Verne Gagne, a national and conference wrestling champ for the University of Minnesota, Olympic alternate for the 1948 London Games, and long-time professional wrestler and promoter, lost his decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease on Monday at age 89, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame announced via email Tuesday.
Born on a Minnesota farm outside Corcoran, Minn. in 1926, Laverne Clarence Gagne first made a name for himself as an amateur athlete in high school and college in the Twin Cities. He wrestled at Robbinsdale High in Minneapolis, where he was a two-time Minnesota state champ, winning the 165-pound title in 1942, then the heavyweight crown the following year, according to the Minnesota Storm Olympic wrestling training facility website.
Recruited to play football at the University of Minnesota as both a tight end and defensive end, Gagne earned accolades and titles as a Golden Gopher wrestler, becoming the school’s first four-time Big Ten champ from any school, and Minnesota’s first two-time NCAA champ. The boyish-looking big man – who was 5’10” and 215 pounds in his collegiate prime – wrestled for Gopher head coach Dave Bartelma for one season as a freshman in 1943-44, earning his first Big Ten title, at 175 pounds, before serving in the US Marine Corps at El Toro, California during World War II. When Gagne returned to the Minnesota campus and coach Bartelma for the 1946-47 season, he won the Big Ten heavyweight crown, and earned All-American honors at the 1947 NCAAs by placing third in that same weight class. The following season, Gagne earned 191-pound titles at both the Big Tens and the 1948 NCAAs. That summer, Gagne was named an alternate member of the US Greco-Roman wrestling team which competed at the 1948 London Olympics.
As a senior at Minnesota, Verne Gagne capped off his collegiate career by winning the heavyweight championship at the 1949 Big Tens… then, a couple weeks later, was awarded the title in what was then called the unlimited weight class at the 1949 NCAAs in a controversial referee decision over two-time defending heavyweight champ Dick Hutton of Oklahoma State.
Graduating from the University of Minnesota, Gagne signed a contract to play professional football for the Green Bay Packers, after rejecting an earlier offer from the Chicago Bears made a year earlier which would have required him to give up a year of collegiate athletic eligibility. According to “Grappling Glory: Celebrating a Century of Minnesota Wrestling & Rassling”, the Packers informed Gagne that he couldn’t play for them because the Bears still owned his rights, would not release him, and, therefore he could not play. So he gave up his fledgling NFL career, and, instead launched a career in professional wrestling that would endure for decades.
Gagne was one of a number of college mat stars of the 1940s and early ’50s who became pro wrestlers, along with some of his collegiate rivals such as Hutton, Iowa’s Bob Geigel, and Purdue’s Ray Gunkel. Gagne signed a contract with Minneapolis pro wrestling promoter Tony Stecher, and made his professional debut in May 1949. He then gained national exposure by appearing on the now-defunct Dumont TV network out of Chicago in 1950, propelling his ring career to new heights. In 1960, Gagne purchased the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) territory in Minnesota, renamed it the American Wrestling Association (AWA), and not only participated as a wrestler, but also ran it as his business. He was the organization’s ten-time champ during a career that spanned into the 1980s, a “face” (good guy) who dispatched “heels” (bad guys), often using is sleeper hold. Gagne’s time in the pro ring was an era where regional organizations were the rule in professional wrestling, each with its own stable of stars, and champ… radically different than today’s pro wrestling world where the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment – formerly World Wrestling Federation) is the dominant force.
That world of regional organizations started coming apart in the early 1980s. In 1984, the WWE’s Vince McMahon started luring away wrestlers from Gagne’s AWA, including Hulk Hogan. “Verne tried to compete for a few years, and I think it cost him a hunk of his fortune,” “Mean Gene” Okerlund, an announcer for the AWA, told the Minneapolis “Star-Tribune” Tuesday. “It was too bad. I wish he’d kept all his money and put on local cards in Red Wing (Minn.).”
In 2009, Gagne, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, was connected in the death of another Alzheimer’s patient at the Friendship Village in Bloomington, Minn., the “Star-Tribune” reported. The other man died of complications from a broken right hip. Gagne went to live with his daughter, Beth, and her husband, Will Ahern. “Beth and Will have been great, as has my sister Kathy, but the real hero in the family has been our sister, Donna,” said Greg Gagne, who followed his father into pro wrestling. “She was with Verne every day, for three or four hours, tending to his needs.”
Gagne was a member of two halls of fame within the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, welcomed into the inaugural class of the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1999, and presented with the Lifetime Service to Wrestling award by the Minnesota State Chapter of the NWHOF in 2003. In addition, Gagne was a member of the David Bartelma Minnesota Wrestling Hall of Fame as well as numerous professional wrestling Halls of Fame.