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Part 2 of an in-depth look at the growth of women’s wrestling, from noted ring historian, The Phantom of the Ring.
The Phantom of the Ring
Lipstick, Dynamite and Glowworms Part 2
When we last left the world of women’s wrestling, June Byers had defeated Mildred Burke for the Women’s title in a match that was nothing if not controversial.
Lest readers get the impression from the last installment that I thought June Byers was a crème puff, let me set the record straight. June Byers was anything but a crème puff.
Born De Alva Sibley in Houston Texas on May 25, 1922 (though some sources list her birth in 1918), June Byers grew up around wrestling. Her uncle, to whom she was close, was Ottoway “Shorty” Roberts, a lighter weight wrestler in the employ of Houston promoter Morris Siegel. A natural athlete, June became attracted to wrestling and, through her uncle (who also trained her), got some of the boys to show her various moves in the gymnasium. It was during one of these impromptu workouts that Billy Wolfe spotted her. Wolfe was on the lookout for new talent and Siegel sold him on the talent of young June. A young married woman with no other prospects save a life of poverty, June accepted Wolfe’s offer and joined his troupe. The first thing Wolfe said she needed was a ring name, so she took her family nickname of “June” and added her married name of Byers as her surname. Thus, June Byers was born. After additional training by Mae Young, among others, June made her debut sometime in 1944. She began as what today would be known as a mid-carder, winning prelims against lesser known women and regularly losing to the more established stars such as Mae Young and Mildred Burke. Her style in those days was as a heel, rough and tough. Though she lost to the big stars in the game, her workrate and persistence were noticed and she was rewarded in 1952 when she and Millie Stafford won the Women’s Tag Title from Mae Young and Ella Waldek. Somewhere along the way she ditched Mr. Byers and married Billy Wolfe’s son.
When Burke and Wolfe fell out, Burke left the promotion, but still claimed the title. A promotion without a champion is vulnerable and Wolfe decided to fill the hole with a 13 woman tournament in Baltimore in 1953. It was the perfect opportunity to put over Byers for the title. Her ring work had improved and her looks and personality were winning over audiences. This time, though, she was strictly babyface.
She won, but who knew who she was? To remedy this, Byers was splashed on television, both on televised wrestling and on shows such as What’s My Line? (air date: August 16, 1953) I remember a kinescope of her appearance. Dorothy Kilgallen, a wrestling fan herself, got it after only a few questions. (Byers also appeared as a guest on I’ve Got A Secret, which also aired the same day as her appearance on What’s My Line?)
Still, there were doubts, mainly because she had not defeated Burke. It wasn’t going to be easy to get Burke into the ring against her, given the animosity. So, Wolfe applied the financial squeeze. Byers was booked as the NWA Women’s Champion. Publicity pieces were also run in friendly media extolling the virtues of the new champ and the fact that Mildred Burke wouldn’t step into the ring with Byers. Burke, for her part, allied herself with Jack Pfeffer, who recently had a falling out with Al Haft (With whom hasn’t Pfeffer ever had a falling out?), but bookings were becoming fewer and fewer. She signed a deal to defend her laurels in Georgia and Florida for Paul Jones and Cowboy Luttral, respectively. Because she was the women’s champ, it was determined that she should give Byers a title shot. Burke smelled a double-cross. Byers was Wolfe’s daughter-in-law. Besides, Wolfe had already crossed Burke: as part of their divorce Burke waived alimony and sold short on her share of their promotion in return for a five year no-compete promise from Wolfe. Four months later, Wolfe was back promoting, and because he was an NWA member and a male (a member of The Old Boys Club, as it were), promoters sided with Billy against Mildred. The financial pressure caused Burke finally to give in, and the match was set for Atlanta in August, 1954. It would end up becoming the distaff Gotch-Hackenschmidt bout for all its controversy.
It was billed as a 2 out of 3 falls match, and like the first Gotch-Hackenschmidt match, it was a shoot. But Burke was at a disadvantage. First, she had recently injured her knee in a warm-up match. Second, Byers trained in the weeks before the match with Ruffy Silverstein, a noted collegiate wrestler and a man who could shoot with the best of them in the pro ring. And third, Wolfe made sure to get a friendly referee.
Byers won the first fall when she pinned Burke after a series of moves to Burke’s injured leg. I believe that Burke had believed she could easily handle Byers in case of a shoot. She had beaten Byers many times in the past and never had reason to fear her ability. But Byers was a better athlete than Burke, and with the coaching of Silverstein, was more than ready to strip Mildred of her claim to the title. Now wary that Byers was the real thing, Burke went into stall mode. But the re-injured knee proved too much to overcome and rest of the match was called by the officials because it was claimed that Burke could not continue. Mildred left the ring thinking her crown was safe, but shortly thereafter, the Atlanta Athletic Commission declared Byers the winner and new champion.
Burke, like Hackenschmidt before her, denied she had lost and decried the supposedly foul tactics by Byers that were overlooked by the referee. She also stated that the reason she dropped the first fall was in order to save herself and win the second and third, but this argument fell upon deaf ears. Byers, for her part, said that she pinned Mildred in the first fall, and during the second fall, Burke left the ring, refusing to come back. And Byers added that, regardless of what Burke told others, the match was a shoot. Burke, from the sanctity of her own promotion, the World Women’s Wrestling Association (where she held its title), continued to attack the outcome, claiming favoritism (Byers was, after all, Wolfe’s daughter-in-law) and simply billed herself as world champion. Regardless, the match outcome held up to media scrutiny (most likely because the vast majority of sports editors could have cared less who won, or even if there had been a women’s title bout) and June Byers was recognized as the world champion.
Though Mildred continued to wrestle as if nothing ever happened, the pressure put upon NWA members by Wolfe and Sam Muchnick caused Mildred’s bookings in territories run by NWA members to dry up. First to fall of her bandwagon was Leroy McGuirk. Then her run for Paul Jones in Georgia and Cowboy Luttral in Florida magically disappeared. Burke found herself reduced to working for outlaw promotions. Even Jack Pfeffer, who originally backed her against Wolfe, fell by the wayside. He was now pushing his new protégé, the Fabulous Moolah.
The other workers in the Wolfe promotion didn’t shed any tears over Mildred’s defeat. They referred to Burke as “Madame Queen” behind her back and groused over how they had to deliberately look their worst as Mildred bounced them around the ring. However, it should be noted that, due to the split between Burke and Wolfe, the girls were well paid (Burke and Wolfe became embroiled in a bidding war, the outcome of which saw Wolfe victorious by offering the ladies 75 percent of the purse versus Burke’s offer of 60 percent. In pre-divorce days, the girls were lucky to net 25 percent.). This was bound not to last as the promotion fractured, new competition entered, and more wrestlers arrived on the scene.
As the face of women’s wrestling for the next decade, Byers’ athleticism and technical skills did much in opening new markets for women’s wrestling, and improve its perception in the eyes of the public as being more than mere tawdry spectacle. In her famous finishing move, the Byers Bridge, she stretched into a bridge over her rolled-up opponent, pinning the opponent’s shoulders on the mat. (Tito Santana would later use a variation of this as a pinning move.) Complementing her repertoire of scientific moves was her toughness in an age of very tough women, and she was known for working incredibly stiff, especially against newcomers: one such wrestler recalled suffering a broken nose and two black eyes from Byers’ intentionally punching her in the face. Byers wrestled many outstanding matches with Penny Banner, and the two had great respect for one another: Byers would rank Banner as among her toughest opponents, while Banner returned the compliment by naming Byers the greatest of all time.
Upon Billy Wolfe’s death in 1963, Byers relocated to St. Louis, working for promoter Sam Menaker, who became her third husband. Wolfe’s death proved catastrophic for women’s wrestling, as there was no longer a central training school for new talent. Byers was in an auto accident in 1963 which resulted in serious leg damage, including a broken right knee cap. Due to the severity of the injury, doctors advised against a return to the ring. June took the advice and retired to Houston on January 1, 1964, where she became a real estate agent. She suffered another tragedy when her son William was accidentally electrocuted. Friends said she was never the same after that, though she had four grandchildren and even five great-grandchildren. In 1998 June came down with a cold, which developed into pneumonia. On July 20, 1998, Byers succumbed to its effects.
Looking back over their careers, I would credit June Byers with bring the better wrestler, but it was Mildred Burke who had a lasting effect on the game. In 1954, she became the first woman wrestler to tour Japan. Her appearance sparked interest in women’s wrestling and she made contacts that would later pay off for her, as well as the future of Japanese women’s wrestling. In 1961 she founded The Mildred Burke School of Wrestling in California and formed a relationship with Takashi Matsunaga, who founded the All Japan Woman’s Wrestling Association. Burke supplied the American talent for the promotion and also helped train several of the Japanese wrestlers.
In the end, though, we are the worse off for their loss, as women’s wrestling spiraled from being an imitation of a legitimate sporting event into more of a burlesque show.
Next: The Age of Moolah
– – The Phantom of the Ring
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher