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 3
The Age of Moolah
If the stories of Mildred Burke and June Byers can be said to have been written in stone, then the story of the Fabulous Moolah can only be said to have been written in fudge, for no one fudged more about her life and times than Moolah herself.
What we do know is that Mary Lillian Ellison was born on July 22, 1923, in Tookiedoo, a neighborhood near Blythewood, in Kershaw County, South Carolina, the youngest of thirteen siblings. The sole daughter, she was close to her mother (also named Mary), who died when Mary was only eight. Times were tough and the family was poor, so it was no surprise that at the age of ten, she was earning a living picking cotton on her cousin’s farm. For recreation, her father, Henry Lee, took her to the local wrestling matches in nearby Columbia. One night she watched Mildred Burke and became transfixed. She apparently decided that from this point on, she would be a wrestler.
But love intervened, and at the age of fourteen, she found herself married to Walter Carroll. Carroll was all of twenty-one years old himself. Though the marriage only lasted two years, Mary did giver birth to a daughter, named Mary in honor of her grandmother. After graduating Columbia High School, Mary left her daughter with her father and set out on her dream to become a wrestler.
She joined Billy Wolfe and Mildred Burke’s troupe and was said to have been trained by Burke and Mae Young, with whom she began a life long friendship. Her first match was in the Boston Arena on May 26, 1949. She lost to June Byers. The main event that evening featured Juanita Coffman versus Mae Weston. To give an idea of pricing back then, a ringside seat went for only $2.40.
Shortly afterward she made the acquaintance of one Johnny Long, a journeyman wrestler working for Al Haft and Jack Pfeffer. She was said to have married Long, but this, like so many other facts in Moolah’s life, is hazy. What we do know is that Long took her to Pfeffer, who was looking for a valet to accompany his new act. Tony Olivas would be marketed as The Elephant Boy, but needed just a touch more color. Pfeffer asked her if she wanted the job. It would pay more than wrestling prelims and she would be out from under the thumb of Wolfe. She said yes, and Pfeffer set about creating a character for her. She would accompany her man to the ring dressed in leopard tights, sometimes being carried on another litter along with Elephant Boy.
In later years she claimed that when promoters asked her what she wanted, she said, “Moolah,” and that was how her name came about. Nice story, but my belief is that “Moolah” was entirely a Pfeffer invention. It was one of those crazy words Pfeffer liked: he previously booked wrestlers he named Count Von Zuppie, King Kong Frankenstein and Zim Zam Zum. And so was born Slave Girl Moolah, valet to The Elephant Boy. Well, Elephant Boy’s gimmick soon ran out of gas, but Moolah was just getting started. Pfeffer next used her as valet for Nature Boy Buddy Rogers. She would hold his robe and arm covers and, in case he got into trouble, slip him a foreign object or otherwise interfere in the match.
When this gimmick ran its course, Moolah stuck with Pfeffer, who had a falling out with Haft. Pfeffer noticed that as a natural heel, she drew great heat. He also noticed that women’s wrestling was growing in popularity and decided to give his new protégé a push. Pfeffer also changed her moniker from Slave Girl Moolah to the Fabulous Moolah, a name more in keeping with what he had planned. In 1956, Pfeffer staged a women’s tournament in Baltimore. To get the approval of the NWA, he announced the tournament was to determine the Women’s Junior Heavyweight Title. On September 18, 1956, she defeated Judy Grable to win the title.
Unlike Burke and Byers, who used their combination of beauty and wrestling ability to get to the top, Moolah used the old trick of political connections to secure her claim to the throne. Shortly after her victory, she met up with Buddy Lee, a mid-card wrestler with big dreams and even bigger ambition. Buddy convinced her to leave Pfeffer and, with his help, she opened a wrestling school in Columbia, South Carolina while defending her title wherever she could. Her trainees provided her with opponents and a steady stream of income from booking fees.
And a good thing, too, for by this point Moolah was considered persona non grata among most wrestling promoters and women grapplers. Billy Wolfe still held the lion’s share of the market, and Moolah found herself working for whatever independent promoter would have her. Though she had split with Pfeffer, he continued to book matches for her along the East Coast. Most notable among these bookings was a couple of dates for Vince McMahon’s Capitol Wrestling. McMahon would prove to be her sugar daddy in the years ahead. Having her own stable of wrestlers enabled her to have opponents on a regular basis. The touring group usually consisted of Moolah and trainees Sweet Georgia Brown, Rita Cortez, the Lady Angel (a Pfeffer trainee), Fran Gravette and Bette Boucher. Mary Jane Mull, Bonnie Watson and Judy Grable, who had been performing for several years, were also added to the mix, as was the “Panther Girl” Ann Casey (for a while, anyway). This was the perfect scenario for Moolah, for she was certainly no Mildred Burke or June Byers when it came to ring skills. Her wrestling ability was, in the vernacular of the late Dr. Jerry Graham, “the shits.” While Burke and Byers displayed real wrestling technique, the only thing Moolah could do was brawl and deliver horrendous hair-pulling snapmares. Had she had to face a Burke, Byers or a Penny Banner in a shoot, it wouldn’t be Moolah who came out on top.
Sometime around 1962 or 1963 Moolah had a personal downturn. First, she lost the women’s championship of Tony Santos’s Big Time Wrestling to Rita Cortez (October 1963), which ended her relationship with Santos’ booker, Jack Pfeffer. Then, she allegedly caught her common-law husband, Buddy Lee in bed with Rita Cortez. Bye, bye Buddy and Rita. Buddy and Rita soon legally wed and in 1964, Buddy branched off into country music, managing Hank Williams Jr. under the umbrella of Buddy Lee attractions. (Moolah claimed to have dated Hank Williams, Sr. in the 50s, as well as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. She also claimed in her “autobiography” that Williams actually proposed to her, but she declined.) In time, stars such as Willie Nelson, George Strait, Jeff Foxworthy and Lee Ann Womack were added to the roster. The company is still headquartered in Nashville and continues to represent some of the biggest talent inside or outside of the Grand Ole Opry. Lee himself passed from the scene in 1998. Moolah, for her part, took whatever assets remained and continued the school in Columbia, South Carolina, under the name “Girl Wrestling Enterprises.”
The fortuitous event that turned Moolah’s life was the death of Billy Wolfe in 1963. In fact, 1963 was to be good year for her overall as Vince McMahon and Capitol Wrestling split from the NWA. Vince McMahon was on the lookout for women wrestlers, and Moolah was there to fill the bill. When Wolfe died, the notion of a central booking office for the women died with him. Promoters picked up whatever pieces there were to form a sort of auxiliary corps. June Byers married and moved her base of operations to St. Louis, where her regular competitors included Penny Banner, Verne Bottoms, Cora Combs and Karen Kellogg. Kellogg was the last big hope for Wolfe and he pushed her heavily, even bestowing upon her the title of Women’s Junior Heavyweight Champion. Kellogg was a real beauty with a great figure to match. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate in her ring work and she all too frequently found herself looking up at the lights during her matches.
Banner later relocated to North Carolina and became the dominant woman wrestler in the Crockett territory. Among her memorable opponents were Cora Combs, Belle Starr and Tammy Jones. Jean Antone was the star for the Gust Karras-Bob Geigel Kansas City promotion taking on Kay Noble, Sandy Partlow and the formidable Betty Niccoli, while Evelyn Stevens starred in Texas.
When Byers retired in 1964, the NWA title was left vacant. Moolah, having a shaky version of the title (the Junior Heavyweight Title), was recognized as the real thing among promoters who wanted to use her talent on their shows. Because of the added demand for woman wrestlers, Moolah began to churn them out at a good rate, creating one of the best known troupes of women wrestlers. Names like Toni Rose, Donna Christenello, Patti Nielsen, Velvet McIntyre, Joyce Grable (Betty Wade), Vicki Williams, and Rita Boucher appeared on the scene. Moolah finally felt confident enough to drop her title, which she did on September 17, 1966, to Betty Boucher. Boucher could be trusted to return the favor as she was Moolah’s sister-in-law at the time, and she did so about two weeks later. (Exact date is unknown, most likely because no one in either wrestling or the media paid any attention to it.) Moolah then worked a deal in Japan, where, for a few extra grand in her paycheck, she would drop the belt to upcoming star Yukiko Tomoe. She obligingly did so on March 2, 1968, and as the Japanese are people of their word and not likely to double-cross (after all, a deal is a deal), Moolah regained her belt on April 2, just before she left.
Dropping the belt from time to time may prove to be good business, but Moolah’s ego stood in the way. It wasn’t until February 2, 1976, that she dropped the strap to Sue Green, a member of Moolah’s stable, in Madison Square Garden. She made sure to get it back on the next Garden card, March 5, 1976. Two years later she played tag with Evelyn Stevens in Texas, dropping it to the blond bombshell in Dallas on October 8, 1978, and winning it back in nearby Fort Worth on October 10, 1978. Moolah then held the belt another six years. By this time, things began to look ridiculous, with the specter of a champion defending her belt into her sixties. Worse, Moolah’s body looked like the body of a 60-year old woman, prompting Dave Meltzer to label her as the Flabulous Moolah. Finally realizing this couldn’t last forever, Moolah sold the rights to her title to the WWF in 1983. Vince McMahon, Jr. had recently dissociated himself from the NWA and was looking to take over the entire U.S. business, though his dinosaur competitors failed to grasp this until it was way too late.
McMahon knew he needed to inject new blood into the Women’s title, and he decided to follow the trend in Japan, where women’s wrestling was supported by teenage and young adult Japanese women. Towards that end he discovered his new torch bearer in Wendi Richter, one of Moolah’s trainees who debuted in 1980. He quickly involved his new find in an angle he adapted from Jerry Lawler’s Memphis promotion. Lawler got a lot of play out of involving comedian Andy Kaufman in a series of matches where Andy billed himself as the “Inter gender” Champion. Lawler eventually became involved in an angle where Lawler pile drove him into the mat and supposedly injured his neck. The heat from the angle was so good that both Saturday Night Live and The David Letterman Show were fooled into thinking it was the real thing.
Having been introduced to Cindi Lauper by Lou Albano, an idea for an angle was reached. Albano would claim credit for Lauper’s success (in that he was in her video for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”) and they would feud. Lauper loved the idea; she was a wrestling fan herself. So Cindy “found” a young wrestler named Wendi Richter and “trained” her to face Moolah for the title. Albano “managed” and “trained” Moolah for the bout. (In a series of hilarious vignette, Albano was shown training Moolah on 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew and huge submarine sandwiches). The match was placed as the main event of a televised card broadcast live on MTV on July 23, 1984, and was called “The Brawl to End It All.” (Of course, in keeping with true WWF tradition, the past was reworked. Moolah was billed as never having been beaten for the Women’s Title since she won it in 1956.) After much buildup and a tremendous amount of hype, the Fabulous Moolah finally lost the championship when she was defeated by Wendi Richter on July 23, 1984, in the main event of “The Brawl to End it All,” which was broadcast live on MTV. McMahon had his new champion, and, at the age of 23, Wendi Richter became the youngest WWF Women’s Champion.
Wendi took off like a house afire in both television ratings and as a drawing card, even featured in main events on large house shows, and holding her own in popularity with Hulk Hogan. Her challengers were all from the Moolah school: Judy Martin, Penny Mitchell, ex-tag partner Joyce Grable, Black Venus, and Leilani Kai. She and Moolah continued their feud with Moolah managing Kai to the title
The ratings were remarkable and the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection” was born. Richter became one of the WWF’s main attractions, often in the main event of house shows, unheard of for women wrestlers. At one point, Wendi was second in popularity to only Hulk Hogan, whose Hulkamania was in full bloom. Wendi faced Moolah in several rematches around the country. She also faced challengers such as Judy Martin, Penny Mitchell, Black Venus, and Moolah protégé, Leilani Kai. Kai defeated Richter for the title in early 1985. She regained the title at the first WrestleMania one month later. Wendi was also animated for a CBS Saturday morning cartoon during this lucrative run, titled Hulk Hogan‘s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.
However, Wendi got herself firmly placed on Vince Junior’s shit list by insisting on such basics as royalties for the cartoons and a better contract. Thus, popular or not, she had to go (besides, Lauper had already lost interest and left), and on the Garden card set for November 11, 1985, Wendi would put up her title against the mysterious, and masked, Spider Lady. The gimmick of the Spider Lady was that no one woman would wear the mask as a regular thing, preventing serious fans from guessing her identity. The match between Richter and the Spider Lady was an even-steven affair until Richter clamped on a full nelson. The Spider Lady managed to reach the corner and kicked one leg off the turnbuckle, sending both to the mat with Spider on top. The referee tolled the three count, and as two became three, the Spider Lady lifted her shoulder off the mat, and much to her surprise, Wendi was pinned. She ripped the mask off to reveal none other than Moolah herself. Richter later said she didn’t know who was under the mask, or how the match was supposed to end. The second part I believe, but the first part . . . well, I was there that night, sitting in the Loge section and both I and everyone around me knew it was Moolah; in fact the section was shouting it out during the match. So for Wendi not to know reaches the heights of bad imagination. Wendi promptly left the WWF, never to return, and Moolah had her belt back around her flabby waist.
Moolah’s last reign saw her swap the belt with Velvet McIntyre (Velvet Mykietowich) during a tour of Australia. Velvet defeated Moolah in Brisbane on July 3, 1986 and dropped the belt back in Sydney on July 9, 1986. Moolah finally lost her dominance of the title for good on July 24, 1987, when Sherri Martel defeated her in Houston. Moolah then retired from full-time employment, the highlight of which was her induction as the first woman into the WWF Hall of Fame (June 25, 1995). She came out of retirement from time to time, mainly with Mae Young, to supply a sort of comic relief on WWF television (I remember one appearance on Smackdown when Jeff Jarrett smashed his guitar over her head).
As a token of the company’s esteem, Moolah was allowed to win the belt one last time. The setup for the match was, of all things, a handicapped “evening gown” match wherein Moolah and Mae Young defeated champion Ivory. At the WWF’s No Mercy in Cleveland on October 17, 1999, Moolah became the oldest champion in WWF history (and the history of wrestling itself, as far as I can tell) by pinning Ivory. She dropped the belt for good to Ivory in Providence the following Monday night (October 25, 1999). But that was not the last of Moolah in a ring: Vince Junior promised Moolah a match for her 80th birthday and she pinned Victoria (Lisa Marie Varon) on Raw (September 15, 2003). The match, however, was not without its comic relief. The WWF was pushing Randy Orton as “the legend killer,” and he came out after the match and delivered his RKO to Moolah. She and Mae Young got another chance to humiliate Victoria when they attacked her in a “Bra and Panties Gauntlet Match” during the New Year’s Revolution PPV (2006), ripping off Victoria’s top. Her last appearance was with Mae Young backstage during a telecast of Smackdown.
During this period, Moolah also found time to write her autobiography, published by WWE books as Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle. The book is a total work, reminding me of the old line by Woody Allen that he was revising his autobiography to include himself. Never has anyone told less of themselves in an autobiography than Moolah. She and Mae Young also managed to spoil an otherwise fine documentary, Lipstick and Dynamite, merely by appearing in it (more on this in a later column).
But even Moolah couldn’t hold off the final three-count with death. Her end came on November 2, 2007 when she passed away while recovering from shoulder replacement surgery. The cause of death was attributed to a blood clot that caused a heart attack. Her legacy will be her longevity as well as her damage to the game of women’s wrestling in her ego-driven need to keep the tile beyond plausibility.
Next: Whatever happened to the NWA Women’s Title? Plus, GLOWworms and Vince Jr. try to take women’s wrestling back to the carny days.
— The Phantom of the Ring
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher