WWE announced that legendary interviewer and announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund has passed away aged 76.
Though not a household name like Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, or Ultimate Warrior, Okerlund was integral to the classic 1980s and early 90s era.
In fact, if you grew up watching WWE on Sky Sports during the Hulkamania years, Mean Gene felt like the host of WWE, running down the cards and feuds for upcoming shows at WWE’s hi-tech-looking Events Center.
But it was in backstage interview segments that Okerlund made his biggest contribution to the business.
Originally working with the AWA (American Wrestling Association), Okerlund came to WWE in 1983 as part of Vince McMahon’s ruthless talent swoop, which saw the rapidly-expanding WWE poach top drawing names – including Hogan, Roddy Piper, Bobby Heenan, and Junkyard Dog – from rival territories.
Okerlund looked and sounded like a game show host… and it suited him and WWE perfectly.
That Mean Gene looked and sounded like a game show host was absolutely spot on. He wasn’t just a body to hold a microphone – he was part of the show.
In a time before there were eight hours-plus of matches, shenanigans, and 10-minute promos on TV each week, it was Gene’s job to get over characters and angles.
Along with other non-wrestling talent from that era, including Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse Ventura, and Sean Mooney.)
If there was a heel turn, a title change, or a feud playing out, Gene was on hand to get the inside scoop.
And with his velvet voice and knowing humour, Okerlund’s job was about more than asking questions.
It was a performance – impassioned, incredulous, and impeccably sharp-witted, Mean Gene made the babyfaces look like babyfaces and the heels look like heels.
Thanks to his questions and delivery, some of the best character work from this era was done while Mean Gene was holding the mic.
Check out his iconic moments with Randy Savage from the mid-eighties (the “cream rises to the top” and “cup of coffee” promos), interviewing Hulk Hogan minutes after the Hulkster became WWE Champion for the first time, or with Ric Flair after the “Nature Boy” won the 1992 Royal Rumble.
Knowing looks to the camera, dusting sweat and spit off his tux, and occasionally cracking up were all part of Gene Okerlund’s shtick – a colourful contrast to the sterile, scripted interviews of the modern era.
After Mean Gene left to join WCW in 1993, WWE never found a talent to fully replace him.
Others that came after – Todd Pettengill, Michael Cole, and now Cathy Kelley – did a good job but never had the pro wrestling pedigree to match what Okerlund brought to the product.
Mean Gene continued to be a prominent part part of wrestling as WCW’s lead interviewer during the Monday night ratings war.
He was on hand to interview Hulk Hogan right after he turned heel and formed the NWO, arguably Gene’s finest moment.
But like other top WCW stars who had made their name in WWE a decade before – Hogan, Savage, and Piper – Gene felt like a relic of a past era as the wrestling business changed rapidly in the late 1990s.
But sentimental attachment to Mean Gene remained strong. When he returned to WWE alongside Bobby Heenan at WrestleMania X-Seven, it felt like a real homecoming.
Part of the reason Mean Gene was never replaced is because the WWE product and presentation has changed so much.
But mostly it’s because there’s never been anyone close to Mean Gene’s balance of performance, professionalism, and pro wrestling know-how.
It’s no wonder that the most famous promo line is wrestling is still: “Well let me tell you something, Mean Gene…”