Laverne Clarence “Verne” Gagne (born February 26, 1926), is a retired American professional wrestler, football player, and professional wrestling trainer and promoter. He 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 for many years. He remained in this position until 1991, when the company folded.
Verne Gagne is a 16-time world heavyweight champion, having held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship 10-times, the World Heavyweight Championship (Omaha version) 5-times, and the IWA World Heavyweight Championship once. Gagne holds the record for the most combined days as a world champion and is third behind Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz for the longest single world title reign. He is one of six men inducted into each of the WWE Hall of Fame, the WCW Hall of Fame, the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame.
Verne Clarence 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, Gagne 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, as an amateur wrestler, he captured two NCAA titles. He was also 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.
National Football League
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 recent 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.
Professional wrestling career
National Wrestling Alliance
In 1949, Gagne 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. On November 13, 1950, Gagne captured the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Junior Heavyweight title in a tournament for the vacant championship.
In September 1953, Gagne won the Chicago version of the NWA United States Championship. Gagne 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.
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 Gagne in Omaha on August 9, 1958, making him the recognized NWA World champion in the NWA territories that had recognized Carpentier, before dropping the belt three months later to Wilbur Snyder. By early 1960, the highly wealthy Gagne rarely wrestled and turned his focus towards building a wrestling promotion of his own
American Wrestling Association
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 Hogans 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.
Hall of Fame
In April 2006, Gagne was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by his son, Greg Gagne. He is one of the few wrestlers to be in the WWE Hall of Fame, WCW Hall of Fame, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, and Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame.
Gagne was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (or possibly chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by a lifetime of head injuries.), and has been living in the memory-loss section of a Bloomington, Minnesota health care facility.
On January 26, 2009, Gagne got into an altercation with Helmut Gutmann, a 97-year old resident of the facility, who fell and broke his hip. According to Gutmann’s widow, Gagne picked him up and hurled him violently to the floor, then pulling back on his body, thus breaking his hip. She was not present during the altercation, however, and Bloomington, Minnesota police chief Jeff Potts said “The attack — which was not a wrestling body slam — happened quickly while the men were at a table, Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts said. It was more like “a push and a shove” and it caused Gutmann to fall.”
Neither man had any recollection of the incident. Gutmann was admitted to the hospital, and died on February 14 from complications from the injury. On February 25, 2009, the man’s death was officially ruled a homicide by the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office. On March 12, 2009, the Hennepin County Prosecutor’s office officially announced that Gagne will not be criminally charged as a result of the death. Because of Gagne’s dementia, he lacked the mental capacity necessary to have intended to harm Gutmann.
- Finishing moves
- Sleeper hold
- Signature moves
- Flying Headscissor
Championships and accomplishments
- Amateur Athletic Union
- Northwestern AAU Championship (1942)
- National AAU Championship (1948, 1949)
- Big Ten Conference
- Big Ten Conference Championship (1944, 1947, 1948)
- Minnesota State High School League
- Minnesota State Championship (1943)
- National Collegiate Athletic Association
- NCAA Championship (1948, 1949)
- Olympic Games
- Member of 1948 United States Olympic Team
- Cauliflower Alley Club
- Lou Thesz Award (2006)
- International Pro Wrestling
- IWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
- NWA Chicago
- NWA United States Heavyweight Championship (Chicago version) (2 time)
- NWA World Tag Team Championship (Chicago version) (1 time) – with Edouard Carpentier
- NWA Minneapolis Wrestling and Boxing Club / American Wrestling Association
- AWA World Heavyweight Championship (10 times)
- AWA World Tag Team Championship (4 times) – with Moose Evans (1), The Crusher (1), Billy Robinson (1), and Mad Dog Vachon (1)
- NWA World Tag Team Championship (Minneapolis version) (4 times) – with Bronko Nagurski (1), Leo Nomellini (2), and Butch Levy (1)
- World Heavyweight Championship (Omaha version) (1 time)
- NWA Tri-State
- NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
- Omaha, Nebraska
- World Heavyweight Championship (Omaha version) (4 times)
- Pro Wrestling Illustrated
- PWI Stanley Weston Award (1986)
- PWI ranked him #158 of the 500 best singles wrestlers during the PWI Years in 2003
- Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Class of 2004
- Southwest Sports, Inc.
- NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship (2 times)
- NWA World Tag Team Championship (Texas version) (1 time) – with Wilbur Snyder
- World Championship Wrestling
- WCW Hall of Fame (Class of 1993)
- World Wrestling Entertainment
- WWE Hall of Fame (Class of 2006)
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (Class of 1996)
Verne trained or helped train 93 wrestlers, including: