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Gagner acted as though the WWE purchase of the trademark had never happened and kept marketing the AWA name as his own. For a "sanctioning" fee that ranged from $300 to $750, Gagner sold promoters from Florida to Winnipeg the right to use the AWA logo and name. He persuaded 22 groups to join. They'd slap "AWA" at the front of their name—AWA Florida, AWA Rocky Mountain Championship, AWA North Atlantic. Gagner even offered one AWA franchise promotional materials, "so that your organization is properly represented as part of the history and legend of the AWA—American Wrestling Association."
But Gagner's liberal franchising of the AWA name brought him a new round of trouble.
Down in Florida, Thomas "Mr. T" Perryman, a part-time sports radio commentator, bought into Gagner's AWA for his Orlando promotion.
"If you purchased Florida, you would get all of Florida," Perryman says. "So that's basically the contract. He sent it down, I signed."
Perryman says he got suspicious when Gagner wanted him to pay through Western Union, which can be hard to trace.
Then he stumbled across a Jacksonville promoter who was also selling shows under the AWA banner. That meant Gagner had sold at least two Florida territories—in direct violation of his contract with Perryman.
"So I decided to get an entertainment attorney and brought action against him in Florida," Perryman says.
Perhaps more importantly, Perryman started feeding information about Gagner to the WWE. He caught wind that McMahon was tracking Gagner's moves, and figured it would be more cost-effective to help the WWE than to throw money at a lawyer himself.
In North Carolina, Gagner's troubles were also mounting.
In 2006, he planned for a wrestler named Ric Converse to win the AWA world heavyweight title. Converse had to pay a $1,000 security deposit on the belt.
"We signed the contract. As far as I knew, it was on the up-and-up," Converse says. "It also stated in there that when I lose the world title I would get my $1,000 reimbursed."
Sure enough, in 2007, Converse lost the title belt to another wrestler. But Gagner didn't keep his part of the bargain:He didn't return Converse's money, the wrestler says. After waiting for six months, Converse demanded Gagner pay up.
"Then I started getting phone calls from bill collectors saying that I owed him a thousand," Converse says. "That went on for three months."
Gagner admits that he sent the collectors, but he accuses Converse of keeping his belts.
Gagner was making enemies fast. Meanwhile,Vince McMahon's lawyers were collecting a thick file of evidence on Gagner's misuse of the AWA name—and they were about to bring down the hammer.
THE WWE'S ATTORNEYS—five well-heeled men from Pittsburgh and Minneapolis—put together a detailed case against Gagner. It really wasn't hard.
First, there was his website, www.awastars.com, where Gagner waxed on about the history of the AWA, portrayed himself as the successor to Verne Gagne, and posted photos of famous AWA wrestlers like Verne Gagne and Mad Dog Vachon.
Then there was his network of AWA franchises and the "sanctioning" fees he charged to naïve promoters.
On top of that was the merchandise: AWA hats and T-shirts.
In April 2007, the WWE filed a lawsuit against Gagner in federal court alleging four counts: trademark infringement, unfair competition, cybersquatting, and deceptive trade practices.
In response, Gagner did nothing. He hired no lawyer. He prepared no defense.
At first, the WWE lawyers wanted a jury trial. But that step became unnecessary.
On March 19, 2008, Christopher Verdini, attorney for the WWE, deposed Gagner in Rochester, Minnesota. Gagner was cagey, at times flippant, the transcript shows. He often evaded Verdini's questions. He sprinkled his answers with philosophical statements about wrestling history and his own place within it.
But Gagner's meandering testimony—he says he was drunk at the time—couldn't mask the heart of the matter: whether he'd stolen the AWA trademark. That question came down to one simple exchange—when Verdini asked Gagner why he thought he had the right to use the AWA name.
"I'm asking you, did you ever get a license to use AWA in the context of wrestling entertainment from anyone?" Verdini said.
"Did I need one?" Gagner replied. "I—I don't—I don't recall other than being registered in the State of Minnesota as a business in good standing, I..."
"And I'm not trying to be smart here," Verdini said. "So the answer is no, you never got a license from anyone to do—to use AWA in the—in connection with wrestling?"
"Again, I—whose permission would I need? I don't know. I—"
"My question is, did you ever get one?"
They crushed him with their case. They even refuted his claim of being related to Verne. The men weren't related at all, the WWE attorneys said
"I mean, their attorneys are so swift, they went in and claimed that because they had rights to the television—and it was all, you know, B.S.," Gagner says. "And it was really all lies."