Best of Verne Gagne Vol. 1
My introduction to pro-wrestling came when I was 3 or 4 years old via an hour Sunday morning TV show that my father sporadically watched in the basement on a fuzzy black & white TV with a little rabbit ear antenna, but I only saw enough to know I liked it, as it was on during the time my mother dragged me kicking and screaming to church. When we got cable a few years later, it became possible to actually follow wrestling of my own volition, and by the time I was 9 years old, I was hooked. I wasn't alone, in fact, those last years of elementary school from 1984-86 may not have been the best time to be a wrestling watcher, but they were the best time to be a wrestling fan because everyone was a wrestling fan. I mean, it's the only time in my life that watching wrestling was not only cool but downright expected by my peers, and the weird losers were the ones who were willing to admit they didn't watch. Wrestling was so popular in my grades that a girl who looked more like the daughter of the future Bertha Faye spent countless hours claiming her uncle was none other than Ricky Steamboat. But, of course, wrestling as a whole wasn't cool, especially growing up in NY where the WWF embargoed all the other promotions and you couldn't even watch the NWA on TV unless you were lucky enough to have a cable company that actually carried TBS, WWF was cool and only the WWF was even considered wrestling. The rest was not even an afterthought, more like a vague, uninteresting notion. Literally only 1 other kid in my 3rd grade class watched AWA, and he moved overseas that summer. There was every reason not to get interested in AWA, except when you put it on, you could tell that Verne Gagne loved wrestling. And I mean, he loved wrestling as wrestling in it's purest and most glorious form, as a skilled athletic contest meant to be taken seriously where the more talented man should usually win. Even as a small child, one could readily tell the difference between Gagne's concept of wrestling as a sport and Vince McMahon's concept of wrestling as a circus, one could see that Gagne saw wrestlers as athletes making a living doing something respectable were McMahon saw them as overly unnaturally muscled entertainers making fools of themselves for our enjoyment. Of course, Gagne was retired by that point and the AWA was not at it's strongest having already lost some, in a few years the vast majority of their talent to the WWF, but had it not been for Gagne's passion I very well may not have made my various decisions to expand my own wrestling horizons. I may not have found my way to the serious sport atmosphere of the great puroresu of the mid '90's and before, or developed and maintained enough interest in watching wrestling to have created this website.
Classic American wrestling as a whole may never be my cup of tea, but my perceptions of it were based on some random compilations I rented in the late '80's and early '90's featuring characters such as Gorgeous George & Haystacks Calhoun. I thought, this is like the WWF, except with a lot fewer and very remedial high spots, and an even remarkably lower workrate. Once I got into puroresu & lucha libre, I didn't give it too much thought, but then my friend sent me a match from 1952 between Gagne & Lou Thesz that he had such glowing praise for I had to check it out. And it just blew my mind! I mean, I obviously knew there was a whole technical side to the older wrestling that was favored in the various shoot style leagues that wanted a more legitimate alternative to show wrestling, but in it I found the intensity, drama, importance, & urgency in working the simply locks that's so lacking in even a lot of the wrestling I enjoy most, particularly joshi puroresu. It's a match that may not be spectacular in terms of things that pass for spectacular today such as (insert your favorite degrees) flips, but that more importantly shows that even the most simple movement, hell a twitch, can be huge if and when the effort and focus are placed on making it such. It's a match that's not about individual parts, but instead great because everything is flowing and working in unison to create a whole that cannot be logically separated, to build up an all or nothing desperation, either claim that most important of prizes (the title) or be a failure. So again, Gagne has been directly responsible for changing my perception on what wrestling can and should be, and has indirectly led me down some different paths, for instance looking into the work the hold and athletically counter it style of the '70's and '80's British wrestling scene that however directly or indirectly, owes a lot to what Gagne was doing in his in ring heyday.
Footage of Gagne isn't that easy to find. This "Best of" is more like, anything and everything the creator could get a hold of. For that, and many other reasons, Gagne may never be ranked nearly as high as he should be in the list of all-time great wrestlers (or promoters for that matter). I don't know if this is just the pretentious wrestling snob in me coming out, but, in the end, that's okay. I've long since moved past the limiting notions that popularity and box office and lists and polls are any kind of legitimate gauge. All I can say is Gagne was an artist, anyone who takes the time to see him perform should be able to see that pretty readily, and as such he was someone who made a difference in peoples lives, even if in weird, hard to pin down and maybe even fathom kind of ways. Verne may not be missed by every wrestling fan, but at the same time his philosophy and legacy in and out of the ring can never truly be extinguished, and I hope that's something he and we can take comfort in knowing. RIP Verne Gagne.
Verne Gagne vs. Red Bastien 9:06. I'm not exactly sure when this match took place, but I can safely say it was remarkably ahead of its time. Seeing this match is like seeing Jaguar Yokota in her prime and being so excited that there was finally someone who could keep up with her enough that she could truly show how great she was. What's great about Verne in his younger days is even in a heavyweight vs. junior heavyweight match against a guy known for his athleticism such as Bastien, Verne is such a great athlete he surpasses Red even in his own junior style. It makes for quite an entertaining and actually shockingly modern match though, as the locks are regular broken for a bursts of running action (particularly flying head scissors). They start with Bastien taking the initiative in the grappling and Verne countering as a way to get the big underdog Red over, but as the match progresses, Gagne, being the heavyweight, begins to control the grappling, weighing on Bastien more and more. Though entirely a technical match, Gagne manages to split his eyelid and Bastien's nose gets busted up. Certainly though, this is a junior sprint where both are using their athleticism to pull the best out of each other, and Gagne finishes with a dropkick to set up the rolling cradle. Excellent match.
5/16/52, 2/3 Falls: Verne Gagne vs. Great Togo 10:41, 6:32, 3:35. More of a dated match with Gagne trying to work technically, but Togo constantly taking shortcuts, forcing Gagne to fight fire with fire. I could live with that, though Gagne is worth a lot more when he's not progressively brawling, but Togo was supposed to be a squat sumo, so Gagne had to do all the moving, and thus when Gagne did use his athleticism, it felt a lot more contrived because Togo basically just stood there waiting for Gagne to charge him with a flying attack. This did set up one neat spot near the 1st fall finish where Gagne at least got Togo tied up in the ropes before charging, and was running the ropes and drilling him with shoulder tackles until Togo finally broke it up with a headbutt. The spot would have worked a lot better though if they used it to get over how hard Togo's head was, and that it was a threat, but instead they followed by having Togo try to choke Gagne out only to have Gagne kick off the top rope and knock Togo out via the collision of heads with each other and the canvas. Togo bled heavily from the noggin, and his nose was supposedly broken as well. The second half of the fight was pretty heated as Gagne lost it, and was laying into Togo with his strikes. They didn't do anything in particular to get over the deadliness of Togo's sleeper, but the second fall finish worked well as a compliment to the 1st, as this time Gagne missed a dropkick in the center so he couldn't use the turnbuckle to counter the sleeper hold. Togo must not have been as bad an athlete as he let on because he managed to jump more than 2/3 of the way across the ring when Gagne shoulderblocked him through the ropes from the outside. The fans were really into the brawling, and now that Gagne had given up any ideas of being a nice guy, he overwhelmed Togo quickly in the 3rd with his roughhousing then put him to sleep. Above average match.
9/14/56, 2/3 Falls: Verne Gagne & Argentina Rocca & Wilbur Snyder vs. Dick the Bruiser & Reggie Lisowski & Stan Lisowski 13:30, 0:51, 0:36. I got some tapes of '50's & '60's wrestling when I was 9 or 10 not knowing enough to expect it to be that much different from the AWA, WWF, NWA, & WCCW I was watching at the time. I wasn't ready to appreciate it, but I always really enjoyed the perpetual motion style of Rocca. He was just so ridiculously limber and flexible, and moved like no one I'd ever seen. I say this in the nicest possible way, but his posture, quickness, and the suppleness of his joints reminded me of what a monkey would look like if one could wrestle. I enjoyed his hamming a bit more at that age than I do now, but he still stole the show here even though his teammates were impressive as well. I prefer the style of this 6 man where the heels are heels but the faces remain faces. I never got the whole, wouldn't it be nice to see the good guys throw out the rule book thing. I mean, it's fine in moderation, but it's much more entertaining when they answer the cheap shots by beating the heels with skill as they did here. Both sides did their thing in this match, so it was a generally fast paced match with quick tags and very little matwork. The faces sprinted, doing their dropkicks and flying headscissors and the heels tried to slow them down by trapping them in their corner so they could double/triple team or getting them down or in the ropes and finding the moment for the cheap shot. It's funny today seeing a closed fist punch to the ribs from side mount as an illegal hold, with those kind of rules, Ruan Potts might even be able to win a match so long as he returns to EFC Africa. The first fall was good, but then the next two were cut down to the finish, so it's hard to gauge how good this was overall, but it was definitely a fun match I would have liked to have seen complete.
5/6/56 Verne Gagne vs. Wilbur Snyder 32:40. Slow paced technical match built around the hammerlock. First Gagne worked the arm, with Snyder picking the leg into a toe hold then Snyder shifted into focusing on Gagne's arm as well. Though both were faces, Snyder increasingly garnered more and more heel heat working over Gagne's bad left elbow even though he was doing so with perfectly legal manuevers. Obviously, the action was far beyond competent, but it never turned into the way ahead of it's time fast, athletic contest I was expecting from two of the pioneers of highspots, ropework, and bumping. The announcer claimed the bout had a 30 minute time limit, but they didn't pick it up until almost 32 minutes in, and then they quickly ended it with a double count out when Snyder's bodyslam failed and both were propelled over the top rope to the floor. Above average match.
1/27/56, 2/3 Falls: Verne Gagne vs. Dick the Bruiser. Only the last minute or so of each fall was shown from this 30+ minute match. What made the DVD was good action, and extremely heated. The result was one I've never seen before. Referee Jim McMillan was knocked out when Bruiser collided with him after taking a 3rd consecutive dropkick from Gagne, so he couldn't count the fall. As Verne tended to the bloody ref, Bruiser recovered and finished Gagne off with a bodyslam, but once McMillan regained his senses he discounted Dick's fall, with the commisioner instead ruling that Bruiser was pinned down "for at least the count of 10" while McMillan was groggy despite no one actually making even a 1 count to alert Bruiser to the fact there was some urgency to him getting his back of the canvas.
6/21/50 Verne Gagne vs. Billy Goelz 3:47 of 20:00. Athletic finishing sequence to this technical contest. What made the DVD was fun, but I got the sense that the action just got started in time for it to be over.
1963 Buffalo War Memorial Auditorium: Verne Gagne vs. Hans Schmidt 5:54 of 30:00. A technical brawl worked at a fairly high pace. Schmidt had the counters, but used the legitimate positions and techniques to sneak in his shady tactics. Gagne had lost it by the time they started showing the fight, and was putting the boots to the German. There was a pretty good spot where Schmidt looked to finish with his backbreaker, but Gagne countered with a headscissors. Neither seemed that near to winning when time expired though, and it was ruled a majority draw (1 vote for Gagne).
8/31/68 Omaha, NE AWA World Heavyweight Title Match: Verne Gagne vs. Doctor X (Dick "The Destroyer" Beyer) 4:46 shown. Verne is being more of a showman here, but not in a stalling kind of way that detracts from the flow and quality of the match. He's still just as technical and set on winning, but he's wasting some motion playing to the crowd in the process of going about his business. I need to watch more of Destroyer when he wasn't an old man, but this footage from his prime still isn't clueing me in to why he's so beloved in Japan. Not that he's bad by any means, but other than The Sheik & Abdullah the Butcher it's usually readily apparent why the foreign All Japan legends became legends. X was moving well here, and made a good foil in the sense that he likes to take "bumps" where he his own move backfires so he injures himself crashes the canvas. On the other hand, though he's running and bumping enough, much of what he's doing is really just a tease in the worst sense, in other words the promise of offense that's never later delivered on.