March 12 was Pro Wrestling and WWE Hall of Famer Mae Young’s birthday. If she was still with us, she would have been 92.
Today, most fans know Mae Young from her Attitude Era adventures as WWE’s version of the Rappin’ Granny. During a time when WWE took immense pride in being edgy, a nearly 80-year-old woman pushed the boundaries harder than anyone, plunging through tables, off the wagon and into the delivery room to give birth to a rubber hand (for, uh, some reason). Some may have questioned the things Mae subjected herself to, but she truly embraced her new role as a sports entertainer, and did it better than many a quarter her age.
That said, there was another side to Mae Young. She wasn’t just a wacky old lady WWE hired from central casting. She was a legitimate trailblazer, with an lengthy, colorful, accomplished career that would be the envy of any pro wrestler, male or female. Here are a few things you might not know about the life and career of Mae Young…
1. In high school, Mae was on the boys’ wrestling team and won a softball national championship. Mae Young (full name Johnnie Mae Young) may have made her name in the staged world of professional grappling, but she had legit athletic credentials, dating back to her high school years.
Not particularly interested in going to the sock hop, or whatever Archie Comics things they got up to in the ’30s, Mae convinced her brother to teach her to wrestle and get her a spot on the boys’ wrestling team at her Sand Springs, Okla. high school…
“My brother Fred was on the wrestling team when it was coached by Shag Charvoz. He showed me how to wrestle, so I learned amateur wrestling before I did professional wrestling.”
The high school boys were probably pretty okay with wrestling Mae, right up until arms started getting torn out of sockets.
While in high school, Mae was also on a national championship-winning softball team, and she sometimes hung around the football field and kicked field goals because, dammit, what good is a day that you don’t challenge at least a few gender stereotypes?
2. Mae challenged World Champion Mildred Burke at the age of 16. Mae Young had her first run-in with professional wrestling when she attended a show in Tulsa while still a high school sophomore. Mildred Burke, the legendary pioneer of women’s professional wrestling, was on the card, and Mae wasn’t all that impressed. Mae, who wasn’t yet aware that pro wrestling was fake, summoned up her moxie, approached Burke’s husband and manager Billy Wolfe and demanded a match with the Burke. Obviously, Wolfe wasn’t about to give some nervy whippersnapper a match with the champ, but he did agree to send two of his other top women (Wolfe ran women’s wrestling along with Burke) to Mae’s high school to give her a “tryout.” Wolfe was likely hoping that seasoned lady grapplers Gladys “Kill ‘Em” Gillem and Elvira Snodgrass would stretch a little sense into Mae, but things didn’t exactly go their way. Here’s Mae’s recollection of the high school gym showdown…
“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.”
Gladys “Kill ‘Em” Gillem on the left, Elvira Snodgrass on the right. AKA the two ladies Mae Young turned into a 1930s J&J Security.
Mae held Wolfe to his word, and as soon as she turned 18, she was traveling the highways and byways as part of his women’s wrestling troupe. Unfortunately for Mae, she was never given a chance to put her real wrestling skills to the test against Burke.
3. She claims she was the first woman to do a dropkick. Yes, even the most rudimentary of things has to start somewhere. The dropkick was invented sometime in the late ’30s by either Abe Coleman or “Jumping” Joe Savoldi (the two didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on who actually innovated the move). According to Young, she saw Savoldi do this hot new move one night, then just matter-of-factly told Mildred Burke, “Well, tonight, you get a dropkick.” And that’s exactly what happened because if Mae Young says she’s going to dropkick you, she’s gonna dropkick you.
4. Mae was one of the first women to wrestle in Canada. During the ’40s, Mae was one of Mildred Burke’s go-to opponents because she was credible, just as pretty as Burke and a team player (double crosses and screwjobs were just as common in ladies’ wrestling as they were in men’s wrestling back then).
Who else but Mae could stand up to Mildred every night? Certainly not this guy.
Being one of Burke’s favorite opponents meant that Mae got to help The Queen expose new areas and territories to women’s wrestling. For instance, Burke and Mae headlined the first women’s wrestling tour of Canada in the early ’40s, wrestling for Stu Hart.
5. She also helped give birth to Japanese women’s wrestling. Even more importantly, Burke and Mae sparked the popularity of women’s wrestling in Japan. In 1954, Burke and Mae headlined the first major women’s pro wrestling show in Japan. The show was a big success and almost immediately spawned a plethora of women’s wrestling companies in Japan. Eventually, all these indie promotions would coalesce to form All-Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling or AJW, the dominant women’s wrestling company in Japan up until the early-2000s. So, all those Joshi matches and wrestlers you love? You can thank the woman you probably mostly remember for crotch-chopping and bronco busting Eric Bischoff for that.
There’s a surprisingly straight line between Mae Young and Bull Nakano.
6. She had a couple of stints as an evangelical preacher. Speaking of Mae’s racier side, it may surprise you to know that the fearless, do-anything Ms. Young was an evangelical preacher. Twice. In the mid-40s, Mae took a break from wrestling to preach the good word with her sister. It didn’t last long, and Mae was back to wrestling by 1947, but she gave it a try again in the early ’90s when she was caring for her ailing mother.
I wonder what the Good Book says about this?
7. Mae saw the inside of a jail cell several times for allegedly beating up and robbing men. Mae Young had an amazing run as a wrestler, but her life wasn’t all inspiration and light. During the mid-to-late ’40s, she was involved in some seedy dealings and found herself on the wrong side of the law several times, usually for cleaning men’s clocks (and sometimes cleaning out their wallets). According to Elvira Snodgrass, Mae had one of her run-ins with Johnny Law in 1945…
“Young is a natural roughneck. 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.”
1949 saw Mae getting involved in two more complicated, troubling incidents. Mae and a female friend were charged with beating and robbing Salvador Manriquez and dumping him from a car outside of Sacramento. Manriquez nearly died from exposure. Later that year, Mae and a friend hit the town with a guy named Elmer J. Nelson in Reno, Nev. According to Nelson, Mae later sent him to the hospital, and relieved him of $100. In Young’s version, she was just teaching him a lesson after he made “improper advances” toward her. The charges against Young would eventually fall apart in both cases. I won’t speculate as to what was really going on in either of these incidents. The true facts of the cases are lost to time, but thankfully, Mae’s run-ins with the police would become much less frequent after her rather busy 1949.
8. She and The Fabulous Moolah lived together for nearly two decades. Those who remember Young’s WWF heyday will also how remember how close she was with The Fabulous Moolah. The two were always a unit on TV, and it turns out that they were just as connected at the hip in real life. In 1991, after the death of her mother, Mae moved in with Moolah, and they continued to live together until Moolah’s death.
Friends ’til the end.
The exact nature of Mae Young and Moolah’s relationship has never been a matter of public record, but according to most of her co-workers, Mae was openly and rather proudly gay as early as the 1940s. Mae herself described Moolah as like a sister to her, and she was at Moolah’s bedside almost until the moment she passed away in 2007.
9. Mae Young had the longest in-ring career in wrestling history. Mae Young claims to have wrestled in nine separate decades, having had her first match in 1939 and her last match in 2010. Some dispute Mae’s 1939 starting date, saying she only started wrestling professionally in 1940 or ’41 (she didn’t get paid for squashing Kill ‘Em Gillem and Snodgrass in her high school gym, so those matches don’t count), but even if she didn’t start in ’39, she still wrestled professionally for at least 69 or 70 years. Mae’s only competition is Lou Thesz, who wrestled from 1932 to 1990 (58 years), so Young has the longest career record pretty solidly locked down.
Seventy years of f*cking ladies up while looking fabulous.
10. Stephanie McMahon promised Mae should could wrestler her daughter Aurora Rose on her 100th birthday. Yup, according to Young, Stephanie said that she could wrestle her daughter Aurora Rose when Mae was 100 and Aurora Rose was 17. Sadly, that match will never come to pass, which is probably for the best. I doubt Aurora Rose would have been able to hang.
There you have it. A few things you might not have known about a funny, fearless, trailblazing survivor. What are some of your favorite Mae Young memories (don’t worry, it’s okay to mention the hand)? Know any stories or facts I missed? Let’s go Mae Young crazy on these comments.