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).