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Gagne was the former owner/promoter of the American Wrestling Association (AWA), based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was the predominant promotion throughout the Midwest and Manitoba, Canada for many years. He remained in this position until 1991, when the company folded. His son Greg also wrestled professionally.
Gagne is a 10-time world champion, all of which comes from holding the AWA World Heavyweight Championship, and he holds the record for the most combined days as being a world champion. He is part of both the WWE Hall of Fame and the WCW Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame.
Verne Gagne (born LaVerne Gagne) grew up on a farm in Corcoran, Minnesota. He left home at the age of 14 after his mother died. Verne went to Robbinsdale High School and excelled in football, baseball and wrestling, winning district, regional and state championships in high school wrestling, as well as being named to the All-State Football Team. In 1943, Verne was recruited to play football at the University of Minnesota, where he was named to the All-Conference Team. After one year of college, he enlisted with the United States Marine Corps. Gagne chose to return to the University of Minnesota, where he enjoyed a successful amateur wrestling career that saw him capture two NCAA titles, as well as being an alternate for the U.S freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympic Games; he later said that he might have wrestled in the Olympics, but his coaches had discovered that he had earned money winning a wrestling match at a carnival, thus putting his amateur standing in question.
Gagne joined the National Football League (NFL) soon after by being drafted in the 16th round (145th pick) of the 1947 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. Bears owner George Halas prevented Gagne from pursuing both football and wrestling (likely due to former Bear Bronko Nagurski having moonlighted as a professional wrestler during the height of his NFL career), and forced Gagne to make a choice. In a 2006 interview for WWE, Verne's son Greg Gagne mentioned that wrestling was a much better paying job at the time than playing football (as recently as the 1970s, it was not uncommon for NFL players to have a second job during the NFL offseason to help make ends meet), and as a result Verne chose wrestling over football.
In 1949, Verne decided to wrestle professionally, starting his career in Texas. In his debut, he defeated Abe Kashey, with former World Heavyweight boxing Champion Jack Dempsey as the referee. In 1950, Gagne captured the NWA Junior Heavyweight title. In 1953, Gagne won the Chicago version of the NWA United States Championship. Verne became one of the most well-known stars in wrestling during the golden age of television, thanks to his exposure on the Dumont Network, where he wowed audiences with his technical prowess. He was rumored to be one of the highest paid wrestlers during the 1950s, reportedly earning a hundred thousand dollars a year.
Verne Gagne and his supporters lobbied for him to become NWA World Champion in the 1950s but this did not happen for various reasons due to the politics of the NWA. Gagne was eventually recognized as NWA Champion by some NWA territories through a series of events that occurred in the late 1950s. On June 14, 1957, Edouard Carpentier defeated NWA Champion Lou Thesz in Chicago. The NWA later overruled the decision of the referee in Chicago and gave the title back to Thesz. However, certain wrestling territories of the NWA including Nebraska refused to go along with the decision and continued to recognize Carpentier. Carpentier lost his title to Verne Gagne in Omaha in August 1958 making Verne Gagne the recognized NWA World champion in the NWA territories that had recognized Carpentier. Gagne held this disputed version of the NWA World title until the formation of the AWA in 1960.
In 1960, Gagne formed his own promotion, the American Wrestling Association (AWA), instantly becoming its top star. That same year, Gagne was awarded the AWA World Heavyweight Championship, after Pat O'Connor failed to defend the title against the number one contender, Gagne. O'Connor had been the reigning NWA World Champion and was given the AWA World Title by Gagne (although O'Connor and the NWA refused to acknowledge it) and was advised by the new AWA to grant Gagne a title match within 90 days or else the AWA would declare Gagne the new AWA World champion. Gagne would go on to become a nine-time AWA World Champion (some sources say ten), a record for the promotion. He also had one of the longest World Title reigns in wrestling history, holding the AWA Title from August 31, 1968 until November 8, 1975, a total of 7 years 3 months, when he finally lost the belt to Nick Bockwinkel, this reign was the third longest world title reign in history. As well as being the company's owner, Gagne would also train wrestlers from his farm in Chanhassen as well.
Some of Gagne's biggest feuds were against Gene Kiniski, Dr. Bill Miller (under a mask both as Dr. X and then Mr. M), Fritz Von Erich, Dr. X (Dick Beyer), The Crusher (Reggie Lisowski), Ray Stevens, Mad Dog Vachon, Larry "The Ax" Hennig, and Nick Bockwinkel. He always wrestled as a face, and utilized the sleeper hold as his finisher.
As promoter of the AWA, Gagne was known for putting on an "old school" show. He sought out wrestlers with amateur backgrounds over the hulking brutes who dominated wrestling in the 1980s. This led to a problem with his biggest draw, Hulk Hogan, whom Gagne had acquired after Hogan had been let go by the World Wrestling Federation and who Gagne also felt was not championship material, due to the fact that Hogan was a powerhouse wrestler and not a technical wrestler. Seeing Hogan as the company's top draw, Gagne did, however, let Hogan feud with Bockwinkel. Eventually, as noted on the 2006 Spectacular Legacy of AWA DVD, Gagne settled with making Hogan his champion after Hogan's feud with Bockwinkel ran its course in April 1983, but only under the condition that he would receive the bulk of the revenue Hogan made from both merchandise sales and his matches in Japan. Hogan refused. In late 1983, Hogan accepted an offer from Vincent K. McMahon to return to the WWF. The Iron Sheik, who Gagne trained, has alleged that he was offered a cash bribe by the AWA's owner to inflict career threatening damage on Hogan's knee after it became apparent that he was going to go to the WWF. This allegation was supported by Hogan during an interview for A&E's Biography.
What followed was a purge of stars from various territories and promotions, including Gagne's AWA, by Vince McMahon, who wished to take his WWF "national" and do away with the traditional territorial system that dominated the North American Pro Wrestling landscape for years. The AWA suffered perhaps the most damage, losing nearly every one of its top stars in the mid to late 1980s. By 1991, the damage had been done, and the AWA shut down, after 30 years. Gagne would eventually end up in bankruptcy court.
- Finishing and signature moves
- Sleeper Hold
- Wrestlers trained
Championships and accomplishments
- Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (Class of 2004)