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LOOKING AT THE LIFE & CAREER OF THE LATE VERNE GAGNE

By Mike Johnson on 2015-04-28 12:41:00

The announcement late Monday night by Gene Okerlund that Laverne "Verne" Gagne, the founder of the American Wrestling Association and a Hall of Famer by any description, had passed away closed the final chapter on the glory era of professional wrestling in Minnesota.  Gagne was 89 at the time of his death and in recent years, had been living in a nursing home due to the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

A High School wrestling and NCAA star, Gagne broke into the business in 1949, one year after competing in the Olympics as a member of the 1948 wrestling team, trained by Tony Stecher and Joe Pazandak.  His timing was perfect as the young, athletic All-American amateur wrestling star made the perfect babyface as pro wrestling was being broadcast on the Dumont Network, which featured live broadcasts from the Northeast.  Gagne was a ready-made star and quickly was headlining in Madison Square Garden.

Gagne was not only a quick success, but given his legitimate looking style in the ring and obvious pedigree in amateur wrestling, he was long pushed as the successor to then-NWA World champion Lou Thesz, but the trigger was never pulled, often blamed on politics, specifically that Thesz didn't want Gagne to be his successor despite all the obvious money that could be made from their natural rivalry and obvious chemistry in the ring.  But, it was not to be and that would have long-lasting ripple effects.

Instead, Gagne was awarded the first United States Heavyweight championship, which was a belt created specifically for him that was defended in the Mid-Western region of the U.S.  The idea was that the belt would allow Gagne to travel and work as a traveling champion similar to Thesz, making a percentage of the live gates in areas he worked due to the credibility of the champion coming into the area.

When longtime Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club promoter Anton Stetcher passed away, control of his territory in the Minnesota area went to his son Dennis and Wally Karbo, who helped promote the territory.  In 1959, Gagne purchased Dennis' shares in the company, which became the parent company for what would eventually become known as the American Wrestling Association.    The National Wrestling Alliance attempted to bring the pair into the fold as official members who would promote the Minnesota area, but Gagne and Karbo, perhaps remembering Thesz' slight on Gagne and refusal to drop the NWA title, instead decided to promote on their own.

Gagne was named the first AWA World champion (the cover story was that then-NWA champion Pat O'Connor had refused to defend it against him) and was the focal point of the promotion.  Now, Gagne not only had the star-power but the title and he could control the shots to boot.  No politics.   He was the boss and in the ensuing years, he and Karbo would expand the AWA to not just run Minneapolis but also Milwaukee, Chicago, and Winnipeg, Canada, among other markets.  Later on, Las Vegas, Denver and a number of other markets would see AWA action as well, but for the lion's share of the AWA's glory era, it was running a big chunk of the Mid-Western United States.

During the 1970s, Gagne not only became the perennial (and multi-time champion) but also one of the most renowned trainers of all time.  Holding court inside a barn that was by all accounts freezing and probably one of the all-time worst conditions to train professional wrestlers in, Gagne created one of the toughest training camps of all time - one that was so tough, Ric Flair tried to quit after he began training there.  Gagne showed up at his house and allegedly threatened to kick his ass if he quit and as the story allegedly goes, Flair was so scared of that, he went back to training.

While Flair was undoubtedly the greatest all-around performer to come out of the camp, the others who did were, in many cases, mind-blowingly awesome and legends as well - Ricky Steamboat, Ken Patera, The Iron Sheik, Bob Backlund, Ole and Gene Anderson and Larry Hennig.  All of Gagne's trainees often had the same traits - they were beyond tough and when it came to the science of pro wrestling and the finesse that it takes to have a great physical match, they excelled at it.

Inside the ring, Gagne had a bevy of classic feuds over the AWA championship.  Always the babyface and armed with his deadly sleeper hold as a finisher, he battled the likes of Ray Stevens, Nick Bockwinkel, The Crusher, The Vachons, Larry Hennig, Fritz Von Erich and many, many others.  He was the local star pro wrestler who was known for giving back to the amateur wrestling clubs in the area, often having local amateurs on the TV show to promote their upcoming events.  A purist to the end, Gagne loved wrestling and what it had brought to his life.  That showed in his creative - the villains were all loud, brutes who in the end, always lost to the better, heroic classically-trained pro wrestlers.

Gagne was also one of the most powerful promoters from the time the AWA launched well into the mid-1980s when the WWF national expansion came along with the advent of cable television.    The territory was liked because the travel was easy (although when it came to the weather, the winters were terrible and very much hated because of the bitter icy cold and snow). 

Gagne even wrote, starred and produced in his own film "The Wrestler", where actor Ed Asner played what was obviously a version of Verne in promoter Frank Bass, who was dealing with his own champion Mike Bullard (played by Gagne) preparing to face off his an upstart challenger (played by the late Billy Robinson) at the same time local mobsters are trying to force him to throw matches so they can make money gambling.  The entire script is obviously Gagne's voice and featured an angry rant by Asner's Bass towards newspaper reporters who won't take pro wrestling seriously, not even after a wrestler is killed in the ring.  Legend has it that other promoters were sold a piece of the film in advance to help finance the production and lost a fortune when it was a bomb, although the film, shot for $400,000 is also alleged to have made several million in some media reports.  Today, it's an interesting slice of 70s wrestling history with everyone from Vince McMahon Sr. to Lord James Blears making appearances, a bar fight with Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch kicking ass and the mobsters getting theirs from no less of authorities then the Crusher and The Bruiser.  On a personal note, I love the film so much that I have it's theatrical poster hanging in my office.  It's a very unique love letter to the business from Gagne and well worth checking out if you want to see something pretty well, different.

Gagne announced his first retirement in 1981 and in an ironic twist given the issues with Lou Thesz, never lost the AWA World title.  Nick Bockwinkel was named the champion.  While Gagne would never hold the belt again, he would end up with a record ten reigns and held the belt well over 4,000 days.  Like most wrestling retirements, Gagne's didn't stick and he would become involved in the ring at different times, often to kick the hell out of an evil manager as a big blow-off stipulation.

The AWA continued to be a strong promotion through the mid-1980s.  While WWF would have one believe that Hulkamania started there, the reality was that Hulkamania started with Rocky III, the Sylvester Stallone film that featured Hogan as Thunderlips.  According to stories Hogan has told over the years, Vince McMahon Sr. refused to give him time off to make the film, so Hogan quit and went and made it, then went to the AWA.  When the film came out, it was a huge sensation and suddenly, so was Hogan, who was the super-babyface chasing then-AWA World champion Bockwinkel, managed by Bobby Heenan.

The promotion teased a number of times that Hogan was about to win the belt, or that he had and the decision was reversed.   Perhaps Gagne was trying to delay the inevitable to get a bigger house when it finally happened, but at the same time, a lot of factors began working against him, factors that would eventually cripple and destroy the promotion. 

For one, Hogan and Gagne were butting heads over money, especially money Hogan was making on t-shirts and New Japan tours.  One version is Gagne wanted his cut of the tours, feeling Hogan got them because of his work in the AWA.  Another is that Gagne was selling shirts and not giving Hogan his cut. 

Around the same time period, Vince McMahon Jr. called Hogan and pitched the idea of Hogan being the centerpiece of his WWF expansion.  Hogan, frustrated with Gagne, was gone without notice.  That was the first stake in the AWA's heart.  Hogan being gone didn't stop the AWA from advertising he would be appearing at events he was scheduled for - and of course he didn't appear.  That was stake number two as now fans had been baited and switched. 

The third stake was the WWF's national expansion as Vince McMahon tried to buy the AWA out.  Verne balked, likely believing, as many did, that McMahon was full of it and would never succeed.  So, Vince hired everyone he could from Jesse Ventura to Hogan to Bobby Heenan and all of them, except Heenan, left without notice.  Some did because of unhappiness over pay.  Some claimed they were told to do so. Either way, it was crippling to the AWA, which was never again the powerhouse it once was.  It was around this time that Gagne, according to The Iron Sheik, offered Sheik a big payday to break Hogan's leg in the bout where Hogan won the WWF title.  Although Gagne was his original trainer, Sheik remained loyal to McMahon.

Gagne continued on, even getting a cable slot on ESPN.  Based on stories that have been told, Gagne didn't seem to realize how technology was changing before his eyes and according to former AWA announcer Larry Nelson's book Stranglehold, Gagne would ask him how the show looked and was, because Verne didn't have cable where he lived.  While the AWA maintained a weekly show locally and on ESPN as well as live specials on the cable network (imagine if someone had THAT today), the WWF was growing stronger by the week, with better production values, the AWA's old stars and the biggest star period, Hulk Hogan.  It was likely a matter of time. 

I've seen some blame the heavy push Verne's son Greg Gagne received as one of the causes of the company's issues, but I don't believe that to be the case - Greg was certainly a draw as one half of the High-Flyers tag team with Jim Brunzell but even if he didn't click with the masses as a singles star, it really didn't matter who was in that position.  Similar to TNA today - there were bigger issues in the AWA that needed to be addressed and Gagne wasn't able to step into the future (or hire someone with that foresight) in order to compete with the WWF.

That said, the AWA was able to stave off the bleeding, at least in the beginning, due to the rise of The Road Warriors, who at the time were the biggest stars in wrestling outside of Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair and were legitimate drawing cards for the company.  In an attempt to cut McMahon off at the pass, a number of other promoters including Gagne and Jim Crockett of the NWA and others formed Pro Wrestling USA, with the idea being they would share talent and tape TV together and create a super-promotion to ward off McMahon and erode his troupe's popularity.  As you might imagine, it didn't last long.

There were bright spots over the last few years of the promotion.  They had a toy line and a VHS tape series deal, although the success of those paled in comparison to the success of what WWF had produced.  The AWA provided the first national exposure for the Midnight Rockers, Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty.  Curt Hennig, the soon to be Mr. Perfect, was an excellent AWA World champion after defeating Nick Bockwinkel.  Larry Zbsyzko had his World title runs.  Lots of other names who went on to become huge stars in the business including Scott Norton, Paul Heyman, Diamond Dallas Page, Kevin "Nailz" Walcholz, Madusa, The Patriot (at the time, The Trooper) and even Eric Bischoff, who came to the AWA seeking a venue to advertise toys he and partner Sonny Onno had created and ended up taking a job in the office before one day being put in front of the camera as an interviewer, had their initial breaks with the company or runs early enough that it certainly helped them in the long-run.

The company even produced the first-ever live wrestling PPV outside of the WWF and Jim Crockett Promotions.  Superclash III on 12/13/89 was headlined by Jerry Lawler defeating Kerry Von Erich to unify the AWA and World Class championships (it didn't last long) and an undercard made up of matches from the AWA, World Class, Memphis talents and even David McLane's POWW.  While the show at the time was entertaining, it didn't make money, not even with the ESPN exposure.    There was talk of talents who were never paid but whether that was true or sour grapes over low pay when the expected windfall from the PPV didn't come in, I don't know.

The AWA limped on until 1991, when it finally shut down. The Team Challenge Series that came at the end of it's life was in many ways, laughable and a long journey from what the promotion had been founded on. 

Still, in the end, the final nail in the coffin was most likely the decision by the government to declare ownership over a big piece of Gagne's property via eminent domain.  Now Gagne was fighting in court to keep what he had earned and bought for himself with all his hard work at the risk of losing it for a fraction of what it was worth.  In the end, Gagne lost, and with it went the money that the property was worth as well as everything he had lost in the court case and in the AWA's promotional war with WWF.  A proud man who worked hard and wrestled hard for what he earned, Gagne had lost it all.  Personal bankruptcy soon followed and the Boxing & Wrestling Club was no more.

Nostalgia for the AWA lived on locally for some time as Verne and Greg would host a local AWA Classics series for a time in Minnesota but the past could never truly be recaptured.  It could, however, be celebrated.  Verne Gagne was one of the first inductees into the WCW Hall of Fame in May 1993 when Eric Bischoff launched Slamboree: A Legend's Reunion as an annual PPV event.  He would become a member of the first Hall of Fame class for the Lou Thesz & George Tragos Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, which at the time was a Hall where the members were chosen for their work as professionals as well as their work in the amateur wrestling world.  Gagne would later be voted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, NY. 

Finally, after the AWA video library was sold to the WWF, Verne would be inducted into the WWE Hall in 2006 and WWE would later made a documentary DVD about the AWA.  The Hall of Fame would prove to be one of Verne's last appearances publicly outside of the Minnesota area and he even got the last laugh at one point, joking how he never liked Vince McMahon, which brought the house down in Chicago.

As Verne grew older, he began experiencing a number of health issues.  At first, they would never be publicly explained but he would end up missing advertised convention appearances and his son would explain that his father had become too ill to travel.  It was later revealed that Gagne was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and dementia after an incident in a Minnesota nursing home where he tossed his roommate, breaking the man's hip and eventually causing his death.  Gagne had no recollection of the issue happening and his roommate had no recollection either and couldn't understand why he was hurt.  The story was picked up nationally because of Gagne's connection as a wrestler and it was a sad story, one that shouldn't have been the way the general public last heard of Verne Gagne.

So, we'll end it on another one.   In 2012, "The Wrestler" returned to theaters locally in Minnesota as part of a celebration of the film.  Verne had not been well (and wasn't well enough to even sign autographs) but attended the screening and absolutely loved that the film was being shown and that people wanted to see it.  He hadn't been seen publicly in years but had a huge smile on his face, getting a chance to see the good old days on the silver screen and share it with people who loved them as much as him.  That's the ending we all deserve and at least in this article, it's the one we'll give Verne Gagne.

The news of Gagne's passing was acknowledged late Monday by WWE and is already a news story locally within the Minnesota area. 

On behalf of everyone associated with PWInsider.com, I'd like to express our deepest condolences to the family, friends and fans of a truly all time great, Verne Gagne.

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