411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2008: Verne Gagne
If each age of professional wrestling were to run parallel to one another, with the key participants having doppelgangers in each era, Verne Gagne would be the Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin and Bruno Sammartino of his era. His influence over both the in-ring and the business aspects of professional wrestling would make him one of the most important and influential people in the history of the form of entertainment we all love. As a wrestler, Gagne was adored by fans and admired by his peers. As a promoter he was powerful in the minds of fans respected by his fellow promoters. He had one of the most successful careers in the history of wrestling, and his spot in the 411Mania.com Hall of Fame is long overdue.
Growing up in Minnesota, Gagne was exposed to wrestling early, competing in and winning state championships. Following his success in grade school, he moved on to compete for the University of Minnesota where he won 2 NCAA Championships. His success in wrestling didn’t immediately lead to a run as a professional wrestler, though he did manage to be a part of the 1948 Olympic Team as an alternate in freestyle wrestling competition. He would spend a couple years in the NFL, having been drafted by the Chicago Bears, though this career in football wouldn’t amount to much success. It was at this time that Gagne decided to go back to doing what he did best, and that was wrestle.
Gagne started his career out in the NWA’s Chicago territory, which was one of the most recognized territories due to their heavy TV presence on the Dumont Network. While wrestling in Chicago, Gagne was able to capture the NWA Junior Heavyweight Championship a mere three years into his career, which in those times was quite an accomplishment. Three years later, Gagne became the United States Heavyweight Championship (Chicago Version) when he was awarded the title as the first champion. He would win that title one other time, defeating Dick The Bruiser in 1958. He also held the Chicago version of the World Tag Team Championship with partner Edouard Carpentier.
Despite being the biggest name in one of the biggest and most recognized territories of the NWA and holding a disputed NWA World Title that he’d won from Carpentier in 1958 (Carpentier was stripped of the title due to political reasons. The title was returned to previous champion Lou Thesz. Some NWA Territories refused to recognized Thesz as champion therefore, when Gagne one the title, he was the recognized World Champion to several of the territories), the NWA would not allow a match to decide who was the real NWA World Champion. Frustrated with the NWA’s political dealings, Gagne and Chicago promoter Wally Karbo led several of the territories out of the NWA to form the American Wrestling Association. Giving NWA World Champion Pat O’Connor the task of defending the NWA World Title against Verne Gagne within 90 days or Gagne would be awarded the title. O’Connor never showed up to defend his title and Verne Gagne was made the first ever AWA World Heavyweight Champion.
As promoter and wrestler in the AWA, Gagne was able to run the show as he saw fit. He would be the centerpiece of the organization, holding the World Title a total of 10 times over the next 11 years of his career. He would exchange the title with the likes of Gene Kiniski, Mr. M, The Crusher, Fritz Von Erich, Maurice Vachon, Dr. X and Nick Bockwinkel. Gagne was one of the most successful and popular wrestlers of this era headlining some of the biggest shows in history up to that point. A show in Comiskey Park in 1970 where Gagne would retain his title after a 2 out of 3 falls match. There was also the 1972 Soldier Field event where Gagne and Billy Robinson wrestled a tremendous match that would be used later in a made-for-TV movie. However, the most important match in the career of Verne Gagne may have been his second major meeting with Billy Robinson on September 7th 1974 from Comiskey Park. These events were what made the AWA one of the most popular promotions in wrestling at the time.
Wrestling was not the only success Verne Gagne had. He was also successful on the small screen. He was the star and executive producer of a film called “The Wrestler”. The film still holds up as one of the best professional wrestling movies ever produced. Along with Gagne the film starred Ed Asner, Lord James Blears, Dick Murdoch, Superstar Billy Graham, Dusty Rhodes and Billy Robinson.
Besides his successes as a promoter and in-ring performer, Verne Gagne was also one of the top-wrestling trainers of all time. The list of stars trained by Gagne reads like a who’s who of professional wrestling in the 70′s and 80′s. Some of the wrestlers he trained are: Ric Flair, Curt Hennig, Greg Gagne, Bob Backlund, Ken Patera, Buddy Rose, Ricky Steamboat, Ole Anderson, Iron Sheik, Sgt. Slaughter, Larry Hennig, both Nasty Boys, Scott Norton and Blackjack Mulligan. He was able to promote AWA, wrestle full-time and train some of the greatest wrestlers all at the same time.
Gagne would announce his retirement in 1980, but would have one last match, for the AWA World Heavyweight Title against the champion Nick Bockwinkel on June 18, 1980 in Chicago. Verne would go on to win the match and his 10th and final World Title. He would retire while still champion. His career in the ring wouldn’t completely end, but his appearances would lessen to just a few major events including Super Sunday where he would team with Mad Dog Vachon to face Adnan Al-Kassie and Jerry Blackwell and WrestleRock ’86 where he would face Sheik Adnan Al-Kassie in a steel cage.
As a promoter, Verne Gagne was one of the all-time greats. The AWA was considered one of the top three promotions from it’s earliest days until its demise in 1991. He was able to draw in stars such as Hulk Hogan, The Road Warriors, The Fabulous Freebirds, Curt Hennig, Dick The Bruiser, The Crusher, Larry Zbyszko, Sgt. Slaughter, Rick Martel, Stan Hansen, Shawn Michaels, Harley Race, Bob Backlund and many others. He was able to promote some of the biggest supershows in the business from venues such as The Metrodome in Minneapolis, The Civic Center in St. Paul, Soldier Field and Comiskey Park in Chicago and the Cow Palace in San Francisco. He discovered some of the biggest stars of the business and the AWA became a stepping-stone for many to achieve legendary status in the world of professional wrestling. If not for one or two stubborn decisions, we might be watching the AWA on WGN every Saturday night as they tour around the world.
Why Verne Gagne was selected…
The influence of Verne Gagne over professional wrestling is unmatched. He provided the biggest names in the history of wrestling with either their training or their first big break. If not for Verne Gagne, we may have never seen Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat, Hulkamania or even WrestleMania. Verne Gagne used his incredible in-ring skill to wow the fans and turn his renegade promotion into an internationally known wrestling powerhouse.