Verne Gagne and the Rise and Fall of the AWA

From his storied sporting career to his contributions in and out of the ring with the AWA, that rumor surrounding Hulk Hogan, to his unfortunate troubled final days, this is the unforgettable story of Verne Gagne.

From his storied sports career to the AWA, rumors about Hulk Hogan, and troubling final days, this is the unforgettable story of Verne Gagne.
Verne Gagne over the years.

To say that anyone’s contribution to their field was invaluable and irreplaceable is a bold statement. Very rarely do the realities live up to these myths. Verne Gagne is an exception to that rule.

Although he wasn’t the best businessman or the best at interpersonal relationships with his roster, what Verne Gagne had was an eye for wrestling talent and the knowledge of what to do with them to maximize their potential.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. The story of the AWA starts many years earlier when a young man learned the value of personal achievement.

Verne Gagne – The Man Behind the AWA

Laverne “Verne” Gagne was born on February 26, 1926, and raised a proud Minnesota boy.

He excelled in football, baseball, and wrestling, winning district, regional, and state championships at Robbinsdale High School, and he would be named to the All-State Football Team.


Fun fact: Robbinsdale High School out of Robbinsdale, Minnesota had many wrestling greats pass through its doors, including Tom Zenk (Class of 1976), Rick Rood (Rick Rude, Class of 1976), Dean Peters (Brady Boone, Class of 1976), Curt Hennig (Mr. Perfect, Class of 1976), John Nord (The Barbarian / Bezerker, Class of 1977), Nelson Scott Simpson (Nikita Koloff, Class of 1977), Barry Darsow (Demolition “Smash” / Repo Man, Class of 1978), and more.


In 1943, Verne was recruited to play football at the University of Minnesota, where he was named to the All-Big Ten Team.

After one year of college, like many other boys of his generation, Gagne enlisted by joining the Navy during World War II.

Upon returning home, he went back to the University of Minnesota, where he continued playing football and captured two NCAA wrestling titles.

Verne Gagne during football practice at the University of Minnesota in 1946.
Verne Gagne during football practice at the University of Minnesota in 1946.

He then followed his wrestling prowess to the 1948 Olympics and even had a short-lived run in the NFL as a part of the Chicago Bears, just prior to that.

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Choosing Professional Wrestling Over the NFL

When Chicago Bears owner George Halas found out Verne Gagne had been moonlighting as a professional wrestler, he put Verne in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between the two.

Verne was making more money wrestling than as a football player at that time, so his decision was easy. Gagne had clearly learned the recipe for success, and he decided that would be in wrestling.

Verne soon took to the road and honed his craft throughout the United States with title-holding runs in Texas.

It wasn’t long before he became famous in the Chicagoland area and the neighboring states. This was mostly due to his work on the Dumont Television Network, which also allowed him to become more financially stable at this time as well.

After a long period of unsuccessfully trying to win the NWA Championship, he decided to break away and form his own company and attempt to claim the Minnesota Territory for himself.

Forming the AWA (American Wrestling Association)

In 1959, Verne Gange teamed with Wally Karbo and acquired the Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club. Along with a few other smaller territories in that area, this entity would become the foundations of the American Wrestling Association.

They then split from the NWA and recognized Gagne as their champion in August of 1960.

In 1960, Verne Gagne formed the American Wrestling Association. Soon, the AWA would become one of the biggest promotions in the country, with Gagne at the forefront. He would go on to hold the AWA World Heavyweight Championship on ten occasions.
In 1960, Verne Gagne formed the American Wrestling Association. Soon, the AWA would become one of the biggest promotions in the country, with Gagne at the forefront. He would go on to hold the AWA World Heavyweight Championship on ten occasions.

For the next two decades, Verne reigned off and on as the AWA Champion. He always chose to work as a face (fan favorite), which allowed for a steady flow of heels through the promotion.

Gagne also had storied feuds with some of the biggest names in wrestling at the time and in its history. He warred against the likes of Fritz Von Erich, Mad Dog Vachon, The Crusher, Larry Hennig, Billy Robinson, and Nick Bockwinkel, to name a few.

Verne’s dealings with wrestlers and promoters gave him the networking abilities to expand his company across several NWA-recognized territories. Many years before Vince McMahon consolidated the territories, Verne Gagne had designs on a national company.

He branched out westward into Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco and crossed the border north into the Canadian north in Winnipeg. With Gagne leading the way as owner, and champion, the AWA experienced widespread growth over these years.

Verne Gagne – Highlights (and Low Points) as Promoter of the AWA

At the beginning of the ’80s, Verne Gagne started to pull himself out of the limelight of the ring and began to focus on the promoting end of things. The championship torch was handed down to his longtime opponent, Nick Bockwinkel.

Nick Bockwinkel and Rick Martel, pictured here in 1985, had some memorable bouts for the AWA Championship.
Nick Bockwinkel and Rick Martel, pictured here in 1985, had some memorable bouts for the AWA Championship.

Bockwinkel held the title on several occasions. Some of his biggest rivalries were with Rick Martel and Olympic wrestler-turned-pro Brad Rheingans.

However, the one man that would leave the AWA rocked and reeling from his short time there would be Hulk Hogan.

Verne was always a technical, mat-based wrestler, and he didn’t or wouldn’t see championship potential in the muscle-bound Hogan.

Before Hulkamania ran wild in the WWF/E, Hulk Hogan wrestled for Verne Gagne in the AWA.
Before Hulkamania ran wild in the WWF/E, Hulk Hogan wrestled for Verne Gagne in the AWA.

On two separate occasions, Gagne had dangled the title in Hogan’s face by allowing him to win the belt, only to strip it back from him via overturned decisions and commissioner interventions.

Dissension grew between the two because of this.

Finally, it came to a head when Gagne tried to negotiate himself into fifty percent of Hogan’s lucrative merchandise royalties and sales in the United States and abroad in Japan.

This was the final straw for Hogan, who then jumped ship to the WWF and a guaranteed title run.

Did Verne Gagne Pay The Iron Sheik to Break Hulk Hogan’s Leg?

A rumor went around stating that Verne Gagne paid The Iron Sheik to try and take out Hulk Hogan’s knee during his final AWA match before heading back to the WWF and Vince McMahon.

If, in fact, true, it would have changed the course of wrestling history.

Were the rumors true about Verne Gagne paying The Iron Sheik to break Hulk Hogan's knee?
Were the rumors true about Verne Gagne paying The Iron Sheik to break Hulk Hogan’s knee?

“The night at Madison Square Garden, Bob Backlund thought he was going to win the belt back from The Iron Sheik, but plans had changed when I made that deal with Vince,” Hogan told Steve Austin on The Steve Austin Show (H/T: Fightful for the transcription).

“[Vince Sr., Vince Jr., Backlund, and I] are talking, and Backlund says, ‘I don’t think anybody should win the title that’s not a real athlete.’

“I’ve been training with Backlund in Japan and am the only one doing the crazy workout he does with him.

“Vince Sr. was like, ‘You know what, Terry? We should think this thing through, and six months from now might be a good time to put the belt on you.’

“I said, ‘Vince Sr., all due respect, that’s not the deal I made with your son. I just burnt down a huge bridge in Minnesota. So I’ll go put the Sheik over tonight, but then I’m gonna rebuild that bridge, and I’m out of here.’

“Vince Jr. went to his dad and fixed it. I went out and Sheik did the job for me. Little did I know, Verne [Gagne] went out and said he’d give Sheik $100,000 if he broke my leg.”

Verne’s son Greg, on the other hand, had a different story.

In an interview on SportsKeeda Wrestling’s UnSKripted series, Greg Gagne cleared up the fog around this story.

“No. Sheik made that thing up,” said Gagne. “A couple of months ago, my brother said, ‘You gotta watch this thing on YouTube.’ I never knew he said it. So when [my brother] had told me, I said, ‘That was never said. Verne never did that.’”

Greg continued, “Iron Sheik trained with us and Verne got him started. Verne supported him through the Olympics and everything. He was so naive to the sport, he wasn’t catching on. My mom gave him the name The Iron Sheik, and then the Iranian thing was going on. Vince [McMahon] wanted somebody and Verne sent him up there [to WWE]."

The Fall of AWA

Not long after Hulk Hogan left, several other AWA workers began to trickle out for greener pastures in the WWF. Names like Gene Okerlund, Bobby Heenan, Adrian Adonis, Jesse Ventura, and Wendi Richter were amongst many who would flourish there as well.

The vacuum left in the wake of the WWF’s "raid" of the territories was evident across that whole system, but no promotion felt the punch to the financial guts the way the AWA had.

Even as his empire started to show signs of crumbling, Verne Gagne would not yield to his adversaries.

He began to establish new deals with television stations around his home area and branched out nationally with a deal with ESPN to broadcast his product weekly.

He also never let his eye for talent stop roving around.

The Road Warriors, The Rockers, The Long Riders, a young Big Van Vader, Scott Hall, and Curt Hennig were some of the workers he raised ratings with.

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Many of the older veteran workers still called AWA home at this time, which allowed for heated rivalries between the opposing dynamics. The matches between Bockwinkel and Hennig, in particular, are the stuff of legend.

Soon after it began, the relationship Gagne had with ESPN began to wane due to the lack of interest by the network to provide weekly on-time programming.

His show would routinely be postponed or ran at a totally different timeslot to accommodate another program. Verne turned his attentions in another direction to try and compete with the growing force out of the Northeast.

He inked out a working agreement with several other promotions, which also felt the crushing grip the WWF was beginning to have on them.

Jim Crockett Promotions, World Class Championship, Mid-South Wrestling, and Continental Wrestling Association from Memphis came together with the AWA to provide talent for the show that became known as SuperClash ’85.

The show was mired with controversy and logistical problems from the start. It was rumored that the heads of the different promotions were recruiting talent from the very people they were there to work together with.

Solidarity was indeed an issue, though the show provided fans like myself with a great alternative to the WWF product and carried a strong audience throughout the South, West, and Mid-West.

After that experience, Gagne decided to go out on his own and promote the WrestleRock ‘86 card that would see a 10 Woman Battle Royal, and a jaw-dropping triple main event, with each main event being a cage match.

The entire card was stacked with talent and drew well compared to other events at the same time, but it still didn’t get the press reaction that WrestleMania II garnered earlier that year.

Three main champions held the AWA together during these years. The belt passed back and forth between Curt Hennig, Rick Martel, and Stan Hansen.

Verne tried several times to put the title on his own son Greg, even though he received criticism over nepotism claims.

Some of his peers also viewed Greg as not having what it took to sell the seats to earn the spot of AWA. Champion, even if he was the boss’s son.

Greg did have a successful tag team career with Jumping Jim Brunzell as the High Flyers.

AWA Tag Team Champions, "The High Flyers" Jumping Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne.
AWA Tag Team Champions, “The High Flyers” Jumping Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne. [Photo: Pioneer Press]
Verne also had famously had problems with Stan Hansen in 1986 when he refused to drop the belt to Nick Bockwinkel and took the title to Japan.

 

Gagne stripped him of the title and awarded Bockwinkel a replacement belt in the World Title’s absence. Nick told the story for years after Hansen finally returned the official title. He had driven over it with his pick-up truck.

Learn more: Stan Hansen and the AWA Championship Belt Fiasco

Despite the problems suffered through promoting the SuperClash, it was followed up by three more of these events.

Gagne used mainly his own talent for the second. Still, Super Clash III held the highly anticipated main event between Jerry Lawler, who represented the Memphis Wrestling camp, and Kerry Von Erich from his father’s Texas promotion of WCCW.

It was a bloody brawl that saw Lawler come out the winner in a disputed decision by Von Erich. It was the only pay-per-view ever hosted by the promotion.

The fourth and final SuperClash event would see the rise of Larry Zbyszko as its new champion until he departed from the company in 1990.

Verne had his last hopes in his son-in-law (Larry Zbyszko was married to Verne’s daughter, Kathleen Gagne), but his hopes were dashed when Zbyzsko left for WCW.

After trying to maintain the promotion through the summer of 1991, the AWA finally folded.

American Wrestling Association – The Final Blow

Although many people in the wrestling world want to claim it was the WWF that finally choked out the AWA and the other last remaining territorial promotions, in this particular case, it was probably not totally the cause.

American Wrestling Association (AWA) logo

It is fairly well known that for many years, Verne Gagne had been using the value of a piece of property he owned along Lake Minnetonka to maintain his finances in the business.

During this same time, the local government decided in its ambivalence to take this property by a ridiculous writ of eminent domain and turn it into the Lake Minnetonka Regional Park.

This is just one more instance of the government taking what it likes, with no concern for whoever may be in their way. The promotion closed shortly thereafter in 1991.

The Troubled Final Days of Verne Gagne

Although he may not have been the greatest businessman ever to run a territory or promote a show, Verne was possibly the greatest trainer and possessor of the eye for wrestling talent that has ever lived. He knew what it took to be an athlete in this business and excel in that aspect.

Verne passed away in Bloomington, Minnesota, on April 27, 2015, at 89.

In this photo from 1998, Verne Gagne is shown with his AWA Championship belt, circa 1960.
In this photo from 1998, Verne Gagne is shown with his AWA Championship belt, circa 1960. [Photo: Pioneer Press]
Prior to his passing, Gagne was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (or possibly CTE caused by a lifetime of head injuries from his time in sports and wrestling). He had been living in the memory-loss section of a Bloomington, Minnesota health care facility. It was during this time when an unfortunate incident took place.

 

On January 26, 2009, Gagne got into an altercation with Helmut Gutmann, a 97-year-old resident of the Bloomington, Minnesota facility where they both resided. According to Gutmann’s widow, who was not present during the altercation, Gagne picked Gutmann up and hurled him to the floor, then broke his hip by pulling back on his body.

“The attack happened quickly while the men were at a table,” Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts would later add. “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 of the injury.

While the death was officially ruled a homicide by the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office, it would later officially be announced that Gagne would not be criminally charged as a result of the death as, because of Gagne’s dementia, he lacked the mental capacity necessary to have intended to harm Gutmann.

Vergne has been honored by several wrestling organizations such as the WWE, WCW, and The Professional Wrestling Hall Of Fame. He also received the Lou Thesz Award from the Cauliflower Alley Club in 2006.

Verne Gagne trained nearly a hundred wrestlers in his tenure with the AWA. The talent that passed through his doors is amazing, and his effect on this business is innumerable to count.

Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Bobby Heenan, Superstar Billy Graham, The Iron Sheik, Ricky Steamboat, Bob Backlund, Scott Norton, Bruiser Brody, Jerry Blackwell, Wahoo McDaniel, Baron Von Raschke, Shawn Michaels, each of the previously mentioned talents in this article, and many, many more were members of the AWA at one time or another.

It is, without a doubt, a greatest hits list of talent, and Verne’s contributions to the business will be forever cherished.

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Jim Phillips is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories. He's been a wrestling fan since the late '70s and a journeyman writer for the past decade. He can be reached by e-mail at squints72hhi@gmail.com.