Mae Young will go down in history as one of the toughest, craziest female wrestlers ever in a career that spanned an amazing seven decades.
Her resilience was drilled into her from birth by growing up during the Great Depression in Oklahoma as the youngest of eight children to a single mother, as her father left the family home to find work and never came back.
This unique upbringing and tomboy nature led her older brothers to train her to become an amateur wrestler and she competed against the opposite sex for her high school's boys' wrestling team as a teenager. Young's natural athleticism didn't stop there, as she also played softball for Tulsa's national championship team.
Breaking into the secretive pro wrestling business back then wasn't easy unless you somehow caught the eye of a promoter. According to Young herself in a SLAM! Wrestling interview five years ago, she got herself noticed by female wrestling impresario Billy Wolfe by challenging his World champion Mildred Burke to a fight when they came into town and backing up her bravado by quickly defeating two other lady wrestlers in his troupe in impromptu shoot bouts:
"When they brought Mildred Burke to Tulsa to wrestle a girl by the name of Gladys 'Kill 'Em' Gillem, I caught a streetcar and went over and challenged Mildred Burke because she was the world's champion. Billy Wolfe and Sam Avey, the promoter, told me, 'You can't wrestle the champion, there's no way.' The next day Billy Wolfe brought a girl by the name of Elvira Snodgrass and Gladys 'Kill 'Em' Gillem over to my high school.
In the gym, I shot with Gladys and beat her within seconds. Then, I shot with Elvira, and I beat her in seconds. Billy Wolfe then said, 'Well, I might make a girl wrestler out of you.' He smartened me up and said you gotta go with the flow."
Of course, with the passing of time, how much truth there is to this story cannot be ascertained, but she certainly wouldn't have gotten her break if she hadn't been a legitimate shooter that could handle herself.
America's entrance into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbour proved to be a blessing in disguise for women's wrestling in the country. With many of the top male stars being drafted into military service, territories that previously had avoided or banned female wrestling, started opening their doors to Wolfe's troupe, leading to a boom in his business. Indeed, in the late 1940s peak, around 150 women made their living from wrestling, an amazing statistic when that's more performers than are on both the WWE and TNA main rosters today combined.
During this growth period Young was a regular opponent for Mildred Burke (Wolfe's wife), but was eventually supplanted at the top of the card by the younger and prettier Nell Stewart (who Wolfe had an affair with) and trusted shooter June Byers (who was Wolfe's daughter-in-law). Nonetheless, she was chosen for the spot of being Burke's in ring rival for the first ever women's wrestling show in Japan in 1954, which demonstrates how much she was still respected for her legitimate skill.
Despite once putting over Burke to Frank Deford by claiming that in her prime no woman of that era could have beaten her in a shoot match, in recent years Young changed her tune, insisting that she could have beaten her for real but was never allowed to. Given that 99.9999% of matches by that point were predetermined works, who knows who would have come out on top?
In one of the very rare exceptions to that rule, Mildred Burke lost the NWA World Women's Championship to June Byers on Aug. 20th, 1954, in Atlanta in a genuine shoot, which came about due to the political fallout from Burke's acrimonious divorce from women's promoter Billy Wolfe, but by that point she was 39, was facing a much younger and heavier opponent and had the misfortune of dislocating her knee to lose the first fall, as well as a biased official who stopped the match after 47 minutes once it had become a boring stalemate. Young apparently wasn't impressed with either's performance and insisted she could have beaten both of them on that night in Jeff Leen's book The Queen of the Ring about Mildred Burke's career.
If she wasn't the best grappler of the ladies of the time, then she was certainly the best street fighter of the lot, gaining a reputation for regularly getting into trouble with the law for beating up men on the road.
Elvira Snodgrass recalled one such incident to Gene Sullivan of the St. Joseph MO News-Press in an article published on Mar. 16th, 1945:
"Mae Young got into trouble in Little Rock one night, Elviry recalled, not without some glee because the gals don't like each other. They never speak outside the ring. "Young is a natural roughneck," Elviry said by way of prelude to the story. "This night in Little Rock she said something to a man fan and he kicked her in the face. Then Mae took him. His wife came to his assistance and Young sent both of them to the hospital." The aftermath was a trip to the jailhouse for Mae and a fine."
In 1949, Young was arrested twice in four months for assaulting and stealing money from male victims. Although Mae denied the latter, she admitted the former and blamed it on unwanted sexual advances:
"A husky lady wrestler admitted today that her second male victim in four months may have been beaten "a little" but said she had to repel his advances.
Her opponent, Elmer J. Nelson, 38 years old, of North Platte, Nebeat, and San Francisco, went to a hospital. He also claimed his $100 bill was gone.
Miss Johnnie Mae Young, the lady middleweight, conceded having a "minor" tussle with Nelson. She was arrested yesterday with a petite companion, Mary Anise Huse, 22, of Mobile, Ala., a photographer and waitress.
Both denied knowing anything about Nelson's money. It was different about the beating.
"Maybe I did work Mr. Nelson over a little," the 28-year-old Oakland, Cal., wrestler confessed. "He made advances to me. Improper advances."
It was the same explanation Miss Young, Miss Huse and a third girl, Eva McDevitt, gave several months ago when they were arrested for beating up Salvadore Manriquez of Sacramento, Cal.
Manriquez was found wandering in the snow north of Reno with "several hundred dollars" and his automobile missing. He accused the three women, now at liberty on bail, of slugging and robbing him."
As you can see, Young was one woman that you didn't want to mess with!
It was this kick ass, take no prisoners reputation that helped Young gain the respect of her male peers, despite many of whom at the time thinking that women's wrestling was a silly freak show that demeaned their sport and undermined kayfabe. Apparently, even 1920s wrestling pioneer Ed "Strangler" Lewis admired her toughness:
"Back during the time I started wrestling, they didn't like to see girls in the ring," recalled Young. "Ed 'Strangler' Lewis told me, 'Women belong in the kitchen and not in the ring. I don't like women wrestling but if there ever was someone born to be a wrestler, you're it.' That's the greatest compliment I ever received because that was what I was born to do. That's the only thing I breathe and think about. I go to sleep thinking about wrestling, I love the business."
This stigma was something the women in the profession had to constantly battle in Young's heyday and it's never fully gone away in North America, as even today the WWE Divas are often considered as nothing more than eye candy filler and relegated to death spots on cards to take the crowd down before the main event.
Young's amazing longevity in the business can be credited to her friendship to The Fabulous Moolah, who she helped train in the late 1940s. Moolah won the NWA World Women's Championship on Sept. 18th, 1956, in a thirteen woman battle royal that also featured Mae Young after June Byers retired and was stripped of the belt. With Wolfe becoming bankrupt later that decade, Moolah and her husband Buddy Lee took over control of the women's wrestling business, and she always looked after her trainer, allowing Young to work regularly into her late 40s.
As you all know, Young never truly retired. Indeed, she continued to work to a surprisingly high level when she was in her late 60s and early 70s for Moolah's annual women's wrestling conventions in Las Vegas under the Ladies International Wrestling Association umbrella that started in 1988 and ran for over a decade.
Such was their bond, Young moved into Moolah's South Carolina home after her mother died in 1991 and lived with her until the latter's death in November 2007. Midget wrestler Katie Glass (aka Diamond Lil) and Donna Christanello (until she moved back to Pittsburgh in May 1999) also lived in the household.
In a strange turn of events, Young had a second, more famous run, as a crazy old lady wrestling personality for WWE over the last 15 years. In what was likely only designed to be a one off appearance to get over Jeff Jarrett's mysoginistic, woman beating gimmick, Double J smashed a guitar over the head of The Fabulous Moolah and locked Mae Young in the figure four leglock on the Sept. 9th 1999 edition of Smackdown, but they made such a positive impression that they became regular characters on WWE's television shows and pay-per-views during the Attitude era and made sporadic appearances thereafter.
Even though Young was just along for the ride initially, she quickly became the bigger star of the elderly comedy duo, due to her greater willingness to do insane stunts and take part in wacky storylines. These included:
- Being stripped to her bra and panties in a handicap Evening Gown match by Ivory on the Sept. 27th 1999 Raw.
- Winning the Miss Rumble 2000 swimsuit contest when she took her top off. Thankfully, this was blurred off television and she was wearing a prosthesis underneath, but it still majorly pissed off the owners of Madison Square Garden where the event took place at.
- Entering into a relationship with 'Sexual Chocolate' Mark Henry, becoming pregnant and giving birth to a rubber hand.
- Being powerbombed off the top rope and off the ramp way through tables by Bubba Ray Dudley.
- Taking a big scoop slam and a top rope splash at the hands of 3-Minute Warning.
- Having her feet fondled by fetishist Gene Snitsky.
- Snogging The Great Khali, Vince McMahon and even giving The Rock a kiss for his birthday.
Although these fun and games made her a beloved figure with the current crop of WWE stars, her female peers were appalled at the shenanigans, feeling they made a mockery of their careers. Being stuck to The Fabulous Moolah's hip didn't help either, as they still rightfully resented their former booker for ruling her women's wrestling fiefdom with an iron fist and keeping herself on top as World's champion well into her 60s, who Young always defended as gaining her spot by virtue of being a better businesswoman than the other female wrestlers of the time period.
This old feud became public knowledge in the 2004 documentary Lipstick and Dynamite about the golden era of women's wrestling, as Young was the only woman featured who had anything positive to say about Moolah. The bitterness between the two camps only escalated when Moolah and Young were pushed as the stars of the film during promotion of it, due to their modern day WWE fame. Indeed, the duo even appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno when the movie was released in theatres, a privilege the other women in the film like Gladys "Kill 'Em" Gillem, Ida Mae Martinez, Ella Waldek and Penny Banner did not share in.
However, these petty squabbles weren't enough to stop Young becoming only the third woman inducted into the independently ran Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Amsterdam, New York in 2004. She was also the third woman to be inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2008.
Young's last proper match of her career was on the 800th episode of Monday Night Raw on Nov. 3rd, 2008 at the age of 85, when she was pinned with a roll up by Beth Phoenix in a short eight on eight Diva tag match. Despite all the women involved protecting her heavily, Young became dizzy, fell badly onto the canvas and was lucky she didn't seriously injure herself. Finally, age had caught up with her. Thankfully, WWE recognised this and never scripted her to do anything physical again.
However, in order to allow her the bragging rights of having matches in nine consecutive decades, Young pinned Laycool (Michelle McCool and Layla) in an impromptu No DQ falls count anywhere match on the Nov. 15th Old School Raw when babyfaces Natalya, Gail Kim, Eve Torres and Melina beat them up while The Bella Twins held Young up and walked her into place to put her foot on Layla for the victory. It's worth noting that historians dispute the nine decade claim, as there are no records of Young wrestling before she turned 18 in 1941.
Sadly, Young didn't manage to reach her goal of competing in one last match on her hundredth birthday. But regardless, I don't think anyone else will ever come along who became a bigger star in their mid to late 70s than they were in their athletic prime. She truly was one of a kind!