We are saddened to hear of the passing today of Eugene “Mean Gene” Okerlund (1942-2019), straight man to an entire sports league. The news took me aback, for I had no idea that: a) he was that young, or b) he was still alive.
Okerlund was the face and voice of professional wrestling for decades. Well, there were others, but his was the most prominent for a goodly stretch of time, especially when the “sport” was hottest in mainstream culture, during the WWF days (1984-1993). Previously a radio DJ, the South Dakota native moved into the wrestling world in 1970, becoming a ring announcer and on-air television interviewer. As a kid, I’d been into pro wrestling, and fantasized, like most kids, about being one of the wrestlers. But when I became a teenager and young man, as far as I was concerned, the guy to be was Gene Okerlund. By then, I was almost completely uninterested in the matches themselves and totally riveted (and endlessly amused) by the interview ritual between matches, with the hilarious boasting, threats, and counterthreats, all wrangled by Okerlund at the mic, playing it so, so straight, just as deadly serious as can be. (In fact, that was the joke of his name. Amidst all of these wild, violent characters, you had this bland, colorless dude — the LAST guy in the telecast who would deserve to be called “mean” in comparison with the creatures around him). Anyway, it was all so, so VAUDEVILLE. It’s why pro wrestling is the only sport I’ve ever cared about. It’s all about the packaging. Also during those years of the mid-to-late ’80s, thanks to Cyndi Lauper and Captain Lou Albano, you had the “Rock and Wrestling Connection” which created a pipeline between MTV and the WWF — it was an entertaining time to plug into the plug-in drug. (BTW, Okerlund came naturally to the music cross-promo. Prior to his radio days he’d fronted a doo wop ’50s band called Gene Carroll and the Shades.)
Anyway, I can’t think of a better way than these priceless photos to memorialize this giant of the space OUTSIDE the ring. Perhaps “rest in peace” is the wrong sentiment for a man whose life was mediating between maniacs. Rest in WAR, Gene Okerlund.