Originally published in 2016 at popcultureaddict.com.
Gene Okerlund has had possibly one of the most unusual careers in pop culture history. Instantly recognizable to those who watched wrestling in its heydays of the 1980’s, the small statured balding man was thrown into the room to interview the towering titans of the ring. As a result, there isn’t anyone who Gene Okerlund didn’t work with. With his warm yet authoritative voice, and through much bewilderment, Gene was part commentator, part ring master and part straight man to massive personalities and egos, as week after week he listened to the stars of the wrestling world rant, rave, threaten and scream about what they would do to their opponents. Well, somebody had to do it, and Gene has made a career in this strange world for over five decades. As a result, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006, and was given a lifetime contract, without ever having a chair broken over his head or being thrown down on the matt.
Starting in radio in Minnesota, Gene began his career as an on-air wrestling personality when he replaced Marty O’Neil in the AWA (American Wrestling Association) in 1974. Featuring the biggest wrestling stars of the era, Gene Okerlund got his chops talking with the wrestlers, and gained a reputation for his good-natured personality, his sense of humor and his ability to maintain a sense of order in what was often a maddening environment. It was during his time in the AWA that Gene Okerlund met wrestler, and later rival commentator, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who gave Gene the nickname “Mean” Gene, playing on the irony of Gene’s reputation for being one of the nicest guys in the industry. The name stuck, and fans would forever refer to him as Mean Gene.
In 1984 the AWA saw many of their top talent move over to the WWF, which was becoming a cultural phenomenon of the 1980’s and bringing the wrestling to a level of popularity never known before. Gene Okerlund followed over to the WWF where he became one of the most recognizable personalities of the organization. Appearing in multiple segments each week on the various programs across North America that ran WWF fights, Mean Gene would conduct the promotional interviews with the bravest heroes, the baddest heels and the biggest stars. Mean Gene knew them all, and he saw it all.
An icon of my youth, I had the great pleasure to do a brief interview with Gene Okerlund during a public appearance. However, with his handler giving me the eye and pointing at her watch, I only had minutes to ask the questions I wanted to ask. But a professional to the end, Gene Okerlund fit a lot in a lot in the time we had.
Sam Tweedle: You probably had one of the most unique jobs in the wrestling industry by interviewing all of the different personalities. How does one get a job like that?
Mean Gene Okerlund: Well, you’ve got to be connected. It wasn’t talent. I knew the right people in the right places, and as you would know being a media guy, I had a lot of pictures. They were compromising, and some people didn’t want those pictures seen. As a result, I got the best job on the block.
Sam: You had to deal with a lot of big personalities in your job. Who were some of your favorite guys to work with? The kind of guys that you liked to see when they came into the room to talk with you.
Mean Gene: There are quite a few guys who could meet that description. Guys that could really liven things up. I like to go by era. I started back in the ‘70’s with Mad Dog Vachon, Nick Bockwinkel, Andre the Giant…Bobby Heenan was even there. But some of the old time guys like Killer Kwalski and Bruno Sanmartino were really big names back in the 70’s. But then it progressed to Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Mick Foley, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Brett Hart, Sean Michaels. Where do I stop?
Sam: Where there ever any guys that actually sort of scared you?
Mean Gene: Yes there were some guys that scared me. One was a former British Empire Champion named Billy Robinson. The “late” Billy Robinson. He was a scary guy. He was very explosive, very volatile. Another guy was Tony Atlas. He was one of only two guys who ever laid a hand on me.
Sam: What do you feel the biggest moment in your career was?
Mean Gene: Well, I’d have to document it by event, but suffice to say I had a great run and the good part about it is that I’m doing today what I’ve been doing my entire life. I’m still working for the WWE; I’m hosting Vintage Collection and doing a lot of fan events. I’m doing what I like to do, and I’m working with people that I like to be around.
Sam: Have you ever thought about writing a book?
Mean Gene: Well, I just finished my second book. I’m going to write a third book one of these days. I’ve got the manuscripts locked in the lower left-hand drawer of the desk in my office. As I look over the Gulf of Mexico from my window, I can be very creative. Add a little Jack Daniels and I have a very good memory. Mine would not just be another wrestling book. It would be a tell-all. It would blow the whistle on everybody!
Oh man. Imagine the stories that Gene Okerlund isn’t telling us….yet! Although he was friendly and very giving of his time, it was obvious that Gene was cautious not to ever say much about anything. Perhaps it was because of the lack of time that we had to talk, or maybe it’s because he is saving it for the book. But as he seems to make references to multiple times, he is obvious a man who knows a lot of secrets, which he hasn’t told yet. I mean, what did he mean about the “compromising photos?” Was he yanking my chain? I really couldn’t tell. Mean Gene is a man with a lot of possible secrets.
But Gene Okerlund lives up to his reputation. He truly is one of the nicest guys in the wrestling industry. There is a reason he was so successful at what he did. Behind that moustache and that smile, Gene Okerlund has intelligence; personality and charisma which helped him do a job which could be one of the most difficult gigs in media. Wrestling is a strange world, and it would take a lot of grit combined with a sense of humor to be so emerged in the industry like Gene Okerlund is. But when it comes to grit, Gene Okerlund has tons of it, which is what has made him the most unusual wrestling legend of all time.