There was a barn on Verne Gagne’s farm near Lake Riley in Eden Prairie. It was that unheated barn where Verne and Billy Robinson would hold a wrestling school, in Gagne’s search for new talent for his American Wrestling Association.
Gagne’s son Greg was in the group that started in September 1972. “Wrestling was going strong and we had a huge number of guys show up … over 100,” the younger Gagne said. “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.”
Greg said every workout finished with what his father and Robinson referred to as Hour Six: “One guy in the ring, the others lined up coming at him one after another, and Verne or Billy shouting out the moves … arm bar, headlock, body slam — boom, boom, boom.
“A few minutes of that, you would be sweating like you couldn’t believe. Then, you would go to the end of line. It would be 10, 15 degrees in that barn in the winter, you’d start shivering, and by the time you got back in the ring, you felt like one of those cartoon characters … like you were going to crack into pieces.”
The workouts ended in January and Verne shipped out quite a graduating class: Ric Flair, Bob Bruggers, the Iron Sheik, Ken Patera, Jim Brunzell and his “High Flyers” partner, Greg Gagne.
“I think the number is 144 wrestlers that Verne trained and turned professional, most in that barn and almost all of us main-eventers,” Greg said on Tuesday.
Verne Gagne died Monday at age 89. He was a Marine, a two-time NCAA wrestling champion and played football for the Gophers. In 1949, Gagne turned to professional wrestling. His fame was made as one of the stars of the wrestling shows on the early DuMont Television Network.
Gagne was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease more than a decade ago. In January 2009, there was an incident in a senior living facility where Verne got into a dispute with a 97-year-old man, who landed on the floor, broke his hip and later died.
The original story of a body slam was rejected by Bloomington police. “My father’s conduct in this was greatly overstated; I’ll leave it at that,” Greg said.
Verne went to live with his daughter, Beth, and her husband, Will Ahern. “Beth and Will have been great, as has my sister Kathy, but the real hero in the family has been our sister, Donna,” Greg said. “She was with Verne every day, for three or four hours, tending to his needs.”
Following World War II, Americans were hungry for entertainment, and pro wrestling filled a void.
“Television was in its infancy, and needed programming,” said wrestling historian George Schire. “DuMont televised a weekly wrestling show from Chicago, with Verne, Buddy Rogers, Gorgeous George, Wilbur Snyder and Lou Thesz as the stars. The ratings were huge.”
The National Wrestling Alliance started in 1948, dominating the country and assigning the territory. “It was enough of a monopoly that the Justice Department was conducting an investigation in the late ’50s,” Schire said.
Gagne and his partner, Wally Karbo, bought the promotion for the NWA’s Minneapolis territory in 1959. One year later, they formed an independent company, the American Wrestling Association, and it would wind up sprawling from Chicago to San Francisco.
That is the era that Minnesotans remember: Verne representing wholesomeness, the Crusher, Mad Dog Vachon and Baron Von Raschke representing evil (until they made a righteous turn); the weekly TV shows from the Channel 11 studios at the Calhoun Beach Tower; Verne selling Gera-Speed vitamins; Karbo threatening fines and suspensions; Marty O’Neill with his sunglasses being threatened in between-match interviews; and later, Mean Gene Okerlund in that role.
“I had been on radio, and then I was selling for Channel 11,” Okerlund said. “Marty couldn’t make one taping, and nobody could find [play-by-play announcer] Roger Kent, so Verne saw me in the hall and said, ‘We need you to do the interviews.’
“I said, ‘Verne, I know zero about wrestling.’ He said, ‘Do you have a suit and tie? That’s all you need.’ There were a few bucks involved, so I dived in.”
Okerlund said his first interview was with Nick Bockwinkel and manager Bobby Heenan, and soon they were being jumped from behind. “I just acted terrified, and Verne brought me back the next week,” Okerlund said.
O’Neill came back after the broadcasters’ union ended a work stoppage at Channel 11. Marty and Mean Gene shared the interviews for a time.
“Verne and Wally were beauties,” Okerlund said. “You would ask Wally about money and he’d say, ‘Verne handles that.’ You would go to Verne and he’d say, ‘That’s Wally’s department.’ ”
Not just show
Verne was the owner, the 10-time heavyweight champion and the trainer of talent for the AWA, all wrapped into one. He didn’t have time to listen to grievances.
Greg Gagne laughed slightly and said: “The talent would go to Wally when they had a complaint. Wally would start talking in that roundabout way of his, with his accent, and when he was done, the wrestler would be so confused he had forgotten what he was mad about in the first place.”
Schire said what made Gagne unique among people who controlled other organizations and territories was his devotion to the wrestling aspect of the entertainment.
“Verne insisted that you be a wrestler first,” Schire said. “That’s what the intense training was about. He wanted you to be able to put on a good display of wrestling, and also to protect yourself in the ring. His philosophy was, ‘You become a real wrestler, and then we’ll add the character.’ ”
Verne remained physically fit even as he aged. “He still was in good shape when he had his last match in 1986, at age 60,” Schire said.
In 1984, Vince McMahon’s organization — now the WWE — came in with big bucks and slick television and started hiring away Gagne’s top talent. Okerlund wound up as a star interviewer for McMahon, and still works for the WWE today.
“Verne tried to compete for a few years, and I think it cost him a hunk of his fortune,” Okerlund said. “It was too bad. I wish he’d kept all his money and put on local cards in Red Wing.”