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A fan, not a foe, stole the world title from Verne Gagne

The walls were closing in on AWA Champ Verne Gagne when a fan did what Verne’s challengers couldn’t do. Sort of.

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In 1975, time was catching up to Verne Gagne.

Nearing 50, Gagne had been the World Champion of the American Wrestling Association (AWA) for over seven years. His most persistent rival, Nick Bockwinkel, was hot on his heels and closing in on him. That November, the cocky Bockwinkel would finally wrest the title away from Gagne. But earlier that summer, a fan would get the drop on Gagne first by actually stealing the world championship.

Indeed, there was a man capable of taking the title from Verne, but that man was a fan.
Inside Wrestling Magazine, January 1976 via archive.org

After successfully defending the title against Bockwinkel at an event in Davenport, IA, at John O’Donnell Stadium, the timekeeper was preparing to hand the belt to the referee to give to Gagne when a fan, described by the Minneapolis Star as a young tough with a pigtail wearing Bermuda shorts, shoulder tackled the timekeeper and ripped the belt from his hands before making a break for it.

Verne’s son, Greg, the recovered timekeeper, and Al DeRusha of the Minneapolis Wrestling Club were in hot pursuit of the thief, who turned out to be a swift little spot monkey. He evaded capture by jumping a fence and getting in a nearby getaway car with two other men.

“Sentiment is of the great subsurface forces directing Verne Gagne’s life,” said DeRusha, who went to work for the AWA in 1973. “The belt made Verne Gagne a custodian of history, and he was very conscious of this role. The belt represented tradition.

“Plus,” said DeRusha, “it represented a lot of dough.”

According to what Gagne told authorities, the title was worth $10,000.

The theft of Gagne’s belt made headlines from Minnesota to California.
Star Tribune Jul. 18 1975; Newspapers.com

“I’ve been kind of anxious waiting for more word from the police,” Gagne told the press. “I hope the kid who took it doesn’t get scared and throw it in the Mississippi River.”

Then, in September, authorities, now embroiled in a different kind of world title chase, finally got their man.

Thomas Fennelly, age 23, wanted in Davenport in connection to the crime, was nabbed crossing the Canadian border and detained by immigration until police from Port Huron, MI, made the arrest. But the title wasn’t immediately recovered following Fennelly’s capture.

Were Gagne’s worst fears true? Was the AWA Championship sleeping with the fishes?

That seemed to be the case until January of 1976, months after Gagne officially lost the championship to Bockwinkel. Then, the title reappeared in the oddest of places.

After being convicted of stealing the belt, Fennelly was set for sentencing when police found the title inside a mail chute at a Davenport post office. The belt was in a trash bag with a note attached that read, “You’ve got the wrong man.”

While Minneapolis Star writer Jim Klobuchar quipped that he thought Nick Bockwinkel took the belt, a jury of Fennelly’s peers felt differently. The Pigtail Belt Burglar was later sentenced to five years in prison for larceny over $20.

Over $20?

But the title was said to be worth $10,000.

Yeah, about that.

Fennelly’s lawyer argued that the belt wasn’t $20, calling it bauble and junk. Police said the belt was examined by a local jeweler, who estimated it was worth more than $20 but far less than the $10,000 Gagne said it cost. The jeweler also noted that the stones in the belt appeared to be man-made.

How much the belt was actually worth is unknown. But in 1975, it was wrestling’s most sought-after prize, as Verne Gagne, Nick Bockwinkel, and Davenport police were all after the AWA World Championship.

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