AWA #12 Page #2

In addition to his success as an amateur wrestler, Verne Gagne was an accomplished college football player. Verne played defensive end and halfback at the University of Minnesota and even took part in the College All Star game in Chicago, Illinois during August of 1949. After finishing his tenure at the University of Minnesota, Verne had a major career decision to make. Gagne spurned offers from the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers to compete in the more lucrative sport of professional wrestling. 

Verne Gagne was trained by wrestlers Joe Pazandak and George Gordienko and made his professional wrestling debut on May 3rd, 1949 against Abe Kashey in Minneapolis, Minnesota for promoter Tony Stecher. Gagne defeated Kashey by disqualification setting up a rematch between the two men three weeks later which Verne won cleanly. After having several more matches in the midwest, Verne departed for Texas to work for promoter Morris Sigel. Gagne was an instant success in Texas emerging victorious in a tournament to crown the Texas heavyweight champion by defeating Leo Newman in the finals on December 16th, 1949 in Houston, Texas. Verne held the title for approximately one month before dropping the strap to Danny McShane on January 13th, 1950 in Houston, Texas. Gagne won the Texas state title for the second time by defeating Miguel "Blackie" Guzman on September 15th, 1950 in Houston, Texas. Verne's reign as Texas champion was once again short lived as he dropped the belt to Rito Romero on October 27th, 1950 in Dallas, Texas.

Given Verne's amateur wrestling background, it wasn't any surprise Gagne was pushed as a star from the beginning of his career. Verne was seen by the general public as a legitimate athlete. The next step in Gagne's progression as a professional wrestler was to hold the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Title. Longtime junior heavyweight champion LeRoy McGuirk had been blinded in an automobile accident forcing the title to be vacated. On November 13th, 1950, Verne Gagne defeated Sonny Myers in the finals of a tournament held in Tulsa, Okahoma to become the new NWA junior heavyweight champion. Verne defended the title against many top stars of that era including Duke Keomuka, Stu Hart, Joe Dusek, Pat O'Connor, Billy Goelz, Dory Funk Sr, "Iron" Mike DiBiase, Rito Romero, Blackie Guzman and Ray Gunkel. During this time period, Gagne also received title shots against NWA World heavyweight champion Lou Thesz but was unable to defeat Thesz. After holding the Junior Heavyweight title for over one year, Gagne lost the belt to Danny McShane on November 19th, 1951 in Memphis Tennessee.

In the early 1950s, the course of professional wrestling was changed forever with the advent of television. Professional Wrestling was one of the first programs to be broadcast throughout the United States on television. With television being so new and being something nobody had ever seen before, people all over the United States watched whatever program there was. It really didn't matter what the content of the program was. People were so transfixed by television. Because wrestling aired nationally every week on the DuMont television network based in Chicago, Illinois and the CBS television network based in New York, the sport encountered new found popularity it hadn't experienced since the 1920s. One of the beneficiaries of the televised wrestling era was Verne Gagne.

On September 3rd, 1953, Verne Gagne was awarded the United States title. Verne defended the U.S. title which was only one step lower than the NWA World Heavyweight championship every week on the DuMont network and became one of the most recognizable wrestlers in the United States.  Gagne not only wrestled in midwestern cities like Chicago, Omaha, Des Moines and Milwaukee but in eastern cities such as Philadelphia, New York City, Buffalo, Boston and Baltimore. The men Gagne defended the U.S. Title against read like a who's who of professional wrestling. 

Verne took on such stars as Hans Schmidt, Killer Kowalski, Pat O'Connor, Bob Orton Sr, Antonino Rocca, Baron Leone, Gorgeous George, Don Leo Jonathan, Yukon Eric, Roy McClarity, Dick the Bruiser and the Sheik of Araby. Verne Gagne used the sleeper hold as his finishing maneuver and also employed the dropkick, shoulder tackle and arm claw as part of his wrestling repertoire. Gagne held the U.S. title for over two and a half years before being beaten for the belt by Wilbur Snyder in Chicago, Illinois at the Marigold Arena on April 7th, 1956.

The U.S. Title switch to Snyder from Gagne was a last minute decision by Chicago promoter Fred Kohler. Snyder was originally scheduled to wrestle Bill Melby but for some reason Melby was unable to appear for the match.  Kohler decided Snyder would win the U.S. title from Gagne in an impromptu title match. This scheduling change shocked everyone as Snyder and Gagne had teamed the previous night at the International Amphitheatre defeating Reggie (later known as the Crusher) and Stan Lisowski.

Professional Wrestling soon fell out of favor with the television executives and was replaced on the networks by other programming. Without the exposure the national television networks provided, promoters had to find local television affiliates to air their regionalized wrestling telecasts. This dramatically changed the wrestling business. Every promoter wanted his local hero to be the World Heavyweight champion. Promoters began looking for ways to recognize their own champion.

Throughout the next few years, Verne Gagne wrestled mainly in the midwestern section of the United States with occasional forays into New York City, Buffalo and various cities in Canada. Gagne held a few regional singles titles during this time period including two more reigns as United States champion and the Omaha version of the World Heavyweight title. Verne also teamed with such partners as Bronco Nagurski, Butch Levy and Leo Nomellini to hold the Minneapolis version of the World Tag team titles. 

The Minnesota promoters wanted to recognize Verne Gagne as the World Heavyweight champion. The National Wrestling Alliance did not want Verne to be the champion. This disagreement between the Minnesota promoters and the National Wrestling Alliance set off a chain of events which would one day lead the the formation of the American Wrestling Association. How the AWA was formed is a little tricky to understand so bear with me while I try to explain the circumstances.

Lou Thesz had held the National Wrestling Alliance heavyweight championship since November 9th, 1956. Almost every promoter in the United States and Canada recognized Thesz as the World champion and paid yearly membership dues to the National Wrestling Alliance. In turn, The National Wrestling Alliance would send Thesz to defend the World Heavyweight title on cards promoted by the members of the NWA throughout the United States and Canada. On June 14th, 1957, Edouard Carpentier apparently defeated Thesz in Chicago, Illinois to win the NWA title.

After a falling out between promoters, the NWA ruled the title did not change hands and Thesz was still the NWA champion. However several promoters still recognized Carpentier as the World champion. Carpentier would appear in many territories billed as the World Heavyweight champion and lose to the local hero giving the local hero a claim to the World Championship. One such occurrence happened in Omaha, Nebraska for promoter Joe Dusek. Dusek recognized Carpentier as the World champion by virtue of Carpentier's victory over Thesz on June 14th, 1957. Carpentier lost the Omaha version of the World title to Verne Gagne on August 9th, 1958. Many people mistakenly think this is when the AWA started. That isn't the case. Gagne's victory over Carpentier just added legitimacy to the Omaha version of the World title. Verne would lose the Omaha title to the Masked Mr M (Bill Miller) several months later.

By 1960, the Minnesota promoters along with many other midwestern promoters wanted Gagne to be the World Champion. The promoters issued a challenge on Gagne's behalf to the NWA champion who at the time was Pat O'Connor. When O'Connor did not wrestle Gagne within a 90 day period, the promoters withdrew recognition of O'Connor as the World Champion and proclaimed Verne Gagne as the American Wrestling Association world heavyweight champion on August 16th, 1960.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph of this column, I'm certainly no expert on the early part of Verne Gagne's career. I'm sure I made some factual errors in this particular piece. Feel free to write me privately at the email address listed below with any comments or corrections regarding this column. Writing this column is often a learning experience for me especially when the subject matter happened before I was born.


Verne Gagne's career in the 1960s.

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