Legendary wrestler and promoter Verne Gagne died Monday surrounded by his family in Minnesota, according to close friends. He was 89.
News of his death reverberated through the wrestling world in tweets and Facebook posts that paid tribute to the Robbinsdale High School wrestler who went on to make a mark in the worlds of both amateur and professional wrestling.
Gagne, whose wrestling career spanned from 1949 to 1985, defined wrestling in Minnesota, according the Minnesota Sports Almanac.
“He was a pioneer in modern day era wrestling,” said Gene Okerlund, longtime friend and announcer for Gagne’s All Star Wrestling show that originated in a studio near Lake Calhoun. “He was the one of the first guys who became a television star. He was one of the first good-looking young guys. And I mean he was a real baby face. The gals loved him, the guys respected him because he was also one of the tough-nosed guys.”
Gagne was a 10-time American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Champion and was later inducted into both the WWE and WCW Hall of Fame in addition to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Gagne, who was a two-time NCAA wrestling champion in 1948-49 at the University of Minnesota and an alternate in the 1948 Olympics, took what he knew from amateur wrestling and brought it to the professional ring, Okerlund said.
Gagne, who took over ownership of the AWA, was a showman, he said. “He was clever enough and good enough to take that into television and market it and create a persona that became bigger than life. He was a stickler for making things look good in the ring. He gave it legitimacy. It was perceived as the real deal.”
Okerlund said Gagne often would show off his cauliflower ears and his gnarly knuckles. “He wanted you to know that this wasn’t a sport for sissies.”
In 2009, Gagne, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, was living in the memory care unit at Friendship Village in Bloomington. He was involved in a clash with another resident, also an Alzheimer’s patient. The man later died from complications from a broken right hip. No charges were filed in the incident.
Gagne then moved in with family members.