Gagne in 1964
|Birth name||Laverne Clarence Gagne|
|Born||February 26, 1926|
Corcoran, Minnesota, U.S.
|Died||April 27, 2015 (aged 89)|
Bloomington, Minnesota, U.S.
|Professional wrestling career|
|Ring name(s)||Verne Gagne|
|Billed height||5 ft 11 in (1.80 m)|
|Billed weight||215 lb (98 kg)|
|Trained by||Joe Pazandak|
Laverne Clarence Gagne (February 26, 1926 – April 27, 2015) was an American professional wrestler, amateur wrestler, football player, wrestling trainer, and wrestling promoter. He was the owner and promoter of the Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association (AWA), the predominant promotion throughout the Midwest and Manitoba for many years. He remained in this position until 1991, when the company folded.
As an amateur wrestler, Gagne won two NCAA titles and was an alternate for the U.S freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympic Games before turning professional in 1949. Gagne was a 16-time World Heavyweight Champion, having held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship ten times, the World Heavyweight Championship (Omaha version) five times, and the IWA World Heavyweight Championship once. He holds the record for the longest combined reign as a world champion and is third (behind Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz) for the longest single world title reign. He is one of only seven men inducted into each of the WWE, WCW and Professional Wrestling halls of fame.
Gagne was born in Corcoran, Minnesota and grew up on a farm in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. He left home at the age of 14 after his mother died. He went to Robbinsdale High School and excelled in football, baseball and wrestling, winning district, regional, and state championships in high school wrestling, as well as being named to the All-State Football Team. In 1943, he was recruited to play football at the University of Minnesota, where he was named to the All-Big Ten Team.
After one year of college, Gagne enlisted with the Navy Underwater Demolition Team. He chose to return to the University of Minnesota, where, as an amateur wrestler, he captured two NCAA titles. He was also an alternate for the U.S freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympic Games; he later said that he might have wrestled in the Olympics, but his coaches had discovered that he had earned money winning a wrestling match at a carnival, thus putting his amateur standing in question.
Gagne joined the National Football League (NFL) soon after being drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 16th round (145th pick) of the 1947 NFL Draft. Bears owner George Halas prevented Gagne from pursuing both football and wrestling (likely due to former Bears Football Hall of Fame great Bronko Nagurski having moonlighted as a professional wrestler during the height of his NFL career), and forced Gagne to make a choice. In a 2006 interview for WWE, Gagne's son Greg mentioned that wrestling was a much better paying job at the time than playing football (as recently as the 1970s, it was not uncommon for NFL players to have a second job during the NFL offseason to help make ends meet), and as a result, Verne chose wrestling over football.
Professional wrestling career
National Wrestling Alliance
In 1949, Gagne decided to wrestle professionally, starting his career in Texas. In his debut, he defeated Abe Kashey, with former World Heavyweight boxing Champion Jack Dempsey as the referee. On November 13, 1950, Gagne captured the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Junior Heavyweight title in a tournament for the vacant championship.
In September 1953 in Fred Kohler Enterprises, Gagne was awarded the newly-created Chicago version of the NWA United States Championship. Gagne became one of the most well-known stars in wrestling during the golden age of television, thanks to his exposure on the Dumont Network, where he wowed audiences with his technical prowess. He was rumored to be one of the highest paid wrestlers during the 1950s, reportedly earning a hundred thousand dollars a year.
On June 14, 1957, Edouard Carpentier defeated NWA Champion Lou Thesz in Chicago. The NWA later overruled the decision of the referee in Chicago and gave the title back to Thesz. However, certain wrestling territories of the NWA including Nebraska refused to go along with the decision and continued to recognize Carpentier. Carpentier lost his title to Gagne in Omaha on August 9, 1958, making him the recognized NWA World champion in the NWA territories that had recognized Carpentier, before dropping the belt three months later to Wilbur Snyder. By early 1960, the highly wealthy Gagne rarely wrestled and turned his focus towards building a wrestling promotion of his own.
American Wrestling Association
In 1960, Gagne formed his own promotion, the American Wrestling Alliance (later it became Association). Before this, the Minneapolis territory was under the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) umbrella. Setting up to pull away from the NWA, the Minneapolis territory (as it was known), gave a "story-line only" edict to the NWA in May 1960 that unless their NWA World Champion Pat O'Connor defended his title to Verne Gagne with 90 days, Verne Gagne would become recognized World Champion by default. There was never any intention of such a match taking place. At the end of the 90 period, the AWA was formed in August 1960 and it was announced that because NWA champion Pat O'Connor failed to meet Gagne, that the AWA recognized Gagne as the first AWA World Champion.
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, The Crusher, Ray Stevens, Mad Dog Vachon, Larry 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. Seeing Hogan as the company's top draw, Gagne did, however, let Hogan feud with Bockwinkel. Eventually, as noted on the 2006 Spectacular Legacy of AWA DVD, Gagne settled with making Hogan his champion after Hogan's feud with Bockwinkel ran its course in April 1983, but only under the condition that he would receive the bulk of the revenue Hogan made from both merchandise sales and his matches in Japan. Hogan refused. In late 1983, Hogan accepted an offer from Vincent K. McMahon to return to the WWF. The Iron Sheik, whom Gagne trained, has alleged that he was offered a cash bribe by the AWA's owner to inflict career threatening damage on Hogan's knee after it became apparent that he was going to go to the WWF.
What followed was a purge of stars from various territories and promotions, including Gagne's AWA, by Vince McMahon, who wished to take his WWF "national" and do away with the traditional territorial system that dominated the North American pro wrestling landscape for decades. Unlike most of his contemporaries, by the mid 1980s, Gagne began promoting the AWA beyond the geographical bounds of the company's traditional territory. In September 1985, ESPN began broadcasting AWA Championship Wrestling, granting the AWA national exposure similar to what the World Wrestling Federation was experiencing. However, the AWA suffered numerous setbacks; AWA Championship Wrestling wasn't treated as a priority by ESPN, the show was sometimes not aired in its regular timeslot, sometimes it was preempted by live sporting events and occasional changes in timeslots without advertising the changes resulted in many fans being unable to tune in on a regular basis. Gagne's booking strategies for the wrestlers themselves continued to be more old school than those of the WWF in that Gagne felt the biggest stars should be the most talented technical wrestlers instead of wrestlers with charismatic personas and over-the-top personalities. Throughout the mid to late 1980s, the AWA would lose nearly every one of its top stars while ratings and live attendance continued to decline. By 1991, the damage had been done, and the AWA shut down, after 30 years. Gagne would eventually end up in bankruptcy court.
Hall of Famer
Death of Helmut Gutmann
On January 26, 2009, Gagne got into an altercation with Helmut Gutmann, a 97-year-old resident of the Bloomington, Minnesota facility where they both resided. According to Gutmann's widow, who was not present during the altercation, Gagne picked Gutmann up and hurled him to the floor, then broke his hip by pulling back on his body. "'The attack happened quickly while the men were at a table,' Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts said. 'It was more like "a push and a shove" and it caused Gutmann to fall.'"
Neither man had any recollection of the incident. Gutmann was admitted to the hospital, and died on February 14 from complications of the injury. On February 25, 2009, the older man's death was officially ruled a homicide by the Hennepin County medical examiner's office. On March 12, 2009, the Hennepin County Prosecutor's office officially announced that Gagne would not be criminally charged as a result of the death as, because of Gagne's dementia, he lacked the mental capacity necessary to have intended to harm Gutmann.
Illness and death
Gagne was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease (or possibly chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by a lifetime of head injuries) and had been living in the memory-loss section of a Bloomington, Minnesota health care facility. In January 2012 (and possibly since the 2009 altercation), he was living in the home of his daughter Beth and her husband Will. He continued to make public appearances in his last years, aided by his son Greg.
On April 27, 2015, Gagne died in Bloomington at the age of 89.
Championships and accomplishments
- Amateur Athletic Union
- Northwestern AAU Championship (1942)
- NCAA Championship (1948, 1949)
- Big Ten Conference
- Big Ten Conference Championship (1944, 1947, 1948, 1949)
- Minnesota State High School League
- Minnesota State Championship (1943)
- National Collegiate Athletic Association
- NCAA Championship (1948, 1949)
- Olympic Games
- Cauliflower Alley Club
- Fred Kohler Enterprises
- George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Class of 1999
- International Pro Wrestling
- NWA Minneapolis Wrestling and Boxing Club / American Wrestling Association
- AWA World Heavyweight Championship (10 times)
- AWA World Tag Team Championship (4 times) – with Moose Evans (1), The Crusher (1), Billy Robinson (1), and Mad Dog Vachon (1)
- NWA World Tag Team Championship (Minneapolis version) (4 times) – with Bronko Nagurski (1), Leo Nomellini (2), and Butch Levy (1)
- World Heavyweight Championship (Omaha version) (5 times)
- AWA United States Heavyweight Championship (2 times)
- NWA Tri-State
- Pro Wrestling Illustrated
- Stanley Weston Award (1986)
- PWI ranked him No. 158 of the 500 best singles wrestlers during the "PWI Years" in 2003
- Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Robbinsdale High School's Athletic Hall of Fame
- Inaugural Class (2013)
- Southwest Sports, Inc.
- Tokyo Sports
- World Championship Wrestling
- World Wrestling Entertainment
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter
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