The wrestling world lost a true legend last night with the passing of AWA founder Verne Gagne. Verne was pioneer in the wrestling business as a wrestler and a promoter. He was the leader of one of the first organizations to leave the coveted NWA and established their own respected and recognized world champion in the wrestling business. There are not too many people who have contributed as much to professional wrestling as Gagne.
Verne is from the legendary Robbinsdale, MN a town that has produce numerous professional wrestlers such as guys like Ravishing Rick Rude and Barry Darsow (Demolition’s Smash). A football star and wrestling standout the University of Minnesota where he was two-time national champion on the mat. Gagne was an alternate on the 1948 Olympic team. Always in touch with his amateur roots throughout his career Gagne was always partial to guys a strong amateur backgrounds.
In 1949 Verne got into the professional wrestling business and was one of the biggest stars of the 1950s. In 1960 he started the AWA and was the top star of the company. It was not uncommon for the promoter to be the star of the company during that time because they wanted a top guy they could trust.
Gagne was a multiple time world champion in the AWA and probably had his most famous feud with the legendary Nick Bockwinkel. Outside of being the star of his own show Verne was known for his intense camp in Minnesota where he trained wrestlers. He had a preference for guys with strong amateur backgrounds also known as shooters.
The AWA was fertile ground and was the launching pad for some of the famous people to ever get into the wrestling business. Guys like Sgt Slaughter and Ole Anderson both started their careers learning and training with Gagne. His most legendary camps during the early 1970s had guys like Ricky Steamboat, The Iron Sheik, Ken Patera and the great Ric Flair.
The AWA was the start of early careers of guys Curt Hennig (Mr. Perfect) who came into business after his father Larry Hennig was wrestling there for Gagne. For most promotion just the names I mentioned earlier would be enough but this is where Hulk Hogan became a star, the place where DDP got started in wrestling, Jesse Ventura and Mean Gene Okerlund got their got their starts. Of course we cannot leave out the greatest manager of all time Bobby The Brain Heenan who got introduced to a natinoal audience in the AWA.
Way before WWE Films, Gagne got into the movie business and in 1974 presented “The Wrestle”. A movie that starred himself and many of his AWA superstars at the time like Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch. By most accounts it was a really good movie about the wrestling business. Verne was before his time that way. He like other organizations discovered the cable expansion and got the AWA on ESPN in the early days and still be seen on ESPN classic from time to time. Gagne tragically like most promoters from his day still fell victim to the talent raids of the WWE and WCW cable exposure and was forced to close down in 1991.
In 2006 Gagne was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and is one of only six people to ever been inducted into the WWE, WCW, Professional Wrestling and Wrestling Observer Newsletter Halls of Fame. His impact on the business can never be understated. If you want to know more about him or the AWA check the Spectacular Legacy of the AWA on the WWE Network.
Keith B. Holt
Follow on Twitter @Kholtjr