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.
"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.
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