From one Mean Gene to another…RIP
He didn’t wear those tight wrestling shorts, showing off six-pack abs, ripped ‘guns’, or even folds of flabby fat, if you prefer.
In fact, he was just the opposite, dapper in a dark suit with tie and matching pocket hanky; heck, sometimes he even wore a tuxedo complete with patent leather shoes. He liked to show off his bling, too. Sometimes those diamonds reflected and radiated off the camera lens and twinkled on your television sets at home – whether in color, or black-and-white – like a laser light-show.
Before Bobby ‘The Brain’, Craig DeGeorge, Jonathan Coachman, and many of the other ‘golden throats of the ring’, those professional wrestling announcers that Vince McMahon made famous, there was ‘Mean Gene’ Okerlund. He was the bald, mustachioed maestro of the mats; so suave, so smooth, and so much into wrestling.
Okerlund died at his home in Florida on Wednesday, he was 76. His passing made me harken back to a time when I was so much in love with this sport; or, this ‘entertainment’, for you purists. It was a time, to me, when those grunts and groans, smacks and cracks, slams and crunches, were real.
I grew up on Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling out of Raleigh and broadcast every Saturday night. The big names back then were Johnny Valentine, Tully Blanchard, Ole and Gene Anderson, Roddy Piper, George Becker, and Paul Jones. Joe Murnick and Bob Caudle were the announcers, and Jim Crockett was a promoter supreme. But when so much of the great wrestling talent went over to the NWA, the WCW, the WWF, and finally morphed into the WWE, well, that’s when I came in contact with ‘Mean Gene’.
Over the next couple of decades, Okerlund became as much a wrestling icon as ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, Ricky Steamboat, Sting, even John Cena and The Rock (I mean, Dwayne Johnson!). For years there was a legend that Mean Gene gave Ric ‘Nature Boy’ Flair his trademark, ‘Wooooo!”, but instead, that battle cry was a Flair original.
Speaking of naming names: former Minnesota governor Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura is said to be the one who gave Okerlund the ‘Mean Gene’ moniker.
Mean Gene presided as announcer-interviewer during the very first ‘WrestleMania’ back in 1985, he was even the one who sang the national anthem.
Okerlund’s interviews were legendary — standing face to face with guys like Andre the Giant, Ultimate Warrior, Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage, and plenty others. No matter how much bluster those interviewees would muster, Mean Gene always got the best of them – and the best out of them. You might say he was the character who helped develop characters; some called him the unsung champion of Hulkamania.
Sports Illustrated once called Okerlund the ‘Vin Scully of wrestling’, after the famous Dodgers baseball announcer.
He was beloved in wrestling circles for decades until he stepped away from the ring – and the mic – a little less than a year ago. In fact, he served as the best man at The Iron Sheik’s wedding!
Okerlund wasn’t even afraid to crawl between the ropes himself – whether by design or accident. Back in the 80’s, Okerlund and Hulk Hogan faced Mr. Fuji and George Steele at a WWF match in Minneapolis. Okerlund was supposed to stay on the apron and let Hogan fight, but when Hulk gave Mean Gene a high-five, the referee mistook it for a tag. Okerlund had to go in, but before his opponent touched him, he quickly got out of the way and swiftly tagged Hulk back in. The result was that Mean Gene pinned Mr. Fuji and got credit for the victory.
Okerlund’s friendship with Hulk was genuine. It was Hogan who introduced Mean Gene during the latter’s induction into the WWE Hall of Fame back in 2006. It was at the ceremony that Okerlund quoted Bobby Knight’s infamous poem: “When my time on earth is gone and my activities here have passed, I want they bury me upside down, so the world can kiss my a**.”
Like many wrestling fans, I’ll miss that baritone voice, and from one ‘Mean Gene’ to another: rest in peace, my friend. As the Hulkster liked to do when he’d bellow out his pontifications, “Well, you know, Mean Gene”…..
Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7211.