For decades, body slams, drop-kicks and head scissors have been in a day’s work for a professional wrestler. Though the lifestyle is hardly ho-hum to everyday folks, even wrestlers have needed to escape the daily grind before it knocked them out like a Verne Gagne sleeper hold.
To cut loose, many from yesteryear headed outdoors and returned with stories as colorful as their wrestling glory. And in case the fish weren’t biting, they’d generate entertainment of their own.
Gagne’s son, Greg, a professional wrestling star in his own right from Minnesota in the 1970s and early ’80s, spoke of those personalities.
“What you saw back then is what you got,” he said. “They were that way inside and outside the ring, quite a bunch of interesting characters.”
Verne Gagne was an athletic legend in Minnesota. He played football at Robbinsdale High School and for the Gophers, and was drafted by the Chicago Bears. As a wrestler, he won two NCAA titles at Minnesota, was an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team in 1948, and was a pioneer in the professional ranks. He passed away in 2015 at the age of 89.
He and business partner Wally Karbo founded the Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association in the 1960s. In the process, they also combined their promotional efforts with their love of the outdoors.
The younger Gagne lives in Bloomington. He said that part of his father’s job involved wining and dining television executives to expand the AWA. As an incentive, they paid for annual hunting and fishing trips for some of the wrestlers and TV station managers within the association.
“I’d hear about all these [fishing and hunting] trips they went on. But I didn’t get a chance to go on them until I started wrestling,” said Greg, 68.
Once he began participating in those adventures, he found there was more to a fish story than the fish. They included rapid-fire hijinks.
AWA tag-team champion Larry “The Axe” Hennig, 80, currently resides in St. Cloud. In a separate interview, he also shared some stories to help Greg convey the flavor of unusual camaraderie.
The leeches of Mille Lacs
Ray “The Crippler” Stevens wasn’t just a great wrestler, he was an outstanding prankster, Greg said. One year, the wrestling group decided to fish Lake Mille Lacs, but Gagne and Stevens had a match in Denver the night before everyone else left on the trip. However, they made arrangements to arrive at camp the following day.
When they pulled in around noon, Greg said he and Stevens were fired up for fishing. But they quickly discovered the rest of the crew was just getting out of bed. They all had pounding headaches inspired by serious fun the previous night. Greg and Stevens didn’t dawdle, and got Hennig to join them. Their fishing guide grabbed a bucket of leeches, and the outboard sprayed waves into the afternoon.
After a time fishing, Greg said Hennig fell asleep hunched over his rod. Stevens, not one to pass up a golden opportunity, began taking leeches from the bait bucket and adorning Hennig with them. He put one on Hennig’s earlobe, a couple on both sides of his neck, then an eyebrow and finally the tip of his nose.
When Hennig finally came to, he started scratching. Then he recognized there was a leech on his nose and began pulling it. Greg said it was like a rubber band stretching back and forth without releasing. The guide suggested burning it off, so Stevens tried using his lit cigarette.
“Larry was ready to kill him in the boat,” Greg said. “You didn’t dare fall asleep around any of these guys. You didn’t know what would happen.”
Hennig wasn’t exactly innocent himself. He and another member in the wrestling group tag-teamed the others with a doozy during a trip to Lake of the Woods.
Hennig and his fishing partner went missing for an entire morning early in the trip. But later that day, Hennig said they buzzed their boat by where others were fishing, then sped out of sight.
According to Greg, when Hennig’s boat raced by, there was a woman with long blonde hair sitting there with them. They didn’t see Hennig again until toward evening when the boat whizzed by and disappeared again, the woman still onboard.
At dinner with the wrestling group that night, Hennig began his setup story. He said they met her when they were looking for a place to fish. She lived in a yellow cabin on an island with a dock about 5 miles up the lake.
Greg recalled additional details. The woman was 34. When she saw Hennig and his boat partner near the dock, she invited them in for coffee and breakfast. She was recently divorced and got the island property in the settlement. She also loved athletes, so they spent the whole day with her.
Hennig explained more of the buildup. “We did this for a couple of days, and these guys [were] going nuts.”
Their interest boiled over when they found she had lived there all summer and was getting lonely. “The next morning … there were eight boats in front of her place,” Hennig said.
Those who fell for it discovered it really wasn’t her place, because there was no her. Before the trip, Hennig had bought a life-size doll. He said they’d blow up the doll each morning on the trip, dress it and put it in the boat. At night, they’d deflate it and fold it into a tackle box.
Amazingly, as more of the group discovered the prank, no one let the cat out of the bag. Instead, they hid in a cabin bedroom and listened for when another guy came knocking and introduced himself. “We were trying to muffle our laughing. It was the funniest thing you ever heard,” Hennig said.
Greg said “that’s how [those] guys were. They would take days and weeks and lay out a thing to get ya.”
Looking up to Dad
Greg said that from an early age he knew his dad was tough. But an Alaskan fishing trip took his admiration to a new level.
After a wrestling tour in Alaska, both Gagnes and wrestler Curt Hennig, son of Larry “The Axe,” got an offer from a local resident to stay two extra days and take a side excursion for silver salmon. It was a fly-in trip to a remote river camp.
Greg and Hennig fished from shore while Verne and a guide explored upriver by boat. About 20 minutes later, the boat returned. Greg said his dad was sitting up front with his arms crossed. As the boat got closer, he saw a Dardevle lure taped to Verne’s forehead. But this was no prank. Verne had been trying to pull a fish out of the water when the fish spit the hook out, and the hook flew into Verne’s eyeball.
Emergency transport included a half-hour boat trip down a river full of whitecaps to the fly-in plane, then a 20-minute flight to the home base. From there, they boarded a cargo plane for a turbulent flight to Anchorage. Greg said his father sat on a box at the back of the plane in complete silence, bouncing with the turbulence.
“To me, this is the toughest man. I said, ‘How are you doing?’ Dad said, ‘Don’t talk to me … I’m concentrating. I’m feeling no pain.’ ”
When they finally reached the hospital, they waited three more hours while medical personnel determined the best way to remove the hook. Greg said they pushed the barb up through his father’s eye just above the iris, cut the barb, then backed the hook out. The total time from hook-in to hook-out was 11 hours. It caused significant sight loss.
The next morning, they had to fly back to Minneapolis. The physicians injected antibiotics into the eye, plus a second injection of painkiller.
“When they put those needles in there, [Curt and I] almost passed out,” Greg said. But Verne “flew all the way back to Minneapolis and never said a thing.”
Greg described the howl of wolves and call of loons as respite from a very public life of breakneck travel and a grueling occupation. “Those [were] private times when you’re just all together, good friends, family, and talking, learning about life, learning about the wilderness, you’re looking up at the stars over a campfire. I mean, what better?”
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.