Verne Gagne (born February 26 1926) is a former American professional wrestler, football player, pro wrestling trainer, and wrestling promoter. He was the former owner/promoter of the American Wrestling Association (AWA), based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was the predominant promotion throughout the Midwest and Manitoba, Canada for many years. He remained in this position until 1991, when the company folded. His son Greg also wrestled professionally. He is part of both the WWE Hall of Fame and the WCW Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame.
Verne Gagne (born LaVerne Gagne) grew up on a farm in Corcoran, Minnesota. He left home at the age of 14 after his mother died. Verne 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, Verne was recruited to play football at the University of Minnesota, where he was named to the All-Conference Team. After one year of college, he enlisted with the United States Marine Corps
. Gagne chose to return to the University of Minnesota, where he enjoyed a successful amateur wrestling career that saw him capture two NCAA
titles, as well as being 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.
In 1949, Verne 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. In 1950, Gagne captured the NWA Junior Heavyweight title. In 1953, Gagne won the Chicago version of the NWA United States Championship. Verne 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.
Vern Gagne and his supporters lobbied for him to become NWA World Champion in the 1950s but this did not happen for various reasons due to the politics of the NWA. Gagne was eventually recognized as NWA Champion by some NWA territories through a series of events that occurred in the late 1950s. 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 Verne Gagne in Omaha in August 1958 making Verne Gagne the recognized NWA World champion in the NWA territories that had recognized Carpentier. Gagne held this disputed version of the NWA World title until the formation of the AWA in 1960.
National Football League (1947)
Verne joined the NFL soon after by being drafted in the 16th round (145th pick) of the 1947 NFL Draft
by the Chicago Bears
In 1960, Gagne formed his own promotion, the AWA
, instantly becoming its top star. That same year, Gagne was awarded the AWA World Heavyweight Championship
, after Pat O'Connor
failed to defend the title against the number one contender, Gagne. O'Connor had been the reigning NWA World champion and was advised by the new AWA to grant Gagne a title match within 90 days or else the AWA would declare Gagne the new AWA World champion. Verne would go on to become a ten-time AWA World Champion, a record for the promotion. He also had one of the longest World Title reigns in wrestling history, holding the AWA Title from August 31
until November 8
, a total of 7 years, when he finally lost the belt to Nick Bockwinkel
. As well as being the company's owner, Gagne would also train wrestlers from his farm in Chanhassen as well.
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 (Dick Beyer)
, The Crusher (Reggie Lisowski)
, Ray Stevens
, Mad Dog Vachon
and Nick Bockwinkel
. He always wrestled as a face
, and utilized the sleeper hold as his finisher.
Stars trained by Gagne
Despite already wrestling full-time and running one of the biggest promotions in North America, Gagne operated a training school that produced such stars as Ric Flair
, Ricky Steamboat
, Curt Hennig
, Gene Anderson
, Larry Heiniemi (Lars Anderson), Alan "Rock" Rogowski (Ole Anderson), Ken Patera
, Chris Taylor
, Baron Von Raschke
, Black Jack Lanza
, "Bulldog" Bob Brown
, Jim Brunzell
, his son Greg Gagne
, John Nord
(The Barbarian), George Balgobin and more. Verne retired from in ring competition in 1981 as the AWA World Champion, becoming one of the few wrestlers to retire as a World titlist.
Dealings with Hulk Hogan
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 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 of 1983, but only under the condition that he would receive the bulk of the revenue Hogan made off of both merchandise sales and from his matches in Japan; Hogan refused.
In late 1983, Hogan accepted an offer from Vincent K. McMahon to go to the WWF. Allegedly, Gagne offered The Iron Sheik $100,000 to break Hogan's leg during their World Title Match, with the intention that he return to the AWA with the belt. Supposedly Sheik refused the offer and informed Hogan, the McMahons, and Pat Patterson about the planned double cross, and Hulkamania was born. However, Gagne claims the deal was never made. The Iron Sheik, however, still confirmed that Gagne did try to give him this bribe during an interview on the 2005 Greatest Superstars of the '80's WWE DVD.
Demise of the AWA
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 years. The AWA suffered perhaps the most damage, losing nearly every one of its top stars in the mid to late 1980s. By 1991, the damage had been done, and the AWA shut down, after 30 years.
WWE Hall of Fame
In April 2006, Verne Gagne was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame
by his son, Greg Gagne. Verne Gagne is one of the few wrestlers to be in the WWE Hall of Fame, WCW Hall of Fame, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, and Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame.
Championships and accomplishments
Verne trained or helped train 93 wrestlers, including:
- Dave Meltzer & John F. Molinaro (2002). Top 100 Pro Wrestlers of all Time. Winding Stair Press.