By Dave Meltzer, WrestlingObserver.com
Verne Gagne, one of the biggest names and most influential players in the history of the pro wrestling business, passed away Monday night at the age of 89.
Gagne was a two-time NCAA champion who came into pro wrestling just as it was exploding in popularity due to television. Gagne was the babyface star of the Dumont Network at a time when the mainstream popularity of pro wrestling was the highest it ever was in the U.S., as a top ten rated network television program.
The United States television title was created for him as a rival for the NWA world heavyweight title held by Lou Thesz. This created a unique political rivalry because both worked for high percentages of the gate and were rivals for promoters booking “the champion.”
Later, as wrestling’s popularity faded, Gagne purchased the Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club from Tony Stecher, making him a leading promoter.
In 1960, Gagne and right-hand man Wally Karbo formed the AWA in Minneapolis, and over the next decade expanded operations to cities like Winnipeg, Milwaukee, Denver, Green Bay, Chicago and throughout the Midwest.
Because of the easier schedule and high pay, the AWA was one of the places most of the top stars wanted to work if they could handle the brutal winters. Gagne made himself the perennial world champion, dominating the title though 1975, and coming back to hold it again through his first retirement in 1981.
Gagne was one of the industry’s most powerful promoters for 25 years, with major peaks in the early 70s with a talent stable that included Ray Stevens, Nick Bockwinkel, Red Bastien, Superstar Billy Graham, Billy Robinson, The Crusher, Bobby Heenan, Wahoo McDaniel, Dick Murodch, Dusty Rhodes and many others; and an even stronger run from 1981 to 1983 behind Hulk Hogan, Crusher Jerry Blackwell, Heenan, Bockwinkel, Jesse Ventura, Adrian Adonis, son Greg Gagne, Jim Brunzell and Ken Patera.
The AWA remained one of the strongest promotions through 1985, but Vince McMahon raided his talent, his office, his announcers and his producers and the last several years of the promotion were not pretty.
Gagne is in a multitude of Hall of Fames in both Minnesota sports, amateur wrestling and every major pro wrestling Hall of Fame.
Gagne had suffered from dementia for many years, including a 2009 incident where he threw down a fellow nursing home resident, Helmut Gutmann, 97, breaking his hip and Gutmann died three weeks later. While the death was ruled a homicide, Gagne was never charged due to his mental condition as he had no recollection any such thing happened.
More on this story as we get information.