By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
DALE GAGNE STEALS quietly into the back entrance of Rudolph's, a pale orange restaurant in Uptown that smells of barbecue. The 43-year-old wrestling promoter knows this place well—its low-slung lighting, its photos of old-time movie stars on the walls. He's come here for years to get drunk.
Gagne hefts his bulky, Havana-shirted frame into the booth next to his personal assistant, a delicate 23-year-old man with a neat clipboard and perfectly groomed eyebrows. Then Gagne leans in to share a secret.
"In the business, when you're trying to pull something or trying to get ahead, it's called a 'work,'" he explains. "So we use that term a lot."
Gagne is full of secrets. In fact, he's lived a life worthy of the silver screen himself, hobnobbing with pro wrestling's biggest superstars. He's such a fixture in the industry that even famed wrestling promoter Vince McMahon's lawyers have his name in their Rolodex. He knows the business—its dirty underbelly, its secrets and scams. And he's ready to tell all.
"I am actually writing a book," he says modestly. "It's going to be called Don't Look at the Man Behind the Curtain."
It all began years ago, when a 17-year-old kid named Dale Gagner met wrestling legend Verne Gagne. Verne had built an empire known as the American Wrestling Association—stretching from Minneapolis to Winnipeg—that had turned wrestlers like Hulk Hogan into superstars. Verne was so charmed by Dale that he hired him.
When Verne Gagne was forced out of business several years later by a conniving Vince McMahon, Dale saw an opportunity. He claims he bought the rights to the AWA trademark out of Verne's bankruptcy proceedings for the paltry sum of $2,500.
"I knew that no one would contest it," he says.
Dale planned to craft his own wrestling empire—to rebuild the AWA and restore it to its rightful glory. He sold this story to wrestling promoters all around the world. He held conventions in Las Vegas and sent wrestlers to Australia and Japan.
The only problem was, he wasn't who he said he was.
NEARLY TWO DECADES before Dale Gagne was born, network television in Chicago decided to put wrestling on its lineup. The producers were looking for a good-looking wrestler for their debut show, so they recruited Verne Gagne.
A farm boy from Hamel, Verne was a fresh-faced 25-year-old with a quick grin and washboard abs. He'd been a University of Minnesota football star, a Big-10 wrestling champ, and an alternate for the 1948 Olympic wrestling team before going pro. He was small—a lean 220 pounds—but exceedingly capable.
In the locker room before the big TV match, the producer told Verne what he wanted, according to Greg, who grew up hearing the story straight from Verne's lips.
"Verne, we want you to be a Martian," the producer said. "We're going to lower you from the ceiling and put you in an outfit."
Verne looked at the producer. He listed off his athletic accolades: wrestling champ, Olympic alternate, junior heavyweight title in Oklahoma.
"I'm going to go in the ring with my boots and my tights," he said. "I'm a wrestler, and that's what I'm going to do."
Gagne won the match his way and quickly became wrestling's biggest star. By 1951, according to Greg Gagne, Verne was making $100,000—a fortune for the time.
Not only was he a gifted athlete, Verne had a knack for the business. He could spot raw talent and he recruited athletes to join wrestling's ranks.
Even then, wrestling was known for its drama and its storylines, and even though most fans didn't know it, the outcomes of the matches were controlled. Still, Verne favored athletics—real wrestling—over fantasy.
Historically, wrestling's roots were in the traveling carnivals: strong men would challenge tough guys from the crowd. Since there was no official association or regulation of professional wrestling, local promoters and traveling carnies alike could claim their best as the world champion—and many did.
The year before Verne got his start, promoters banded together to create a national organization: the National Wrestling Alliance. They agreed to recognize only one champion, who would travel the nation taking on up-and-coming challengers from each of the regions.
"It became harder and harder for one guy to really do all the traveling and fill in all the dates," says George Schire, pro wrestling historian and author of Minnesota's Golden Age of Wrestling. "And it became frustrating for a lot of the promoters, because they couldn't get him."
In 1960, the Minneapolis wrestling club decided they were big enough to succeed on their own. They pulled out of the NWA and formed their own league: Verne's AWA.
A few years later, Vince McMahon, Sr., pulled his East Coast promotion out of the NWA and founded the World Wide Wrestling Federation. Together, the NWA, AWA, and WWWF ruled the wrestling world, though each adhered to their regional boundaries.
From 1960 to the early 1980s, the AWA was on top. Verne paid his talent more than promoters in other parts of the country, and they only had to wrestle three or four nights a week. It was a better quality of life, so the top wrestlers came to Minnesota.