Today In Wrestling History
Born February 26, 1926 in Robbinsdale, Minnesota and growing up on a farm in Cocoran, Minnesota, he was a three-sport athlete in high school, but his best by far was wrestling (he had won district, regional, and state titles in high school wrestling). A member of the All-State football team in high school, he was recruited to play for the University of Minnesota and made the All-Big Ten Team three times.
Gagne enlisted with the Underwater Demolition Team after his freshman year, a Special Forces Naval unit, but ultimately returned to the University of Minnesota. He would be a two-time NCAA champion in wrestling and was an alternate for the US freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympic Games.
Gagne was drafted in the sixteenth round of the NFL Draft (145th overall) in 1947. But with Bears owner George Halas not exactly approving of Verne being both a footballer and a wrestler (Bears great Bronko Nagurski went a similar route), Verne had to make a choice. He went with wrestling. In a 2006 interview, Verne’s son Greg said that wrestling paid much better than football during that time.
In 1949, Verne turned to professional wrestling. He started in Texas. In his pro debut, he defeated Abe Kashey (in a bit of trivia, former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey was the referee). Success came quickly for Gagne, as he would win the NWA Junior Heavyweight Championship in November 1950. In 1953, he added the NWA United States Championship (Chicago version). His superior technique made Verne a hit with home audiences in television’s early days. It’s speculated that Verne during this time made about $100,000 a year (nearly $1 million in today’s dollars).
In August 1958, Gagne defeated Edouard Carpentier for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. This was a bit of a dispute, as some territories still considered Lou Thesz as the champion. Gagne dropped the title just three months later to Wilbur Snyder. With more than enough money in the bank, Gagne tried his hand at promoting.
In 1960, Verne formed the American Wrestling Association (AWA for short) and became its top star. Then-NWA champion Pat O’Connor was its first champion, but after the NWA put the kibosh on a Gagne-O’Connor title match (as in they pretty much ignored it), Verne awarded himself the title. Gagne’s basis for the AWA was a technical, grapple-based style as opposed to a flashy sports entertainment style that would be popularized in the 1980s. Gagne would hold the AWA world championship ten times; his ninth reign lasted from August 31, 1968 to November 8, 1975, a span of 2,625 days (not just the longest ever, but longer than the next two longest reigns combined).
Gagne wrestled as a face his entire career, feuding with the likes of Gene Kinski, Dr. Bill Miller, Fritz Von Erich, The Crusher, Ray Stevens, Mad Dog Vachon, Larry Hennig, and Nick Bockwinkel. Gagne not only wrestled and promoted, but he also trained wrestlers on his farm in Cocoran, Minnesota. He would have a hand in training nearly 100 wrestlers including his son Greg, Larry and Curt Hennig, Gene and Ole Anderson, Ric Flair, Bob Backlund, The Iron Sheik, and Baron Von Raschke.
Verne’s insistence on not embracing sports entertainment would come to haunt him in the 1980s. Hulk Hogan, at the time the company’s biggest draw (thanks in part to his cameo in Rocky III), was not seen as championship material as he had a powerhouse style. That was pretty much the opposite of Gagne’s booking philosophy. Hogan did get to feud with then-AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel, but refused to concede revenue from merchandise sales and what he made from his bouts in Japan. Late in the year, Hogan left Gagne’s AWA for the World Wrestling Federation. Verne was none too happy about it, as he tried to bribe one of his trainees The Iron Sheik to break Hogan’s leg (both Sheik and Hogan confirm this allegation).
Despite a mass exodus of talent from the company, the AWA was ahead of most every other promotion outside of the WWF in expanding nationally. They got a five-day-a-week timeslot on ESPN, AWA Championship Wrestling. But the show was hardly a priority for the sports network as it often was either pre-empted for live sports events or moved around the schedule with little or no warning or advertising. As over-the-top, charismatic performers took over the wrestling landscape, the AWA lagged further and further behind in the minds of wrestling fans. With live attendance and ratings virtually nonexistent compared to the WWF and the rebranded WCW, the AWA shut down in 1991. Gagne himself would file for bankruptcy in 1993.
In April 2006, Verne Gagne was inducted by his son into the WWE Hall of Fame. Gagne is just one of six men inducted into the WWE, WCW, Professional Wrestling, and Wrestling Observer Newsletter Halls of Fame.
In 2009, Gagne, at the time 72, got into an altercation with 97-year old Helmut Gutmann at a nursing home in Bloomington, Minnesota. The altercation resulted in a fall of some sort. Neither man had recollection of the incident (Gagne suffered from Alzheimer’s disease or CTE due to numerous head injuries), and Gutmann died of his injuries a few weeks later. The death was ruled a homicide. However, Gagne was not charged as it was ruled he did not have the mental capacity necessary to have harmed Guttman intentionally.
Verne continued to make public appearances with his son Greg in his final days. At the time of his death, he was survived by four children and six grandchildren.