Sunday, October 08, 2006

Verne Gagne

I forgot I had a few of these left, so I'll run the last ones in the next week and a half. Giant Baba and Gorgeous George still haven't been run.

With WWE currently the only major pro wrestling promotion in the country, newer fans have forgotten that this was not always so. Now only was there the NWA, which later became WCW. There were three top American wrestling promotions. The third was the AWA, and no one was more important to the AWA than today’s inductee to the Inside the Squared Circle Hall of Fame, Verne Gagne.

Verne Gagne was born in Minnesota in 1926. Minnesota remains a wrestling hotbed to this day, and numerous professional wrestlers came from Minnesota. Gagne was very important in this. He excelled in athletics at a young age, and became a wrestling and football star. He competed in both at the University of Minnesota, which was a wrestling powerhouse at the time. He was NCAA wrestling champion in 1948 and 1948, and wrestled at the 1948 Olympics. He briefly played professional football before debuting as a professional wrestler in 1949. He was a smaller man, but he eventually would become a top star. His celebrated past as an amateur wrestler gave him credibility with wrestling fans, and he was promoted as a big deal from early on.

Verne Gagne became NWA Junior Heavyweight Champion early in his career, and in the early 50s he was a beneficiary of national television exposure. He became a well drawing star, and gained a reputation as an excellent scientific wrestler. His top moves were the dropkick and the sleeper hold. He was particularly successful in his Midwest home base, where his conservative look and style connected him with the fans.

Gagne’s career took off with the creation of the AWA in 1960. That promotion quickly established itself as a major national power, and Gagne was one of its first champions in 1960. He would hold the title on ten separate occasions, and his last title run would come over 20 years later in 1981. His longest run with the title would last from August 31, 1968 to November 8, 1975, an incredible seven year run. He won the AWA Title from such greats as Gene Kiniski, the Crusher, Fritz Von Erich, Mad Dog Vachon, Dick Beyer and Nick Bockwinkel. He had legendary feuds with all the biggest names of the period, such as Ray Stevens, Pat Patterson, Harley Race and Superstar Billy Graham. He retired with the title.

Gagne was not only a great wrestler, but a very successful promoter with the AWA in the 60s and 70s. He owned the company and put together the product. He also was the trainer for the promotion, and trained the likes of Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Bob Backlund, Sgt. Slaughter and Curt Hennig. A lot of the reason Gagne is not as well remembered by current fans is what became of the AWA in the 1980s. It died a slow death, as Gagne the promoter was no longer able to connect with the people. He went with a very traditional good guy-bad guy formula that had become stale. The WWF raided most of the AWA’s top stars for its national expansion, including Hulk Hogan. AWA was left with few major stars, and it existed in its final years as a shell of its former self. Verne Gagne is still involved in amateur wrestling, but he does not like what has happened to pro wrestling.

Verne Gagne was not flashy or spectacular, and that was the way he wanted it. Gagne was an excellent wrestler. He brought credibility to wrestling and was a major star in it for four decades. He was the AWA. He was its owner, promoter, top star and trainer. Few wrestlers have been so important to a promotion. Gagne is a great reminder of a bygone period in professional wrestling, and is remembered well as a fine representative of professional wrestling.


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