It’s hard to imagine the “sport” of professional wrestling without the great Verne Gagne. Word of the AWA owner and legend of his passing last night was quick and sudden, but at the age of 89, not totally unexpected. He left one of the most poignant marks on professional wrestling.
Verne Gagne was Kurt Angle before Kurt Angle was Kurt Angle. He had a true impact on the careers of both Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan and through his AWA promotion in Minnesota, introduced us fans to some of the greatest names to every get in a squared circle.
American professional wrestler, football player, and professional wrestling trainer and promoter. He was the former owner/promoter of the American Wrestling Association (AWA), based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was the predominant promotion throughout the Midwest and Manitoba for many years. He remained in this position until 1991, when the company folded.
Gagne is a 16-time World Heavyweight Champion, having held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship 10-times, the World Heavyweight Championship (Omaha version) 5-times, and the IWA World Heavyweight Championship once.
He holds the record for the most combined days as a world champion and is third behind Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz for the longest single world title reign. He is one of six men inducted into each of the WWE, WCW, and Professional Wrestling and Wrestling Observer Newsletter halls of fame.
Like many of his generation, he was driven out of the business by the “new” idea of sports entertainment and the Era of Hulkamania, one he actually planted the seed for while Hogan became the lead heel in his promotion before jumping ship and connecting with McMahon to begin what the business is today.
Some of Gagne’s biggest feuds were against Gene Kiniski, Dr. Bill Miller (under a mask both as Dr. X and then Mr. M), Fritz Von Erich, Dr. X (Dick Beyer), The Crusher (Reggie Lisowski), Ray Stevens, Mad Dog Vachon, Larry “The Ax” Hennig, and Nick Bockwinkel. He always wrestled as a face, and utilized the sleeper hold as his finisher.
As promoter of the AWA, Gagne was known for putting on an “old school” show. He sought out wrestlers with amateur backgrounds over the hulking brutes who dominated wrestling in the 1980s. This led to a problem with his biggest draw, Hulk Hogan, whom Gagne had acquired after Hogan had been let go by the World Wrestling Federation and who Gagne also felt was not championship material, due to the fact that Hogan was a powerhouse wrestler and not a technical wrestler.
The passing of such a legend does make me take a look at what the business used to be like and what it is today. A sad state of affairs, if you ask me. It was a type of promotion where a Dolph Ziggler or an Angle or even someone like Damien Sandow could thrive. A promotion where bring the best was good enough (sorry Tom Clark, I had to steal that from you). For everything professional wrestling is today and was then, with scripting and the “unreal” antics of television, there was still some degree of “realism” to the niche promotion in Minnesota.
Ask Flair, the Iron Sheik, Ricky Steamboat, Ken Patera or any other star that trained in his broken down barn in the dead of winter. They will relay the same kind of sentiment.
What I liked about Gagne was the technicality of his promotion. Old school was the norm. Not the antics of today. I would assume if the AWA had made it through the fire and smoke of McMahon’s WWF, he would have kept the same brand and style which made him a legend.
He will be missed not just because of who he was, but also because of what he did for the business. Another old school legend leaves us. There aren’t many left. Gagne’s passing makes you appreciate how things were and how things were meant to be in the “sport” of professional wrestling.