Nothing Up My Sleeve
A Final Bodyslam
I never thought I’d be writing about wrestling again. Ever since Vince McMahon bought out all the other wrestling promotions and turned his sports entertainment empire into a virtual monopoly, I not only quit writing about wrestling, I stopped watching it as well. I’ve been involved in professional wrestling from several aspects from a fan to a journalist to a manager (like Lou Albano or Bobby Hennan) to a writer (I actually created two characters that became minor stars). From my involvement in professional wrestling, I can tell you that it was one of the sleeziest businesses in the world with backstabbing, drugs, and out and out thievery lurking in every locker room on the road.
I’ll put aside those feelings for this column. One of the wrestlers that I grew up watching, and later came to despise as a human being has gotten himself in a little trouble. Verne Gagne, former World Champion of the American Wrestling Association (it’s easy to be World Champ when you own the organization), is the main suspect in a homicide investigation in Bloomington, MN.
Gagne, now 82 and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, had been a resident of Friendship Village in Bloomington, MN until an incident there caused his family to move him to another facility.
According to reports, on January 26 of this year, Gagne got into an altercation with another Alzheimer’s patient, 97 year old Helmut Gutmann. According to other residents and staff, Gagne picked up Gutmann and bodyslammed him. Gutmann suffered a broken hip as a result and never recovered. He died on February 14 due to complications stemming from the broken hip.
Gagne has not been charged in the case, and probably will not be, according to Bloomington Police. Gutmann’s death was ruled a homicide because, according to Roberta Geisenlhart, supervisor of investigations for the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, Gutmann “died at the hands of another.” She went on to explain that her office did not delve into “intent” or “motive,” and that those factors were left to police investigation.
One report said that this was not the first time Gagne and Gutmann, who were roommates at the facility, had scuffled. According to others, Gagne had allegedly once clamped Gutman in a headlock from behind, a move Gagne used in the ring known as the “Gagne sleeper.”
Gutmann’s family is not interested in pressing charges against the former wrestler. They feel that Gagne cannot be held responsible for what he did because of his Alzheimer’s.
Gutman was a well respected scientist and musician who fled Nazi German in 1936. He had worked as a cancer researcher at a veteran’s hospital in the Twin Cities area.
Gagne began wrestling professionally in 1949. In 1963, he broke away from the National Wrestling Alliance and formed the American Wrestling Association which produced the TV show All Star Wrestling that aired in the Moline and Peoria markets throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Gagne was the “World Champion” of the group for most of those years, entrusting the title from time to time to other wrestlers such as Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachone and Nick Bockwinkle.
Gagne ran a wrestling school from a farm he owned in rural Minneapolis. There he trained many of the pro wrestlers he employed including his son, Greg Gagne, as well as superstars like Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat. Gagne would train raw talent, book them into cards that he put on, pushing them into stardom with his syndicated network of wrestling shows. He charged a lot for his school, but paid very little when wrestlers worked for him.
As Vince McMahon began to expand his empire in the early part of the 80’s, Verne refused to change with the times. Verne felt that he could draw more fans to an arena if he had a heel (bad guy) champion defending the title against a babyface (good guy) challenger (Verne himself always played the babyface so when he held the championship, he changed his tune). As a result, he refused to allow Hulk Hogan to win the AWA championship and Hogan left the promotion to work for Vince McMahon and become wrestling’s biggest superstar.
Gagne’s promotion began to fall apart after that. Talent left him in search of a bigger payday with the WWF. Gagne was left with either family members, washed up wrestlers on their way out, or brand new wrestlers who didn’t have a clue what to do in the ring. Gagne enlisted the help of other promoters to put together “supercards,” like the WWF’s Wrestlemania, but egos got in the way and after Gagne claimed there was no money left after paying the bills to pay his wrestlers, cooperation ceased completely.
Gagne finally gave up his promotion in the early 90’s, selling the rights to the AWA name and all its massive tape library to Vince McMahon for a reported one million dollars. Gagne then began another fight that he ultimately would lose.
The state of Minnesota exercised their right of “eminent domain” to confiscate his farm and house and turn it into a park. Gagne used up most of his savings to fight a losing battle.
My writing has never been kind to Gagne. His ego was enormous and he was in complete denial that wrestling was changing around him. Once, in the mid 80’s, I did a phone interview with him that quickly deteriorated into a shouting match. I had been assigned to get his thoughts on Vince McMahon’s rapid expansion.
Each time I asked a question, it was met with a pat answer that showed me he had no clue what he was doing. I tired of his inane responses and finally asked him, “Verne, do you have any concept of what’s going on around you? Do you realize that the WWF is taking over wrestling?”
“They’re expanding, yes, but we’re holding our ground. We’re not losing anything and we’re getting ready to expand ourselves,” he said, lying through his teeth.
“Verne, you just lost your television station in the Quad Cities.”
“Yes, we did. You’re right. Moline decided that they didn’t want to carry any wrestling right now, but we’ll have them back in just a couple months.”
“They didn’t want any wrestling? Is that why the WWF’s show is airing in your time slot now?”
He had no clue. He’d been beaten and he didn’t even know it.
In 1990, I tried to work with him once again, this time to promote a show in Chicago. A group I was working with put up several thousand dollars for Verne to bring what was left of his rag tag wrestling promotion to town for a Saturday night show. I got a phone call on the Monday night prior to the show from a friend in the WWF. He told me that they had just worked Chicago and he checked with his contact with the Illinois State Athletic Commission to find out how our ticket sales were going.
The State Commissioner didn’t know about the show. That meant there wasn’t going to be any show.
Gagne had forgotten to file the proper paperwork with the state. Meanwhile, the group I was working with had to scramble to recover the rent on the building, and they money they had sent Verne as an advance.
They got about 60% of their money back. They vowed never to work with Verne again. They wouldn’t have to work with him again. Within months, Verne was out of business.
When I heard about the story of Verne bodyslamming his roommate, I read quite a few reports on it before writing my own. All the other writers have been complimentary and sympathetic towards a wrestling legend. I guess that they never got a chance to see the side of him that I saw all too often.