Verne Gagne was an accomplished amateur and professional wrestler whose ambition led to him creating his own promotion, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) one of the biggest promotions in North America during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The AWA would earn a reputation as a prestigious and lucrative place for wrestlers to work. In addition, promoter and owner Verne Gagne would train some of wrestling’s biggest names including Ric Flair, The Iron Sheik, Jim Brunzell, Ricky Steamboat, and Curt Hennig. Although the AWA closed in 1991, it is still fondly remembered by those who grew up watching it.
Verne Gagne was a multi-talented athlete, excelling in high school sports including football and wrestling. Gagne was recruited to the University of Minnesota but left to serve in the Marines during World War Two, playing football and teaching self-defense. After his service, Gagne returned to college, winning several wrestling titles including the AAU and NCAA wrestling championships. Given his wrestling abilities, it should come as no surprise he was also selected as an alternate for the 1948 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. Gagne played for the Chicago Bears but chose wrestling when given an ultimatum by Bears owner George Halas (wrestling was more lucrative). Gagne never looked back, becoming one of wrestling’s most successful stars during the Golden Age of Wrestling in the 1950’s. During this time, Gagne was awarded the United States Heavyweight Championship, defending it weekly on the Dumont Network (one of the three major networks at the time). The title was considered secondary to the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Championship, but some NWA promoters saw it as a threat, fearing it might confuse fans which belt was the top title. This would hurt Gagne down the road but at the time, Gagne capitalized on his fame, endorsing nutrition products and increasing his wealth.
Despite many analysts predicting Verne was a future NWA World Heavyweight Champion, he realized over time it wasn’t going to happen. Gagne decided to take a different approach. As wrestling historian Tim Hornbaker details:
Gagne was at the forefront of an idea to construct an independent body that cooperated with the NWA on many levels, but had its own champions and guidelines. With Wally Karbo, he bought the Stechers family’s shares in the Minneapolis territory (Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club) and formed the American Wrestling Association. For storyline sake, AWA “officials” gave NWA champion, Pat O’Connor 90 days to defend his belt against Gagne. When that bout failed to happen, Verne was proclaimed inaugural AWA champion in August 1960”. (236-37).
The AWA would have a friendly relationship with the NWA, despite splitting off from the wrestling syndicate. They would also exchange talent with them as well as the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF).
Gagne would hold the AWA World Heavyweight Championship ten times and while some criticized him for booking himself as champion, no one could argue Gagne’s ability to draw crowds. Gagne also knew he didn’t have to worry about troubles from his world champion, or an opponent going into business for himself as Gagne could defend himself in the ring. Whether or not critics agreed with Gagne’s choice of himself as champion, the AWA’s success spoke for itself.
The AWA proved a hotbed for singles and tag team talent throughout the 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s. While Gagne held the AWA World Championship ten times, legends such as Fritz Von Erich, Mr. M (aka “Dr.” Bill Miller), Mr. X (aka the Destroyer), Mad Dog Vachon, the Crusher, Dick the Bruiser, and Nick Bockwinkel carried the AWA World Championship on one or more occasions. In addition, a multitude of stars competed for the AWA Championship in its home territory and abroad (such as in Japan). Like any well-run promotion, the AWA provided an assortment of wrestling stars, giving fans variety throughout a show. The AWA had technical stars like Verne Gagne, Nick Bockwinkel, and Brad Rheingans, but it also had its share of brawlers including The Crusher, Dick the Bruiser, “Mad Dog” Vachon, “The Butcher” Vachon, and Bobby Duncum. The promotion boasted larger-than-life stars such as Wahoo McDaniel, Billy Graham, and of course, Hulk Hogan. The AWA roster included some of the greatest tag teams of all time, renowned acts such as The High-Flyers (Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne), Ray Stevens and Pat Patterson, The Texas Outlaws (Dick Murdoch and Dusty Rhodes), Larry Hennig and Harley Race, The Vachon Brothers, and “The East-West Connection” (Adrian Adonis and Jesse Ventura). Fans did not want for talent or variety in the AWA. The promotion also featured managers like Bobby Heenan and Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissie, as well as announcers “Mean” Gene Okerlund, Lord James Blears, and Rod Trongard.
The AWA was considered a prestigious company to work for with wrestlers reportedly enjoying some of the best payouts in the business. The schedule was relatively light (although travel in the winter could be difficult). In fact, Nick Bockwinkel was considered for the role of NWA World Heavyweight Champion but chose to remain AWA World Heavyweight Champion because the pay was comparable and the AWA schedule much lighter.
While Gagne would be criticized later in his career for falling behind the times, history shows he could be innovative. Gagne co-produced the 1974 film The Wrestler, featuring a number of AWA stars (including Gagne himself). It relied on the classic story of the aging champion facing the young upstart contender, as well as a subplot involving criminals trying to fix the match. The film was a dramatic work and while it featured some comedy, it took a serious approach to its subject matter. The film treated professional wrestling as a legitimate sport, maintaining kayfabe throughout which was no surprise as this was a time when kayfabe was protected like Colonel Sanders’ original recipe.
The AWA was stronger than ever as the 1980’s rolled around. Although Verne Gagne had retired as world champion, he competed from time to time and continued bringing in some of the biggest names in wrestling. However, by 1983, Gagne faced three problems- an inability to fully grasp the competitive nature of the WWF’s new owner, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, an overreliance on veteran stars, and an inability to recognize changing trends in the business.
Gagne learned how ruthless Vince McMahon could be when he was approached about retiring and selling the AWA to the WWF. According to the book Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, when Verne tried to negotiate, McMahon told him, “Verne, I don’t negotiate” (Assael and Mooneyham 20). Gagne would find himself facing a relentless opponent. For decades, wrestling promoters had operated under a gentleman’s agreement whereby they operated in their own area, steering clear of their fellow promoters’ geographic area. Like any agreement, there were exceptions, but when Vince McMahon bought the WWF from his father, he threw these rules out the window, like a wrestling heel would in a match. McMahon began buying up rival promoters’ stars, their TV time, and even the deals with the venues where they promoted wrestling. In his book, Inside Out: How Corporate America Destroyed Professional Wrestling, Ole Anderson recalls warning Verne Gagne about Vince McMahon’s aggressive tactics, only for Gagne to skeptically tell him it couldn’t happen. According to Anderson, “Two hours later, Verne got a call from the person he had handling San Francisco. The guy said, ‘Verne, we just lost the TV station.’” (Anderson and Teal 227). Like his fellow promoters in the NWA, Gagne was painfully learning of how different (and difficult) the wrestling business was becoming.
A second problem for Gagne was his continued push of older stars, pushing them against younger stars who exposed their weaknesses. When Gagne shrewdly signed the Road Warriors (wrestling’s hottest tag team at the time), their matches against veterans like the Crusher and Dick the Bruiser made the established stars look weak since the Road Warriors sold significantly less than traditional tag teams.
The AWA also suffered because Verne Gagne had trouble spotting new trends in wrestling. Case in point, Gagne’s mistake in letting Hulk Hogan slip through his fingers. In his autobiography, Hollywood Hulk Hogan, Hogan claims he left the AWA due to a squabble over merchandising and Gagne wanting a percentage of Hogan’s pay from his tours in Japan. When the two failed to reach an agreement, Hogan accepted Vince McMahon’s offer to join the WWF and become WWF Champion. Other accounts state Gagne was reluctant to put the belt on a non-wrestler. Gagne hired Hogan when he had mainstream recognition (thanks to his appearance in Rocky III and subsequent publicity appearances on The Tonight Show) and was instrumental in Hogan developing his mic skills but in the end, Gagne’s shortsightedness led to his losing Hogan to the WWF. Even when he signed the Road Warriors, Gagne failed to see the potential of a series against the Fabulous Freebirds. Gagne reportedly felt a heel vs. heel match-up wouldn’t sell, even though the Road Warriors, who Gagne booked as heels, were being cheered. By the time, Gagne booked a match between the Warriors and the ‘Birds, the Warriors were on their way out of the AWA.
The AWA did not die upon the departure of Hogan though. Gagne continued promoting for the next seven years, establishing new stars such as Curt Hennig (the future “Mr. Perfect”), Scott Hall, and the Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty). Gagne also joined other promotions in the TV show Pro Wrestling USA, a short-lived venture designed to battle the WWF. Gagne continued running the AWA, but according to Eric Bischoff’s Controversy Creates Cash, Gagne burnt up his own money to keep it running. A TV deal with ESPN got him national exposure but the AWA kept losing stars to the WWF. As business declined, Gagne had few options for keeping them in the AWA. Eric Bischoff also recalls Gagne was embroiled in a legal battle with the state of Minnesota over land it had seized from him via eminent domain. Gagne relied on the land as equity to finance the AWA. Gagne’s finances were a disaster. Eventually, ticket sales got so bad that Gagne held his tv shows in an empty building.
The AWA’s death was slow and undoubtedly painful for any longtime fan to watch. In 1991, Gagne closed the AWA. However, its legacy lives on, thanks to the fans’ memories, the WWE keeping it alive on the WWE Network, and videos such as The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA. Verne Gagne’s accomplishments in wrestling as a worker and promoter were recognized with his induction into the WWE’s 2006 Hall of Fame class. Gagne was also honored with an induction into WCW’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2004.
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