Wrestling legend Verne Gagne dies at age 89

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Verne Gagne, one of professional wrestling's most celebrated performers and promoters, has died. He was 89.

Gagne died Monday at his daughter's home in the Twin Cities area, according to longtime friend Gene Okerlund, a pro wrestling announcer who was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame with Gagne in 2006. Gagne had Alzheimer's disease.

''Verne was one of the pioneers,'' said Okerlund, 72. ''He put (pro wrestling) on the map in the early days when no one had seen it before.''

Gagne won several regional championships after turning pro in 1950 before heading to the newly formed American Wrestling Association, based in Minneapolis, in 1960, the WWE said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Gagne became a promoter and eventually the sole owner of the AWA. He remained an active competitor until the early 1980s, holding the AWA World Heavyweight Championship title 10 times between 1960 and 1981.

The AWA ''cranked out'' a lot of stars, Okerlund said, including Hulk Hogan, Mad Dog Vachon and Nick Bockwinkel. It also was the breeding ground for future WWE stars, such as Jesse ''The Body'' Ventura, Bobby ''The Brain'' Heenan and Pat Patterson, according to the WWE.

''He was a taskmaster without a question,'' Okerlund said. ''He demanded a lot out of people and he got a lot out of people.''

Gagne trained former pro wrestler Ric Flair in early 1971, and the first day was so intense that Flair said ''I quit.''

''He came over to my house, walked to the front door, threw me into the front yard and told me `You're not quitting on me. He said, `I'll see you tomorrow.' ... I went back out, lasted 2 days and I quit again. It was so hard,'' Flair told The Associated Press, adding, ''He made me who I am.''

Gagne was a three-sport high school athlete from Robbinsdale, Minnesota, and won multiple state championships in wrestling. He played football and wrestled at University of Minnesota, but left after a year to join the Marines at the end of World War II. When he returned to finish college, he collected four Big Ten wrestling championships, two NCAA wrestling championships and the 1949 AAU Wrestling Championship.

Gagne had been living with his daughter following a confrontation in the memory care unit of a Bloomington care center. Helmut Gutmann died in February 2009 of complications from a broken hip after he clashed with Gagne and was thrown to the floor. No charges were filed. Both men had dementia and could not recall what happened, officials said.

He is survived by his four children. His wife, Mary, died in 2002.

''He was afraid of nobody,'' Flair said, ''He was a pioneer.''

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