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#9 Verne Gagne
A regional titan who ruled the Midwest for around 30 years, and for many wrestling fans who grew up in America's heartland, Verne Gagne WAS professional wrestling. Whether it was as an up-and-coming babyface in the National Wrestling Alliance, or the kingpin champion of the American Wrestling Association, Gagne was the most powerful active wrestler in the industry for several decades. While Gagne is today best known for running the AWA, he is ranked in this chapter based solely on his career as an in-ring perfomer.
Gagne grew up in a farm in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, where he turned into one of the finest athletes to come out of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. He excelled in football and baseball, but became best known for his success on the mat as an amateur wrestler, winning a state championship in his senior year. He was recruited to play football at the University of Minnesota, in addition to becoming one of the best amateur wrestlers in NCAA history, winning two NCAA National Championships. In between his years in college, he served in World War II as a part of the Underwater Demolition Team, a precursor to the modern day US Navy SEALs.
Gagne represented the United States in the 1948 Olympic Games, although he did not compete due to the fact that he had wrestled for money at a carnival and his status as an amateur was in dispute. After graduating from Minnesota, Gagne was drafted by the Chicago Bears, where he originally planned on playing football and moonlighting as a professional wrestler. In the past, Bears superstar Bronko Nagurski doubled as one of the most popular wrestlers in the world in addition to his play at fullback for Chicago. Not wanting to have a player split his time between football and wrestling, Bears owner George Halas presented Gagne with a choice; play for the Bears, or pursue wrestling. Since professional wrestling was decisively more lucrative than a contract in the fledgling NFL, Gagne chose wrestling.
Gagne was trained by Tony Stecher and Joe Pazandak and broke into the business in Texas in 1949. Few in wrestling had better amateur credentials, and Gagne proved to be an instant star. Although at 5'11" and 215lbs Gagne was undersized, his proficiency on the mat proved to be an effective counter, and nobody ever discounted Gagne from a fight. Just a year into his career he was a main event star in Texas, winning the Texas Heavyweight Title and feuding with Black Guzman, the real-life brother of Mexican icon El Santo. In 1950 Gagne slowly worked his way north, moving onto Oklahoma. NWA World Junior Heavyweight Champion LeRoy McGuirk vacated the championship when he was injured in a violent car accident, and Gagne would win a tournament to crown a new champion. He would hold onto the championship for over a year before dropping it to Danny McShain in November of 1951.
In 1946 the DuMont Television Network was founded. During the late-40s and 50s, the DuMont network was one of the most valuable properties in entertainment, rivaling CBS and NBC as the premier television station in the United States. The rapid advancement of technology in the television industry proved to be too much of a financial commitment and DuMont ceased operations in 1956 and today is largely forgotten, but in post-War America DuMont was one of the most notable names in entertainment, and their model of having multiple advertisers sponsor their programming became the premier method of funding television programs.
When DuMont was starting out, they turned to professional wrestling. Wrestling was one of the cheapest programs to produce; all of the action could be captured with a single camera, DuMont didn't have to pay to produce the show, since wrestling shows were taking place in arenas all over the country regardless if TV was there or not and pro wrestling had a definite audience ready to tune in. Wrestling on the DuMont network became one of the most viewed programs on television, and their television ratings dwarfed the ratings achieved by wrestling promotions in the 80s and 90s.
One of the most prominent of the stars that DuMont featured was Gagne, who impressed fans with his slick wrestling and humble attitude. Pop culture stars in the 1950s were the ones who best embodied the American dream. Even stars who pushed the envelope like Elvis Presley were recognized for coming from humble beginnings to achieve superstardom. It was tough to find a better hero than Gagne, who was an All-American boy from a farm in Minnesota, a navy veteran and someone who could fight on the mat and with their fists. Since DuMont was most prevalent in the Midwest, Gagne was the perfect hero for the area.
Gagne quickly became one of the biggest heroes in wrestling, and only the great Lou Thesz could rival him when it came to popularity in the central states. He possessed many regional championships, including the NWA Chicago United States Heavyweight Championship, which was regarded as the second most prominent championship behind the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Gagne defended the title fiercely, and feuded with the likes of Wilbur Snyder, Dick the Bruiser and Hans Schmidt.
Despite the acclaim he was receiving in the NWA, Gagne had his eye fixated on the conglomerate's grandest prize; the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. For whatever reason, Gagne was denied his chance to be the world champion. Gagne, who could be very gruff at times when negotiating business, found himself on the wrong end of the political game that was the NWA. On paper, Gagne seemed like the perfect person to carry the NWA's grandest prize. With Thesz winding down his career as a full-time champion, Gagne fit the bill of what they would want as a successor to Thesz. Here was one of the most popular babyface wrestlers in the country who was willing to work the hellacious schedule that was required of the NWA champion. In addition, he possessed the desired amateur background, something critical to the NWA since they were paranoid about being double-crossed in the ring and wanted someone that could handle themselves if things got rough (this was partially the reason Thesz, a noted hooker, was champion for so long).
The closest Gagne ever came to winning the NWA World Heavyweight Championship was in 1958 when he was working with Quebec wrestling hero Edouard Carpentier. In 1957 Carpentier won a controversial match over Thesz, winning the world title. However, only certain members of the NWA (mostly Northern territories) recognized Carpentier as the real world champion, everyone else still recognized Thesz. On August 9, 1958, Gagne defeated Carpentier for the title, although he was only recognized as the world champion in the territories that recognized Carpentier. A few months later he dropped the title to Wilbur Snyder and washed his hands of the whole debacle.
Frustrated with his lack of options in the NWA, Gagne proceeded with one of the more audacious moves in professional wrestling history. Gagne had been one of the highest paid wrestlers of the 1950s, and as a shrewd saver and businessman he had amassed a small fortune. Instead of continuing to work with the NWA, he elected to invest in the Minnesota promotion, known as the NWA Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club, eventually owning the entire promotion along with his business partner, Wally Karbo by 1959. In 1960, Karbo and Gagne unsuccessfully lobbied for a match with NWA champion Pat O'Connor. They re-named the promotion the American Wrestling Association and recognized O'Connor as the AWA World Heavyweight Champion. They then informed O'Connor that he had 90 days to defend the championship against Gagne or he was going to lose it. O'Connor and the NWA ignored this and in August of 1960, Gagne was awarded the AWA World Heavyweight Championship. Karbo and Gagne also convinced some promoters, mostly ones in the upper Midwest and Far West, to leave the AWA and join the NWA.
The formation of the AWA is one of the most important developments in professional wrestling history. This was several years before the formation of the World Wide Wrestling Federation and the AWA was the first promotion to really challenge the NWA on a major level. It united a sprawling composition of regional territories into a major group, powerful enough to defy the NWA. It very easily could have failed, but because they possessed one of the best babyfaces in the world to lead the charge, it would prove to be one of the most successful promotions in history.
The AWA became known for its great diversity in styles and wrestling matches. The tag team match, largely an anomaly before the AWA, would fully develop under the leadership of Gagne. While Gagne was the smooth, confident, technical champion, he was challenged by some of the most viscous brawlers wrestling has ever seen. Dick the Bruiser, The Crusher, Mad Dog Vachon and Fritz von Erich all became top contenders for the AWA world title.
The booking of Gagne and the AWA World Heavyweight Championship would be very deliberate and developed a track record of successful business for the promotion. Gagne would start off holding the championship, only to lose it to a heel wrestler, typically under nefarious circumstances. Gagne would then chase the heel for his championship for several months, eventually cornering the heel and winning back the title. Gagne would lose the title to another heel and process would repeat itself all over again. His contemporary Bruno Sammartino is known for being the longest reigning world champion in history, but Gagne actually had more career days as champion than Sammartino (4,677 days for Gagne, 4,040 days for Sammartino).
Now, Gagne's career figures have to come with a whole shaker of salt. Unlike Sammartino or Ric Flair or Thesz, Gagne owned the AWA World Heavyweight Championship and since he was also the booker, he was in complete control of who had it and how long they would have it for. Especially later in his career, Gagne's ego would get in the way of his better judgement and he would have some title reigns that probably were not the most beneficial to the company. However, at the beginning of the AWA, Gagne was the main benefactor of the company and invested in the promotion at great personal risk. If he was not a suitable champion, than the AWA would have folded and Gagne would have been bankrupt. The fact is Gagne, regardless of whether or not he was the owner of the promotion, proved to be the most bankable star the AWA possessed, which led to terrific success.
His first reign as champion lasted nearly a year, dropping the title in July of 1961 to future NWA World Heavyweight Champion Gene Kiniski. Gagne would regain the championship just a month later, but would drop it to Mr. M in January of 1962. Mr. M was Bill Miller who would end up being one of Gagne's best opponents. The 6'6" Miller was an All-American wrestler at Ohio State and the clashes between Miller and Gagne helped establish the AWA as a promotion of great technical wrestlers to match their ferocious brawlers. Gagne would wrest the championship away from Miller in August of 1962, holding it for another year-long reign, dropping it in July of 1963 to "The Crusher" Reggie Lisowski.
If Miller was a perfect technical opponent for Gagne, The Crusher was anything but. 5'11 and a barrel-chested 260lbs, The Crusher perfected the role of the violent, beer-swigging brawler decades before Steve Austin and The Sandman. Nicknamed "The Man that Made Milwaukee Famous", The Crusher was the polar opposite of Gagne. Gagne was clean-cut and humble, The Crusher was boastful. Gagne was a gifted mat wrestler, The Crusher fought with his fists. After chasing Gagne for the championship, The Crusher won his first world title. Gagne however, would regain it just a week later. A brief run by Fritz Von Erich followed, but Gagne would regain the championship and swapped the titles again with The Crusher at the end of 1963.
The AWA would eventually become an enormous territory, stretching from the Twin Cities to Phoenix to Winnipeg to Michigan. Sammartino will go down as a bigger historical draw because the population of the WWWF territory was more densely organized, but Gagne drew over a much larger geographic scope. The Midwest style of wrestling, which dates back to before the 20th century with champions like Farmer Burns and Evan "Strangler" Lewis, focused heavily on mat wrestling and submission holds. Gagne, along with Lou Thesz was the most prevalent of all the great Midwest wrestlers, and considering how many wrestlers grew up watching the AWA, it is no surprise that even today when you think of wrestlers from the Great Plains, superior mat wrestling is the first thing that comes to mind.
Gange began 1964 by finally getting a match against O'Connor, defeating O'Connor with the AWA World Heavyweight Championship on the line. He then began feuding with Mad Dog Vachon, a brawler built like The Crusher, but someone who also was a gifted amateur wrestler. In fact, Vachon first met Gagne at the 1948 Olympics when he represented Canada in freestyle wrestling. Vachon defeated Gagne in May, but like The Crusher he would drop the championship back to Gagne two weeks later. Gagne would continue to defend the championship against the likes of von Erich and Hans Schmidt before dropping it again to Vachon in October.
After dropping the title to Vachon, Gagne would slip out of the title picture for a while after failing to regain the championship from Vachon. Instead, he devoted himself to working with the tag team division in the AWA. The AWA possessed a deeper reservoir of tag team talent than any other promotion in wrestling, and part of the reason that was true was because they pushed top talent in those roles. The Crusher's charisma eventually overwhelmed the AWA's fanbase and he began teaming with Gagne as a babyface team. They would feud with Harley Race and Larry Hennig, eventually winning the AWA World Tag Team Championships in July of 1965. With Gagne leading the way, tag team wrestling in the AWA became virtually the equal of any main event singles match.
In 1967 Gagne finally defeated Vachon for his 8th AWA World Heavyweight Championship. The old formula of the title often switching hands would go by the wayside, as Gagne held the championship for well over a year. He would defend the championship against brawlers like Vachon, technical wrestlers like "The Destroyer" Dick Beyer and even noted hookers like Thesz and Danny Hodge. While the deep pockets of the WWWF and the New York City market lured top heels to feud with Bruno Sammartino, Gagne forged important relationships with prominent wrestlers and promoters that allowed him to feud with some of the top talent in all of wrestling.
It was Dick Beyer, who was working under the name Dr. X, who dethroned Gagne, defeating him for the world title in August of 1968. Gagne would quickly regain the title later that month, and his ninth title reign would be his longest. Gagne would clutch onto the AWA World Heavyweight Championship for a jaw-dropping 2,625 days, from August of 1968 to November of 1975.
During his mighty title reign, Gagne would defend against the usual cachet of heels, including Beyer, Dick the Bruiser, Hennig and Bill Watts. An important facet of his reign was that he would defend outside of the typical boundaries of the AWA, making it a true world title. He defended it in Hawaii against King Curtis Iaukea and in the Japanese promotion International Wrestling Enterprise, something that only the NWA World Heavyweight Champion was doing at the time. In 1973, Gagne managed to defend the championship at a WWWF show in Madison Square Garden, defeating Eddie Graham in front of a sold-out crowd. He even went back to his old-stomping grounds in Oklahoma to defend the title at an NWA Tri-States show against Jerry Miller.
By 1975, Gagne was the elder statesman of professional wrestling. His durability as a major draw was extremely impressive; since he had become a significant star as early as 1953, giving him a longer shelf-life on top than almost any other wrestler in history. Gagne eventually dropped the championship to Nick Bockwinkel. Like Gagne, Bockwinkel was a veteran and a skilled technician, but unlike Gagne he worked as a heel, insulting the fans instead of garnering their sympathy. Since Bockwinkel would hold the championship for four and a half years, it marked a major shift in the philosophy of the AWA.
Throughout the second half of the 1970s, Gagne wrestled a reduced schedule in the AWA, wrestling Bockwinkel for the title or teaming with his son Greg in tag matches. In the early-1970s Gagne began to personally train the AWA's young talent, and his ability to scout and nurture talent was second to none. During his period of training for the AWA, Gagne trained an exclusive list of wrestlers that would include future superstars Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Bob Backlund, Ricky Steamboat, Curt Hennig, Gene and Ole Anderson and The Iron Sheik.
Despite the fact that he looked like he was slowing down in the ring, Gagne would have a banner year in 1980. He defeated Bockwinkel in July for his tenth and final AWA World Heavyweight Championship. In addition, he formed another tag team with an old rival, Mad Dog Vachon, and won the AWA World Tag Team Championships, defending them against the hated team of Jesse Ventura and Adrian Adonis. He would hold the championship for over a year, defending it against Ventura and Jerry Blackwell. In 1981 he traveled to Japan to take part in a unification match against Pacific Wrestling Federation World Heavyweight Champion Giant Baba, with the match ending in a draw and both men leaving with their respective championships.
The 1980s would mark the decade where Gagne's empire would fall apart and unfortunately, the modern perception of his career would take hold. It began in 1981 when Gagne decided to retire as the champion, instead of dropping the title. This was seen as a selfish move by Gagne because any respectable veteran would have dropped the championship to a younger wrestler, giving them the rub as he went off into retirement. Despite his retirement, Gagne would continue to wrestle the occasional match throughout the decade.
He also struck gold with a young wrestler, Hulk Hogan, who had fallen to him after Hogan left the WWF. Hogan rapidly became the most popular wrestler in the company, but Gagne became reluctant to push Hogan because he flew in the face of traditional Midwest wrestling. Eventually Hogan was pushed to face Bockwinkel for the title, but Hogan never captured the championship because of a falling out with Gagne over many things, mostly money, and Hogan left to go to the WWF.
As Vince McMahon Jr. began to forge his war on the territories, the AWA was his most viable rival. McMahon began to raid the AWA not only because he had a lot of money, but because the AWA was reluctant to push new talent. Despite the fact that he trained and developed a lot of talented wrestlers, Gagne still largely pushed the same people he was pushing 15 or more years ago. In 1986, the AWA held WrestleRock a major show that drew 22,000 people to the Metrodome in Minneanpolis. Gagne elected to main event the show himself, against Adnan Al-Kassie, meaning that despite the fact that he had been retired for a majority of the last five years, he still felt that he himself was the AWA's most viable star. The AWA slowly lost momentum as the war against McMahon turned unfavorable, and the great promotion finally went out of business in 1991.
Revisionist history has Gagne unfairly billed as an inept businessmen and a cantankerous promoter who couldn't change with the times. Because of that, Gagne's greatness as a top star for decades sometimes gets overlooked. There is a lot of truth in Gagne's inability to get out of his own way during the 1980s, but Gagne also proved to be a shrewd and creative promoter for decades before the promotion ran out of steam. Despite his failures at the end, very few promoters can claim to be as successful as Gagne was and very few wrestlers can claim to having a more illustrious and impactful career than Gagne.
Next week #8 will be revealed, a star who had one of the longest careers in wrestling history.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant
14. Kenta Kobashi
13. The Rock
12. Jumbo Tsuruta
11. Stan Hansen
10. The Undertaker
9. Verne Gagne