Verne Gagne, who I think it’s safe to say is near the top of the list of most important people in wrestling history not named McMahon, died Monday at the age of 89.
Not only was he a legendary college, Olympic and pro wrestler himself becoming one of the first big stars in the era of broadcast wrestling, but the list of people he either trained or had a hand in developing and exposing to a wide audience during his years as owner of the AWA (American Wrestling Association) is truly staggering. Without Verne Gagne, there may never have been a Ric Flair, a Ricky Steamboat, an Iron Sheik, a Ken Patera, an Ole Anderson, a Bob Backlund and probably others that I’m missing. Imagine wrestling as we know it without names like those, which are just the ones he’s been credited as training. Now try to imagine a world without Hulk Hogan, the Road Warriors, Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura, Mean Gene Okerlund, Mr. Perfect, Diamond Dallas Page, the Rockers or Paul Heyman. All of them and so many more either got their starts or had some of their better known runs to that point in the AWA. Hogan, who’s credibility can often be a bit iffy (Andre the Giant did not weigh nearly 1000 pounds when he slammed him at Wrestlemania 3), has even said that Verne came up with the idea of Hulking up, which is a story I think I believe.
He was even indirectly responsible for the biggest explosion in money and popularity that wrestling ever had. He gave a job to a young Eric Bischoff, who eventually went on to become president of WCW, creating Monday Nitro and the Monday Night War in the process.
He wasn’t always rewarded for it, but Verne Gagne had an influence that many could only hope to have. Without him, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be writing this. So much of what I’ve spent the last 30ish years of my life as a diehard fan of I owe to him even though the AWA wasn’t on TV where I lived. Thank you for wrestling, sir.