From the 80s through to the 00s, ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund was a prominent face of wrestling TV. From his time in the American Wrestling Association through to the WWF then WCW, Okerlund would interview all of the stars. Today on the blog, we look at the life and times of ‘Mean’ Gene.
How exactly does a man with no professional wrestling knowledge replace a legendary announcer and become an even bigger legend than his predecessor? If you name is ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund the answer is simple, let the wrestlers you interview be the stars. For over 40 plus years, that is exactly what Gene Okerlund has done. He has had some low points in his career, but overall a man who helped sell whatever needed selling in the world of pro wrestling.
Eugene Arthur Okerlund started out trying to become a successful singer and musician. In his high school days in the late 1950’s, Okerlund formed a band called Gene Carroll & The Shades. Okerlund used the name Gene Carroll and was the vocalist for the group. They were pretty successful in their local hometown in South Dakota releasing a couple of singles. They never really broke out nationally and Okerlund was on to other things in his career.
He attended the University of Nebraska and studied broadcast journalism. That led him to a job as a disc jockey at a popular radio station in Omaha, Nebraska called “The Mighty 1290” KOIL AM. From there, Okerlund moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and worked for a local television station in the front office. It was the very same TV station that Verne Gagne taped his American Wrestling Association (AWA) All-Star Wrestling show.
Marty O’Neill was a very popular interviewer and ring announcer for the AWA for countless years. His health began deteriorating and couldn’t make the shows. The AWA owner and promoter Verne Gagne asked Gene, who he befriended at the TV station, to sub for O’Neill but Okerlund refused. After begging and pleading and a nice little payout, Okerlund relented. Despite not knowing anything about the wrestlers or pro wrestling in general, Okerlund went out on television for the first time in 1974 and he never looked back.
He would do flawless interviews with the likes of the Crusher, Dick the Bruiser, The Blackjacks and Nick Bockwinkel. According to an interview Gene Okerlund did with Sports Illustrated, he revealed that he got his nickname ‘Mean’ from an interview he did with Jesse Ventura in the AWA. Ventura was talking about Tom Petty and said he’d bet Gene didn’t know who that was. Gene sarcastically said it was a race car driver and Ventura replied: “That’s mean, Gene.”
It was there that Okerlund became very good friends with Bobby Heenan and Hulk Hogan. So much so, that when Hulk Hogan left the AWA and joined the WWF, Hogan specifically asked Vince McMahon to bring in his pal Okerlund. McMahon agreed, but Gene was happy where he was so McMahon wound up paying Gene three times as much as the AWA did to get him to jump ship.
‘Mean’ Gene would spend the next nine years of his career with the WWF. Mostly conducting backstage interviews but also doing play by play and even wrestling from time to time. Gene was best known for doing interviews and getting the wrestlers over no matter who they were. Whether it was Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, The Hart Foundation or Andre the Giant, Okerlund made the stars into superstars.
While Mean Gene loved to do interviews with almost anyone, there were a few that he felt he simply did not like. Okerlund admitted that he didn’t like doing interviews with The Ultimate Warrior. Basically, because the Warrior would go off on tangents and it hurt the flow of a good backstage promo.
Gene Okerlund was also one of the very first real defectors who went to the WWF’s rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW) before anybody else. Okerlund did his usual interviews for shows like WCW Saturday Night, Monday Nitro and pay per views but he also ran the WCW hotline. The WCW hotline, is where Okerlund would sometimes face his harshest criticism.
Many times Okerlund would tease a huge story and get fans to call the line only to feel ripped off by the pay off to his teases. When Brian Pillman died suddenly in October of 1997, Okerlund falsely reported that he died of a cocaine overdose, which he didn’t. Gene was also arrested while in WCW for drinking and driving.
Many former WCW wrestlers have said that despite his age, Gene Okerlund was a hard-nosed partier. Okerlund had not one, but two kidney transplants and despite the seriousness of the surgeries still found time to have a few double Scotches on the rocks. During his tenure in WCW, Mean Gene also “sold” a Diamond Dallas Page Diamond Cutter move.
Once WCW folded and was sold to WWE, Mean Gene was briefly added to the upstart XWF promotion. Once again, Okerlund did what he always did best and that was interviews. The XWF didn’t last, however, and Okerlund found himself back in WWE.
He hosted a news magazine type show for the company called WWE Confidential. He also made several appearances doing interviews for “Old School” Raws. He was inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2006.
He opened up a string of fast food restaurants called Mean Gene Burgers that weren’t too successful. Mean Gene Okerlund was, is and will always be considered one of the very best in pro wrestling history.