Verne Gagne

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Verne Gagne
Verne Gagne 1964.jpg
Gagne in 1964
Birth nameLaverne Clarence Gagne
Born(1926-02-26)February 26, 1926
Corcoran, Minnesota, U.S.
DiedApril 27, 2015(2015-04-27) (aged 89)
Bloomington, Minnesota, U.S.
Children Greg Gagne
Professional wrestling career
Ring name(s) Verne Gagne
Billed height5 ft 11 in (1.80 m) [1]
Billed weight215 lb (98 kg) [1]
Trained byJoe Pazandak [2]
Tony Stecher [2]
Debut1949 [2]
Retired1981 [1] [3]

Laverne Clarence Gagne [2] ( /ɡænj/ ; February 26, 1926 – April 27, 2015) [4] was an American professional wrestler, football player, wrestling trainer, and wrestling promoter. He was the owner and promoter of the Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association (AWA), the predominant promotion throughout the Midwest and Manitoba for many years. He remained in this position until 1991, when the company folded.

American football Team field sport

American football, referred to as football in the United States and Canada and also known as gridiron, is a team sport played by two teams of eleven players on a rectangular field with goalposts at each end. The offense, which is the team controlling the oval-shaped football, attempts to advance down the field by running with or passing the ball, while the defense, which is the team without control of the ball, aims to stop the offense's advance and aims to take control of the ball for themselves. The offense must advance at least ten yards in four downs, or plays, and otherwise they turn over the football to the defense; if the offense succeeds in advancing ten yards or more, they are given a new set of four downs. Points are primarily scored by advancing the ball into the opposing team's end zone for a touchdown or kicking the ball through the opponent's goalposts for a field goal. The team with the most points at the end of a game wins.

A professional wrestling promotion is a company or business that regularly performs shows involving professional wrestling. "Promotion" also describes a role which entails management, advertising and logistics of running a wrestling event. Within the convention of the show, the company is a sports governing body which sanctions wrestling matches and gives authority to the championships and is responsible for determining the divisions, rankings, etc. of wrestlers. In truth, the company serves as a touring theatre troupe, as well as event promotion body for its own events.

Minneapolis Largest city in Minnesota

Minneapolis is the county seat of Hennepin County and the larger of the Twin Cities, the 16th-largest metropolitan area in the United States. As of 2018, Minneapolis is the largest city in the state of Minnesota and 46th-largest in the United States, with an estimated population of 425,403. The Twin Cities metropolitan area consists of Minneapolis, its neighbor Saint Paul, and suburbs which altogether contain about 3.63 million people, and is the third-largest economic center in the Midwest.


Gagne was a 16-time World Heavyweight Champion, having held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship ten times, the World Heavyweight Championship (Omaha version) five times, and the IWA World Heavyweight Championship once. He holds the record for the longest combined reign as a world champion and is third (behind Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz) for the longest single world title reign. He is one of only seven men inducted into each of the WWE, WCW and Professional Wrestling halls of fame.

AWA World Heavyweight Championship

The AWA World Heavyweight Championship was a professional wrestling world heavyweight championship and the highest ranked championship in the defunct American Wrestling Association (AWA). All AWA trademarks, including the AWA World Heavyweight Championship, are now owned by WWE. The championship was generally contested in professional wrestling matches, in which participants execute worked finishes rather than contend in direct competition.

The International Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship was a professional wrestling world heavyweight championship of the Japanese professional wrestling promotion known as International Wrestling Enterprise. It was the first Japanese heavyweight title to be billed as a World title, and in the 1970s and early 1980s it was one of the most important titles in Japan. The title died with the promotion in 1981 but was later revived by Goro Tsurumi for his independent Kokusai Promotion.

Bruno Sammartino Italian-born American professional wrestler

Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino was an Italian-born American professional wrestler, best known for his work with the World Wrestling Federation. There, he held the WWF World Heavyweight Championship for more than 11 years across two reigns, the first of which is the longest single reign in the promotion's history at 2,803 days.

Early life

Gagne was born in Corcoran, Minnesota and grew up on a farm in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. He left home at the age of 14 after his mother died. He went to Robbinsdale High School and excelled in football, baseball and wrestling, winning district, regional, and state championships in high school wrestling, as well as being named to the All-State Football Team. In 1943, he was recruited to play football at the University of Minnesota, where he was named to the All-Big Ten Team.

Corcoran, Minnesota City in Minnesota, United States

Corcoran is a city in Hennepin County, Minnesota, United States. The population was 5,379 at the 2010 census.

Minnesota State of the United States of America

Minnesota is a state in the Upper Midwest, Great Lakes, and northern regions of the United States. Minnesota was admitted as the 32nd U.S. state on May 11, 1858, created from the eastern half of the Minnesota Territory. The state has a large number of lakes, and is known by the slogan the "Land of 10,000 Lakes". Its official motto is L'Étoile du Nord.

Farm area of land for farming, or, for aquaculture, lake, river or sea, including various structures

A farm is an area of land that is devoted primarily to agricultural processes with the primary objective of producing food and other crops; it is the basic facility in food production. The name is used for specialised units such as arable farms, vegetable farms, fruit farms, dairy, pig and poultry farms, and land used for the production of natural fibres, biofuel and other commodities. It includes ranches, feedlots, orchards, plantations and estates, smallholdings and hobby farms, and includes the farmhouse and agricultural buildings as well as the land. In modern times the term has been extended so as to include such industrial operations as wind farms and fish farms, both of which can operate on land or sea.

After one year of college, Gagne enlisted with the Navy Underwater Demolition Team. [2] He chose to return to the University of Minnesota, where, as an amateur wrestler, he captured two NCAA titles. He was also an alternate for the U.S freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympic Games; he later said that he might have wrestled in the Olympics, but his coaches had discovered that he had earned money winning a wrestling match at a carnival, thus putting his amateur standing in question. [5]

Underwater Demolition Team US Navy special operations group

The Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) were an elite special-purpose force established by the United States Navy during World War II. They also served during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Their primary function was to reconnoiter and destroy enemy defensive obstacles on beaches prior to amphibious landings. They also were the frogmen who retrieved astronauts after splash down in the Mercury program through Apollo manned space flight programs.

National Collegiate Athletic Association Non-profit organization that regulates many American college athletes and programs

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a nonprofit organization which regulates student athletes from 1,268 North American institutions and conferences. It also organizes the athletic programs of many colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and helps more than 480,000 college student-athletes who compete annually in college sports. The organization is headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.

1948 Summer Olympics Games of the XIV Olympiad, held in London in 1948

The 1948 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XIV Olympiad, was an international multi-sport event which was held in London, United Kingdom from 29 July to 14 August 1948.

Football career

Gagne in the 1940s Verne Gagne - Football University of Minnesota -1946 8x10.jpg
Gagne in the 1940s

Gagne joined the National Football League (NFL) soon after being drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 16th round (145th pick) of the 1947 NFL Draft. [6] Bears owner George Halas prevented Gagne from pursuing both football and wrestling (likely due to former Bears Football Hall of Fame great Bronko Nagurski having moonlighted as a professional wrestler during the height of his NFL career), and forced Gagne to make a choice. In a 2006 interview for WWE, Gagne's son Greg mentioned that wrestling was a much better paying job at the time than playing football (as recently as the 1970s, it was not uncommon for NFL players to have a second job during the NFL offseason to help make ends meet), and as a result, Verne chose wrestling over football. [7]

National Football League Professional American football league

The National Football League (NFL) is a professional American football league consisting of 32 teams, divided equally between the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). The NFL is one of the four major professional sports leagues in North America, and the highest professional level of American football in the world. The NFL's 17-week regular season runs from early September to late December, with each team playing 16 games and having one bye week. Following the conclusion of the regular season, six teams from each conference advance to the playoffs, a single-elimination tournament culminating in the Super Bowl, which is usually held in the first Sunday in February, and is played between the champions of the NFC and AFC.

Chicago Bears National Football League franchise in Chicago, Illinois

The Chicago Bears are a professional American football team based in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears compete in the National Football League (NFL) as a member club of the league's National Football Conference (NFC) North division. The Bears have won nine NFL Championships, including one Super Bowl, and hold the NFL record for the most enshrinees in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the most retired jersey numbers. The Bears have also recorded more victories than any other NFL franchise.

The 1947 National Football League Draft was held on December 16, 1946, at the Commodore Hotel in New York City, New York.

Professional wrestling career

National Wrestling Alliance

Gagne in the early 1950s Vern Gagne - 28 April 1953 Minneapolis Auditorium Wrestling Program.jpg
Gagne in the early 1950s

In 1949, Gagne decided to wrestle professionally, starting his career in Texas. In his debut, he defeated Abe Kashey, with former World Heavyweight boxing Champion Jack Dempsey as the referee. On November 13, 1950, Gagne captured the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Junior Heavyweight title in a tournament for the vacant championship. [2]

Jack Dempsey American boxer

William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey, nicknamed "Kid Blackie" and "The Manassa Mauler", was an American professional boxer who competed from 1914 to 1927, and reigned as the world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. A cultural icon of the 1920s, Dempsey's aggressive fighting style and exceptional punching power made him one of the most popular boxers in history. Many of his fights set financial and attendance records, including the first million-dollar gate.

National Wrestling Alliance Professional wrestling organization

The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) is an American professional wrestling organization. Formed in 1948, it was for a time the most-recognized brand and largest governing body in professional wrestling. Under the control of the NWA Board of Directors, the organization acted as a governing body for the NWA's national territory system which recognized one world champion, participated in talent exchanges and collectively protected the territorial integrity of member promotions.

In September 1953 in Fred Kohler Enterprises, Gagne was awarded the newly-created Chicago version of the NWA United States Championship. [2] Gagne became one of the most well-known stars in wrestling during the golden age of television, thanks to his exposure on the Dumont Network, where he wowed audiences with his technical prowess. He was rumored to be one of the highest paid wrestlers during the 1950s, reportedly earning a hundred thousand dollars a year. [8]

On June 14, 1957, Edouard Carpentier defeated NWA Champion Lou Thesz in Chicago. The NWA later overruled the decision of the referee in Chicago and gave the title back to Thesz. However, certain wrestling territories of the NWA including Nebraska refused to go along with the decision and continued to recognize Carpentier. Carpentier lost his title to Gagne in Omaha on August 9, 1958, [2] making him the recognized NWA World champion in the NWA territories that had recognized Carpentier, before dropping the belt three months later to Wilbur Snyder. By early 1960, the highly wealthy Gagne rarely wrestled and turned his focus towards building a wrestling promotion of his own.

American Wrestling Association

In 1960, Gagne formed his own promotion, the American Wrestling Alliance (later it became Association). Before this, the Minneapolis territory was under the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) umbrella. Setting up to pull away from the NWA, the Minneapolis territory (as it was known), gave a "story-line only" edict to the NWA in May 1960 that unless their NWA World Champion Pat O'Connor defended his title to Verne Gagne with 90 days, Verne Gagne would become recognized World Champion by default. There was never any intention of such a match taking place. At the end of the 90 period, the AWA was formed in August 1960 and it was announced that because NWA champion Pat O'Connor failed to meet Gagne, that the AWA recognized Gagne as the first AWA World Champion.

Some of Gagne's biggest feuds were against Gene Kiniski, Dr. Bill Miller (under a mask both as Dr. X and then Mr. M), Fritz Von Erich, Dr. X, The Crusher, Ray Stevens, Mad Dog Vachon, Larry Hennig and Nick Bockwinkel. He always wrestled as a face, and utilized the sleeper hold as his finisher.

Gagne with WWWF promoter Vincent J. McMahon and his perennial world champion Bruno Sammartino Vincent James McMahon, Verne Gagne and Bruno Sammartino - Wrestling News - Aug-sept 1975.jpg
Gagne with WWWF promoter Vincent J. McMahon and his perennial world champion Bruno Sammartino

As promoter of the AWA, Gagne was known for putting on an "old school" show. He sought out wrestlers with amateur backgrounds over the hulking brutes who dominated wrestling in the 1980s. This led to a problem with his biggest draw, Hulk Hogan, whom Gagne had acquired after Hogan had been let go by the World Wrestling Federation and who Gagne also felt was not championship material, due to the fact that Hogan was a powerhouse wrestler and not a technical wrestler. Seeing Hogan as the company's top draw, Gagne did, however, let Hogan feud with Bockwinkel. Eventually, as noted on the 2006 Spectacular Legacy of AWA DVD, Gagne settled with making Hogan his champion after Hogan's feud with Bockwinkel ran its course in April 1983, but only under the condition that he would receive the bulk of the revenue Hogan made from both merchandise sales and his matches in Japan. Hogan refused. In late 1983, Hogan accepted an offer from Vincent K. McMahon to return to the WWF. The Iron Sheik, whom Gagne trained, has alleged that he was offered a cash bribe by the AWA's owner to inflict career threatening damage on Hogan's knee after it became apparent that he was going to go to the WWF.

What followed was a purge of stars from various territories and promotions, including Gagne's AWA, by Vince McMahon, who wished to take his WWF "national" and do away with the traditional territorial system that dominated the North American pro wrestling landscape for decades. Unlike most of his contemporaries, by the mid 1980s, Gagne began promoting the AWA beyond the geographical bounds of the company's traditional territory. In September 1985, ESPN began broadcasting AWA Championship Wrestling , granting the AWA national exposure similar to what the World Wrestling Federation was experiencing. However, the AWA suffered numerous setbacks; AWA Championship Wrestling wasn't treated as a priority by ESPN, the show was sometimes not aired in its regular timeslot, sometimes it was preempted by live sporting events and occasional changes in timeslots without advertising the changes resulted in many fans being unable to tune in on a regular basis. Gagne's booking strategies for the wrestlers themselves continued to be more old school than those of the WWF in that Gagne felt the biggest stars should be the most talented technical wrestlers instead of wrestlers with charismatic personas and over-the-top personalities. Throughout the mid to late 1980s, the AWA would lose nearly every one of its top stars while ratings and live attendance continued to decline. By 1991, the damage had been done, and the AWA shut down, after 30 years. Gagne would eventually end up in bankruptcy court. [9]

Hall of Famer

In April 2006, Gagne was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by his son, Greg Gagne. He is one of only six people to be inducted into the WWE, WCW and Professional Wrestling halls of fame. [10]

Death of Helmut Gutmann

On January 26, 2009, Gagne got into an altercation with Helmut Gutmann, a 97-year-old resident of the Bloomington, Minnesota facility where they both resided. According to Gutmann's widow, who was not present during the altercation, Gagne picked Gutmann up and hurled him to the floor, then broke his hip by pulling back on his body. "'The attack – which was not a wrestling body slam – happened quickly while the men were at a table,' Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts said. 'It was more like "a push and a shove" and it caused Gutmann to fall.'" [11]

Neither man had any recollection of the incident. [12] Gutmann was admitted to the hospital, and died on February 14 from complications of the injury. [13] On February 25, 2009, the older man's death was officially ruled a homicide by the Hennepin County medical examiner's office. [12] On March 12, 2009, the Hennepin County Prosecutor's office officially announced that Gagne would not be criminally charged as a result of the death as, because of Gagne's dementia, he lacked the mental capacity necessary to have intended to harm Gutmann.

Illness and death

Gagne was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease [14] (or possibly chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by a lifetime of head injuries) [15] and had been living in the memory-loss section of a Bloomington, Minnesota health care facility. [14] In January 2012 (and possibly since the 2009 altercation), he was living in the home of his daughter Beth and her husband Will. [16] He continued to make public appearances in his last years, aided by his son Greg. [17]

On the night of April 27, 2015, Gagne died in Bloomington at the age of 89. [18]

Championships and accomplishments

Amateur wrestling

Professional wrestling

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Further reading