Dale Gagne wrestles with the truth
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.
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.
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."
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.
In January 2003, WWE (the name had changed in response to a lawsuit by the World Wildlife Fund) paid $3 million for both to Squared Circle Ventures, the Gagne family's company.
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."
Gagner sticks to the story he's told all along: While the WWE had rights to the tapes, he had bought the AWA name. In December 2008, a federal judge issued a ruling that Dale Gagner could not claim the AWA name in any way. The decision was nearly identical to the one 18 years earlier.
LESS THAN A month after the court case wrapped up, Gagner was back to pretending he was connected to the AWA.
He concocted a plan for Eric Hartsburg, an Indiana promoter and wrestler, to become Gagner's next "AWA world champion." All Hartsburg had to do was send in a $1,100 security deposit on the title belt and show up for the match.
"I greatly look forward to working with you more closely, Eric," Gagner wrote in an e-mail to Hartsburg. "I know you'll represent the AWA World Light Heavyweight Championship with pride and honor."
Gagner laid out the storyline for the big championship match in Alabama, right down to what the announcer should do. But the night of the big face-off, Gagner didn't show up. He did, however, make a phone call to change the plans right before the match, Hartsburg alleges. Instead of winning, Hartsburg was disqualified. He didn't take home the belt that night. The belt wasn't in the building.
Gagner promised to deliver the belt the next weekend at a match in North Carolina. But again, the belt was a no-show. So Gagner promised to deliver it at a third match, this time in Australia, where Hartsburg was headed next.
Before his bout, Hartsburg got to talking with Australian wrestler Andrew Carter. It turned out that Carter, too, had been promised the belt. He, too, had paid Gagner a $1,100 deposit.
"We realized, 'Aw, hell, he played us both,'" Hartsburg says. "The same contract, the same everything. We both ended up getting hosed."
Hartsburg and Carter say they never got their money back.
Independent wrestlers were an easy target, but Gagner didn't limit himself to people already in the business. Jill Thacker says she contacted Gagner hoping he would help steer her son into the industry.
Thacker's son Budd, a defensive tackle at Florida State, was passed over for the NFL draft and Gagner encouraged him to get into wrestling.
"I really feel strongly that in the very least, Budd should take the opportunity to attend the 'WWE Developmental Clinic' August 27–29, 2010 in Tampa, Florida," Gagner wrote in an e-mail to Budd's mom. "The cost is $1,200 for the three days which includes training, development, seminars, a live event, lodging and meals."
Gagner said he'd pay half of the camp fee and told Thacker to send him $600. "Please make payment to: WWE/DALE R. GAGNE PRESENTS. . ." he wrote.
Gagner was taking his audacity to a new level: moving beyond the AWA and co-opting the name of the company that had sued him two years before. He even suggested his WWE connections could smooth the path to wrestling stardom for Budd.
"We would then pursue the 'big' guys at WWE whom as you know, I have a very good relationship with," Gagner wrote in an e-mail to Thacker.
Thacker sent in her money. Someone cashed the check.
But the hopeful stage mom quickly found out that Gagner's story wasn't true. Over the Fourth of July weekend, she searched the Web and discovered that the WWE clinic Gagner had sold her was taking place that very weekend.
She e-mailed Gagner, who acted insulted that she would doubt him. Thacker contacted the WWE camp owner directly. He said he'd never heard of Gagner.
Gagner says it wasn't his fault—merely a scheduling blip.
"Unfortunately, the cutoff date was already done, so we offered a different camp," Gagner says. "We sent the money on retainer to them."
Thacker is still waiting to get her money back.
ON JULY 27, Dale R. Gagne entered drug and alcohol treatment at the PRIDE Institute in Eden Prairie and his life changed dramatically. Instead of coming up with new ways to make money, Gagner was in detox.
"I was basically high 24 hours a day," he says. "On alcohol and medications, Klonopin, Percocet, and Oxycodone."
When he emerged from the physically horrific process of drug and alcohol detox, Gagner was ready to slay a second dragon: the closet.
"I am gay," he says. "But I didn't have any gay relationships until I turned 32—strictly women. But it never satisfied me in an intimate way."
Gagner came out to close friends and family 10 years ago, he says. But not to his wrestling associates.
PRIDE is a treatment center specifically for LGBT people, and the counselors there shuttled him through a grueling daily regimen of emotional soul-baring: small groups, big groups, and education sessions. His days were planned out for him from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., right down to required volleyball, yoga, or gym time for 30 minutes, twice a day. He went to 12-step meetings and says he found a higher power.
Gagner was a sponge to the lessons of treatment, soaking them up just as he had the wrestling business. At PRIDE, he learned that his sense of shame about being gay had pushed him away from God, towards the bottle, and into hiding.
Despite all the jokes about men in tights, wrestling is a decidedly macho sport; very few professional wrestlers have been openly out. And the characters portrayed as gay are effeminate and stereotyped, like glitter-clad "Exotic" Adrian Street, who kissed his opponents to escape being pinned.
Gagner blames his urge to stay in the closet on the wrestling industry. He claims gay wrestlers have to sign waivers requiring they act straight in public.
Most people stay at PRIDE for 28 days. Gagner stayed 50.
He left September 15 ready to share his story.
Now, at Rudolph's Bar, he is full of the enthusiasm of a new 12-stepper.
"Secrets keep us sick," Gagne explains. "You just have to become an open book."
His sidekick, the well-groomed young man with an air of efficiency, went through treatment with Gagner. After their intense, two-month journey together, Gagner considers the young man his best friend.
With the assistance of his new friend, Gagner is setting up shop in Uptown. He says he'll go back to wrestling, but this time it will be different.
"I am not interested in the con anymore," Gagne says. "I am not interested in, you know, hurting people in any way."
Gagner admits there are people he owes amends to, though it's hard for him to think who, specifically, they might be.
"But what I am going to do is take a list of those—those I remember," he says. "And pray over it. And you know, make a verbal amends, although I won't go to the person because I don't even know where the people are."
Gagner says his newfound sobriety is a refreshing change after all those years playing a role. Now, he says, he wants only the truth. He's even thinking of becoming a counselor.
He reflects for a moment on where he's been over those many years—all the lies, all the spin.
"I've been in the business for so long that you can't turn it off," he says. "What I'd like to do is drop the persona and be just who I am today."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.