Dale Gagne wrestles with the truth

Drama and deceit in sports entertainment's inner circle

Verne's training camp was legendary. Each year, he'd take a class of hopeful young men and prove to them that wrestling was anything but fake. Camp was six hours a day, six days a week out in Verne's barn in Chanhassen—a grueling regimen of calisthenics and endless practice on wrestling moves.

Verne trained the greats: Baron von Raschke, Ric Flair, The Iron Sheik. He could teach them to wrestle, and he could teach them to charm the crowd.

Rookies worked on developing their wrestling skills, their characters, and their ability to act out a storyline. They'd learn to be a "babyface" (the good guy) and a "heel" (the villain). After five or six years they could become stars.

Gagner poses with Chyna
courtesy of Dale Gagner
Gagner poses with Chyna
Verne Gagne built a wrestling empire that lasted 30 years
courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Verne Gagne built a wrestling empire that lasted 30 years

The wrestlers didn't have contracts, but the industry had unwritten rules against poaching. Promoters adhered to a network of territories and respected the boundaries—they didn't venture outside their own fiefdoms.

In 1979, Greg Gagne wrestled in a big match out in New York. A rookie named Terry Gene Bollea, who was wrestling with McMahon's WWF, shared Greg's hotel. McMahon had dubbed the rookie Hulk Hogan. He was working as a heel, and he'd lost his match—in fact, he stunk up the joint.

Greg Gagne convinced Hogan to come to Minnesota. Verne taught Hogan to work the ring. He turned him into a babyface instead of a heel, and Hogan caught fire. He became the biggest star of the AWA.

At a wrestling extravaganza in St. Paul in 1982, Hogan bumped into Andre the Giant, the WWF's biggest star, in the ring. The crowd went silent.

"Verne said, 'Oh my god, there's our match,'" Greg Gagne says.

Verne called up Vince McMahon, Sr., to set up the face-off. They planned it for early 1984. To lead up to the big event and build the drama, Verne booked Hogan for a big series of matches during Christmas week 1983. By then, Vince McMahon, Jr., had bought the business from his father.

On December 18, Verne got a telegram from Hogan.

"I will not be returning to the AWA," the telegram read.

Verne laughed and tossed the telegram out. He had a friend who liked to play practical jokes, and this looked like one of them.

On Christmas night, the St. Paul Civic Center was packed. The crowd stomped and cheered, eager for Hogan to enter the ring. But Hogan wasn't in the building.

Greg Gagne called him up. Hogan was nowhere near the stadium. He had no intention of wrestling in the match that night.

"He actually told me that McMahon was paying him more not to show up," Greg Gagne recounts.

One by one, Vince McMahon, Jr., picked off the top talent from the AWA. "He was doubling, tripling their salaries," says David Skolnick of Wrestling Perspective. "He was bringing in so much more money, he was able to cover it."

McMahon didn't stop with the AWA. He did the same thing to wrestling promoters all across the country. He started buying up their TV spots and buying all the time in the local auditoriums so local promoters couldn't book their shows.

"He basically ran all the territories out of business," Schire says. "All of them."

DALE R. GAGNER first met Verne Gagne in 1983 at a family reunion of sorts. Though their once proud wrestling empire was in tatters, Verne and Greg Gagne evidently took the time to show up at a big gathering for descendants of a common family line.

"It was for, you know, anyone with a Gone-yawn, Gone-yen," Dale says. "See, my last name is actually pronounced French: It's Gone-yay."

A chubby-cheeked kid, Gagner says he was working at Chuck E. Cheese, taking classes at the University of Minnesota, and didn't follow wrestling.

At the get-together, Verne asked Dale about his studies and his plans for the future, Gagner recalls.

"He basically said, 'Why don't you stop by the office and, you know, we'll talk,'" Gagner remembers. "So I went down to his office—and he basically offered me a job."

Gagner started working as an independent contractor for Gagne in September 1988. He sold wrestling shows to local venues: county fairs, casinos, and groups like the Shriners.

Vince McMahon's rapacious empire-building had left the AWA limping, but the AWA name carried weight in Minnesota. And Gagner was a good salesman.

He soaked up the business, its lingo and its unwritten rules. He watched the wrestlers and learned their tricks, how they followed "kayfabe," pretending the storylines of the ring were real. He began scheduling talent, arranging their air travel, and paying them on the day of their shows. He even announced in the ring on ESPN for AWA matches in Las Vegas, he says.

"I was on camera as the manager, which is the guy that performs but does not wrestle," he says. "I had to take what are called 'bumps,' which, you know, you have to know how to fall."

Gagner was also drinking heavily, he says, having started when he was just 15. Booze was part of the "culture of the business," he says. "You wrestle, you do the show, you drink or use drugs."

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