Former pro wrestler and wrestling promoter Verne Gagne passed away Monday at the age of 89 from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Best known for starting up the American Wrestling Association in 1960 and was a ten time AWA Heavyweight Champion. Gagne was the star of the promotion and was an active wrestler until his retirement in 1981. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006 for his contributions to pro wrestling.
Born Laverne Clarence Gagne on February 26, 1926 in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. He left home in his teens after the death of his mother and was an all-around athlete in high school excelling in football, wrestling (1943 Minnesota State Champion, 1942 Northwestern AAU Champion)and baseball. Gagne was recruited by the University of Minnesota and made All-American as a football player in 1944. His college career was halted a year later when he was drafted into the Marine Corps and resumed his studies four years later.
Verne Gagne was a trained olympic athlete won two NCAA titles in wrestling earning him an alternate spot on the 1948 US Olympic Wrestling team. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 1947 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears in the 16th round as an Offensive/Defensive End. But due to the low pay professional football players received and his refusal by Head Coach/Owner George Halas to wrestle and play football a la Bronko Nagurski led to him choosing wrestling over football. Gagne made his professional wrestling debut in 1948 against Abe “King Kong” Kashey in Minnesota.
During the fifties, Vern Gagne wrestled within the National Wrestling Alliance promotions in Texas, Chicago and Omaha winning the NWA Junior Heavyweight, United States and Omaha’s World titles. He received a shot at the NWA World Heavyweight title in 1957 but it was nullified by the board of directors so the championship was recognized in the Omaha territory and it would later be part of the AWA title lineage. Verne Gagne and several promoters in the Midwest/Northern regions would breakaway from the National Wrestling Alliance and recognize their own World Champion. In 1960 Gagne would form the American Wrestling Association and they would control the territories Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Omaha and Chicago.
Vern Gagne would win the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight title ten times and continued to hold the belt until his retirement in 1981. During the peak of the AWA popularity they were one of the top promotions of the World. But the changing climate of professional wrestling and Gagne’s stubbornness to change with the times would eventually cripple and close the promotion despite having a daily show on ESPN and a dearth of wrestlers in the mid-eighties. The AWA would close shop in 1991 after thirty years as a wrestling promotion.
The final years of Verne Gagne were a tragic one due to his battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He sold the AWA tape library, trademarks and licensing rights to the WWE before being inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2006. A couple of years later he was living in an assisted living facility due to his health and in 2009 he fatality attacked a fellow resident. Gagne would spend the rest of his life living with his daughter Beth and son-in-law until his death.
Verne Gagne was a remarkable technical wrestler who trained future stars like Ric Flair, The Iron Sheik, Ricky Steamboat, Curt Hennig, Ken Patera and Bob Backlund. He broke away from the wrestling monopoly of the National Wrestling Alliance and created his own promotion to battle the wrestling giant. Gagne will always be remembered for his babyface techincal style, a tightfisted promoter and a trainer for a generation of pro wrestling superstars.
For more information about Verne Gagne please visit these sites Wikipedia, Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, WWE, Database Football, CBS Minnesota and The Minnesota Post.