The website of Dan Erdman
Verne Gagne has died. Those of you who grew up in the upper midwest between the 1960s and 1980s no doubt have fond memories of the American Wrestling Association, the Minneapolis-based promotion which commanded a territory that stretched from Green Bay to Denver. Gagne was AWA’s owner and principal match booker and, for many, many (some would say too many) years, its heavyweight champion.
I began watching in the early 1980s, just in time to catch its last spurt of glory. “Embarrassment of riches” doesn’t begin to cover it – the roster during this era included, at various times, Rick Martel, Stan Hansen, Baron von Raschke, DA CRUSHER (my favorite), “Playboy” Buddy Rose, Curt Hennig, Nick Bockwinkel, Shawn Michaels, Marty Jannetty and The Road Warriors, many of them putting on some of career-best matches. Throw in occasional visits from perennial NWA champion Ric Flair (who, incidentally, made his professional debut in an AWA ring in Rice Lake, Wisconsin in 1972), and you’ve got a high point in rust belt culture from an era where said culture had relatively little to crow about.
The AWA itself wasn’t much to crow about toward the end of the decade. Much as I loved it, the old-fart blue-collar vibe of the promotion didn’t age well in the Rock ‘N’ Wrestling era. Perhaps the most famous example of Verne’s inability to figure this out was his failure to do much of anything with Hulk Hogan when he had him under contract in the early 1980s. Despite his growing popularity, Verne apparently didn’t see what the big deal was with the guy, and didn’t put up much of a fight when he left to join the WWF in 1984. Vince McMahon raided most of his other talent for the rest of the decade (including many of the names I gushed over above) and cut off their live-event box office with their relentless, nationwide touring schedule. By 1990, AWA was taping shows in a Las Vegas casino, and eventually limped into extinction later that year.
I prefer to remember Verne and his promotion at their best. Here’s a pre-AWA tag match between Verne, Wilbur Snyder and Argentina Rocca and The Lisowski Brothers (one of whom, Reggie, is of course aka DA CRUSHER) and Dick the Bruiser (notable also for being namechecked along with Verne in the beginning of The Dictators’ “Two Tub Man”). This is from Chicago Film Archives’ excellent “Wrestling From Chicago” YouTube channel, which is simply one of my favorite things.