Former professional wrestler and wrestling promoter Verne Gagne passed away yesterday. A cause of death has not been released, but Gagne was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s related dementia a number of years ago. He was 89.
Gagne founded the Minnesota based American Wrestling Association (AWA) in the early 1960’s and spent many years as the AWA World Heavyweight Champion. In my early years in Thunder Bay, we would get our American TV signals from Duluth and would see the AWA on TV. It was my first exposure to professional wrestling much to the horror of my parents.
By the time I started watching the AWA, Gagne had largely retired. His son Greg was one half of the High Flyers along with Jim Brunzell. Other wrestlers I remember include Nick Bockwinkel, Bobby Heenan, Billy Robinson, Rick Martel, Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin, Mr. Saito, Jerry Blackwell, Ken Patera, Dick the Bruiser, Crusher, Baron Von Raschke, Mad Dog Vachon, Tony Atlas, future Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, Sheik Adnan al-Kaissie and King Kong Brodie. I wish I could find the video for it, but there’s a clip where after Brodie attacked Greg Gagne, Verne who must have been 60 came out and clobbered Brodie. It was hilarious to watch because it looked like grandpa was beating up a member of Hell’s Angels.
The AWA would gain a national audience for a time on ESPN in the late ’80s and early ’90s before going into bankruptcy. Gagne’s failure to put the AWA belt on Hulk Hogan in the early 1980’s was the beginning of the end for the AWA. Hogan would sign with the WWF (now the WWE) and rest, of course, is history.
In 2009, Gagne made headlines when he bodyslammed a fellow resident at a long term care facility for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia later resulting in the resident’s death. Gagne was not charged in the man’s death due to his diminished mental capacity.
I did not know that Gagne produced a film in 1974 called The Wrestler starring Ed Asner. Here is a short scene with Gagne, Billy Robinson and a very young Ric Flair before he became the Nature Boy.
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