The death of Verne Gagne last week at the age of 89 marked the end of an era for entertainment in Minnesota.
Gagne, a former college wrestler and football player, embarked on a career in professional wrestling in 1949 a career that spanned decades.
In 1960, Gagne and Wally Karbo co-founded the American Wrestling Association (AWA), and it was during this golden era that Gagne came to my attention, and to the attention of many of my cronies.
Professional wrestling (or “rassling” as purists call it), was a wonderful blend of sport, theatre, dance, and comedy. I say “was,” because although it is still around, it’s not the same as it used to be.
There’s no doubt the physical component of rassling was critical to the sport.
In order to put on a good match, and to do so without seriously injuring themselves or their opponents, participants had to be in some kind of condition.
But, let’s be honest. It would have been a stretch to describe some of the participants as finely-tuned athletes.
Some certainly spent a lot of time in the gym, and many came from other sports, but there was definitely a kind of blue collar feel to rassling, and that was part of its appeal.
Many of the guys in the ring didn’t look all that different from guys we knew.
When Gagne and Karbo brought the AWA to the state, they brought rassling into the reach of Minnesotans.
The theater element may have been the most important aspect of the sport.
Participants of all abilities were actors as much as they were athletes, and they were as coordinated as ballroom dancers as they threw one another around (or out of) the ring.
Nearly all of them had a character and a story.
The timeless battle of good versus evil was played out in every match we watched.
The heels, or bad guys, represented the forces of evil.
They employed every dirty trick in the book, from distracting referees so they could work over the good guys without interference, to concealing “foreign objects,” such as weapons, within their costumes.
Karbo, designated as “the commissioner” of the AWA, often threatened fines and suspensions as consequences for these infractions. Stanley Blackburn, AWA president, was also involved in enforcing the “rules.”
There were epic battles during which the good guys sometimes had the upper hand, and other times, the bad guys were in control.
My friends all watched the proceedings on the AWA’s weekly television program, “All Star Wrestling.”
This was the era when grapplers such as The Crusher, Dick the Bruiser, Andre the Giant, Nick Bockwinkel, Ray “The Crippler” Stevens, Baron von Raschke, Larry “The Axe” Hennig, Hulk Hogan, Dirty Dusty Rhodes, and other colorful characters carried out their trade in the squared circle.
The commentary and between-match interviews were every bit as entertaining as the matches themselves.
Announcers, including Marty O’Neill, “Mean Gene” Okerlund, and Rodger Kent became as well known as the rasslers.
In addition to the television show, wrestling cards in venues across the AWA territory provided opportunities for fans to see their favorite rasslers in action.
My old man had front row seats to the events at the Duluth Arena, and we saw all the matches.
Watching the fans was sometimes as entertaining as watching the action in the ring.
There was a collective suspension of disbelief as the crowd became immersed in the drama that unfolded before them.
People who were normally calm and collected became as wild as rabid dogs, shouting abuse at the heels, and generally hissing and booing whenever they appeared.
I suspect there was a certain amount of therapy in these outings. The matches provided an outlet for people to vent and have a good time by expressing themselves in ways that were not appropriate during the normal course of their days.
The comedy was evident both in the showmanship of the performers, and in the interviews.
Faithful fans took delight in the combatants’ descriptions of what they intended to do to their opponents they next time they met them in the ring.
A classic example of rassling humor occurred during one memorable episode of “All Star Wrestling.”
The announcers made a big show of wanting to know where Mad Dog Vachon was, presumably because he was late for an interview.
The camera eventually cut away from the studio shot, and Mad Dog was revealed in his cellar, busily toiling on a woodworking project.
When asked what he was doing, Mad Dog replied he was building a coffin for his next opponent.
Humor like that never goes out of style.
Verne and Wally and the rest of the gang gave us years of fun memories, and to this day, when the lads and I get together over a few jars, it’s not uncommon to hear an exchange of insults taken directly from the archives of the good old AWA.