In sports, there are distinct voices that bring you back to your childhood.

In baseball, it may have been Vin Scully. In football — particularly in New England — the voices of Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti on the radio may quickly take you to days gone by. Or on a national scale, seeing Pat Summerall and John Madden on your TV set on a fall Sunday.

For nearly two generations of professional wrestling fans, that voice and face was “Mean” Gene Okerlund. And sadly, that voice was silenced last week. Okerlund died Wednesday at the age of 76.

If the name sounds familiar to those — even non-wrestling fans — of a certain age, it should. While not an in-ring competitor, Okerlund was an integral member — as an interviewer and announcer — for two of the industry’s biggest periods, the “Rock N’ Wrestling” boom of the 1980s, as well as the “Monday Night Wars” period of the 1990s between World Wrestling Entertainment (then World Wrestling Federation) and World Championship Wrestling.

After starting his career in the early 1970s in Minnesota with the American Wrestling Association, Okerlund moved on and made his career in the 1980s with the WWF. As a backstage interviewer, it was Okerlund’s job to play the straight man — to essentially corral — some of the wildest characters in wrestling history. Among those characters were “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, The Iron Sheik, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, George “The Animal” Steele, Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Andre the Giant, just to name a few.

But his career was ultimately defined by regularly interviewing two of sports entertainment’s biggest personalities, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan.

Words in this column could never properly explain the intensity and larger-than-life feel Savage and Hogan brought to an interview and it would take too long to explain. I highly suggest visiting YouTube to experience it. Both would routinely explain — in the wildest ways possible — how badly they were going to beat their opponent at an upcoming show.

And through this came Okerlund’s brilliance. With a sharp wit and quick sense of humor and sarcasm, Okerlund was always able to keep wrestlers on point with their promos, to allow their personalities to shine while still getting the point across. He was also able to translate a world of superheroes to the average American family. Anyone involved with wrestling can tell you, that’s one of the most difficult jobs in the business to do.

And in that process, Okerlund himself became a superstar. Hogan — the Babe Ruth of the wrestling industry in the 1980s — started every interview with Okerlund with the phrase “Well let me tell you something, Mean Gene!” It was a line that caught on quickly and remained with the pair until the end of Okerlund’s life. At times throughout his career with the WWF, Okerlund was able to show that he was more than an announcer, he was a true performer. He sang the national anthem at the first WrestleMania in 1985. He once guest starred on an episode of the popular 1980s show “The A-Team.” He even competed in a couple of matches (albeit not very well) during his tenure with the company.

He moved on to WCW in the 1990s at a time where the company was trying to knock the WWF from its perch as the best in the business, and nearly did. It was the perfect fit for Okerlund, who remained in same role and interviewed many of the same characters, who also moved on to WCW at that time. He stayed with WCW until its bitter end, when the company was bought out by the WWF in 2001.

Okerlund was welcomed back with open arms to the WWF and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006. He continued to make guest appearances with the WWE until his death.

Many interviewers have come and gone in professional wrestling over the years, but none have seemed to perfect the role the way Okerlund did. And with wrestlers being more reality-based and not nearly as over the top as characters in the 80s and 90s, you may never see one with his same type of skill set again.

But thankfully, we have memories. We have YouTube. We have the WWE Network. And as wrestling fans, we can always look back at that special time, with smiles on our faces.

And let me tell you something, Mean Gene. For those memories, we thank you.

Dave Dyer — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Dave_Dyer


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