One of professional wrestling’s most iconic voices, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, has died at the age of 76.
Okerlund will be remembered as the most famous and effective backstage interviewer through his work with the American Wrestling Association, the World Wrestling Federation, and World Championship Wrestling.
Okerlund got his start with the AWA in 1974 and assumed the role held by Marty O’Neill, who had been the voice of the territory. Okerlund became the best interviewer for any wrestling program, working with some of the great promo men of the day including Nick Bockwinkel, Ray Stevens, Mad Dog Vachon, Jesse Ventura, Hulk Hogan, The Crusher, Superstar Billy Graham and Bobby Heenan. It was Ventura who coined the nickname “Mean Gene” that stuck throughout his career, further popularized by Hogan who always identified Okerlund with the moniker.
When Vince McMahon took control of the World Wrestling Federation and began expanding nationally, the AWA was arguably the territory most affected. McMahon had a penchant for scooping AWA talent, including its announcers. It was deemed imperative to Hogan that the company brought Okerlund in. The two would have a Muhammad Ali-Howard Cosell style of chemistry with Hogan’s promos being synonymous with Okerlund holding the microphone.
Okerlund debuted with the WWF in December 1983 and was the point person for all of its localized interviews as the company began rapidly expanding, with multiple house shows being run each night.
Okerlund established a quick wit and seamless ability to play off a wide range of performers, often without knowledge of where they were going in their promos. It was an art to watch Okerlund in his prime, working in his quick-witted lines but never stealing the spotlight from the performers in his interviews.
Following a series of training vignettes with Hulk Hogan, the two formed a tag team in the main event against George “The Animal” Steele and Mr. Fuji on a card in Minneapolis at The Met Center on August 26, 1984, which went head-to-head with an AWA card that night in the market.
Okerlund remained with the WWF until 1993 when his contract ended. It was disputed whether the WWF made the decision not to renew or if Okerlund received a better offer from WCW. Okerlund would start with World Championship Wrestling in November and, excluding a two-month period in 1996 when he left temporarily, stayed with WCW until they went out of business in 2001.
In WCW, Okerlund served as the host of its pay-per-views and television programming, appearing on the ramp and inside the ring to conduct interviews. His deal was also tied to his 1-900 line where Okerlund would tease (sometimes very misleading) scoops on WCW programming to encourage fans to call into the hotline. Okerlund received a percentage of the income, which was a deal he and his agent Barry Bloom worked out with WCW.
After WCW shut down, Okerlund appeared with Bobby Heenan at WrestleMania X-Seven in Houston’s Astrodome to call the Gimmick Battle Royal. It was a match done tongue-in-cheek and the announcing reflected that. For that purpose, you had the two best personalities to pull it off.
Okerlund would go on to host WWE Vintage Collection where he would introduce classic matches. He would later co-host the show with Renee Young in her first major assignment after joining the company in 2012. The two exhibited very good chemistry and the first time I saw them, I knew that Young had a lot of talent to go far. In time, Young became the WWE’s best backstage interviewer. I’m sure she learned a lot from Okerlund.
Okerlund made cameos on WWE programming throughout the past 17 years with WrestleMania appearances, episodes of Old School Raw, WWE Legends’ House and most recently, on last year’s 25th Anniversary of Raw special where he interviewed AJ Styles.
Okerlund was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in April 2006 and was voted into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame in 2016.