On Monday, April 27, the wrestling world lost one of its greatest pioneers and champions when Verne Gagne passed away at the age of 89.
The legendary promoter of the American Wrestling Association based out of Minnesota, Gagne not only oversaw the business end of the territory, he was the company's greatest star, holding the AWA World Heavyweight Championship an impressive 10 times.
Even more important than what he accomplished in the ring was his success as a trainer. One of the greatest and most influential in the history of the industry, he prepared the likes of Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat and the Iron Sheik for the mat wars.
His training camps were notorious for their difficulty but, at the same time, renowned for the level of talent they produced.
Over the course of his career as a worker, promoter and trainer, Gagne worked with some of the biggest stars the industry has ever seen—and will ever see—making him an integral piece of professional wrestling history.
In memory of the late, great wrestler and his many accomplishments, enjoy this look back at his exemplary career via his finest matches and moments.
The Early Years
A former Olympic wrestler and professional football player, Gagne broke into the business he would help revolutionize in 1949, working in the NWA. There, he wasted little time establishing himself as one of the elite wrestlers in the country, defeating Edouard Carpentier for the heavyweight championship of the world just eight years into his in-ring career.
He would only hold onto the title for three months before dropping it to Wilbur Snyder, but it was a reign that was instrumental in establishing Gagne's place as one of the most recognizable stars in the industry.
Realizing that he did not have to take orders from anyone, and that he could choose who should and should not be champion, Gagne channeled his financial wealth into creating his own promotion and attracting some of the most talented individuals in the industry to Minnesota and the AWA.
AWA: Promoter, Draw and Champion
As the owner of the American Wrestling Association, Gagne had a major financial investment in the success of the promotion. Thus, he had to do what was best for the company and in his mind, that meant booking himself as the top babyface in the territory.
It was the right decision.
Fans loved Gagne. More importantly, they respected him as a performer and believed that he could beat any and all competition put before him. As the man with final say, Gagne also knew he could trust himself not to leave or do anything screwy to adversely affect the promotion. Thus, he had no problem booking himself to win the heavyweight title 10 times or battle the most hated heels at the top of the card.
While he worked programs against the likes of Larry "The Axe" Hennig, Fritz Von Erich, The Crusher and Ray Stevens, there was no villain who was a bigger thorn in Gagne's side than the great Nick Bockwinkel.
Bockwinkel was a showman whose ability to talk was almost as valuable as his in-ring skills. He was a natural villain who positioned himself above all of his peers, thanks to what he considered an unmatched intellect and cunning.
Gagne, the perennial babyface, allowed his wrestling to do the talking for him, creating a dynamic that sucked the AWA fans in and kept them coming back for more. One of the vastly underrated rivalries in wrestling history, it was key to the development and growth of the promotion.
From Minnesota to Chicago, Gagne competed against the best and brightest stars in the industry, establishing himself as one of the greatest draws in the business.
Behind the scenes, he was busy looking for stars. As he grew in age, he recognized the need to find others to carry the mantle for his promotion. Despite being a company built on traditional wrestlers, he found himself a star that would go on to become the greatest icon professional wrestling had ever known.
His name was Hulk Hogan.
Unfortunately, Gagne's inability to recognize the new direction the industry was taking hurt him. His refusal to put the AWA Championship on Hogan, instead having him always come up just short of beating Nick Bockwinkel, ultimately led to the Hulkster jumping ship and leaving Gagne without a franchise star.
Over the years that followed, he would be responsible for pushing Curt Hennig and Rick Martel to the top of the company, not to mention promoting SuperClash shows with other famous promoters, but the AWA never enjoyed the success it did earlier when he was its biggest attraction.
The national expansion of Vince McMahon's company led to the sharp decline in business and in 1991, the promotion that Gagne spent his life crafting and running closed its doors for good.
The Hall of Fame
To say there was hostility between Gagne and Vince McMahon in the fallout from their business dealings would be an understatement of massive proportions. And when McMahon presented Gagne with the opportunity for enshrinement in the WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2006, that hostility was very much intact.
But Gagne seized the opportunity to be recognized for his many achievements, taking the stage in beautiful suburban Chicago to greet fans, tell stories and enjoy the spotlight one last time.
It was a tremendous honor and one he very much deserved.
During his time as promoter, Gagne brought recognition to some of the greatest talents the industry has ever seen. In fact, McMahon acquired countless stars from the AWA when he was expanding his organization in the mid-1980s.
Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura, Hulk Hogan, Jim Brunzell, Curt Hennig, Rick Martel and Gene Okerlund are just a few of the talented individuals that made names for themselves in the AWA, then jumped ship for better exposure and money.
The Rockers and Sherri Martel followed suit.
In fact, it would not be a stretch at all to suggest that Vince McMahon built his empire off of a piece that Gagne put together.
The story of professional wrestling cannot be told without Verne Gagne.
Easily one of the three most important figures in the long and illustrious history of the industry, he was as responsible for the success of the business as Vince McMahon, Ted Turner or any of the other territorial promoters that existed at the same time as him.
A visionary who created his own promotion and refused to change his vision for it, even when business deemed it necessary, he was a purist who respected the art of professional wrestling far too much to allow it to turn into the live action cartoon that McMahon promoted.
The number of stars he had a hand in helping create is staggering, and the influence they had on the industry is key to its long-term health and success.
While history may not be kind, painting him as a bitter, old promoter unable to see the writing on the wall, Gagne was so much more.
A promoter, champion, star, trainer and mentor, he may be gone now, but his legacy will live on in those he helped establish as performers and the industry he was instrumental in shaping for generations to come.