Mae Young: Wrestler who showed herself to be as hard as the men and who revelled in her status as a hated 'heel'

 

Female emancipation has taken many forms, but few as gaudy and violent as the breakthrough largely pioneered by Mae Young, better known as "the Great Mae Young," superstar of the first generation of professional women wrestlers in the US, who conclusively gave the lie to generalisations about the gentler sex. In sport records are made to be broken, but Young's feat of appearing professionally in eight different decades may never be surpassed.

Her career began just before the Second World War. Sixty years later she was still featuring on WWE Smackdown, a top televised show on World Wrestling Entertainment, and in 2008, aged 85, she appeared in a 16-lady tag match in another WWE special, pitting wrestling's current divas against those of yesteryear.

When Mae Young set out, women's wrestling wasn't the lubricious spectacle it is today – even though she was quite a beauty in her early years, and had her share of sexually suggestive moves (notably the "bronco buster", in which she reared back and forth as she squatted on the chest of a floored foe). But not all the violence was simulated. Bones were broken too.

A talented high school athlete, Young first picked up a love of wrestling when she found she could outmuscle many of the boys. After taking lessons from a former champion, Ed "Strangler" Lewis, she turned pro in 1939 at the age of 16. Women's wrestling, however, only really took off during the Second World War, as a stopgap when the men were off fighting. Soon the female version was producing show-stealers of its own – and none more so than Mae Young.

If wrestling was a pantomime, she was always the villain, who bit and pulled hair, stuck her finger into an opponent's eye and generally fought dirty. But in the interests of the required happy ending she usually ended up losing. "Anybody can be a baby face, what we call a clean wrestler," she said in a 2005 documentary, Lipstick & Dynamite, which chronicled the emergence of the sport. "They don't have to do nothing. It's the heel that carries the whole show. I've always been a heel, and I wouldn't be anything else but."

Outside the ropes her reputation was no different. Stories abounded of how she would pick fights with men in bars and beat them up. She drank and smoked cigars. A fellow female wrestler was astonished at Young's garb when they first met. "She had men's shoes on, men's pants with a zipper up the front and a cigar hanging out of her mouth. Back in 1955 you didn't do that."

During her early career she won a variety of championships and also trained and helped several other stars in the growing industry, most notably Lillian Ellison, who under her fighting name of "The Fabulous Moolah" became WWE's biggest female attraction as well as Young's lifelong friend. In their later years the two shared a home in Columbia, South Carolina, along with Katie Glass. Known professionally as "Diamond Lil", Glass was a former midget wrestler with an advertised height of 3ft 8in.

Her serious fighting days over, Young became if anything even more of a celebrity; a brassy, flirtatious old tough with a comic's natural timing, whose cameo ring appearances never failed to liven things up. Her most astounding feat perhaps came in 2000 when she won WWE's Miss Royal Rumble Bikini Contest at the age of 77, pulling down the top of her swimsuit costume, to defeat competitors half a century younger. WWE layer claimed she was wearing a bodysuit underneath, but others insisted that she laid bare the real thing.

To the end, her image never wavered. "She was a tough, tough woman – I'd say the toughest I ever met," the champion male wrestler Bubba Ray Dudley remembered. "The first time I slammed Mae Young in the ring, I put her down ever so gingerly. Afterwards she comes over: 'Hey, hot shot,' she says, 'if you slam me, you slam me like one of the boys.'"

RUPERT CORNWELL

Johnnie "Mae" Young, wrestler: born Sand Springs, Oklahoma 12 March 1923; died Columbia, South Carolina 14 January 2014.

News
A Brazilian wandering spider
news

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

News
people
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Sport
Fans of Palmeiras looks dejected during the match between Palmeiras and Santos
footballPalmeiras fan killed trying to 'ambush' bus full of opposition supporters
Arts and Entertainment
filmsIt's nearly a wrap on Star Wars: Episode 7, producer reveals
Life and Style
fashion
News
i100
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey indulge in some racing at a Point to Point
tvNew pictures promise a day at the races and a loved-up Lady Rose
News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Wonnacott dancing the pasadoble
TVStrictly Come Dancing The Result
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Lead Teacher of Thinking School Drive Team and Year 3 Form teacher

Competitive: Notting Hill Prep School: Spring Term 2015 Innovative, ambitious ...

Year 6 Teacher - January start

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are looking fo...

Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is urgently re...

Year 3 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 Primary Teacher in HullA f...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past