Before he became a legend as a pro wrestler, entrepreneur, trainer and empire builder, Verne Gagne was already an amateur sports legend in Minnesota.
This is not necessarily news. Gagne, the 16-time pro wrestling champion, was inducted into the Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame in 2016, a year after his death. But it was 71 years ago this week that Gagne won the second of back-to-back NCAA wrestling titles at the 1949 NCAA meet hosted by Colorado A&M (now Colorado State).
It was something he was proud of, said son Greg Gagne, who successfully followed his father into pro wrestling. “That was his background,” Gagne said recently. “It’s all he’d ever talk about. We all learned about defensive wrestling, amateur wrestling, from him.”
Verne Gagne was a high school state champion wrestler and all-state football player at Robbinsdale High School. Recruited to the University of Minnesota, he played football and wrestled for the Gophers. His college career was interrupted by a stint in the Marines. But he returned to make his mark.
In 1948, he beat Charles Gottfried of Illinois in the 191-pound class at the NCAA championships hosted by Lehigh in Pennsylvania.
The next year, he returned to the championships but had moved up a class, to heavyweight. In the final, he met Dick Hutton, the two-time defending national champion in the division. Two defending champions, both of whom would go on to long pro careers, one match for the title.
The showdown ended in a 1-1 tie, but Gagne was awarded the win because he controlled Hutton for longer periods of the match.
Hutton would go on to win another NCAA title in 1950. Gagne would embark on a pro wrestling career — one he chose over football when drafted by the Chicago Bears.
He would always keep his amateur past with him. Gagne began his pro career signing on with the DuMont TV Network, based in Chicago, with promoter Fred Kohler, who had some strange ideas. “He said, ‘We’re going to lower you from the ceiling dressed as a Martian,’ ” Greg Gagne said. “My dad said, ‘The hell you are. I have my wrestling boots and tights. I was an NCAA champ, a Big Ten champ.’ ”
The rest, of course, is history. The AWA empire Gagne grew was based in Minneapolis. He had a famous training camp by Lake Riley in Eden Prairie, where wrestling basics were taught along with the showmanship that went into pro wrestling.
“He trained 144 wrestlers over the years,” Greg Gagne said. “In that old barn by Lake Riley. No windows, second floor, one light bulb above the ring.” Greg was part of the first “graduates” of that camp in 1972, alongside the likes of Ric Flair, Bob Bruggers, the Iron Sheik and Ken Patera.