There is something in the water in Minnesota that just breeds great professional wrestlers. The sheer amount of successful wrestlers to come out of Minnesota is mind-boggling.
Verne Gagne and the American Wrestling Association
The pro wrestling tradition in the state goes all the way to the Minnesota-born Verne Gagne. Gagne was a natural athlete and made himself a star in both football and wrestling. At the University of Minnesota he was a star amateur wrestling, winning two NCAA championships. He moved on to the National Football League in 1947 but fell into professional wrestling full time in 1949.
It was then when Gagne found his true calling. Gagne was a huge star in the wrestling boom of the 1950s, as pro wrestling was a big attraction on the new media of television. His solid in-ring talent, his charisma and ability to give interviews and his handsome features made him one of wrestling’s first all-around entertainers. He was definitely talented and successful enough to become the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, pro wrestling highest honor at the time but politics kept him from the championship. In 1958 Gagne beat Edouard Carpantier for a disputed version of the NWA Championship. Many promoters didn’t recognized Carpantier as champion, and thus didn’t recognize the Title switch. So Gagne took his disputed version of the Championship and formed the American Wrestling Alliance in 1960, fed up with the NWA structure.
Gagne was essentially owner, promoter and top star of the early AWA, which was based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He based the promotion with more of a reality-based presentation, straying away from the glitz, glamour and over-the-top theatrics of the WWWF (and later WWF.) As its top performer he carried the AWA through the ‘60s and ‘70s, often as the promotion’s Champion, battling every top villain that came through the area, including Gene Kiniski, Billy Robinson, Crusher, Bruiser, Mad Dog Vachon, Ray Stevens, Nick Bockwinkle and many others.
In the 1970s Gagne began his own brutal training camp out on his farm in Chanhassen, Minnesota. The training facility is arguably the most successful in wrestling history, as dozens of top names came through Gagne’s camp that became major names, including stars like Sgt. Slaughter, Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Blackjack Mulligan, The Iron Sheik, Ken Patera, Curt Hennig, Bob Backlund, Brad Rheingans, Jim Brunzell and Verne’s own son Greg.
In the ‘80s, the AWA was riding high as one of the “big three” alongside the WWF and the NWA, and could rival anyone in match quality, entertaining characters and deep talent roster. Verne himself retired in 1981 and the focal point of the promotion turned over Bockwinkle, one of Gagne’s most trusted guys. Plus stars like Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Mean Gene Okerlund, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, The Road Warriors and Hulk Hogan all made their marks in the AWA, honing their craft and their characters before moving on to the NWA or the WWF.
In the late ‘80s as the promotion started to sharply decline in prestige and attendance thanks to the exodus of talent to elsewhere. Despite that the company still had a timeslot on ESPN that gave them national coverage and were able to cultivate new stars including Scott Hall, Shawn Michaels, Marty Jannetty, Madusa Micelli and Leon “Vader” White, giving them a stage to perform and grow. By the time the promotion closed shop for good in 1991 it was a shell of its former self, but even its in last incarnation, future stars like Eric Bischoff, Mike Enos, Scott Norton, “Patriot” Del Wilkes and the late Yokozuna were getting valuable television time and experience.
The Class of 1976
The Minneapolis area is known for a lot of things. There’s the insanely cold weather in January, the fanatical hockey fans and of course the international tourist hot spot that is the Mall of America. But what one may not know is that the Minneapolis metro area, and specifically the northern metro of Robbinsdale, was a hotbed for future stars of the professional wrestling circuit back in the late ‘70s and early 1980s.
Robbinsdale High School in northwestern Minneapolis has produced seven stand out pro wrestlers that all made their mark on the industry throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. A group of men named Tom Zenk, Rick Rood, Curt Hennig, Brady Boone, Scott Sampson, Barry Darsow and John Nord would go onto international wrestling fame using such colorful names as “Z-Man,” “Ravishing Rick Rude,” “Mr. Perfect,” “Battle Kat,” “Nikita Koloff,” “Demolition Smash” and “The Berzerker.” Everyone one of them except Sampson, who has now legally changed his name to Nikita Koloff, spent some time in the World Wrestling Federation. Hennig and Rude are former World Heavyweight Champions, Darsow was a tag team champion in numerous organizations under a variety of monikers and Koloff was a major name in the old NWA in the 1980s and could have easily been World Champion if things would have worked out differently.
What is even more remarkable is that Zenk, Rood, Hennig and Boone all graduated in the same class of 1976, however it’s tough to imagine that Zenk is the only one of that quartet still alive, as the other three passed away due to various reasons while they were all in their early 40s.
It’s hard to imagine so many people coming out of one high school and finding success in the same unorthodox profession. Maybe there’s something in the water up there in Robbinsdale.
The man born and raised in South Dakota found his calling as an amateur wrestling standout at the University of Minnesota. He tore through World Wrestling Entertainment during a brief four-year stay with the company and would still be a top star there if he chose to. He stepped into the world of Ultimate Fighting Championship and despite an illness he was still a UFC Heavyweight Champion at one point. Brock is now back with the WWE.
Minnesota still continues to produce young stars steeped in the state’s wrestling tradition. “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig’s son Joe and his daughter Amy are both training to be wrestlers themselves and have found some success already in their early careers. Barry Darsow’s son Dakota has also been signed once to a WWE developmental deal already in his very young career and it would not be surprising to see him back in the big leagues once again in the near future.
Plus there are numerous independent organizations all around the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area that feature a variety of young stars. Arik Cannon’s F1rst Wrestling has been one of the more successful and noteworthy in recent years, but plenty of other organizations including American Wrestling Federation, Heavy on Wrestling, Steel Domain Wrestling, Independent Wrestling International, Minnesota Independent Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Battleground and Lenny Lane's Prime Time Wrestling are keeping the tradition alive.
Mark Satrang - Pro Wrestling Examiner.