“Mean” Gene Okerlund was one of the most prominent voices of my childhood. From interviewing the larger-than-life personalities on World Wrestling Federation programming to hosting programs on the USA Network with BOBBY “THE BRAIN” HEENAN, there wasn’t a week that went by where “Mean” Gene’s voice wasn’t on my television.
WWE, the current name of the company where he became famous, announced today that the Hall of Fame commentator and interviewer died, though they did not reveal his cause of death.
Okerlund started his career in the American Wrestling Alliance, based out of Minnesota, in the 1970s. But in late 1983, he made the jump to the World Wrestling Federation where, alongside fellow former AWA personalities Heenan, Hulk Hogan and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, he became a household name. For me, Okerlund was most closely associated with Heenan (who passed away in September 2017), with whom he co-hosted several WWF programs, and former wrestler-turned-commentator Gorilla Monsoon (who died in 1999).
His first big role as an interviewer came on January 23, 1984 when he was backstage to interview Hogan after winning his first WWF Title from the Iron Sheik in Madison Square Garden. He was closely linked to Hogan for most of his time in the WWF, even teaming with Hogan in a tag team match in Minneapolis against George “The Animal” Steele and manager Mr. Fuji. On March 31, 1985, Okerlund stood in the center of the ring at MSG and sang the national anthem to kick off the first WRESTLEMANIA.
Most WWF programs featured Okerlund in the backstage area or on a platform in the arena, talking to a wrestler about their latest feud or the current direction of their character. “Mean” Gene would be the main storyteller here, leading whoever he was interviewing in the proper direction, making sure that all the talking points were hit. Instead of being an emotionless body just standing there, though, Okerlund’s personality and charisma shone through in every segment, laughing alongside the good guys or showing abject outrage when the bad guys said or did something nefarious.
One of his more infamous moments in the WWF came during a blooper at SUMMERSLAM 1989, where he was set to interview “Ravishing” Rick Rude about his upcoming Intercontinental Title defense against the Ultimate Warrior.
According to former WWF producer Bruce Prichard, the interview was actually a pretape, and the production truck accidentally cued the wrong tape to air, forcing Jesse Ventura and Tony Schiavone on commentary to vamp a bit on air before the right tape could be cued up.
While the WWF rode the wave of Hulk Hogan’s popularity into becoming a pop culture phenomenon in the mid-1980s, it would have been a more difficult sell for many without Okerlund. His bald head and mustache is probably just as recognizable as the former WWF Champion’s.
Okerlund left the WWF in 1993 to join Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, following in the footsteps of Jesse Ventura, and he was later joined by Heenan as well. With “Mean” Gene on the stick for WCW, which was always seen as a distant second to the WWF, the company began to show more gravitas as a national promotion. He was the main interviewer for WCW Monday Nitro, the company’s flagship show, usually speaking with talent on the ramp leading to the ring or plugging the WCW Hotline, which required fans to call in and pay 99 cents per minute to hear all the latest backstage news and rumors.
After WCW shuttered in 2001, purchased by Vince McMahon, Okerlund returned to the WWF to call a gimmick battle royal with Heenan at WrestleMania X-7. Over the years, he would make special appearances at WWE’s big events, and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006. Ten years later, he was a member of the 2016 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame. “Mean” Gene was also a cast member of the WWE Network original program “Legends House,” where he was filmed living in a house with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Jimmy Hart, Hillbilly Jim and others.
Okerlund died at the age of 76. He is survived by his wife of 54 years and their two children.