Obituaries

Gene Okerlund, serious voice of pro wrestling, dies at 76

In a photo provided by the WWE, Gene Okerlund, the longtime wresting interviewer and commentator, in 1988. Okerlund, who spent decades as the mild-mannered straight man to the outsize personalities of professional wrestling, has passed away at age 76, the WWE announced on Jan. 2, 2019. (WWE via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY OBIT-OKERLUND BY SLOTNIK FOR JAN. 3, 2019. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --
WWE via The New York Times
Gene Okerlund, the longtime wresting interviewer and commentator, in 1988.

NEW YORK — Gene Okerlund, who as a ringside interviewer and commentator served for decades as a straight man to the outsize personalities who suffuse the world of professional wrestling, has died. He was 76.

His death was announced in a post on the WWE’s website. Mr. Okerlund’s son, Tor, told the Associated Press that his father died early Wednesday at a hospital in Sarasota, Fla. Tor Okerlund said his father, who had undergone three kidney transplants, fell a few weeks ago ‘‘and it just kind of went from bad to worse.’’

Mr. Okerlund, who was nicknamed Mean Gene by the wrestler (and future governor of Minnesota) Jesse Ventura, was a mild-mannered figure, especially by pro-wrestling standards. He often appeared on the air in elegant attire to conduct interviews with intensely muscled, scantily clad wrestlers such as Macho Man Randy Savage, the Ultimate Warrior, Andre the Giant, and Hulk Hogan.

Advertisement

Mr. Okerlund usually questioned wrestlers in a resonant voice, maintaining a serious bearing even as they launched into tirades about their opponents. His professionalism helped lend a certain gravitas to an enterprise that was hardly known for it, but he also conveyed a mild sarcasm at times. In time he built a devoted following among wrestlers as well as their fans.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

‘‘You only had to tell him once’’ how to pitch and sell a wrestling story, Ventura told the AP about Mr. Okerlund’s knack for salesmanship. ‘‘He’s like a carnival barker. . . . He was the best salesman. And he never did retakes.

“Ninety percent of the time if there was a screw-up on an interview, it was not because of Gene. That’s how good he was.’’

In 2006, Hulk Hogan inducted Mr. Okerlund into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Mr. Okerlund’s dignified on-air bearing came early in his career: He worked as a local radio and television broadcaster before he started working with the American Wrestling Association in the 1970s.

Advertisement

A native of Sisseton, S.D., he was also a singer, and in 1985 performed the national anthem at the first WrestleMania, one of wrestling’s biggest televised events. He sang ‘‘Tutti Frutti’’ later that year on the WWF’s ‘‘The Wrestling Album.’’