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

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March 12, 2013

“Kill ’Em” earned her nickname the hard way, but, as Mae tells it, Gillem went down within seconds.

With that, Young was immediately welcomed into Wolfe’s dysfunctional family of lady wrestlers. Leaving behind Sand Springs, Mae set about traversing the country by car, driving endless miles across faulty local roads in the days before GPS and interstate highways. Although she was only a teenager at the time, Young quickly became the troupe's big villain — easily surpassing “Kill ’Em” Gillem — and began battling Burke over the Women’s World Championship in front of thousands of fans across the country.

Young never won that title — not once in her career did she hold a major championship — but she didn’t need it. Ten pounds of title gold wouldn’t have enhanced Mae’s reputation as a woman who, as Freddie Blassie once put it, “could whip 60 percent of the men in the wrestling business in her prime.” Instead of allowing a title to define her, Young defined herself in the saloons where she swore and played poker and in the ring where she had taken to calling herself “The Great” Mae Young.

Sometimes sporting an audacious crown on her way down the aisle, the Okie embraced her role as a villain and savored making life very difficult for goody two shoes opponents like Ann LaVerne and June Byers. Years later, she would say how much she enjoyed it when audiences chucked eggs and rotten vegetables at her, how she loved to hear them boo.

Mae was wrestling in Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered World War II. With many of the top male wrestlers now enlisted, women — along with, believe it or not, bears and midgets — became the top sports-entertainment attractions in the country and Young was at the forefront of the movement.

Alongside Mildred Burke, Young became the first female to wrestle professionally in Canada when she went up to Calgary, Alberta, to compete for WWE Hall of Famer Stu Hart. She also blazed into major cities like New York and Chicago where women’s wrestling had formerly been banned in the name of public decency.

The story of Young and company barnstorming wartime America with their traveling women’s wrestling show is an appealing one. You can almost picture Jennifer Lawrence playing cute in the lead role as a scrappy, but determined woman intent on proving that the gals could do it just as well as the fellas. But there was an underlying ugliness to all this manifest destiny.

For one, female wrestling was still viewed as more of a sideshow attraction than a legitimate display of athleticism by the general public. And Billy Wolfe, the mastermind behind the whole roadside circus, was fiendishly manipulative. The slick-haired huckster played the women against one another while keeping the bulk of the earnings for himself. When his oily behavior finally severed his relationship with Burke, the two began to vie for dominance over women’s wrestling behind the scenes. Through it all, Young just kept on swinging.

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