Gene Okerlund, who as a ringside interviewer and commentator served for many years as a straight man to the outsize personalities who suffuse the world of skilled wrestling, died on Wednesday at a hospital in Sarasota, Fla. He was 76.
His son Todd stated he died a few month after a fall.
Mr. Okerlund, who was nicknamed Mean Gene by the wrestler (and future governor of Minnesota) Jesse Ventura, was a mild-mannered determine, particularly by pro-wrestling requirements. He usually appeared on the air in elegant apparel to conduct interviews with intensely muscled, scantily clad wrestlers like Macho Man Randy Savage, the Ultimate Warrior, Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan. Mr. Hogan helped popularize Mr. Okerlund’s nickname by repeating it at the start of many interviews.
The wrestler and WWE government Triple H, writing on Twitter, called Mr. Okerlund “a voice and soundtrack to an entire era of our industry.”
Mr. Okerlund questioned wrestlers in a resonant voice, maintaining a serious mien even as they launched into tirades about their opponents. His professionalism helped lend a certain gravitas to an enterprise that was hardly known for it, but he also conveyed mild sarcasm at times. He eventually built a following among wrestlers as well as their fans.
“You cannot be laughing at the product,” Mr. Okerlund told Sports Illustrated for a profile of him in 2017. “You need to go along with the story line, and put it over. That is my job.”
He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006. “I am damn proud of it,” he said of the honor in an interview with The Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Eugene Arthur Okerlund was born on Dec. 19, 1942, in Sisseton, S.D., to Helen and Arthur Okerlund. His father owned a seed company, and Gene graduated from high school in Sisseton, in the northeast corner of the state, before studying journalism at the University of Nebraska.
Mr. Okerlund’s dignified on-air bearing came early in his career: He worked as a local radio and television broadcaster before he started working with the American Wrestling Association in the early 1970s. He said he first announced professional wrestling when Verne Gagne, the association’s owner and promoter, asked him to cover a match with only a few hours’ notice.
“ ‘I know nothing about wrestling,’ I explained,” Mr. Okerlund told Sports Illustrated. “ ‘I don’t want to embarrass you and I certainly don’t want to embarrass myself.’ ”
But Mr. Gagne persevered, and Mr. Okerlund worked in professional wrestling from then on. He joined the World Wrestling Federation, now the WWE, in the 1980s, when the promoter Vince McMahon made it a national organization.
Mr. Okerlund hosted shows like “Tuesday Night Titans,” “WWF All American Wrestling” and “WWF Prime Time Wrestling,” and appeared briefly in a tag-team match with Mr. Hogan against Mr. Fuji and George (the Animal) Steele in 1984.
He was also a singer. He sang “Tutti Frutti” on “The Wrestling Album” (1985), which mostly featured songs performed by wrestlers, and in 1985 sang the national anthem at the first WrestleMania, one of wrestling’s biggest televised events.
He lived in Osprey, Fla., with his wife, Jeanne. In addition to her and his son, he is survived by another son, Tor, and three grandchildren.
Mr. Okerlund told The Sun-Sentinel that he thought interviews were a crucial way for wrestlers to engage their audience and heighten drama.
“You have to be able to do things in the ring,” he said, but interviews “are a wrestler’s bread and butter.”