As colorful as pro wrestling was during the cartoonish 1980s and the attitude-oriented 1990s, it’s the voices I remember. Jesse Ventura’s fierce growl, Vince McMahon’s stentorian bark hiding a slight North Carolina drawl, Jim Ross’s Oklahoma twang, Tony Schiavone’s peppy boosterism, Gordon Solie’s distinguished rasp: This was the soundtrack to the sport that occupied the days and nights of my youth. But at the top of that heap, stoking excitement among the fans, was “Mean” Gene Okerlund with his radio-perfect, prairie-bland delivery. He seemed like someone who would last forever, someone who was in wrestling but never of it. Okerlund died Wednesday from complications related to kidney disease. He was 76.
When I first encountered Okerlund, announcing and conducting interviews during the then-WWF’s backstage programming in the early 1980s, he struck me as one of the most important people in the company. He wasn’t down in the dirt, throwing shade on the good guys like Bobby Heenan or calling the play-by-play like McMahon. No, he was backstage in a tuxedo, looking every bit the elegant but perplexed bystander as when he appeared in WWE’s Legends’ House reality show in 2014. Standing several inches shorter than most of the he-men he queried, Okerlund was our window into a world gone mad—an all-around mensch who remained cool as a cucumber while absorbing the slings and arrows of incoherent promos from the likes of “Macho Man” Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior. Everyone loved addressing their wild rants to “Mean Gene,” a moniker given to him by Jesse Ventura that he never really liked but admitted was quite memorable.
Or so I thought, anyway. When that SummerSlam ’89 backdrop collapsed behind him during a pre-recorded interview with “Ravishing” Rick Rude that somehow aired on the live show anyway, Mean Gene’s true colors shone through. “Fuck it,” he bellowed. “Is this $200 an hour?” Right there, we got closer to the truth—Okerlund was first and foremost a professional who played his role with aplomb. Even though he sometimes stepped in the ring with the likes of George “The Animal” Steele and Hulk Hogan or returned to his rock-music roots by recording a jaunty cover of “Tutti Frutti” for the Rick Derringer–produced Wrestling Album, at heart he was a company man who showed up and got the job done with a minimum of muss and fuss.
Okerlund got a regional announcing job because he happened to run into AWA owner Verne Gagne at the Minneapolis TV station where he maintained an office. Okerlund’s national career, like WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross’s, owed everything to a bit of territorial serendipity and the resulting years of practice. “I finished high school and studied at the University of Nebraska in the school of journalism, which really turned me onto journalism,” Okerlund told Sports Illustrated in 2017. “I never finished, but the very little that I did learn in two and a half years prepared me for a career in legitimate journalism, which included WWE, AWA, WCW, and everything in between.”
When Okerlund and other performers from the AWA defected to the then-WWF, he found himself a 5-foot-9 baldie in a land of juiced-up behemoths. While Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage obsessed over their matches and Roddy Piper and Bob Orton partied across the country, there was Okerlund: a little guy with a golden throat, punching the clock instead of other people. He might be forced to ham it up, as when he hyped the hatching of the Gobbledy Gooker (Héctor Guerrero in a turkey suit) and then danced with the bird man to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw,” but it was clear he was just acting. The real Okerlund, the offstage Okerlund, was somewhere else, raising two sons.
“He was the best salesman. And he never did retakes,” longtime colleague Jesse Ventura told the AP. “Ninety percent of the time if there was a screw-up on an interview, it was not because of Gene. That’s how good he was.” That’s high praise coming from Ventura, one of the most natural talkers in the history of the sport, but comports with Okerlund’s summary of his own career as one built around upselling the product in a largely hands-off environment where “Vince never really told me anything from day one.” But when McMahon needed a professional voice to interview someone like preternaturally deadpan artist Andy Warhol, Okerlund stood ready to answer the call.
When the wrestling world was being reinvented in the 1990s, Okerlund and other veteran WWE performers headed south to Atlanta, lured by the promise of WCW owner Ted Turner’s guaranteed, multiyear contracts. There, an increasingly shopworn (and increasingly tan) Mean Gene continued pitching the company product, albeit with a similar listlessness that Bobby Heenan and Jesse Ventura brought to their stints in the promotion. Even though Okerlund was a WCW employee during its three-year, nWo-invasion heyday, he trashed the company after leaving, calling it “cheap” and “lousy.” While there, Okerlund engaged in a bit of “character” work, displaying a weakness for buxom women that was further exaggerated when WCW booker Vince Russo had him stare directly at the cleavage of female interviewees and make off-color jokes.
Did he find it sleazy? “Yeah I did. But on the other hand, you’ve got to have a little bit of carny in you,” Okerlund remarked in a shoot interview about his time in the promotion, including his wildly successful 1-900 hotline. As for the WCW? “No long-term thinking at all. … They were worrying about getting a Monday night rating, or getting a Wednesday night rating, or getting a buy rate.”
After WCW folded, Okerlund reentered the WWE fold. He was assigned to various filler projects, like introductions to the company’s vintage programming and other historical features, as well as a supporting role in the Legends’ House reality show that was dominated by strong personalities like Jim Duggan and Tony Atlas and may be best remembered as the site of Pat Patterson’s disclosure of his sexual orientation. Okerlund was there, as he often was for Vince McMahon’s company, even if his mind still seemed to be somewhere else.
Like so many kids for whom Okerlund’s voice was inescapable, I dreamed of becoming one of the massive men he interviewed. While Okerlund was just doing his job, these bruisers appeared to be doing the impossible. They were larger than life, and Okerlund was so crushingly, obviously lifelike. But a funny thing happened: I didn’t grow up to become the Ultimate Warrior or Randy Savage. Instead, I landed a 9-to-5 corporate job and became my own version of Mean Gene, giving my career the ol’ college try while trying desperately not to lose my soul and myself in it. We might have idolized the men in the arena who delighted us and then died so young. But it was Okerlund who was most like us, those who spent our lives on the sideline.
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.