps and bounds. I would like to extend an invitation to my friends in the Syracuse area to attend a meeting at the Onodaga Hotel today and tomorrow at 2 p.m. or 7:30 at night. At this time we will present an opportunity to qualified people to become associated with us in the greatest business in the world. This may well be the most important meeting you have ever attended.”
Perhaps Gagne was searching for investors in his planned American Wrestling Association, which he ran with Wally Karbo. Gagne started out by acquiring the rights to Minnesota from Tony Stecher, and followed that up by buying Chicago from Fred Kohler, as well as Omaha, Winnipeg, and other Midwest locales. It was a massive territory, dwarfing the northeast-based WWWF.
Gagne was careful about what was shown on TV. “Kids love wrestling and they’ve always been a big part. I know with our ratings that if we could get the kids, then the parents. And once they start watching, they’re into it also,” he said in 2000. “Although a lot of people didn’t want to admit that they liked wrestling, right here in the Twin Cities, we beat the Vikings’ ratings, and the Twins’, and all the prime-time sitcoms. We had a 26 rating with a 65% share in our timeslot. That was in Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, Omaha, Salt Lake and San Francisco, Vegas. We were in a lot of places. If the timeslot was right, we could generate interest.”
As the ’60s turned into the ’70s, though, Gagne’s hairline receded and his body lost that sporting definition. Despite still having much of the skills that he did, if not the speed, he became a prime example of a promoter keeping himself in the spotlight long past his prime. Off the record, wrestlers will complain that he hogged the spotlight, dispatching those getting over to smaller towns. Known to hold a grudge, Larry Hennig swears that Gagne once wrote him a check for zero dollars and zero cents.
“Gagne was Gagne,” said Billy Robinson, who Karl Gotch had told him was a “bald-headed, spindly-legged old gat.”‘ Robinson, who helped train wannabes on Gagne’s farm, was one of the tough guys Gagne liked to have around him. “He was the promoter; he made himself the big star, like most of the promoters did in America.”
It was important to differentiate between the promoter and the person, said Eddie Sharkey, who once put 14 bullets from him 9 mm into the walls of Gagne’s office in frustration. “You get him outside of wrestling, and he’s the most charming guy you’re ever going to meet in your life. Everyone, his old football playing friends, the people he meets just love him. Greatest guy in the world, as long as you don’t have to work for him.”
And when you did work, he was the boss. “See, Verne liked athletes, and Verne was a hell of a wrestler,” said “King King” Angelo Mosca. “I’ll never forget the night I wrestled him in Denver, Colorado. The referee says to me, ‘Boy, you made that old man look good.’ I said, ‘That old man signs my fucking checks!'”
From 1960 to 1981, Gagne held the AWA World title ten times, for a cumulative reign of a decade. His last run ended on May 19, 1981, when he retired as champion. While he fought all the greats, from Dick the Bruiser to Mad Dog Vachon to Fritz Von Erich, it was Nick Bockwinkel who probably was his greatest foe. “I had great matches with Verne Gagne,” said Bockwinkel in Whatever Happened To … “Verne always had an intense tenacity. He was very much a firebrand in the ring and he’d get frustrated very easily if things that he was trying to do weren’t going as smooth as he would like them. What would happen was, he would get so mad at himself, and so angry, that he would trip and stumble and fall all over himself, because of the frustration he had mentally because of something that didn’t go right.”
In 1982 and early 1983, with Hulk Hogan on the top of the cards, the AWA was perhaps the biggest, most popular promotion in North America. When Hogan jumped to the expanding World Wrestling Federation, and Gagne ignored the warnings of Vince McMahon, his fate was sealed. The AWA limped along until 1990, a shell of its former self, despite a strong spot on ESPN. In August 1993, he declared bankruptcy, some of his real estate ventures having gone sour.
All through his years as a promoter, he propped up Minnesota Olympic athletes financially, including Ken Patera, supporting their dreams. He fundraised for the Minnesota wrestling team, and supported local charities. The rewards flowed back to Gagne later, including the University of Minnesota Hall of Fame (1992), the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame (2004), the WWE Hall of Fame (2006), the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (inaugural class, 1999), and the Minnesota’s Museum of Broadcasting Hall of Fame (2007). The Cauliflower Alley Club gave Gagne the Lou Thesz Award in 2006. In Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson’s The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes & Icons, Gagne was ranked the fifth greatest hero of all time, behind only Jim Londos, Hulk Hogan, Bruno Sammartino and Dusty Rhodes.
His story turned tragic, though, as his memory faded.
On January 26, 2009, the 82-year-old Gagne, confined to a Bloomington., Minn., facility for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, threw Helmut R. Gutmann, 97, to the floor during an altercation; Gutmann, a former cancer researcher who came to the U.S. after fleeing Nazi Germany, died 20 days later. Police investigated the incident, which drew much press, but did not press charges. “You can’t blame the person that did it,” Guttman’s widow, Betty, told the local newspaper. “[Gagne] doesn’t know what he’s doing. I feel so sorry for his family, because they are faced with a terrible problem of what to do.”
Funeral arrangements are not known at this time.