There’s really no debate on this subject. Everyone who has followed since, from Sean Mooney and Todd Pettengill to Tom Phillips and Renee Young, has carried a little bit of Gene’s remarkable professionalism and rapport with talent in their own performances. It was for the best, because nobody could top Okerlund.
Sad news filtered out on Wednesday afternoon that ‘Mean’ Gene had passed away peacefully in his Sarasota, Florida home. He was 76 years young, and still making appearances for WWE as recently as Raw’s 25th anniversary bash last January. Then, all too soon (as it often is with such things), he was gone.
Tributes have poured in from all corners, and rightly so. Okerlund touched a lot of people with his trademark voice and subtle gusto. This article is a tribute in itself. It aims to give a sneak peek into the man’s life and career to those who might not be lucky enough to recall it from childhood, and it should stir dewy-eyed fondness in those who do.
Rest in peace, sir, and thanks for the memories…
Some younger fans may be a little confused as to why such a gentlemanly looking fellow could be nicknamed ‘Mean’ Gene. That ol’ prankster Jesse Ventura is the one to blame. It was he who came up with the playful moniker when both worked together in the AWA, and it was first uttered with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
According to Jesse during his RF Video shoot, literally everybody liked Gene, and that’s why the name worked.
Okerlund was a consument gent to everyone, from top-tier talent to the lowest grunt on the totem pole cleaning up beer and popcorn from the stands after the show. That caught Ventura’s attention, and he decided to coin the announcer’s iconic nickname. At first, ‘Gene-O’ didn’t care for it.
In his own RF shoot, Okerlund admitted that the ‘Mean’ name got on his nerves slightly, and he couldn’t understand why it caught on. Once it did, he was powerless to stop it, and so he embraced it. Get used to those RF shoots, ’cause they’re a goldmine of Gene info.
Soon after discussing Jesse Ventura’s light-hearted ribbing, Okerlund admitted that he might’ve stayed in the AWA had Verne Gagne bothered to make him an offer. Maybe; Vince McMahon and the WWF were offering superb money, and it would’ve been career suicide to stick with Verne’s already-flagging outfit.
Still, Gene wanted to give Verne and Greg the option.
Once it became clear they weren’t going to even make a counter offer, Okerlund informed them he was leaving. That’s when Greg piped up and asked the announcer how he could turn his back on the AWA after 13 years of service. When Gene stood his ground, Gagne petulantly said, ‘Fine, leave’.
Okerlund did, and he never looked back. At that time in 1984, he was one of the first to make the leap and join McMahon’s ever-expanding operation. Soon after, a ton of talent flocked through the same door, and the WWF’s march towards global domination began.
Today’s backstage announcers have it easy in WWE. Between, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my guest at this time” and the tight scripting for talent during to-camera pieces, there’s really not much work to be done. Things were a bit different in Gene’s day.
During the height of his workload in the company, Okerlund completed a staggering 141 promos in succession. Even more astonishing is the fact that most were around the three-minute mark. This is something Okerlund admitted to The Hannibal TV.
Add all 141 up and you’d have over seven hours of content. That’s lunacy, but it was the way things were back in the peak Hulkamania years. Imagine the run time of WrestleMania 34, then remove every individual segment and have an announcer record endless screeds of promos instead.
That was Gene’s task, and he somehow managed it without cracking.
Those were the words of a perplexed Gene Okerlund as a garish SummerSlam 1989 sign fell off the wall and crashed to the floor behind him. Cameras quickly cut away to show the crowd, and an entertained Jesse Ventura couldn’t help but poke fun at what he’d just witnessed. Meanwhile, Tony Schiavone tried to keep a lid on things.
At Gorilla, Vince McMahon was beside himself and kept demanding that Tony and Jess fix Okerlund’s error. In truth, he should have been roaring at production staff in charge of formatting the show instead. They were the ones who had left a bloody pre-taped gaff in the pay-per-view, rather than replacing it with the correct promo take.
That’s right, the legendary promo botch was never supposed to air; it wasn’t live. Okerlund told RF Video years after the fact that the WWF braintrust had inserted the wrong tape. He didn’t go into detail on exactly how many heads Vinnie Mac had severed out back.
We’ve already covered how utterly comical Bobby Heenan’s life was on the road in other articles, but here’s some more brilliance from ‘The Brain’ courtesy of his good pal Gene.
In his shoot, Okerlund told how he’d regularly travel with Heenan around the country, especially when they were both in WCW. One time, the pair stopped to have a few cocktails before boarding the plane, and then continued drinking on their first flight. By the second, the pals were giggling it up and rather drunk.
Bobby was so inebriated that he could barely get his luggage into the overhead storage. When some kindly gent asked if was alright, Heenan shot back as only he could. Okerlund said he looked the dude straight in the eyes, paused (for comedic effect, obviously) and asked, “What the hell are you, a doctor?”.
If you’re wondering why those skits involving Heenan, Gorilla Monsoon, Okerlund and others from classic shows like Prime Time were so great, this is why. Their real lives were arguably better than anything the writers could pen.