Okerlund died Wednesday at a hospital in Sarasota, Fla., according to his daughter-in-law, Patricia Okerlund.
The cause of death was not immediately known, but Okerlund had been hospitalized with kidney disease, his family said. He received kidney transplants in 1995 and 2004.
Famous for his deadpan interviews and for posing seemingly challenging questions to the brawny wrestlers who stood beside him, Okerlund was synonymous with professional wrestling’s big time events. He began his career as a radio disc jockey in Omaha and Minneapolis but jumped to the American Wrestling Association in 1970 as a ring announcer and interviewer.
Wrestler Jesse Ventura reportedly dubbed him “Mean Gene” as a joke about his straight-talking on-camera persona.
He never left the sport and never fully retired. He joined the World Wrestling Federation in 1984 and World Championship Wrestling in 1993 in similar capacities. He returned to WWF, later renamed WWE, in 2001 and made his last appearance on air Jan. 22, 2018, interviewing AJ Styles on the 25th anniversary of “Monday Night RAW.”
“I have a tremendous amount of gratitude to those who enjoyed my work,” Okerlund told Sports Illustrated in 2017. “It’s something we did together because I must have given them something they liked, and we shared it, and everybody walked away a winner. That’s truly the way I look at my time with the business.”
Late in his career, Okerlund hosted a number of non-live programs for WWE Network. He also took on a lascivious personality gimmick alongside younger co-host Pamela Paulshock. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2016.
“To go into the WWE Hall of Fame as the very first announcer was a big, big honor for me,” Okerland said on the podcast of wrestling enthusiast Gary Cantrell.
“When it comes to announcers in the history of professional wrestling, I’ll say it again, there’s Gene Okerlund, and then there’s the rest of us,” Sean Mooney, a former wrestling play-by-play announcer who worked with Okerlund, said on his podcast.
Okerlund three times entered the ring during his nearly five decades in staged wrestling, winning each bout. He and Hulk Hogan, a close friend, defeated Mr. Fuji and George Steele in a 1984 tag team match in Minneapolis. In 2000, he and Buff Bagwell teamed up to beat Chris Kanyon and ringside announcer Mark Madden. The very next week, Madden called for a one-on-one rematch, and Paulshock jumped into the ring to help Okerlund secure another victory.
Across the professional wrestling world, tributes poured in for Okerlund on Wednesday.
Survivors, according to a Washington Post obituary, include his wife of 54 years, Jeanne Okerlund; two sons, Todd Okerlund and Tor Okerlund; and three grandchildren. Todd Okerlund had a brief professional hockey career with the New York Islanders.
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