It took just 36 hours of 2019 for the WWE Universe to be absolutely rocked by a huge loss. "Mean" Gene Okerlund passed away at 76 years old.
It's hard to quantify just how meaningful "Mean" Gene was to the glory days of '80s wrestling that took the pastime we love from a sideshow to a legit mainstream business, but he was surely integral.
When you step back and really look at the '80s, it's reasonable to argue that "Mean" Gene's name ranks fourth in wrestling's mainstream consciousness after Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Randy Savage. Every American who grew up with a television in the mid-eighties is quick to drop a "Well, let me tell you something Mean Gene!" Hulk Hogan impression whenever pro wrestling is mentioned.
Ranking wrestlers' greatness can be challenging when you don't know who was really responsible for the character's creation. Did Hulk Hogan make Vince McMahon or did McMahon actually create Hogan? But Gene Okerlund was always Gene Okerlund.
Before coming to the WWE from the AWA with Hulk Hogan back in 1983, Okerlund had mastered his role as the straight man. He took his legitimate broadcast skills from local radio and used them to create the "character" that he played in professional wrestling. And one has to remember what Gene Okerlund's job actually was in order to truly appreciate his brilliance. Gene Okerlund was not an interviewer.
Gene Okerlund was playing an interviewer named "Mean" Gene Okerlund in the same way Hulk Hogan was playing a world champion in a competitive sport. He struck an absolutely perfect balance of seriousness, humor, energy, sarcasm and dry wit. He never tried to steal the spotlight, and as a result, the spotlight always seemed to find him. He knew how to handle an irate Bobby Heenan differently than an insane Randy Savage. He knew when the line of realism had been crossed and a very slight wink to the audience was needed. In his last real run with WCW, he knew how to play along with what had become the regular absurdity of a show that was entertaining but completely ridiculous. He knew how to do it all.
To a kid like me and so many more, Okerlund showed there was a way to participate in this world of giants even if you were just a mortal man. I by no means have and never will come near Gene's level of talent or success, but by attempting to be a radio host turned WWE personality, I have seen firsthand just how difficult it is to be credible and authentic as the person you are inside this colorful world known as WWE.
I saw Gene for the last time backstage at Raw 25. He was hanging out and looking as only he could look. I almost never take pictures backstage for obvious reasons, but it was a special night, and Gene was a special sighting. I went up to him and greeted him and quickly asked if we could take a picture. In our brief interaction he managed to completely represent everything I had ever seen and heard about him. He was straight, sarcastic and jokingly (I think) treated me like a total jabroni. His face in the photo completely encapsulates the energy he exuded -- "Who the hell is this guy?"
Just a fan taking a picture with a legend.