Taking a moment to honor the late, great 'Mean' Gene Okerlund

Jim Hackett
January 03, 2019 - 10:11 am

USA Today Sports

I’m not a wrestling fan anymore, but between say 1980-'92 you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger wrestling fan, junkie or fully obsessed moron than me. 

My last great memory of professional wrestling was when Ric Flair won the 1992 Royal Rumble. It was a blast! A Pay-Per-View extravaganza that brought 20 or so of my closest friends in college together. All jammed in, literally from floor to ceiling, among a sea of cheap beer cans to catch every moment of the action. When Flair won the heavyweight championship that day the old WWF made sure that their best broadcaster was there for the official announcement and that man was "Mean" Gene Okerlund. He would simply do what he had done so many times before and that was to make wrestling and its greatest moments even more fun for all its fans and to help us cement those memories. 

Nobody did it better than Okerlund.

Loyalties change in professional wrestling like the weather. Good guys turn bad, bad guys turn good, then they turn again and even again sometimes. When I was watching wrestling it was as common as some soon to be forgotten-then resurrected character in a soap opera getting amnesia. "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff comes to mind. His loyalties were more schizophrenic than Cybil. In wrestling, fan loyalties can change equally as fast. Though whether you prefer the heels or the babyfaces everyone liked "Mean" Gene. There was little not to like.

Unlike other sports, events or entertainment outlets, the theater surrounding professional wrestling consistently outperforms the actual event itself. It was the theatrics of it all, the build-up to what would or could happen when two titans would meet that had us all hooked. When professional wrestling was at its absolute apex, "Mean" Gene Okerlund was right there giving you all the drama just the way you needed it, week after week after week. It wasn’t a shtick and it was never forced. Like all great broadcasters, Okerlund let the big ring personalities shine for themselves and weighed-in appropriately with perfect timing to either gently fan the flames or help the audience form its own opinion. 

As fun as he was to watch and listen to, he was a brilliant broadcaster too and he mastered the subtleties of his craft artfully. Okerlund’s delivery and presence in the old WWF broadcasts were sorely missed after he left. Like many great broadcasters, you realize how good they are after they’ve gone. Watching a line of forgettable other guys in the years following probably led to my rapid disinterest in professional wrestling, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Interviews were never as good and certainly not as entertaining. The old WWF lost a lot of its soul when Okerlund moved onto to a different association in 1993, which was right about the time I started to get bored of it all. 

The media are the messengers, and the message of the old WWF began to get stale when old "Mean" Gene left town. 

Often standing amongst literal giants like the 7-foot-4, 500-pound Andre the Giant or the 6-foot-8, 300-plus-pound Hulk Hogan, the comparably diminutive Okerlund always found some little way to stand out during his interviews.  It could be an expression of disbelief, or often genuine confusion with what one of these morons would try say. Much like the greatest cartoon of all time, Bugs Bunny, Okerlund’s sense of humor had an adult taste. Kids laugh at the explosions, older kids and adults who got Mel Blanc’s references laughed at what was being said. Okerlund had that gift, sometimes with words, other times with just a look.

Classic Okerlund would have him addressing the audience after quickly peering at an unsuspecting wrestler just moments before being caught. Just great stuff.  

"Mean" Gene was as big a part of professional wrestling’s wild growth in popularity as any of the giants it featured. During the 1980s, professional wrestling grew from a regionalized cult sport to a national entertainment source. It became an iconic part of American culture. 

As cable television rose, professional wrestling was one of its key assets growing from a once per week Saturday morning show, to a full week drama series. Okerlund was part of all of it. No matter where the old WWF was, Okerlund was there. Saturday morning’s "Superstars of Wrestling" ... check. "Saturday Night’s Main Event" (which was popular enough to unseat Saturday Night Live during some of its best years) ... check. "Tuesday Night Titans" ... check. That show housed some of Okerlund’s finest work, allowing for more airtime and thus a deeper feel for his personality and intelligent sense of humor. 

Being in the radio business for as long as I have been, I’ve given a lot of thought to broadcasters, their strengths and weaknesses and I really think that "Mean" Gene Okerlund is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Often times it’s difficult to get a feel for a television broadcaster’s personality. When they come on the radio, often times you’re left liking them less. The great ones, whose personalities are easy to attach to stand out. With those great pipes, intelligent wit and quirky personality, I’ve often thought that "Mean” Gene would’ve been a great radio talent. 

He’ll likely never get the full accolades that are due to him in terms of his career in broadcasting, but to those of us who were lucky enough to watch him and enjoyed him, we understand his true iconic status. Furthermore, being around the media business for as long as I have, I’d like to submit to the court that the late, great “Mean” Gene Okerlund, was one of the best broadcasters of his time. He certainly was to me. Here’s one of my favorite clips of him. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

Rest in peace "Mean" Gene. Rest in Peace.