Every month at TWM, we profile the career of a superstar who has had a huge impact on the world of professional wrestling. In the past we’ve had names such as Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker to name but a few. This month, Jimmy Wheeler takes a look at a pioneer and a true legend in the world of women’s professional wrestling, Mae Young.
As we have all heard by now, Mae Young has passed away. As soon as I heard the sad news I got to work on researching the mammoth career of Mae Young for this special look at the incredible career of the first lady of wrestling.
When Mae Young got into professional wrestling, the National Wrestling Alliance had not even formed yet. Nearly seventy-five years later she is still fondly in thoughts of people all over the world. I’m sure when she was in her prime using her beloved dirty tactics being booed and jeered at by fans in arenas everywhere that she never imagined there would be such an outcry of emotion when the news spread of her ill health. It’s been quite a journey one that has left a lasting impression in the memory of several generations of fans, in a career that included at least one wrestling match in nine different decades.
Johnnie Mae Young was born on March 12, 1923 in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. One of her brothers was a proficient amateur wrestler and thus she was around wrestling growing up and her brother would also teach her how to wrestle. It was in 1939 when she first got the idea to wrestle professionally. With the idea in mind she traveled to a show being held in Tulsa and promptly challenged the World Women’s Champion, Mildred Burke, to a match. One could not just walk up out of nowhere and wrestle the title holder though.
As a way of testing her and to see what she was made of Billy Wolfe, women’s promoter, wrestler and (at that time) Mildred Burke’s husband, got her to wrestle Gladys ‘Kill’em’ Gillem and Elvira Snodgrass. Young has recalled in past interviews that she won both matches quickly. Wolfe was impressed and saw money in the young Young. When she finished school Young ‘signed up’ with Wolfe and began her training. All of Wolfe’s girls were trained in the same manner where by they would receive training from the experienced women in his troupe, Burke would help out form time-to-time, but as she was the main star it normally fell to the others.
Modern fans who are familiar with her from the Attitude Era and more recent times may-be surprised to find out that Young was quite the attractive young lady but a ferocious wrestler with it. Not quite the same fun loving personality that was seen in over the last fifteen or so years. Behind the scenes she was said to always be the life and soul of the after show and she loved nothing better to smoke a cigar, have a drink, and party. I highly recommend the documentary Lipstick and Dynamite and the biography of Mildred Burke for more on the antics of women wrestlers in Wolfe’s troupe.
Back what to what made her famous though. Once trained she would tour the country with the other women in the troupe. Young had got into the business right at the peak of women’s wrestling popularity and although it was still not accepted everywhere, Mildred Burke had brought a tremendous amount of publicity and positive press, being able to go against her solidified Young as a semi or main feature for years to come.
Like the ladies who had trained her, one of Young’s duties as she got more refined in the ring was to train the new recruits. One of the aspiring young women would be Lillian Ellison better known to you and I as The Fabulous Moolah. It was here in Billy Wolfe’s troupe that the two would forge a bond of friendship that lasted from 1949 all the way up to Moolah’s passing in 2007. In fact skipping forward a few years it was Young who recommended Lillian join forces with Vince McMahon Sr. leading to their fruitful business relationship.
Through-out the main portion of her career Young held three different championships the NWA Women’s Tag-Team Championship with Ella Wladek, they were actually the first two ladies to ever hold those belts. Young also held the NWA United States Women’s Championship and the Florida Women’s Championship. With Mildred Burke she was apart of some of the very first ladies matches in Japan and also breaking down gender boundaries in Canada.
Young’s first chapter of her career would begin to wind down in the 1960’s after being around for nearly thirty years on a full time schedule. Much had changed in the landscape of the business over that time period and it was time for her to take a more behind the scenes role. That consisted of acting as a trainer and only wrestling occasionally, this carried on into the 1980’s before she pretty much completely retired or so everyone thought.
No-one could have foreseen that in 1999 she would return to wrestling on a semi-regular basis, on a national scale, for the World Wrestling Federation along with the Fabulous Moolah. What appeared just to be a one off deal to help promote a woman beater story-line with Jeff Jarrett went down so well, the two tough elderly ladies were called back upon time-and-time again to do all kinds of angles.
Young viewers saw Mae Young compete in bra and panties matches, expose her breasts, get beaten up by men, put through a table off of the entrance stage, enter into a relationship with a large black man who went by the name ‘Sexual Chocolate,’ give birth to his little baby hand, take a splash from the top rope by a 300 plus pound man, get her feet fondled by Snitsky, and defeated Lay-Cool in a falls count anywhere match in 2010 as well as a whole other host of appearance either involving the baby hand or stripteasing.
Val Venis tells a story of her stuffing sardines down her tights before going out to the ring to give Eric Bischoff a bronco buster on one particular night. Clearly Mae still loved to have a good time. Her fun loving personality came across on screen and that’s what got her over with the new generation of fans and why she is so endeared into the hearts of everyone who has ever seen her perform whether it was her the first chapter or the second of her career. Rightfully so she was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2004 and WWE also inducted her into their Hall of Fame in 2008.
There is no doubt that Johnnie Mae Young was and is a legend in this business. She’s often said it’s her dream to wrestle at the age of a hundred years old and I along with everyone else reading this would probably have never bet against her, however unfortunately that day will never come. For nearly seventy-five years she’s entertained and given her heart to professional wrestling and I feel fortunate to have been able to watch her perform even if it wasn’t in her prime and only in sports entertainment form rather than as a traditional wrestler.
Vs. Fabulous Moolah:
& Mae Young Vs. Dawn Marie & Torrie Wilson:
– By Jimmy Wheeler
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