The voice of a generation’s childhood drifted away on Wednesday with the sudden death of beloved announcer Gene Okerlund.
Okerlund, nicknamed “Mean” Gene by longtime friend Jesse “The Body” Ventura, passed away on January 2 at the age of 76. His trademark voice, wit and candor on the microphone now fade into a piece of history, but his memory will live on eternally within the walls of pro wrestling.
The “Nature Boy” Ric Flair remained close with Okerlund from their first meeting in 1972 until his death.
“Friend would be too generic a term for us,” said Flair. “We were more than friends, we were brothers. We were tied to each other for years. If I was going somewhere, and I knew Gene Okerlund was there, I made sure I found him.”
The two first met when Okerlund was working in sales for WTCN Channel 11 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as well as filling in as a ring announcer for the AWA, at a time when Flair was merely hopeful that he could make a living in the business of professional wrestling.
“I remember when Gene was with WTCN, and he invited me over his house, which was a big step for me,” said Flair. “Not everyone got invited. I remember looking around and seeing Verne Gagne, Ray Stevens and Nick Bockwinkel, and I remember thinking, ‘This is everything I want to be in my life.’ Gene treated me from day one like an equal.
“In my opinion, Gene Okerlund added more entertainment to the business than anybody. Gene made our product better. You can be good at what you do, but Gene was so good that he made the people around him better. Gene brought that to every segment he was on for his entire career. It’s hard to explain how much talent he had. Gene was entertainment-ready, witty beyond belief, sophisticated, and I’ve never seen anybody else like him.”
Permanently woven into a part of wrestling’s fabric, Okerlund is best known for his Hall of Fame career as a World Wrestling Federation broadcaster. He will forever be remembered for his work interviewing larger-than-life talent backstage and in the ring.
Okerlund is synonymous with Hulk Hogan, whose signature “Well, let me tell you something, ‘Mean’ Gene!” line opened countless interviews to fans during the height of Hulkamania. Fittingly, Okerlund was also holding the microphone at WCW’s Bash of the Beach in 1996 when Hogan formed the New World Order with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall.
In addition to Hogan and Flair, Okerlund shared an unforgettable rapport on-screen with Andre The Giant, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.
“Gene just never missed,” said Flair. “Even if a guy was struggling or a crowd wasn’t connecting, Gene had the gift to make interviews work.”
Okerlund set the standard as the most recognizable broadcaster in the history of professional wrestling, infusing an authenticity into his work that always placed the spotlight on the talent he was interviewing.
“He was a wonderful person, he loved his kids, he loved his wife, and he loved what he did for a living,” said Flair. “I’m happy that the world is giving him his due recognition.
“I’ve been so depressed all day thinking about it. It’s a huge loss. There will never, ever be another Gene Okerlund.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.