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.
15. Sgt. Slaughter
Sgt. Slaugther learned the ins and outs of the pro wrestling business while being tutored by Verne Gagne, and Slaughter would eventually evolve into one of the more underrated performers of his time. While he was never known for having five-star matches that would steal shows, Slaughter had uncanny abilities to work and cut promos as both a babyface or heel without missing a beat. Whether it was as an in-ring performer or as an authority figure feuding with stable D-Generation-X, Slaughter is but one of Verne’s students who went on to earn a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame.
14. Larry Hennig
The grandfather of Joe “Curtis Axel” Hennig and the father of Curt Hennig, more commonly known as “Mr. Perfect,” entered the American Wrestling Association under the guidance of Verne Gagne in the early 1960s. Hennig would ultimately break out on his own for some time, and he even feuded with his former teacher in the AWA. The man known as “The Axe” was a tag team specialist during the most noteworthy moments of his time as an active in-ring performer, winning championships in multiple organizations.
13. Buddy Rose
The man who would eventually earn the “Playboy” nickname entered the pro wrestling industry in the 1970s, when he was trained by both Verne Gagne and Billy Robinson. One of Rose’s most famous feuds pitted him against “Rowdy” Roddy Piper when the two were working in the midwest, and it has been said that those battles with Rose helped propel Piper into the star that he would eventually become on the national level. While Rose was a main event player for several organizations during his best days as a worker, he never won a world heavyweight champion while signed with a national promotion.
12. Baron von Raschke
United States pro wrestling has a long history of booking feuds that involve supposed evil foreigners coming over to the States to take out American babyface performers. What is somewhat funny about this character is that the man born as James Raschke was an amateur wrestler who was born in Omaha, Nebraska when Verne Gagne got his hands on the athlete. Raschke would become one of the top heels of his time due to his ability to play the evil German, and his “Brainclaw” finisher was a move that caused fear in the hearts of fans.
11. Jimmy Valiant
Jimmy Valiant had a wide variety of personalities and characters during his pro wrestling career. The student of Verne Gagne worked with numerous managers during his days as an active in-ring worker, most notably Lou Albano, Lord Alfred Hayes, Jimmy Hart and Bobby Heenan. Valiant has a long resume of singles and tag team accomplishments to his name, but it is his time spent as the “Boogie Woogie Man” that stand out to this day. Younger fans who have never experienced the Boogie Woogie Man at this best would do well to search for videos online. They are tremendous.
10. Ken Patera
Before he broke into the pro wrestling industry, Ken Patera was an amateur weightlifter who qualified to compete in the 1972 Summer Olympics. Patera would then begin his wrestling career the following year, and he would complete supposed “feats of strength” during televised wrestling promos. The Verne Gagne product won multiple championship titles in several different promotions, as both a heel and a babyface. It was during his time as a heel when Patera won the Pro Wrestling Illustrated Most Hated Wrestler of the Year award on two occasions.
9. Scott Norton
The bruising worker who has performed all around the world was trained by multiple individuals, including Verne Gagne during his younger days in the pro wrestling world. A former professional arm wrestler who won all kinds of honors while in that industry broke into the American Wrestling Association in the 1980s at a time when that organization was dying a public death. It would be in WCW where Norton, nicknamed “Flash,” would make his name in North America, most notably when he was part of the new World order faction. Norton continues to make sporadic appearances at wrestling shows in 2015.
8. Blackjack Mulligan
Robert Jack Windham was a college football player who had stints with multiple NFL franchises until he was wooed by the pro wrestling business. The man who became Blackjack Mulligan trained with Joe Blanchard and also with Verne Gagne, and Mulligan would eventually become one-half of the well-known tag team duo The Blackjacks. Mulligan held numerous tag team and singles championships in several organizations during his career, and he feuded with the likes of Ric Flair, Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales. Mulligan is deservedly a member of the WWE Hall of Fame.
7. Curt Hennig
The second member of this family to make this list, Curt was trained by both Verne Gagne and his own father Larry. Hennig is viewed by some insiders and fans as one of the greatest performers to never win a world heavyweight championship while with either the WWE or WCW. His days as “Mr. Perfect” while with the WWE included several noteworthy feuds and memorable matches, and there were also those numerous promos that included Hennig performing athletic feats “perfectly.” He could throw a 300-game in bowling one day and then catch his own touchdown pass the next; allegedly.
6. Bob Backlund
Depending on your age or on how long you’ve been following the pro wrestling industry, it is possible that you mostly know Bob Backlund as the crazed older man who cut promos on younger generations of performers and fans. The product of Verne Gagne and Eddie Sharkey was once the top wrestler in all of the WWE, and he to this day has that company’s second-longest world heavyweight championship reign. Backlund has deservedly been named into the WWE Hall of Fame and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame, and you probably still would not want to fall into his Crossface chickenwing.
5. Dick the Bruiser
Dick the Bruiser carried with him an aura of legitimacy due to the fact that he spent time playing pro football with the Green Bay Packers. The Bruiser, real name William Fritz Afflis, got his break into the wrestling business thanks largely to Verne Gagne, and Afflis would get over with audiences due to dominating over-matched opponents in squash matches. Billed as “The World’s Most Dangerous Wrestler” during his in-ring career, the Bruiser would also serve as a color commentator for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling promotion and later on as a talent agent for WCW.
4. Ole Anderson
Before he was a lackluster promoter and known for being one of the more miserable figures in the pro wrestling world, Anderson got his opportunity to work in the industry under the wings of Verne Gagne and Gene Anderson, the latter being billed as Ole’s brother. Anderson’s best days in the business came when he was a member of legendary faction the Four Horsemen while in the NWA. It is that original group of the Horsemen that is widely seen as the incarnation’s top roster, but Anderson has not been seen on a national wrestling television program in some time due to real-life feuds that he has had with individuals in the business.
3. Ricky Steamboat
The phenom who became “The Dragon” was fortunate enough to be trained by Verge Gagne and The Iron Sheik, two men who became Hall of Famers. Ricky Steamboat went on to have his own special career, the highlight of which was winning the NWA World Heavyweight Championship on a single occasion. Steamboat’s historic feud with Ric Flair resulted in the two putting on a trio of matches in 1989 deemed to be worthy of the coveted “five-star” rating by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, and Steamboat is viewed as one of the top workers of his day.
2. The Iron Sheik
You follow what is supposedly the official account of the Iron Sheik. You have seen the YouTube videos during which he shoots on former foes and current pro wrestlers. You have heard his interviews on The Howard Stern Show. Before he was an unintentional comedic figure, Sheik was one of the top heels in the industry and also the man who ended the WWE World Heavyweight Championship reign of Bob Backlund. The member of the 2005 WWE Hall of Fame class got his start at a wrestling camp run by Verne Gagne, and Sheik himself would eventually go on to work as a trainer.
1. Ric Flair
“The Nature Boy” learned his craft as a student under Verne Gagne, and it would not be a stretch to suggest that those training sessions went well. Ric Flair is synonymous with the pro wrestling industry, having worked all around the world for several decades. The amount of world championships won by Flair varies per source, but that number could be as high as 21. Perceived by many to be the greatest overall performer in the history of the pro wrestling business, the former mainstay of WCW, NWA and the WWE now makes occasional appearances on WWE programming. Every time Flair does so makes for must-see television. Woooooo!