Gene Okerlund, a gentlemanly wrestling announcer who specialized in interviewing the biggest, loudest and most obnoxious professional grapplers in the business, died Wednesday at a hospital in Sarasota, Florida. He was 76.
His death was confirmed by a daughter-in-law, Patricia Okerlund. The cause was not immediately known, but Okerlund had been hospitalized with kidney disease, his family said.
Short, bald, jowly and with a neatly trimmed mustache, Okerlund was a study in stark physical contrast to the athletes he interviewed. He became a stalwart of World Wrestling Entertainment as it became a global juggernaut in the 1980s under entrepreneur Vince McMahon.
Okerlund’s unflappable interviews set the stage for the character development of widely known personalities such as Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Randy “Macho Man” Savage and the Ultimate Warrior.
“Well, let me tell you something, Mean Gene!” Hogan would bark into the microphone regardless of the question, as Okerlund remained courteous. His nickname “Mean Gene” — reportedly bestowed by wrestler Jesse Ventura — as a joking homage to his understated personality on camera.
Okerland’s announcing days in wrestling began by happenstance, as American Wrestling Association promoter Verne Gagne asked Okerlund, then working at a neighboring Minneapolis TV station, to fill in one night in 1971 for another broadcaster.
“Call what you see,” Gagne told Okerlund, who said he knew nothing about wrestling at the time.
What became a part-time job quickly morphed into a lifetime career, and it reached its greatest prominence at WWE when ratings for the ring showdowns were soaring. Okerlund worked for media mogul Ted Turner’s rival World Championship Wrestling from 1993 to 2001, then came back to McMahon’s enterprise and hosted various programs for the company for years.
Though his job was mostly performed before and after matches, Okerlund had a couple of memorable moments in the ring. He was written into the show in 1984 when he teamed with Hogan to face Mr. Fuji and George “the Animal” Steele. The ref mistook their high-five for a tag, meaning Okerlund was forced to wrestle and ended up pinning Mr. Fuji.
Okerlund was inducted by Hogan into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006. “To go into the WWE Hall of Fame as the very first announcer was a big, big honor for me,” Okerlund said on the podcast of wrestling enthusiast Gary Cantrell.
“When it comes to announcers in the history of professional wrestling, I’ll say it again, there’s Gene Okerlund, and then there’s the rest of us,” Sean Mooney, a former wrestling play-by-play announcer who worked with Okerlund, said on his podcast.
Eugene Arthur Okerlund was born Dec. 19, 1942, in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, and grew up on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He studied broadcast journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and became a DJ in Omaha for a time.
Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Jeanne Okerlund; two sons, Todd Okerlund and Tor Okerlund; and three grandchildren. (Todd Okerlund had a brief professional hockey career with the New York Islanders.)
“I have a tremendous amount of gratitude to those who enjoyed my work,” Okerlund told Sports Illustrated in 2017. “It’s something we did together, because I must have given them something they liked, and we shared it, and everybody walked away a winner. That’s truly the way I look at my time with the business.”