Certain athletes are synonymous with greatness in their own particular sport. In professional wrestling, the name Verne Gagne was most often linked with unsurpassed talent in the mat sport.
Born in 1926, Verne grew up on a farm in Minnesota. Leaving home at age 14 after his mother passed away, he entered Robbinsdale High School participating in football, wrestling and baseball. It wasn’t easy for Verne, working many hours before school sweeping and scrubbing a local tavern and beauty shop. Still he managed to win district, regional and state championships in wrestling and was selected to play in the All-State-Football team.
In 1943, Gagne was recruited to play football at the University of Minnesota, becoming a member of the All-Conference Team that same year. Entering the Marines in 1944, he was based at El Toro, California and played on the marine football team. At the time, it was ranked number one in America. Verne was such an outstanding star that he could have written his own ticket as to which college he would attend following his discharge from the service.
He chose to return to the University of Minnesota where his dual interests in football and wrestling brought him recognition as a top athlete. In college, he won Big Ten wrestling Championships four times (1944, 1947, 1948 and 1949); NCAA Championships in 1948 and 1949; he was a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 1948 (though the Greco wrestling team did not compete); he also won the AAU Championship in 1949. In football, he played end for the Gophers, wining Honorable Mention in the All-American voting. In 1949 he was asked to play in the collage all-star football game in Chicago against the NFL Champions, the Philadelphia Eagles. Verne also enjoyed a brief stint playing professional football with the Green Bay Packers. But wrestling was given the upper hand when it came to choosing a profession.
The late Tony Stecher the Minneapolis wrestling promoter encouraged Gagne to enter the world of professional wrestling. In the spring of “49” Gagne had his first professional match against Abe “King Kong” Kashey. Former heavyweight boxing champion of the world Jack Dempsey refereed the match.
In 1950 he won the Junior Heavyweight title and held it throughout l951. The next move was to Chicago. There he received his biggest break, wrestling every Saturday night for the Dumont network. This tremendous national television exposure gave Gagne perhaps one of the largest followings of any wrestler before him. Having a terrific retinue of holds and escapes he became the country’s foremost exponent of scientific wrestling, with the Flying Dropkick and Sleeper Hold becoming his trademarks. With skill, personality and wholesome good looks he became a national celebrity and held the National Heavyweight Championship from 1952 until 1956.
Wrestling became so big during this time that sellout crowds were the norm in auditoriums all over the country. In one event on February 4th, 1953 Gagne was the headliner in New York’s Madison Square Garden. An all-time record crowd of 19,300 including 1,400 standees filled the auditorium. A riot took place outside when 5,000 fans were turned away.
In 1960, Gagne returned to the Twin Cities with the newly formed American Wrestling
Association becoming the World’s Heavyweight Champion. In that same year he bought an interest in it. Bringing with him the benefit of years of television experience. He produced a one- hour wrestling program and negotiated with TV stations around the country to air it. His primary objective was to produce quality “All Star Wrestling” with world class talent. And it’s success stemmed from a total commitment to professionalism, eventually leading to a hundred and twenty television stations around the country caring the show. With his keen sense of promotional expertise combined with business savvy the program syndicated nationally, for over 30 years. Eventually the program was picked up by ESPN network.
Ultimately becoming the sole shareholder of the corporation, which controlled the American Wrestling Association, he promoted and ran live events from New York to California and Canada to Mexico, as well as international events in Europe, and the Middle East. He held events in such historic venues as the; LA Forum, The Amphitheater and Comiskey Park in Chicago, The Meadowlands in New Jersey, The Cow Palace in San Francisco and countless other facilities. He also was involved with special events carried over closed circuit television from multi-locations and national and regional pay-per-view events.
As a professional wrestler his record was second to none, up until his retirement from in the early 80’s.Through his rigid training camp some of the best wrestlers got their start. Such as Olymipic team members Ken Patera, Brad Rieghans and Chris Taylor, Jim Brunzell, Greg Gagne, Ric Flair, Larry and Curt Hennig, Olie Anderson,Gene Anderson,The Iron Sheik, Dale Lewis, Ricky Steamboat, Larry Hinemi, Steve Olsonolski, Jan Nelson, Buck Zumoff, to list a few. And developed such stars as Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Hulk Hogan, Billy Robinson, Jimmy Snuka, Andrea the Giant, and many many more. All were indebted to Verne for being the catalyst to their success.
He has been a staunch supporter of amateur wrestling programs, not only in his home state of Minnesota, but nationally. Many aspiring wrestlers can thank Verne for the support and the encouragement that he has given the amateur wrestling community, be they wrestlers, coaches, or the schools themselves.
But the success of Verne Gagne is not just the story of an athlete or promoter, but rather it is also the success of an individual deeply committed to his community and recognizing and helping those less fortunate. Gagne, has been throughout his career, involved in community services and charities such as: the Courage Center, which serves disabled children and adults, Camp Confidence, Cystic Fibrosis, Easter Seals, The American Cancer Society, Children’s Hospitals, The Ronald McDonald House, Save the Children, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the Jerry Lewis Telethon, to list a few.