An announcement that could potentially alter the landscape of pro wrestling in the United States and the passing of an icon who played a major role during an era that radically changed the landscape of the sport in this country during the 1980s, ironically occurred within hours of each other at the start of the new year this past week.
For the past few months due to various reports of trademark filings following the surprising success of All In, a sold-out independent show at a major venue that was promoted by indy wrestlers Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks and friends, there have been rumors of a new national pro wrestling promotion ready to emerge with substantial financial backing that could possibly offer World Wrestling Entertainment a little old-fashioned competition and more importantly, provide an alternative major league product for fans and increased employment opportunities for wrestlers, all of whom would also then enjoy a greater degree of bargaining power.
On January 1, at the end of a new episode of Being the Elite, a campy internet offering from Rhodes and the Bucks used cleverly as a vehicle to promote their various wrestling efforts in recent months, the birth of a new promotion called All Elite Wrestling (AEW), was announced. Also revealed was that the sequel to All In, Double or Nothing, is on its way with a rally for the event to be held on Tuesday outside of TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida. Tony Khan, the son of the billionaire owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and a huge pro wrestling fan, is an executive for the new group, as will be Brandi Rhodes, Cody’s wife. The rally will be streaming live on the Being the Elite YouTube channel.
A national promotion is a daunting project that requires lots of capital, a talent roster with some real star power, considerable patience, timing and a substantial television outlet for the venture. Even with those ingredients in place, there are absolutely no guarantees of success. Is WWE worried about this new enterprise? Probably. They have been trying to sign some of the major names on the indy scene to exclusive contracts in recent months, including those across the pond who have the potential to be used by other groups. Ring of Honor, MLW and Impact have not really been any threat to the Stamford-based conglomerate and have operated with varying degrees of success on a smaller scale, but there could be enough money behind AEW to make things interesting. That is just what the industry needs and specifically what WWE needs — more competition. Even just the illusion of competition could be the ticket to shaking WWE out of its comfort zone and forcing it to be better at what it already does pretty well much of the time.
Less than 24 hours after the AEW announcement came the sad news of the death of legendary wrestling personality “Mean” Gene Okerlund on January 2 at the age of 76. His passing was covered extensively by national media outlets. It seems he had more main stream notoriety than many people may have realized, perhaps due to his extensive exposure during the height of the then-WWF national expansion, which included his work on NBC’s Saturday Night’s Main Event. He was considered a great all-around performer, especially famous for some of his hilarious interviews with the biggest names of the 1980s including Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Miss Elizabeth, the Ultimate Warrior, Magnificent Muraco and Mr. Fuji, George the Animal Steele and Jessie the Body Ventura, who is credited with giving Okerlund the “Mean Gene” moniker.
After bolting with the Hulkster and others such as Ventura, Bobby Heenan, Ken Patera and David Shultz from the AWA to the WWF when Vince Jr. was boldly poaching the top talent from various territorial promotions during his national expansion, Okerlund, became the top interview man for Vince. Prior to attaining that position, Okerlund worked in radio and television in the Minnesota area before being hired by AWA promoter Verne Gagne as a wrestling announcer.
Some people saw him as Hogan’s personal announcer, shades of the pairing of Ali and Cosell. The Iron Sheik, who always had his challenges with the English language on interviews, which was somehow perversely part of his odd charm at times, would usually start his interviews by addressing Okerlund as “Gene Mean.”
Okerlund could deadpan with the best of them, was slick with innuendo and a master of hyperbole — basically the perfect guy for the circus job he orchestrated with such ease. Although he eventually went to WCW for a short tenure there, he returned to WWE and did a variety of spot performances over the years with the company that made him famous and pretty much as much of a household name, even among casual fans, as the wrestlers with whom he shared his banter.
Tributes and condolences for his family poured in from those who worked with Okerlund or grew up with him as the voice of their youth as wrestling fans. He was a Hall of Famer, the life of any party and one of those one-of-a-kind personalities that pro wrestling seemed to have no shortage of during the 1980s and beyond. Hulk Hogan is scheduled to return to Raw tomorrow evening to pay tribute to his late friend and the WWE network has some of his incomparable shenanigans available to re-live on their site.