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

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March 12, 2013

Mae Young found her partner in crime in the late 1940s when she began training a naïve hopeful from Tookiedoo, S.C., named Lillian Ellison. Mae gave the Southern belle an impolite introduction to the tough world of women’s wrestling, but Ellison caught on to the game better than anyone else. Soon, Lillian would change her name to The Fabulous Moolah and become the undefeated Women’s Champion for 29 years, the top promoter of female wrestlers and Young’s lifelong friend.

In the years before Moolah's 2007 passing, the pair lived on separate floors of Moolah’s estate in Columbia, S.C., along with a midget wrestler named Diamond Lil in a setup that would have made for history's most watchable reality show had anyone had the foresight to film it.

As women’s wrestling faded into kitsch during those postwar decades, Young seemed poised to carry out her days in this domestic obscurity. Sure, she trained a few decent wrestlers alongside Moolah, but who knew about her pivotal role in bringing female grappling to Japan less than a decade after the U.S. dropped the bomb? Who wrote about the unique revolution she spurred alongside Gladys “Kill ‘’Em” Gillem and Mildred Burke in America? How many sports-entertainment fans even knew the name Mae Young?

That changed in 1999 when Mae and Moolah reemerged in WWE as septuagenarians in smart slacks and lovely sweaters and raised hell. While most folks their age were lining up for an early dinner at the Golden Corral, the old friends were getting powerbombed through tables and shellacked by guitars.

It’s natural to think a mockery was being made of the great ladies wrestlers, but reinvention is the key to survival in sports-entertainment. As relics of a black-and-white era, the pair would have been politely applauded by raucous “Attitude Era” fans. But when they embraced the age as lewd, aggressive seniors, they became two of the most unexpected heroes of WWE’s biggest boom period, WWE Hall of Famers and the subjects of a wonderful 2004 documentary, “Lipstick and Dynamite,” that finally brought their careers to light.

Anyway, whoever mistook Young for a matronly grandmother should watch her 2005 appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” During the course of a brief, eight-minute interview, the incorrigible Mae continually taunts the host by saying, “You wanna wrestle dirty with me?” before finally slapping him in the face with her bra pad. Yes, the Mae Young who mothered a dismembered hand and played tonsil hockey with Eric Bischoff is the Mae Young you know. But she may also very well be Mae Young.

“When it comes to who was the toughest woman, there are no debates,” WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross wrote in a 2008 column. “Johnnie Mae Young is universally considered to be the baddest of the bad when it comes to women's wrestling.”

Young passed away on Jan. 14, 2014, at the age of 90. The sports-entertainment world mourned the loss of the last of an old guard, but took comfort in the knowledge that Mae left when she was ready. No one on Heaven or Earth would have had the guts to make her do otherwise. 

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