I didn't think I'd have much trouble with him. But he fooled me. He looks small, but actually he's stronger than most big wrestlers. His smooth muscles are very deceiving.
And does he know how to wrestle? Wow! He has the best liming and leverage of any wrestler I know. And as for pure guts, he'll die before he gives up.
He's very smart in the ring, fast and aggressive. If there are any better contenders around than he is I just hope I have a very good night when I have to meet them in the ring.
The subject of this adulation was Verne Gagne, professional wrestler. The man talking was Lou Thesz, who, at the time, was heavyweight wrestling champion of the world.
It is not strange that these two titans of the mat should have so much in common. Both are exceptionally skilled scientific wrestlers who have a strong dislike for showboating and bar room tactics; both are deceptive, physically, with smooth muscles that conceal great strength and energy; both are highly intelligent, and both rose quickly to dazzling heights in their profession.
Probably the biggest difference between them is that Gagne was one of the best amateur wrestlers of all time before he turned pro, whereas Thesz went directly from the gym into the money ranks.
It's natural, also, to consider the merits of both men, comparatively and individually. Who is the better wrestler — Gagne or Thesz?
Such an argument is academic, and it will probably never be settled one way or the other. Someone who should know said: "The difference between Thesz and Gagne is the difference between an expert butcher in a slaughterhouse and a matador in the bull ring. Needless to say, Verne Gagne is the matador. In case Thesz seems to suffer from this comparison, let it be known that he is such a scientific butcher that he is, like Gagne, an artist at his trade!
Yet to Gagne must go the superlatives when it comes to mat artistry. Words like finesse, magic, rapier-swift, masterful, even delicacy, find their way into a description of Gagne's skill. It is generally agreed that not since the days of Earl Caddock has a wrestler displayed such consummate science and knowledge of the sport as Gagne. This statement becomes even more significant when you consider that Caddock was in his prime more than forty years ago, having won the world championship from barrel-chested Charley Cutler in 1915, just three years after the immortal Frank Gotch ended his career. Even as Gotch was unsurpassed in all-around wrestling ability, so Earl Caddock was an awe-inspiring exponent of pure science. Thus you should have some idea of how young Verne' Gagne rates in the opinion of the experts.
Yes, "young" still applies to this prematurely bald yet handsome former collegiate football star who loved wrestling so much that when it came time to choose careers after graduation, faced a great mental block. He dreaded becoming part of the sham, clownishness and mockery which is so much a part of professional wrestling.
Long after he made up his mind and chose wrestling, Gagne said: "Back in 1949 when I made my decision, I was all wrong in thinking about wrestling as I did. In college I enjoyed more than my share of success in both football and wrestling. It was simply a matter of whether to become a professional football player or a professional wrestler. I'd played about four games with the Green Bay Packers and it was pretty well agreed that I would do well if I stuck with the team. Still, my friends told me that I would do even better as a wrestler since it would mean a longer career and hence more money. They finally talked me into trying wrestling, just to see if I liked it."
Verne's eventual decision to stick to wrestling was one of the worst things that ever happened — to hundreds of other wrestlers, that is. They would all be a lot happier and healthier now had Gagne stuck to football.
Verne himself says, "I was never completely comfortable in football. I would have been good, I suppose, as pro players go — but never outstanding. Bronko Nagurski, with whom I was sometimes compared, made me look like a bush leaguer. But when 1 went into wrestling I felt that, given half a chance, I'd stand out."
And that is the understatement of the year!
Wrestling, as it has done for all its standout stars, has done a lot for Gagne. "More than I'd have gotten from football," he admits. "You last longer in wrestling and the tension isn't so great. You can 'carry yourself’ when things get real tough — at least for awhile. And, from the standpoint of the individual — not the team — there's more variety and more possibilities in wrestling. Although the possibilities, team-wise, in football are as great as the combinations in a deck of cards, the individual is still in the line, with a single purpose, or in the backfield, with a single purpose. And it's the coach or the captain who tells you what that purpose will be. But a wrestler can use his own brain — which makes wrestling fascinating."
Which does he enjoy most — amateur or pro wrestling?
"That's a tough one to answer," Verne laughs, a dozen years after he had ended one of amateur wrestling's most brilliant careers. In two years at the University of Minnesota, during the late forties, Verne won four Big Ten titles. a national AAU championship and two national collegiate championships. •
"Amateur wrestling is, of course, all science. They don't allow any showmanship at all — and only true lovers of the sport become really good; they're the only ones who can stick to it long enough.
"On the other hand, the extra challenge in professional wrestling keeps up an unending interest. For no matter how scientific you are, you must also please the crowd. After all, they pay to see professional, not amateur, wrestling — so that's what you give them."
Then how, the question is asked, did Gagne become the spokesman — in fact, the Crusader — against modern wrestling and its "clowns"? .
"Whenever somebody makes a controversial statement to the press," Gagne frowns, "it's sure to be twisted. Just because a guy says there are clowns in today's pro wrestling, that, doesn't mean all modern wrestlers are clowns. They're not. A good percentage of them are fine wrestlers. 1 know — I wrestle them. Show me a better group than you'd find in Bob Geigel, Lu Kim, Buddy Rogers, Pat O'Connor, Edouard Carpentier and Dick Hutton. Any of these fellows would have given most of the old-time greats a hard time — and licked some of them too!
"It's not that the wrestlers, these days, are inferior — it's just that the tastes of wrestling fans has changed. If the public suddenly turned and decided they wanted things the way they were back in the days of Gotch — well, most of today's wrestlers would quickly fit themselves into the pattern. They'd quit the showboating and get down to hard business.
"That," Verne says softly, "is exactly what I'd like to see happen. But, let's face it — let's be realistic about it — I know it won't happen. You can't take a step forward and then two backward in either entertainment or war. Even though you may not like a thing, you go along with it if it represents the will of the people. But —" And you can tell by the way he says it, that it's a big "but" — "I think that a big proportion of the fans like and sincerely enjoy good scientific wrestling. It's a surprise — almost a shock — to them when they do see it, but they prove their appreciation by asking for more."
He's right. But Verne is too modest to use himself as living proof of his theories. So we will. It is a matter of record that Verne is one of the greatest wrestling drawing cards of the past 20 years. On August 5, 1956, the Milwaukee Journal reported: "Over sixteen thousand pay $33,689-90 to see Gagne in Milwaukee Ball Park! — The third largest outdoor gate in U. S. Mat History!"
From the Chicago Tribune of April 7, 1956: "9,522 (Record 19 56 Chicago Crowd) pay $25,908 to see Gagne in Tag Match!"
And in 1957, the New York Journal-American reported, "Eighth Avenue Traffic was disorganized, pedestrian traffic was jammed for blocks north and south, side doors at Madison Square Garden were torn from their hinges as the crowd stormed the entrances. It was the largest crowd at the Garden in 25 years — larger than for championship tights, rodeos, tennis matches or the circus."
These crowds didn't pay all that money or suffer all that inconvenience to see just a performer. They paid and suffered to sec real wrestling by the finest scientific wrestler of the era — Verne Gagne.
It goes to prove one thing: Verne Gagne's One-Man Crusade — with the help of such as Lou Thesz and a few others — to bring back scientific wrestling, is gaining ground and finding favor with the audiences who, after all. are the final judges.
From time to time, during this ten-year career of his. Gagne has made wrestling history. He did it in 1951, two years after turning pro, by outlasting a huge field of wrestlers to win the Junior Heavyweight title (200 pound limit) in an elimination match in Texas. Sanctioned by the now "toothless" National Wrestling Alliance, this proved to be one of wrestling's last genuine titles. And Gagne proved to be a genuine champion.
Then, a couple of years later, he brought out his infamous and now widely improved "sleeper hold." This hold exemplifies the Gagne thinking. It relies on speed, accuracy, timing and exacting pressure on neck nerves to put a victim to sleep, thus enabling him to be pinned easy as baby's diaper.
All this time, Verne has been married to a charming ex-airline hostess named Mary Marxen, who gifted him with three handsome children who will never become wrestlers. They met soon after Verne's college days, and were married shortly afterward. He flies back to the lovely lake country of Minnesota between road tours to see his family and enjoy the fruits of a very fruitful career.
There have been plenty of fruits. Verne makes — and has made for some years now — perhaps 100,000 dollars a year and has used it wisely. As a result he wrestles rarely these days — only in "big" matches and only when he feels like it. For he can now afford to revert to the wrestling of his college days — "1 want to enjoy it from a strictly scientific standpoint. Luckily there arc enough other fellows around who feel as 1 do — we always put on a good match. Anyway the people seem to like it."
It's a big satisfaction for Verne to sit back and watch and encourage the progress of his great Crusade. He may never see its complete adoption by promoters, wrestlers and fans. but as he says. "1 think I'm getting closer and closer every day."
He may be a lot closer than he thinks.