Verne Gagne, the 10-time American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Champion and trainer of some of pro wrestling’s most iconic characters, died Monday at the age of 89, according to multiple reports.
Gagne, a former NCAA wrestling champion, had his first pro wrestling match on May 10, 1949 against King Kong Kashey while still attending the University of Minnesota.
He made pro wrestling his career following a brief stint with the Green Bay Packers and eventually became both the star attraction and owner of the Minneapolis-based AWA. He ran the organization for around 30 years through 1991 before his company, like many other regional promotions, was shuttered after facing competition from Vince McMahon’s WWE.
Gagne was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006.
Gagne trained wrestlers on his farm in Chanhassen, Minnesota, and his students included 16-time world heavyweight champion and fellow Hall of Famer “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. His promotion also served as the launching pad for Hulk Hogan before Hogan was lured away by the WWE in the early-’80s.
“This one hits close and hurts,” former World Championship Wrestling president Eric Bischoff, who cut his teeth in wrestling under Gagne as a salesperson and on-air talent for the AWA, said on his verified Twitter account. “My thoughts, prayers and gratitude are with his family.”
Gagne's most memorable opponent was Nick Bockwinkel. According to WWE.com, Gagne and Bockwinkel were the only two AWA champs between 1968-1982. Gagne's squeaky-queen Midwestern image versus Bockwinkel's arrogant playboy persona helped sell out arenas and expand the territory, which branched out west into markets like Las Vegas and San Francisco.
Multiple tributes to Gagne from the pro wrestling community were visible on social media by Tuesday morning. Impact Wrestling host and producer Jeremy Borash released a video on his verified Twitter account of Gagne's appearance on what Borash says was his first TV show while he was still a teenager.