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WRESTLING COLUMNS

The Pride of Minnesota: A Look Back at the Verne Gagne and the AWA
March 23, 2006 by Jake Hamar


Before such great amateurs as Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas ever graced a squared circle, there was a man from Minnesota who made quite a mark on the industry. A tremendous collegiate wrestler who proudly represented his country in the Olympics and collected numerous accolades over the years, Verne Gagne set the standard for college wrestlers looking to break into sports entertainment and further their fame.

When the news broke early this week that Gagne would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, I was shocked due to the rocky tensions he had with current WWE Chairman Vince McMahon. A lot of Gagne's talent left his territory on less than amicable terms with their former employer, only to make McMahon a millionaire and change the wrestling industry.

But Gagne left an indelible mark on this business, not only owning the AWA promotion, but training some of the greatest performers of all time; performers like Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Ken Patera, Curt Hennig, "Jumpin" Jim Brunzell, and even his own son Greg. All of these performers developed excellent wrestling ability, and they became superstars wherever they went.

From the early 1950's to the early 1980's, Gagne was one of the biggest superstars in wrestling, winning the AWA World Heavyweight Championship on numerous occaisons, and making his territory the place to be, feuding with the likes of Mad Dog Vachon, Nick Bockwinkel, "The Crusher", Sheik Adnan El Kaissey and numerous other villains.

One unofficial rule in the AWA was, if you weren't an exceptional athlete or couldn't work well, you would not fit in. For example, if Kurt Angle came into the promotion, he would have become AWA Champion within weeks. Gagne prided his product on looking as real as possible, and making the fans believe that his stars were legitimate tough guys that could handle themselves quite well in a shoot fight.

In the 1970's, Gagne's business was on fire, making Nick Bockwinkel and Ray Stevens his top heels. As for fan favorites, he had Billy Robinson, "The Crusher", himself, and his hot new tag-team, "The High Flyers", Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne. Often, the babyfaces would feud with "The Heenan Family" led by manager Bobby "The Brain" Heenan. That heel stable would include Bockwinkel, Stevens, Pat Patterson, Bobby Duncum, Ken Patera, and Big John Studd (coincidentally, Heenan would go on to manage Patera and Studd in the WWF).

The AWA's success would continue into the next decade, as Gagne's in-ring days were winding down. He was to make Hulk Hogan his next champion, but Hogan would have none of it, and would leave the promotion in late-1983 to go to the WWF. Soon after, Gagne lost "Mean" Gene Okerlund, his main announcer. Then more names filed out, including Jesse Ventura, and "Dr. D." David Schultz. Even "Mad Dog" Vachon, who had been with the promotion since the mid-60's, would leave for McMahon's greener pastures. This infuriated Gagne, who claimed Vince was raiding his talent.

Even though major stars left the promotion, the AWA still had plenty of firepower, making Sgt. Slaughter, Rick Martel, The Road Warriors, and Curt Hennig major players. But during the mid-80's, it seemed Gagne had lost touch with his key demographic, and refused to to adapt his promotion much like the cartoon the WWF was. That in turn drew poor houses, even in his main arenas in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Omaha and Chicago. His attempt to make stars out of guys like Derrick Dukes, The Trooper and D.J. Peterson failed, and soon the AWA was out of business.

In today's wrestling landscape, where fans are craving more in-ring work, and better matches, the AWA would actually do well if it were around today. There is a new version of the AWA under the guidance of Dale Gagne, so hopefully the promotion will follow in it's predecessors footsteps and excite wrestling fans and give them a different product than what they see now.

by Jake Hamar ..


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