Verne Gagne: How He Changed Wrestling in Olympic Proportions
Before there was Kurt Angle, there was Verne Gagne.
A favorite son of Minnesota and the beloved owner and founder of the American Wrestling Association, Gagne was as instrumental in amateur wrestling as he was in the professional ranks.
He was also an alternate for the U.S. freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympic Games in London but chose not to pursue the gold. There was question over earning money in matches following his wrestling career at the University of Minnesota, and participation in the Games would have placed his amateur status in question and possibly find that he was a professional athlete at a time when only amateurs competed on all levels at the Olympics.
Gagne's professional wrestling accolades put him in rare air in terms of success. He is a 16-time world heavyweight champion and boasts 10 championships from the AWA, five from the AWA (Omaha version) and one from the IWA.
Gagne also holds the record for the most combined days as a world champion and is third behind Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz for the longest single world-title reign. He is one of six men inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, WCW Hall of Fame, Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame.
Since the AWA's inception in 1960, the names Nick Bockwinkel, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, the Road Warriors, Curt Hennig and Adrian Adonis were amongst those who entered their rings and moved on to bigger things in other promotions. And to a man, there may not have been a better trainer in the professional ranks where the Iron Sheik, Billy Robinson, Olympic strongman Ken Patera and Ric Flair learned their trade inside a barn in freezing cold temperatures.
Gagne was also drafted by the NFL's Chicago Bears with the 145th in the 1947 draft but chose the mat over the gridiron. Based on Gagne's career path, the squared-circle seemed to be the best choice he could make.
I’d like to think of Gagne as the “little engine that could” in terms of wrestling in his promotion and competing with the bigger, more allied promotions of the NWA and the WWF. While stars in the AWA were highly successful and recognized regionally and nationally, Gagne could not compete on the same level as the two other superpowers, and in 1991, the AWA closed its doors for good.
Like so many other professional wrestlers, Gagne would have been more successful had he given football or another sport a try. But based on his love for the sport—as well as the business—he built an empire that allowed him to use local television and marketing to make his promotion one of the first to promote regionally and sell its wrestlers as entertainers as well as athletes.
While Gagne is not a true Olympic hero, his feats in and out of the ring are as heroic in the Great Lakes as others who have come before him. And if it were not for the efforts of the 86-year old, wrestlers like Ken Patera, Mark Henry and Kurt Angle may never have made the jump from the Olympic sport to the business side of wrestling.
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