NUTLEY, NJ – Another link to childhood is gone. For those that grew up during the golden age of professional wrestling in the 1980’s and 90’s, Mean Gene Okerlund was the voice of our youth. Okerlund passed away Wednesday at the age of 76.
You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to know who Mean Gene was. He was a pop culture figure. He was a slice of Americana.
Locally, we’d see him every Saturday at 10 a.m. and midnight on WOR-TV Channel 9 interviewing Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Andre The Giant and Macho Man Randy Savage about upcoming cards presented by World Wrestling Federation (now called WWE) at Meadowlands Arena, Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum.
Okerlund announced on NBC’s monthly ‘Saturday Nights Main Event’ broadcast that aired when ‘Saturday Night Live’ was on hiatus. Gene hosted MTV’s ‘War to Settle the Score’ featuring Cyndi Lauper, which was the birth of the ‘Rock n’ Wresting Connection.’ He hosted ‘Tuesday Night Titans’ on USA Network, a ‘Tonight Show’ styled grappling talk show.
In February 1988, Gene was the pitchman during WWE’s first prime time network special, NBC’s ‘The Main Event’ where Andre defeated Hogan in controversial fashion as a record 33 million viewers tuned in.
Mean Gene became a household name. “He was the best,” WWE tag team legend B. Brian Blair of The Killer Bees told TAPinto. “I’m still in shock.”
“Gene was amazing to work with, a consummate professional on camera who not only made the talent look good, but with his demeanor and emphasis on the right things, he sold tickets,” explained Blair, who is also President of the Cauliflower Alley Club, a non-profit organization that assists retired wrestling stars. “Away from the camera, Gene was always smiling, in a great mood and the life of the party.”
Okerlund was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006. His presenter was none other than Hogan, who was inducted a year prior.
Okerlund and Hogan were synonymous with one another, as Gene held the microphone for Hulk while the tanned blonde champion ranted about how he was wronged ‘last month’ and would be seeking revenge ‘next month’ – so you better get your tickets in advance!
"Mean Gene's sometimes serious, sometimes sarcastic face of WWE's Hulkamania era is the memory that is timestamped on the minds of a generation of wrestling fans,” legendary ring announcer and Kearny native Gary Michael Cappetta told TAP. “Nobody did it better."
The Okerlund-Hogan relationship began prior to both entering the WWE in December 1983. Gene got his start in 1970 with Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA), based in Minnesota. Hulk burst on the AWA scene in 1982, just as his memorable appearance in Rocky III playing ‘Thunderlips’ alongside Sylvester Stallone hit the big screen.
That’s when Hulkamania started running wild.
Gene was there to ask Hulk about his upcoming bouts at St. Paul Civic Center against the likes of future Minnesota Governor Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura, Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan and Olympic strongman Ken Patera.
Hulk would always begin his rebuttal with, “let me tell you something, Mean Gene!” A catchphrase still used by professional athletes in all sports.
“As a kid growing up in Minnesota during the 70’s, I spent so much time watching the AWA’s All-Star Wrestling after coming home from church every Sunday,” said Michael Brandvold, a marketing expert and old-school wrestling fan. “Wrestling was real to me, and Mean Gene Okerlund – in his suit and tie – looking like my dad was a great contrast to all those larger than life wrestlers like Jesse The Body, The Hulk, and my favorite – Baron Von Raschke.”
Ventura, Heenan and Patera soon followed Hogan and Okerlund to the WWE. That was the beginning of the end for the AWA as rival owner Vince McMahon began his national expansion leveraging the explosion of cable television to showcase his stars on USA Network and MTV.
“Mean Gene was real, he was the guy next door just trying to interview and keep order amongst all these wild men in tights,” Brandvold added. “He looked out of place, his shock, his surprise, always trying to keep a straight face – he played the role perfectly. I could never be a wrestler, but I sure could be Mean Gene. Gene, you were one of the best-ever in wrestling.”
After studying broadcast journalism, Okerlund landed a job as a disc jockey at KOIL, a popular radio station in Omaha, Nebraska. Okerlund would later move to Minneapolis, working behind the scenes at a local television station.
Okerlund left the broadcasting business for a job at the AWA in 1970, where he started as a ring announcer.
“Gene Okerlund was the consummate professional,” said Richard Ross, a career broadcaster in the New York City area. “His style and talent made him one of the best broadcast announcers of all-time. His ability to connect with the audience, gain their trust and tell an amazing story was second to none.”
Okerlund was seen regularly until his passing hosting special programming on WWE Network.
The mainstream popularity of wrestling has taken a dive in recent years without over-the-top personalities akin to Okerlund, Hogan, Piper, Savage, Heenan and Ventura. But the memories Mean Gene helped provide live on forever via YouTube and WWE Network.
Rest in peace, Mr. Okerlund. You were one of a kind.