Forever young: The life and times of 90-year-old Johnnie Mae Young

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March 12, 2013

Forget, for a moment, the Mae Young you know.

Don’t think of her at nearly 80 years of age, hair frazzled, legs in the air, inexplicably procreating a human hand. Instead, see her at 17, a teenage knockout with raven hair who might seem as innocent and alluring as a pinup girl if it wasn’t for that cigar in her teeth. (PHOTOS | WATCH VIDEO PLAYLIST)

This is Mae Young in 1939 — the year “The Wizard of Oz” was first released and a gallon of gas cost a dime — on the day she came stomping into the Tulsa Coliseum with a challenge for the top female wrestler in the country.

Young may have been cupcake cute, but she was a tomboy — a rough one at that who kicked field goals for the boys’ football team and was not afraid to get into fistfights with grown men. Born in Sand Springs, Okla., on March 12, 1923, she was named Johnnie after a father she barely knew and raised, along with eight siblings, by a single mother during dire economic times.

One could imagine her childhood looking like a sepia-toned photograph of The Great Depression — all cropless fields and dust caked shanty towns — but her memories don’t allow for that.

Instead, she enjoyed her youth as both a brilliant athlete and a tenacious fighter. At school, she led Sand Springs High to a national title in softball. At home, she stood back and grinned as her brother lured unassuming neighborhood boys to their front yard, daring them to tangle with his kid sister. Young was 5-foot-7 and adult strong, and she had no trouble making hapless twerps cry uncle.

“I wrestled dirty and I was a tough son of a gun,” Young said in “Lipstick & Dynamite,” a 2004 documentary about the first ladies of wrestling.

When the famous women’s wrestling champion, Mildred Burke, came to the Tulsa Coliseum in 1939, Young had the confidence to go to the event and issue a challenge to the “Queen of the Mat.” Burke wasn’t just a national star — she was a powerhouse with bowling ball biceps and legs like a T-Rex. But Billy Wolfe, Burke’s husband, manager and the all-powerful impresario of female wrestling at the time, was unwilling to put his star up against this cocksure unknown. So he sent the top baddie in his stable after her — Gladys “Kill ’Em” Gillem.

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