Sport Thought: ‘Mean’ Gene was a pioneer of selling the product

A big part of my childhood died earlier this week when the legendary WWE interviewer "Mean" Gene Okerlund passed away at the age of 76.

And I'm sure many wrestling enthusiasts aged in their 30s and 40s are feeling exactly the same way.

“Mean” Gene Okerlund: An interviewer who was a pioneer in sports entertainment.Credit:WWE

Okerlund was the voice of the golden era of wrestling during the 1980s and early '90s as he conducted countless memorable interviews with some of the greatest larger-than-life characters in the history of sports entertainment.

Keeping a straight face during backstage chats with the likes of Hulk Hogan, "Macho Man" Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior as they whipped themselves up into testosterone-fuelled, unintelligible frenzies was an achievement within itself.

But Okerlund's ability to inject dry wit and sincerity into his interviews gave so much credibility to the main events and storylines that the WWF (as it was originally called) was promoting, he made viewers forget that wrestling was scripted.

Whether the world heavyweight championship belt was on the line, or Hogan and Savage joined forces to form the "Mega Powers", he always made it seem like something huge was happening and that's one of the reasons why he was so talented.

A consummate professional, "Mean" Gene really could have covered any "real" sport he liked and would have sat comfortably on any ESPN panel or broadcast.

The legitimacy he gave to the WWF with the on-camera work he did with Hogan and Andre the Giant especially, helped wrestling skyrocket through the stratosphere and become a mainstream juggernaut under the guidance of visionary CEO Vince McMahon.

The Hulkster's opening line in his interviews with Okerlund, "Well let me tell you something, Mean Gene…!", became the stuff of legend.

The nine years Okerlund spent with Ted Turner's rival WCW promotion helped wrestling maintain its momentum as well, before he returned to the WWF in 2001 after WCW's demise and absorption into McMahon's empire.

For decades, critics have dismissed wrestling as "fake" and purely "entertainment" rather than an actual sport.

And given it is all scripted, those critics have a strong argument, although labelling it fake might be a bit unfair given some of the risky moves that are executed on a weekly basis which can, and do, cause serious injury.

For all intents and purposes, wrestlers could be described as stuntmen and stuntwomen as well – and if you don't agree, go to YouTube and check out the video of The Undertaker throwing Mankind off the top of a five-metre tall cage and into a broadcast table on the ground below during their "hell in a cell" match at the 1998 edition of King Of The Ring.

If you think that feat isn't worthy of respect, then you are a very harsh marker.

Yet as we find ourselves living in a world where the line between sport and entertainment is becoming increasingly blurred (see Big Bash League), Okerlund was way ahead of his time with his ability to sell, and add weight to, an entertainment product with interviews that made fans feel as though they were gaining exclusive access to the superstars of the day. He truly was a pioneer.

You only have to look at the way the major sports in this country are televised to see that the echoes of "Mean" Gene still reverberate to this day. As broadcast partners, and their viewers, demand more and more access of clubs and athletes, the more and more sport is beginning to resemble some kind of a drama or a soap opera.

It was something that Okerlund, under the guidance of McMahon, perfected decades ago and for that reason, today's sports broadcasters certainly owe him a debt of gratitude.

Rest in peace, "Mean" Gene. The world of sports broadcasting and entertainment is poorer without you.

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