By Dr. Mike Lano
Special to S.F. Examiner
Pro-wrestling legendary announcer Eugene “Mean Gene” Okerlund died Tuesday at age 76. A longtime voice of the professional wrestling industry, Okerlund had a long history in the Bay Area.
Born in Sisseton, North Dakota on Dec. 19, 1942, and spending his earliest days in the indusrty in Minneapolis, he once told me backstage at an event at the Cow Palace in 1997, “When I finally made big money in WWF, I immediately moved to anyplace warmer.”
Okerlund started in the American Wrestling Alliance, which promoted in the Bay Area at both the Cow Palace and Oakland Arena, after the original Bay Area wrestling promoter kingpin, my boss Roy Shire, folded his tent in January of 1982.
When Okerlund came to the Bay Area as a part of WCW, he favored the world-famous Original Joe’s, but also frequented Little Joe’s and Joe’s of Westlake, which he claimed was his second favorite restaurant.
Bay Area fans fondly remember Gene for his WWF videos training with Hulk Hogan, in order to hype a special tag-team match pairing him with Hogan, where Gene even got the eventual pin on former 1976 Cow Palace U.S. Champion Mr Fuji.
“After Hogan did all the ring work and simply tagged me in,” said Okerlund, who worked with the WWF from 1983 to 1996, before moving to Ted Turner’s WCW from 1996-2001, before returning to the WWF (then WWE, as of 2002).
Okerlund began his weekly television announcing and interviewing career by fluke. In 1976, when AWA wrestler/promoter Verne Gagne’s longtime announcer Marty O’Neill briefly went on strike with others from the television station where their studio wrestling was taped, Okerlund was already a well-known rock radio DJ in the area, with a decent voice.
“[Gagne] called in a panic, and I told him I knew little about wrestling,” Okerlund said back on my radio show in 2000. “Verne liked what I did, ring announcing and doing some locker-room interviews, so he soon hired me to primarily do the latter which I became famous for. I was far better at that than calling matches, play-by-play or doing ring announcing. I added in some of the baloney ballyhoo stuff I’d later become famous for, trying to add excitement to liven up Verne’s shows.”
The gregarious Okerlund for decades dropped many names of people he idolized — but most likely had never met — when he’d promote towns for upcoming shows, shown locally here every Saturday morning on KOFY TV 20. He’d drop NFL names like Joe Montana, Dwight Clark and especially Bill Walsh for Bay Area market shows, and even Raider, Giants and A’s top names for the specially-taped regional promotional spots. He once told me he watched “as many 49er games as time allows.”
“I may not have known them at all when I started, but later rectified that,” Gene told me. “There was no bigger mark(fan) for Bill Walsh than me. Just the greatest football coach we’ve ever had.”
Okerlund did wrestling commentary in several movies, beginning with the Hulk Hogan vehicle “No Holds Barred” in 1989, and of course he was best known for hosting the weekly desk segments hyping WWF pay-per-views, and for outrageous storyline angles on weekly shows like Pro Wrestling Challenge, Superstars, WWE Confidential and many other shows for Vince McMahon Jr., including PrimeTime Wrestling Mondays on the USA network.
Hogan inducted Okerlund into WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2006, naturally. Okerlund remained friends with everyone he traveled with on the sports road, from Hogan to Macho Man Savage, Brutus Beefcake, Million Dollar Man Ted Debiase and Bay Area wrestling legends Ray Stevens, Pat Patterson, Pepper Gomez, Roddy Piper and many others.
Tuesday morning, just minutes after news broke, all the biggest names from WWE and the entertainment world paid tribute to Okerlund online, including Triple-H, Ric Flair, Steve Austin, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who grew up in Hayward), Mick Foley and Shawn Michaels, along with current WWE stars like Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair.
Gene had often told me his fondest moments in our industry was doing commentary with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon, “and attempting poker plus karaoke with Pat Patterson who’s the master at doing Sinatra,” he said.
His gentle trash talk and banter with Heenan spanned from the AWA to WWF, WCW and back to WWF again when he and Heenan jointly called their very last match together at Wrestlemania 17, which was the very last match Heenan ever called before aggressive throat cancer set in.
Just months ago, he was back on WWE Raw’s special 25th anniversary show interviewing current stars like AJ Styles. He leaves behind his wife since 1964 Jeanne Okerlund, his BiteBurgers fast-food franchise and a global legion of millions of fans.
S.F. area dentist/photojournalist Dr. Mike Lano was a longtime Examiner sports/arts columnist and still hosts his nationally syndicated CBS and SiriusXM Radio Shows