The New Year was only a little over 24 hours old when it was announced that one of the names that had been a familiar feature of professional wrestling in the USA and around the world for almost five decades had passed away. Eugene Arthur Okerlund, better known to multiple generations of wrestling fans as “Mean” Gene, left the world in the morning of January 2nd 2019, the announcement being made by WWE on social media and a literal flood of reactions, memorials and tributes following on its heels as the wrestling world came to the realisation that it would only ever hear that unique voice speaking again, other than in the extensive body of work he amassed in the archived shows and PPVs of the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s and even into the 21st century.
Born in Sisseton, South Dakota in 1942, Okerlund first made use of his distinctive vocal talents when he fronted the band “Gene Carroll & The Shades” in high school, recording two double-sided singles between 1959 and 1962, their touring and gigs being recognised as late as 2009, when they were inducted into the South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association Hall of Fame.
Okerlund studied broadcast journalism at the University of Nebraska before becoming a disc jockey at the KOIL radio station based in Omaha in the same state, but would later move to Minneapolis, Minnesota in order to work a front office position for a local TV station. It was there that he came to the attention of Verne Gange and the American Wrestling Association (AWA), jumping to the then prestigious territory as a member of office staff and occasional stand-in for established interviewer and ring announcer Marty O’Neill.
The AWA would remain Okerlund’s home for the next decade and a half, steeping him in arguably the last great age of territory-based US wrestling. In this period, the AWA had genuinely legendary names like Nick Bockwinkel and his manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan on its roster, but it also nurtured and showcased many of the names that would go on to become literal superstars in the 1980’s and beyond, the most obvious example being Hulk Hogan.
This meant that by the time of the aggressive national expansion of the WWF under Vincent K MacMahon Jnr and the subsequent neutering of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) as a power in the US wrestling industry, Okerlund was as logical of an acquisition for the east coast company as many of the actual wrestlers they lured away from the AWA at the same time. Okerlund’s unique voice and extensive experience of the business instantly gave legitimacy and feel of professionalism to WWF programming of the time and would continue to do so for the best part of the next decade as Hulkamania redefined the world of professional wrestling.
Okerlund would remain a WWF employee until September of 1993 when his contract with the company expired, and afterwards, he made the transition to WCW when he claimed that he was simply not offered a new deal with his former employers. But of course this was at the same time as so many other established WWF names were making the same transition for lucrative contracts offered by Eric Bischoff in his push to make WCW the number one in professional wrestling, and so once again, Okerlund was a key component to smoothing a veritable sea change in the landscape of the industry that would have implications for years to come.
When Okerlund’s initial contract with WCW expired in Autumn of 1996, he initially made efforts to contact the WWF in the hope of making a return, but by then his former employers had committed to the “New Generation” theme, which sought to characterise the WWF talent which left for WCW as old and out-dated in favour the younger wrestlers who had remained. Being heavily associated with both the era of Hulkamania and now the WCW as well, Okerlund was not hired by the WWF, but instead negotiated a new contract with WCW and would remain there until the collapse of the company and its eventual purchase by WWF in 2001.
In the post-WCW era, like many other former WWF talents that had jumped ship, Okerlund found the newly renamed WWE to be far more forgiving and interested in making use of his talents, both for the sake of nostalgia value and the ever-growing tape library it had amassed over the years from its defeated competition. Throughout the 2000’s and even more so with the birth of the WWE Network, Okerlund made frequent appearances in matches such as the Gimmick Battle Royale at Wrestlemania X-Seven and hosted multiple shows focussing on footage from the archives.
Okerlund was initiated into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006 by Hulk Hogan, and in turn initiated Mr T into the same in 2014, securing his position as an acknowledged legend of the company, having been present from the beginning of its national expansion and remaining in the hearts and minds of fans even as it grew into the global behemoth of today. His final appearance on a WWE TV show came on 22nd January 2018, when he was brought back for the 25th anniversary episode of RAW, where he reprised his most iconic role as backstage interviewer, putting the questions to AJ Styles.
It is hard to explain to fans that grew up without listening to Okerlund the importance that the rather portly, bald-pated man with a moustache and suit added to WWF programming, but the word that keeps coming to mind is “legitimacy”. Like a seasoned news anchor or chat-show host, Okerlund’s mature, substantial presence and deep, authoritative voice lent a legitimacy to what is, all too often, a form of athletic entertainment very easy to misinterpret and therefore mock.
His very seriousness and earnest tone served as an essential counterbalance to the crazy characters whom he interviewed and the hyperbolic nature of their proclamations, and his dignified, even conservative appearance served to contrast with their outrageous personas and outfits. Drawn from a tradition of interviewers and announcers that boasts the likes of Gordon Solie, Jessie “The Body” Ventura and Jim Ross, Okerlund personified the need in professional wrestling for the straight-man that would serve as a foil for all of the insanity, but also possessed the character and talent to do so in a convincing and consistent manner.
I suggest that anyone not familiar with his work take the time to view some of those classic interviews that took place back-stage at either the Wrestlemanias or Summerslams that Okerlund was present for, and appreciate the work he does in enabling the likes of Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and so many more to shine to their fullest. Hell, even if you were a fan at the time Okerlund was around and in his prime, do it just for the sake of hearing those smooth, smooth tones again after so many years.
Because as I already said, the best in the business just wrapped up his final interview, and we will never hear his voice speak anything new again.
R.I.P. “Mean” Gene Okerlund – you were one of a kind.