A quiet Minnesotan moves out of the ring and into sports history
"When we think of Minnesota's influence on the performing arts," writes nominator Mitch Vars of Minneapolis, "we may think of the Guthrie, Prince, Garrison Keillor, or maybe Josh Hartnett. I believe the most overlooked Minnesotan who has had a lasting influence on the performing arts nationally would be Verne Gagne, former owner/promoter of the American Wrestling Association (AWA), based in Minneapolis. Gagne's work through the AWA as a wrestler and wrestling promoter shaped the early days of professional wrestling and set the stage for pro wrestling's eventual growth into a multi-billion dollar industry."
Verne Gagne grew up on a Minnesota farm, was an outstanding athlete at Robbinsdale High School, and enjoyed a successful amateur wrestling career as a student at the University of Minnesota. He turned pro in 1949 and soon wowed fans with his flawless technique and smooth maneuvers. Through the new medium of television he became a national sports star, and, in addition to capturing several heavyweight titles in the 1950s, he was also one of the nation's highest-paid wrestlers.
In 1960, Gagne formed the American Wrestling Association as a promotional vehicle for his sport--and, overnight, became its biggest star. He was awarded the AWA's first World Heavyweight Championship and would go on to win the title nine more times before retiring in 1981. An understated, soft-spoken man, Gagne was nevertheless a tireless promoter whose public "feuds" with such archrivals as The Crusher and Dr. X drew unprecedented crowds. Never much for show, he simply laced up his boots, entered the ring, and got the job done. He left the theatrics to some of the more notorious members of the AWA, including Hulk Hogan (Gagne's biggest draw in the 1980s) and Jesse Ventura (who wrestled with the AWA in the early 1980s).
In 2004, Verne Gagne was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame by his son, Greg, one of dozens of young wrestlers he trained over the years. In an interview preceding the induction ceremony, Greg was asked to assess his dad's early impact on wrestling: "It's funny, it seems like wherever we go in the country, people recognize my father from way back then. The people are a bit older, of course, but they still recognize him and they recognize that that's when wrestling first hit the [television] networks. And he was a major, major part of that."
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