He only stepped between the ropes once himself, but one-time Minnesotan Gene Okerlund became a wrestling legend nonetheless, interviewing grapplers from The Crusher to Hulk Hogan.
Okerlund, known to wrestlers and fans as 'Mean Gene,' passed away in Sarasota, Florida at the age of 76.
Considered the most recognizable interviewer in sports-entertainment history, "Mean Gene" rose to fame here in the Twin Cities by talking up major AWA stars like Mad Dog Vachon, Andre the Giant, Jesse Ventura, Bobby Heenan and Hulk Hogan. Okerlund's on camera facial reactions to the often-outrageous trash talking laid out by wrestler
Okerlund made the jump to WWE in 1984 and continued interviewing stars like Hogan and Randy Savage. He went on to host multiple shows, including Prime Time Wrestling and All-American Wrestling. In 1993, he became the lead interviewer for WCW.
"These guys had a heck of a lot of fun," said Todd Okerlund, Mean Gene's son. "They enjoyed their work and they enjoyed working together. My dad loved what he did and he loved who he worked with."
"WWE extends its condolences to Okerlund’s family, friends and fans," the organization wrote in a statement.
Gene Okerlund was born in Sisseton, SD but moved to the Twin Cities in 1967 where he worked in radio for a number of years, before he came to WTCN Channel 11 as a salesman. He was asked to sub for then AWA ring announcer Marty O'Neill during a union strike in the early '70s and it quickly became apparent he was a natural.
"I went up to Gene's cabin up north and spent a weekend with him doing mock interviews. And it worked out. The rest is history. He was the greatest, bar-none," said Al De Rusha, a fellow AWA announcer and referee who helped elevate Mean Gene within the company.
Although he earned his niche as an announcer, Okerlund did make one appearance in the ring, teaming with Hulk Hogan to take on Mr. Fuji and George “the Animal Steele at the Met Center. Okerlund and Hogan won, with Mean Gene getting the pin.
In 2015 Okerlund gave a heart-wrenching eulogy at the funeral of his former boss, AWA great Verne Gagne. His voice shook the rafters as he was sending off Gagne with the introduction wrestling fans had heard so many times before.... “And Now, The Heavyweight Champion of the World, Verne Gagne!” Those attending say there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Gene Okerlund received a fitting tribute in the summer of 2018, when he was inducted into the Minnesota Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Okerlund's primary residence was in Florida, but Gene and his wife came back to their cabin on Big Sandy Lake near McGregor every summer.
"Minnesota will always be home," Todd Okerlund said. "In the summer, he was up there anywhere from the opening of fishing until the leaves changed in the fall."