Mat pioneer Verne Gagne helped shape industry

One of wrestling’s most iconic figures, Verne Gagne also worked as a major promoter and helped shape the careers of some of the profession’s biggest stars.

The impact of Verne Gagne’s influence on professional wrestling may never be fully known.

But it can be said that if there had never been a Verne Gagne, pro wrestling most certainly would be the poorer for it.

Gagne, who passed away last week at the age of 89 after an extended battle with Alzheimer’s disease, was an Olympic-caliber athlete who excelled in football and wrestling in college, and parlayed those skills to the pro wrestling arena where for decades he was one of the sport’s most celebrated performers and promoters.

The straight-laced, no-nonsense Gagne wore many hats during his lengthy career in the Midwest-based American Wrestling Association — as president, owner and main-event star. He held the AWA world title 10 times between 1960 and 1981 and was champion for a record 10 years during that period.

Even into his ‘70s, only Father Time and the changing tide of the wrestling business were able to slow him down. And later, but much more cruelly, Alzheimer’s disease robbed him of his mind and bountiful memories.

“Verne was one of the pioneers,” said Hall of Fame announcer Gene Okerlund, 72. “He put (pro wrestling) on the map in the early days when no one had seen it before.”

“He was a wrestler’s wrestler,” said Sean “X-Pac” Waltman, who grew up in Minnesota watching Gagne and the stars of the AWA.

The lives he touched in the wrestling business are far too numerous to mention. From those he trained and mentored, to whose he wrestled and helped launch to stardom, for decades Gagne was one of the most influential players in the wrestling profession.

Had it not been for Gagne, chances are there never would have been a “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.

Former wrestler and weight lifter Ken Patera, once known as “the world’s strongest man” and a gold medalist in the 1971 Pan American Games, recalled rooming with Flair during the early ‘70s in southern Minnesota before either got into the mat game.

He knew that Flair, then known as Richard Fliehr, wanted to break into the wrestling business.

“He never stopped bugging me about introducing him to Verne Gagne,” says Patera, now 71.

Flair had attended the University of Minnesota with Gagne’s son, Greg, and Jim Brunzell, both future wrestlers.

Patera obliged and took the then-23-year-old Flair to Gagne’s wrestling office. Initially Gagne refused to take Flair since he already had his limit of students at his training camp.

Patera, though, recalls doing a sales job on the veteran promoter, telling him about “the stack of wrestling magazines four feet high” that Flair had collected. (“I saw the pile at his parents’ house. It was actually four feet high,” Patera verified.)

“You gotta take this kid,” he implored Gagne. “He knows Greg, he knows Jim. “We’re roommates, he’s a good, big, athletic kid. He’s a natural for this business. He can do all the spots and moves like Ray Stevens.”

Gagne agreed to consider Patera’s request despite the fact that his camp was at capacity.

“Trust me, he won’t be in the way,” Patera assured Gagne, who trained the aspiring grapplers on his sprawling, 120-acre farm.

Gagne eventually consented, and the rest is history.

That class of trainees included the likes of Flair, Greg Gagne, Brunzell, Hossein Khosrow Vaziri (later known as The Iron Sheik) and former NFL linebacker Bob Bruggers. Patera would join the camp a couple of weeks after returning from the ill-fated 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

Out of the 150 or so wrestlers who were trained by Gagne, most had strong amateur backgrounds and most reached main-event status in the pro ranks.

Flair would later admit that he had never worked so hard in his life as he did during that harsh Midwestern winter, with Gagne and trainer Billy Robinson putting him through the paces of 500 free squats, 200 push-ups and 200 sit-ups.

The training, Greg Gagne told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, was grueling.

“Wrestling was going strong and we had a huge number of guys show up … over 100,” said Gagne. “The daily workout was six hours. The first hour was calisthenics. We lost half of the guys in the first hour of the first day.”

The ring, notes Patera, was inside one of Gagne’s unheated horse barns.

Along with learning the basics, trainees might even find themselves chopping wood and doing other physically taxing chores around the farm.

“He was a taskmaster without a question,” said Okerlund, who got his start in the business working for Gagne. “He demanded a lot out of people and he got a lot out of people.”

Those grueling workouts, though, would set the stage for Flair’s future reputation of being one of the most well-conditioned performers in the business.

“That was Ric’s role in life. He was meant to be in this business. He was meant to be the Nature Boy,” says Patera.

To Flair, Gagne was the man who instilled a never-say-die attitude in him. And, more than anything else, Gagne taught Flair and countless others to respect the business.

“Everyone needs someone to instill that type of attitude in them. For me it was Verne Gagne,” says Flair. “Verne took a green, raw kid who wanted to quit after two days of wrestling camp, and made me believe in myself. He made me who I am.”

Flair, indeed, tried to quit the camp, but Gagne convinced him otherwise.

“The sheer brutality of wrestling training made me want to quit a second time, but even more brutal was the thought of Verne coming for me and dragging me back like he had done once before,” recalls Flair. “Thank God I never had to find out. But that experience gave me tremendous respect for the business early on, and a respect I still have to this day. He instilled the basics and the toughness in me that I would be able to take throughout my career. I will always thank him for that.”

Former NWA world champion Dory Funk Jr. recalls getting his feet wet in the business in the early ‘60s when his father and trainer, Dory Funk Sr., brought Gagne to the Amarillo territory to wrestle his son.

“You will never learn to be a great worker unless you have the opportunity to wrestle the best in the business,” Funk Sr. told his son.

“Learning from Verne Gagne impacted my whole life in such a positive way,” said Funk Jr. “Verne Gagne was a man of his word, a great professional wrestler and a world-class athlete.”

Funk says he earned a true wrestling education that night in the ring with Gagne.

“That night I had the privilege of wrestling Verne Gagne to a 60-minute draw for the AWA world championship in front of a capacity crowd at the Amarillo Sports Arena,” said Funk.

“Dad always said that the really great amateur wrestlers within the wrestling business always had respect for each other. Verne Gagne was a friend of my father born of admiration for each other in business, professional wrestling and amateur wrestling.”

Just how good was Gagne?

A statement attributed to the legendary Jim Londos provides a pretty good clue.

“You take this kid Verne Gagne. Well, he could have tied most of the wrestlers of 20 years ago in knots.”

Now that was high praise.

LaVerne Clarence “Verne” Gagne was one of the most decorated athletes in Minnesota sports history.

The essence of sportsmanship and epitome of wholesomeness, the clean-cut, personable Gagne became an institution in his native Minnesota.

Gagne, whose name is engraved on the school’s wall of champions, won four Big Ten championships and was the program’s first three-time All-America (1947, 1948 and 1949) and first two-time NCAA champion (1948 and 1949).

He was an alternate for the U.S. freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympics in London, and won the AAU championship in 1949.

“Verne represents what’s great about the University of Minnesota and our wrestling program,” Director of Athletics Norwood Teague said in a school release. “He was an incredible athlete — Big Ten champ, national champ, Olympian — but he also selflessly served his country, took academics seriously and used the opportunity provided through college athletics to lead a successful life and give back to his alma mater. Verne’s legacy is a lasting example our student-athletes can all aspire to achieve.”

Although the bulk of his collegiate success came on the mat, Gagne also earned All-Big Ten honors in football at Minnesota.

Gagne, a product of a hardscrabble upbringing that would help him develop the physical and mental toughness for which he became famous, received a football scholarship from the University of Minnesota where he joined coach George Hauser’s Golden Gophers and became the youngest man ever to start for the university’s football team.

He left after one year, however, to join the Marines at the end of World War II, but returned to school in 1946, winning three more conference titles and a pair of NCAA championships and earning a spot on the 1948 Olympic wrestling team.

When his collegiate career was over, and after discovering that he could make more money and have greater longevity in pro wrestling than with George Halas’ Chicago Bears or Curly Lambeau’s Green Bay Packers, Gagne turned to pro wrestling in 1950 and never looked back.

During his prime Gagne was one of the best in-ring workers in the sport. With his good looks and impressive physique, he became a matinee idol in the ‘50s during the Golden Age of televised wrestling, earning widespread exposure and one of the first six-figure salaries in the business.

Gagne was, indeed, the gold standard in an era when credibility, believability and pure skill were hallmarks of the profession.

In later years, though, Gagne and his AWA promotion would become a casualty of Vince McMahon’s national expansion. Gagne refused to adapt to the changing industry, and stars left en masse, business sharply declined, and the AWA closed its doors in 1991. Gagne left the profession he had loved, and eventually sold the AWA video library to WWE in 2003.

Gagne had been living with his daughter in Chanhassen, Minn., ever since a fatal confrontation in 2009 in a Bloomington retirement home.

Gagne, then 82, pushed Helmut Gutmann, a 97-year-old fellow resident in the memory-loss unit of the facility. Gutmann fell to the floor, broke his hip and later died.

While the death was ruled a homicide, Gagne was never charged due to his mental condition as he had no recollection any such thing happened.

Gagne had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, although some speculated that his condition could have been a result of or worsened by CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

His wife of 56 years, Mary, died in 2002.

ESPN’s highly acclaimed E:60 will present “WWE: Behind The Curtain,” a new one-hour documentary film featuring behind-the-scenes access to Vince McMahon’s billion-dollar global empire.

The show, which will premiere at 8 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN, follows three potential superstars on their grueling, high-stakes climb with dreams of making it to the big show, complemented by candid interviews with McMahon and Paul “Triple H” Levesque, as well as former WWE stars such as Steve Austin, The Rock and Hulk Hogan.

“Our goal was to tell a story that hadn’t been told about the WWE and their talent development system, NXT,” E:60 coordinating producer Ben Houser said Friday. “Who are the real-life people behind the characters? How does the WWE create characters? Evaluate performances?

“At our first behind-the-scenes NXT shoot in Orlando, Fla., at Full Saill University, we got resistance from some of the WWE television folks. No one had ever before been allowed to film rehearsals, backstage during an event, in the locker rooms, or interactions between agents and performers before and after matches.”

Levesque, however, granted the film crew access to those previously unseen areas.

“He even allowed some NXT stars to shoot on our hand-held E:60 mini cameras during practice and at home,” said Houser. “In the end, we came away with something both unique and compelling, and of the highest quality. Something we’re very much looking forward to sharing with fans.”

The award-winning Jeremy Schaap does his usual excellent job of reporting, and ESPN shows a personal, human side of the business.

The documentary is a riveting can’t-miss for wrestling fans. And when it’s over, you’ll never boo Adam Rose again.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or mooneyham@postandcourier.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.