There’s only a couple of possible answers you’ll get when you ask wrestling fans of a certain age which voice they associate most with the industry. For a few, it’s Hulk Hogan’s steroid surfer schtick, peppered liberally with the word ‘brother’ (and, in recent years, racial slurs). For some, it’s Randy Savage’s signature gravelly drawl (“Ooooooh, yeah!”) And for many, it might be WWF head honcho Vince McMahon himself, once the lead commentator for the product (“What a maneuver!”) and later the on-camera authority figure (“You’re fiiiiiiiiired!”). But, of course, all those people would be wrong. Hilariously, pants-shittingly wrong.
See, there’s only one voice that’s truly synonymous with 1980’s WWF and, later, 1990’s WCW. “Mean” Gene Okerlund, a misplaced moniker for one of the nicest guys in the business, was every kid’s avatar in the wacky world of oiled-up brutes. Not because he looked like us (unless you were, at 9 years old, a balding man in a tuxedo) but because he was basically a regular person who found himself, somehow, in a land of giants, monsters, superheroes, and dastardly villains. Gene’s job, an impossible task for most, was to reign in these superhumans that were as likely to be on a cocktail of cocaine, steroids, and, well, cocktails, as not, and somehow get a coherent and entertaining interview out of them that promoted the match, their opponents, and themselves.
Gene has been a fixture of wrestling since his days in the AWA, which might as well have been early WWF for the amount of recognizable talent that Vince took from that company. Your Heenans, Hogans, Venturas, and more all got their start there, and so did Mean Gene. He was instrumental in making each of those guys, and countless others, into stars and household names. And not just the wrestlers, but the WWF and it’s events as well. Gene wasn’t present for every Wrestlemania (due to his 8-year tenure in WCW in the 90’s), but he was there for the first few, and he owned that stage every time. Gene’s voice is as much a building block in the WWF/E’s empire as any active wrestler, but the subtle beauty of his work was that he’d never overshadow the subjects he was meant to be putting over.
Gene made wrestling real for some of us, an anchor you could hold onto while suspending your disbelief. Maybe you weren’t completely invested in the idea of the undead mortician powerslamming dudes, or that guy in a kilt hitting someone with a coconut at first, but Gene always was. Okerlund was a character in a way that WWE commentators and interviewers aren’t allowed to be anymore, and it shows in the way that he could effortlessly make a wrestler look like a million bucks, while modern WWE struggles to do the same. At the end of the day, it’s not about whether the show you’re watching seems real, but how seriously the onscreen personalities take it. Mean Gene, that balding, regular guy in the tuxedo, took wrestling seriously, so the rest of us didn’t have to.
“Mean” Gene Okerlund passed away on January 2, 2019. He was 76 years old.