Late Monday night, word began flying around social media that former AWA promoter and wrestling legend Verne Gagne has passed away. He was a retired wrestler-turned-promoter that was responsible for a number of well-known talents being discovered in his Minesota-based company. Gagne was 89 years of age.
Prior to becoming a wrestler, Verne was a member of the Chicago Bears NFL organization. The Bears owner forced him to choose between being a football player or a professional wrestler. Verne chose the latter and made the better decision. He became a wrestler in 1949, starting his career in Texas. On December 16, 1949, he captured the prestigious NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship from Leo Newman in Houston. He would lose it four weeks later in the same city. He is also listed as the first co-holder of the Texas version of the NWA World Tag Team Championship. He and Wilbur Snyder were awarded the belts in July 1957, and would reign 11 months before dropping the titles.
By 1960, Gagne put his focus building his own promotion. And he succeeded, forming the American Wrestling Association (AWA). During his active in-ring time with the AWA, he held one of the longest recorded title reigns in wrestling history. He won the title in August 1968, and remained as champion until being dethroned by Nick Bockwinkel in November 1975. It was tallied as seven years and three months, and recognized as the third longest title reign in wrestling history.
He was also a very accomplished amateur wrestler, having won the National AAU Championship on two occasions, the Minnesota State Championship in 1943, and the NCAA Championship twice. He was also a member of the 1948 United States Olympic Wrestling team. He was inducted into the WCW Hall of Fame in 1993, and is currently in the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (2004) and WWE Hall of Fame (2006) classes.
Once he retired from active competition, he put his concentration on running the company. It was a member of the “Big Three” promotions of the 1980’s, competing with the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and what is now known as WWE. He helped with the training of nearly 100 superstars, including “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig, Bob Backlund, The Iron Sheik, and The Undertaker. He was also partially responsible for helping Hulk Hogan along before he returned to WWE for a second stint in the late 80’s.
Outside of wrestling, Gagne was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was living in the memory-loss section of a health care center in Bloomington, Minnesota. As of at least 2012, he had been staying at his daughter’s home, where he stayed with her and her husband as his health continued to decline. Several sites on Twitter began reporting his passing on Monday night, as well as various superstars that had worked with him through the years offering their thoughts on social media as well.