By Jake Rossen
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Eventually, Gagner wasn't content with just working for the AWA. He started his own company and began selling shows on his own. He touted his AWA connections to his customers, according to court documents.
The AWA caught wind of Gagner's dealings, and in January 1990, the company fired him. A few months later, it filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Gagner in federal court.
The AWA pointed to Gagner's correspondence and conversations with potential clients as evidence that he'd implied his shows were AWA events.
There was no trial. Gagner didn't even bother to hire an attorney.
In May 1990, the court issued a temporary injunction banning Gagner from using the AWA name. It turned out to be one of the final swings Verne Gagne would take at the rapidly changing wrestling industry.
The following year, the American Wrestling Association shut its doors, and not long after, Verne Gagne filed for bankruptcy.
Yet even with his company crumbling around him, Gagne held on to what precious little of his wrestling empire remained, pushing the court to permanently ban Gagner from ever using his trademark.
In 1992, Gagne got his wish: A federal judge issued a permanent injunction against Gagner. The upstart promoter, the court ruled, could never again claim he was associated with the AWA.
DALE GAGNER CONTINUED to work as a wrestling promoter, and despite the court injunction, within a few years he was back to old habits.
In February 1999, he sent a press release to independent wrestling promoters across the United States and Canada. He announced big news: The legendary AWA was making a comeback. He signed with a new last name—dropping the final R to become Dale R. Gagne.
"I went with 'Gagne' because obviously that gave me the ability to walk right into the business, basically," he admits.
He filed papers with the state to do business as the AWA Superstars of Wrestling. He told potential clients that he'd bought the AWA trademark out of Verne Gagne's bankruptcy proceedings.
By this time, Gagner had racked up a criminal record: He'd pleaded guilty to stealing jewelry from an employer, to writing bad checks, and to taking money that was supposed to go to acts he booked for the Itasca County Fair. He had a felony theft by swindle on his record, plus multiple smaller convictions.
For Gagner, building his business was a personal triumph as much as a professional comeback. By the time he launched the AWA Superstars, he had been through alcohol treatment, he says, and was sober again.
Every successful business needs a good website, so Gagner recruited a young Canadian wrestling fan named James "Jimmy Van" Vanderlinden. The kid did all kinds of creative work for Gagner: Web design, programs, revamping the AWA logo.
At first Vanderlinden was wowed by Gagner's ability to put together shows with the real—albeit fading—stars of the AWA, legends like Sherri Martel and The Iron Sheik.
But over a year and a half of working with Gagner, Vanderlinden's positive impression of the wrestling promoter disintegrated.
Once, Vanderlinden landed in Laughlin, Nevada, for an AWA event that he'd promoted on the website and was surprised to learn that posters for the show advertised "Mankind," a popular WWF character played by Mick Foley.
Gagner had never mentioned Foley. But the crowd was clearly drawn in by the promise—Mankind had won the WWF championship three times.
The ring announcer broke the bad news: Foley had missed his flight. The crowd was so upset that Vanderlinden feared they would riot.
When the Web designer pressed Gagner about it, Gagner said someone he trusted had booked Foley and then not come through. Then he stopped paying Vanderlinden.
By October 2000, Gagner had racked up a $4,700 debt to his Web designer. Vanderlinden says he confronted him, and in response, Gagner locked him out of the website and blocked his e-mails.
Vanderlinden went on to become a wrestling promoter himself. He wrote a book about the business, Wrestling's Underbelly: From Bingo Halls to Shopping Malls. In it, he dedicated an entire chapter to exposing the exploits of Dale R. Gagne.
"Yeah, it wasn't very flattering," Gagner says. "I read it."
Gagner says Vanderlinden's version of events is one-sided.
"Basically, we found out that Mick Foley wasn't going to be there—we found out the morning of the show," he explains. "It was my choice not to make any announcement till the show started."
In any case, Gagner had bigger problems: namely, impending bankruptcy. He owed $36,181 and couldn't pay.
He also relapsed. By 2002, Gagner was back to a steady diet of vodka.
"I was drunk almost every day," he says. "Then I started getting into the prescription medications."
While Gagner was busy promoting his version of the AWA, the king of wrestling was also interested in the brand's cachet. Vince McMahon, Jr., had set his sights on acquiring the last remnants of Verne Gagne's AWA empire: the historical footage of its wrestling matches and the AWA trademark.