There are icons of the professional wrestling business and then there are individuals such as Verne Gagne. Gagne was a legend of the industry, a world heavyweight champion on at least 16 occasions and third on the list for the longest recognized single world championship reigns. A talented overall athlete, Gagne first pursued a career in the National Football League at a time when pro football did not pay as did the world of pro wrestling, and thus Gagne chose to pursue the path that made him one of the more famous figures that the North American wrestling industry has ever known.
Gagne was more than just a talented in-ring performer who held multiple championships during what was a legendary career that landed him in multiple halls of fame. Gagne also spent a significant amount of time as a booker and a promoter while with the American Wrestling Association, the wrestling company that he founded after he parted ways with the National Wrestling Alliance. It was during his time with that organization that Gagne served as a trainer for up-and-coming performers, who would learn the ropes of what it meant to put matches on inside of the ring while working with Gagne at a farm.
The list of wrestlers who were trained by Gagne in the early days of their careers could serve as its own hall of fame. It includes numerous performers who held world heavyweight championships, not to mention men who are widely seen as some of the greatest workers in the history of the business. The first name that likely jumps off of the list for even casual fans of the business is the man who was known as the “Dirtiest Player in the Game,” a now semi-retired worker who still causes fans to leave their feet out of respect and in anticipation whenever he makes his way to a wrestling ring.
20. Brad Rheingans
Brad Rheingans was a successful amateur wrestler in the NCAA, and he qualified for multiple Olympic squads. He would then link up with Verne Gagne and the American Wrestling Association in the 1980s, and he made sporadic appearances in other organizations until the end of his active in-ring career. Rheingans made further significant contributions within the industry as a trainer of other pro wrestlers. The list of pupils who worked under Rheingans at one point or another includes John Layfield, The Nasty Boys, Curtis Axel and none other than Brock Lesnar.
19. Greg Gagne
It only makes sense that the son of Verne Gagne would follow in his father’s footsteps and attempt to have a memorable career in the world of pro wrestling. Greg, trained by Verne, began wrestling in his father’s AWA in the early 1970s, and he and Jim Brunzell went on to form tag team “The High Flyers.” While he would be involved in several memorable feuds during his career, Greg would never even flirt with reaching the heights that his legendary father did. To his credit, the younger Gagne did win multiple championships while with the AWA even if he was never the top worker in that organization.
18. Blackjack Lanza
The first of two wrestlers showcased in this piece to have the word “Blackjack” associated with his name, John “Jack” Lanza began his wrestling career under the teachings of Verne Gagne in the early 1960s. Lanza would be given the gimmick of a hard-nosed cowboy before he was put together with Blackjack Mulligan to form tag team The Blackjacks. The Blackjacks won tag team championships in the World Wide Wrestling Federation, NWA Big Time Wrestling and the World Wrestling Association. Both he and Mulligan were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006.
17. Jim Brunzell
Brunzell is one of several performers mentioned in this piece that first had eyes for being a National Football League player before he ultimately joined the world of pro wrestling. Brunzell was convinced to train with Verne Gagne by Verne’s son Greg, and the former football player would learn the business alongside future all-time greats such as Ric Flair and The Iron Sheik. While both Flair and the Sheik would go on to have Hall-of-Fame runs as singles performers and in factions, Brunzell was most notably a tag team specialist. One of his teams included Greg as his partner.
16. Bill Irwin
Bill Irwin was trained by both Verge Gagne and by his late brother Scott in the 1970s. Bill made his debut as one half of the tag team the “Super Destroyers” along with his brother, and the two would also work as the “Long Riders.” While the majority of his successes came as a tag team performer, Irwin would also break out on his own to play multiple characters. He was “Wild” Bill Irwin in WCW and he would then perform as “The Goon,” a supposed former hockey player who was banned from playing the sport professionally, in the WWE.