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Verne Gagne


It was several days after his death that Verne Gagne appeared on the radar of the ESPN show Pardon the Interruption. During the brief milestone acknowledgments that precede the show's "Big Finish," there is a "Happy Trails" designation that sometimes turns serious when a sports-related death has come to pass. It's rare that a pro wrestler is acknowledged, but Verne Gagne was. Show co-host Michael Wilbon said it best this way: In a sport of rasslers, Gagne was a wrestler. A man with an actual successful amateur background, a one-time potential Olympic candidate with a short-lived pro football career.

While this is all true, Gagne would make professional wrestling his career. It began in the late 1940s. He went on to win various regional titles, mostly heavyweight singles titles and tag belts specific to a certain regional promotion: Texas, Tennessee, Montreal, Chicago, and so on. Through the 1950s, Gagne built himself up more and more. In 1960, he took it a step further by forming his own promotion, the American Wrestling Association, or AWA. Later that year, he was awarded the organization's championship belt after its inaugural champion failed to defend it within a required time period. His first title run lasted nearly eleven months. Throughout the '60s, he won the title numerous times, defeating luminaries such as Fritz Von Erich, the Crusher, and Mad Dog Vachon. Of course, he also lost the belt to many of the same foes before inevitably regaining it.

Gagne would continue wrestling throughout the 1970s, though others would eclipse his success as he approached, then passed, age 50. His son, Greg, joined the organization and had several runs with the tag belts. Verne Gagne's last AWA heavyweight title run ended in May 1981. Though his career effectively ended that year, he continued to appear in a couple of matches per year until 1986, when he hung his tights up for good. During this time, the AWA had firmly established itself as one of the big three North American professional wrestling promotions, although, by most accounts, it was #3. By the end of the 1980s, while Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation had expanded to become a true national and international brand, the AWA had run out of gas. The organization officially folded in 1990.

Gagne spent much of the rest of his life out of the public eye, save for a shocking incident in 2009. His health had been in decline for years. He'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, quite possibly due to years of sustaining blows to the head as a pro wrestler, and had moved into an assisted-living facility. One day, he got into an altercation with another resident, a 97-year-old man, killing him. An investigation would later determine that Gagne didn't have the mental capacity to form intent, and no criminal charges were brought against him. He remained at the facility for another six years.

Verne Gagne died on April 27, 2015. He was 89. Allen Kirshner, Direcorbie, King Daevid, and Monarc each receive 5 points for the hit.

--Allen Kirshner

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