Name: Verne Gagne
Year Inducted: 2004
Induction Category: Television Era
Verne Gagne was born on February 26, 1926. He grew up in Minnesota, where he
attended Robbinsdale High School and became a local star in football,
baseball, and wrestling. He won the district, regional, and state
championships in high school wrestling and was selected to play on the
All-State football team.
In 1943, Verne Gagne attended the University of Minnesota, establishing
himself as one of the top amateur wrestlers in the country. Gagne won
two NCAA wrestling championships in 1948 and 1949, four Big Ten
wrestling championships in 1944, 1947, 1948, and 1949 and an AAU
championship in 1949. Gagne was also an alternate for the U.S.
Freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympics in London, England.
After graduating, Gagne had a brief stint with the Green Bay Packers.
It was also during this time that the late wrestling promoter Tony
Stecher influenced Gagne to try his luck in pro wrestling. On May
10, 1948, Gagne made his pro debut in Minneapolis, Minnesota, defeating
Abe "King Kong" Kashey.
Gagne became very successful in the pro ranks, specifically as a light
heavyweight. He won the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Title on November
13, 1950. Later, Verne Gagne got the chance of a lifetime, becoming a
huge pro wrestling star during the early days of television on the
Dumont Network out of Chicago. With his good looks and cut physique,
Gagne became a main-event attraction.
But it wasn't always easy being a wrestler, especially during the
turbulent 1950s at the height of the powerhouse known as the National
Wrestling Alliance. Verne Gagne found this out the hard way as he was
spared from being blacklisted by the NWA. However, as far as matches
and championships went, on September 3, 1953, Gagne was awarded the NWA
Chicago version of the United States Heavyweight Title. He eventually
lost the title to Wilbur Snyder on April 7, 1956, only to regain it on
April 12, 1958, defeating Dick the Bruiser. Gagne also won the Omaha
version of the NWA World Heavyweight Title in 1958.
In 1960, Verne Gagne, the wrestler, became Verne Gagne the promoter.
Gagne formed the American Wrestling Association as a result of
controversy involving the NWA World Heavyweight Title. Gagne was
awarded his first of ten AWA World Heavyweight Championships on August
18, 1960. Between 1960 and 1968, Gagne exchanged the strap with the
likes of Gene Kiniski, Bill Miller, The Crusher, Fritz Von Erich, Mad
Dog Vachon, Dick the Bruiser, and Dr. X (Dick Beyer under a mask). His
ninth title reign was an exciting one as Gagne defended the belt in
classic scientific battles against Nick Bockwinkel and Billy Robinson.
Gagne won his final AWA World Heavyweight Title on July 18, 1980 in
Chicago by defeating Nick Bockwinkel. He retired as World
Heavyweight Champion after a successful title defense against Bockwinkel
on May 10, 1981 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Gagne did make a few comebacks in the ring during the 1980s, but for the
most part, he was a promoter and a trainer. Gagne trained many future
stars for the pro ranks including Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Curt Hennig, Ken
Patera, The Iron Sheik, Bob Backlund, and Brad Rhenigans. Gagne also helped develop stars
such as Jesse "The Body" Ventura, "Mean"Gene Okerlund, and Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea.
In his prime, Verne Gagne was one of the best in-ring workers of his
time. He could match hold-for-hold against the world's best. As a
promoter, Gagne brought the fans of pro wrestling an alternative to the
WWF and the NWA.
- BRIAN WESTCOTT