Gene Okerlund, right, during a WCW broadcast in 1998.
Gene Okerlund, right, during a WCW broadcast in 1998.

The Rock pays emotional tribute to WWE icon

LEGENDARY professional wrestling ringside interviewer "Mean" Gene Okerlund has died, World Wrestling Entertainment has announced. He was 76.

Okerlund was a familiar face and voice for generations of wrestling fanatics, chronicling the exploits of larger-than-life figures including Hulk Hogan and "Macho Man" Randy Savage over his nearly half-century career.

"We lost a wrestling legend on the microphone. The incomparable "Mean Gene" Okerlund," wrote Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

"What an iconic career and extremely distinct voice of the squared circle during distinct eras of the smart/cool sounding "neutral" wrestling commentator ... RIP legend, strength to your Okerlund ohana and thanks for the awesome memories."

Current ring warrior Ettore "Big E" Ewen" wrote: Mean Gene was the voice of millions of childhoods. Mine certainly. An honour to meet him."

Gene Okerlund and Andre the Giant.
Gene Okerlund and Andre the Giant.

Okerlund got his start as an announcer and interviewer for the American Wrestling Association in 1970, taking rapt viewers inside the minds of the sport's stars, among them Hogan, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan and fellow Minnesota native Jesse "The Body" Ventura, according to WWE.

It was Ventura who bestowed upon Okerlund a moniker of his own: "Mean Gene".

Hulk Hogan has paid tribute to Okerlund, tweeting
Hulk Hogan has paid tribute to Okerlund, tweeting "I love you my brother".

In 1984, Okerlund made the jump to the WWE, endearing himself to a national audience as host and commentator on shows including Tuesday Night Titans and Prime Time Wrestling.

At the inaugural WrestleMania in 1985, it was the versatile Okerlund who belted out the National Anthem.

"As an interviewer, pitch man, announcer, or host, he was untouchable. Simply the best," tweeted "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

"Total professional with quick wit, sarcasm, humour, and that golden voice."

WWE announcer Gene Okerland attends the 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania's WWE Hall of Fame. Picture: Bob Levey
WWE announcer Gene Okerland attends the 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania's WWE Hall of Fame. Picture: Bob Levey

Okerlund was on the move again in 1993, joining World Championship Wrestling as lead interviewer, but in 2001 returned to WWE, where he inked a lifetime contract.

He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006, by longtime subject Hogan.

"Mean Gene," tweeted Hogan on Wednesday, "I love you my brother."

A cause of death was not released, but Okerlund had suffered serious health setbacks, including kidney transplants in 1995 and 2004, according to reports.