“Mean” Gene Okerlund, the smooth-voiced WWE announcer and frequent straight man to pro wrestling’s most outrageous personalities, died Wednesday at 76. The WWE confirmed his death in a tweet, calling Okerlund “the most recognizable interviewer in sports entertainment history.”
Born in 1942 in South Dakota, Okerlund made his way to Minnesota in the Seventies, where he worked as a ring announcer for the American Wrestling Association, a local wrestling franchise based in Minneapolis. His national notoriety, however, began when he joined the then-WWF in 1984, one year before pro wrestling, and the WWF in particular, became a pop-culture phenomenon with the first WrestleMania.
As the organization’s chief interviewer, the tuxedoed “Mean Gene” (wrestler and future Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura gave him his nickname) became the voice of wrestling’s Eighties heyday, standing out for his above-the-fray temperament and sharp one-liners. As the era’s biggest star, Hulk Hogan, ranted about his “pythons” and training regimen, Okerlund looked on in bemusement, shooting wry looks into the camera. His interviews with wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage were especially entertaining, with Savage threatening Okerlund with a broom when he’d turn his attention to Savage’s manager Elizabeth.
Okerlund, who appeared occasionally in the ring as a novelty, lent his voice to the WWE’s Wrestling Album, singing Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” on the 1985 cult LP that capitalized on the so-called “Rock N’ Wrestling Connection.” He appeared on its 1987 follow-up, Piledriver, performing “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” with the song’s writer Rick Derringer. He would also sing the national anthem to kick off WrestleMania I.
In 1993, Okerlund moved from the WWE to the rival WCW, where he interviewed stars like Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes. He’d eventually return to the WWE, where he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. Most recently, Okerlund had a silent cameo in a Mountain Dew commercial with comic Kevin Hart. Upon news of his death, various wrestling stars shared their condolences. “Mean Gene,” tweeted Hulk Hogan. “I love you my brother.”