I’ll guess that the New York Times’ wonderful obituarist Margalit Fox does not spend most of her waking hours focused on mid-20th-century professional wrestling, yet she’s written a brilliant postmortem about the recently deceased Verne Gagne, a star DuMont TV wrestler in the 1950s who ultimately ran his own Midwest promotion. That’s what an excellent reporter can do: They come to an unfamiliar topic, gather information and process it, and then quickly turn out something that seems to have been written by a longtime expert on the subject. Much easier said than done.
Here’s the only thing I know about Gagne: He happened upon the young Andre the Giant (not yet so nicknamed) in Japan 45 years ago and wanted to turn him into a “Great White Hope” boxer to take on the likes of Ali and Frazier. Not quite how it turned out.
A saloonkeeper’s son, LaVerne Clarence Gagne was born on Feb. 26, 1926, in Corcoran, Minn., near Minneapolis, and reared on a farm there. His mother died when he was 11; three years later, determined to wrestle despite his father’s insistence that he work in the saloon instead, he left home. Verne finished high school, where he wrestled and played football and baseball while living with an aunt and uncle.
At the University of Minnesota, he became a four-time heavyweight champion of the Big Nine, as the Big Ten Conference was then known, and an N.C.A.A. national champion. He also played football. Near the end of World War II he served stateside with the Marines, tapped by virtue of his wrestling skills to teach the men hand-to-hand combat.
In 1947 Gagne was a 16th-round draft pick by the Chicago Bears; he was later courted by the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers. But there was little money in pro football then, and he chose to earn his keep on the canvas.
In his first professional match, in 1949 in Minneapolis, Gagne defeated Abe Kashey, known as King Kong, and in the decades that followed Gagne traversed the country. Crowds waited eagerly for him to dispatch his foes with his trademark sleeper hold, which entailed grabbing an opponent’s head and pressing on his carotid artery so that he passed out — or at least gave a convincing impression of passing out.
In 1960, Gagne helped found the American Wrestling Association. Based in Minneapolis, the association promoted matches throughout the Midwest, Far West and Canada. Gagne, who later became the association’s sole owner, held the A.W.A. championship belt 10 times.
But in the 1980s, with the ascent of cable TV and its lucre, many of the nation’s star wrestlers, including Hogan and Ventura, were lured from their regional stables to the World Wrestling Federation, now a national behemoth known as World Wrestling Entertainment. The A.W.A. ceased operations in 1991; Gagne filed for personal bankruptcy in 1993.•