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Monday, April 27, 2015

The Legacy of Verne Gagne

Over thirty years ago, Verne Gagne, who walked a country mile in plain black boots, couldn't fathom putting the AWA World Heavyweight Championship on Hulk Hogan, the same "Hulkster" that whose thundering legdrop set off wrestling's version of the Pangaea separation. Gagne's mechanical thought didn't seem to have room for foretelling paradigm shifts; 'cutting edge' was a foreign language. I can only wonder what Mr. Gagne would've made of Twitter as a game-changing communicator. Probably some new-fangled crap he couldn't bother to understand.

Gagne painted his canvas with oils of the basic variety. For that, he's often the butt of many jokes. Forget about the slightly-apocryphal story of him letting Hogan slip through his calloused fingers; McMahon was getting Hogan and every other major star that dreamed of being musclebound Bohemials in New York. Verne could have rivet-gunned the AWA strap on Hogan's muscular waist and Hulk still would've made tracks for the Big Apple. Gagne also lost a murderer's row of megastars to WWF in those late-1980s. Curt Hennig, Gene Okerlund, Jesse Ventura, Bobby Heenan, The Rockers, among others, departed the Minnesota stronghold with barely a second thought. It was just business. Some like Ventura and Heenan had some unflattering things to say about Gagne years later, but largely in the context of being businessmen with families.

About the few criticisms of Gagne that have stood the test of time were his inability to change with the turning of the cultural pages, and probably-legitimate flare-ups over money. In a world where promoters can be portrayed as cowardly, sniveling weasels that talk out of both ends of their mouth and would absolutely die if someone they crossed got them alone in a dark alley, nobody ever questioned Gagne's manhood.

There's something quaint about his vision of what a wrestler should be, even if the physics of it make even Cross-Fit buffs recoil. In his controversial 2004 autobiography, Ric Flair goes into detail about his aversion toward Mick Foley as a respected wrestler, and cites Foley's probable inability to make it through Gagne's daily training regimen of running mile after mile across rough Minnesota terrain as merely the prelude to further weight training and conditioning. Flair lived it as a young man over 40 years ago, the same gauntlet to success run by Ricky Steamboat, The Iron Sheik, Curt Hennig, Larry Hennig, Scott Norton, Ken Patera, Jim Brunzell, Sgt. Slaughter, Ole Anderson, Bob Backlund, among nearly 100 others.

What do these men have in common? Greatness, mostly. All of them are recognized to some high degree as successful professional wrestlers. As for differences, they are plentiful. Flair is the all-night partier, Sheik is the swearing eccentric, Steamboat is straight-laced and calm, Backlund is straight-laced and spastic, while the future Mr. Perfect seemed to be a grab bag of the above qualities.

Yet they all fall from the Gagne tree, all of them successful down a multitude of paths, but with that common beginning. Gagne clearly didn't train just one kind of wrestler, but gave this motley crew of wide-eyed crazies and stern-browed grapplers alike their start, imbuing them with basics that laid as concrete a foundation as you could have in professional wrestling. That a large amount of them left indelible legacies of their own speaks to what a trainer Gagne was. He weeded out bullshit without flinching, so sayeth Flair.

You can laugh at Gagne for losing Hogan, but yet he unleashed Flair upon the world. Some black-market baby whose lineage cannot be accurately traced, and would go on to become one of the most identifiable wrestlers the world has ever seen, was stripped down and forged in Gagne's image. Not the part with the tequila shots and conga line of comely ladies, but you know what I mean.

There's an irony in Gagne, a man far too grounded in the permafrost of reality that he didn't understand where McMahon was about to take wrestling, and that it had an adapt-or-die vibe, a palpable aura of seriousness in the air. He was too busy believing that his view of what 'authentic' was would never die out. You watch Raw today and hear the commentators spout office-approved jargon like robots and you see how far the practical Gagne missed the mark, unfortunately.

AWA died, and so to did Gagne's active involvement as a wrestling usher. Times had changed, and there's something to be said about the man that didn't change with them. There's an irony in the sense that McMahon 'won', and yet we see him twisting today, a spin doctor more transparent than ever, that "millionaire who should be a billionaire" as CM Punk eloquently put it. Gagne, for his part, never really sold out his vision. That's a small solace for a man that outpaced most territories before crumbling in 1991, but it's a solace nonetheless.

If Verne Gagne should be remembered for anything, it should be as a man with a practical, fundamental understanding of basic reality. Was he deluded for not getting the McMahon vision, that one that dared cast Hogan as a champion over a dry technician like Nick Bockwinkel? It's a fair point. Should he be admired as someone that didn't want to 'cheapen' an artform he admired, even if it meant his eventual ruination professionally? That's for the beholder.

Wrestling lost split-level visionary on Monday night. He may not have necessarily understood the future, but he did understand how to get others into that new age, and that is his ironic legacy. Verne Gagne perished under the neon light of changing times, but fostered the survival instincts of those who pined for those exciting days.

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