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On January 15th, the world lost its oldest living professional wrestler. Her name was Johnnie Mae Young, and she died yesterday, after having wrestled in every decade since the 1940s.
I’d always assumed that wresting was sweaty macho bullshit, and when people talked about wrestling being “fake,” I thought they just meant the moves were staged and the winners were chosen ahead of time. But as it turns out, professional wrestling is more like watching theater than watching a boxing match. They’re characters with backstories, and the fakeness isn’t just fixed matches—it’s like, a dude punting a fake baby into the audience or a referee being locked in a glass box slowly filling with cement.
Let me describe my favorite wrestling performance from the past fifteen years, which is how I got to know who Mae Young was in the first place.
They give a little bit of exposition about a fake wrestling romance set up between this bulky young dude and Mae Young, then in her seventies.I started to write this off, assuming it would amount to a bunch of jokes about how gross old women are and how silly it is when they try to be sexual. But then. They announce that, not only were Mae and Mark Henry dating, but she was actually pregnant. And THEN. There is a childbirth scene.
Mae lies on a stretcher, holding a cigar, surrounded by panicking people. Her best friend, another women’s wrestling legend, stands at her side. A man looks at the baby coming out and throws up. He looks lovingly at her. She makes one final push and out it comes—a giant, bloody, rubber fist.
The history of women’s professional wrestling is fascinating, and she’s a huge part of it. Women’s wrestling (or “Girl Wrestling” or “Lady Wrestling,” as it was commonly referred to) began in carnival sideshows, but started approaching the athletic mainstream during WWII, when the men were off at war and female athletes gained prominence (you’ve seen A League of Their Own, you know the deal). Mae was there right from the beginning–although she often credited herself with wrestling professionally in nine decades, starting in 1939, it’s more likely that her first professional match was in 1941. By her own cheerful admission, she “wrestled dirty and was a tough son of a gun.” In wrestling there’s usually a good guy and a bad guy (a “heel” and a “face”); Mae played the role of heel to perfection. Penny Banner, in the documentary Lipstick and Dynamite, describes her first encounter with Mae thusly:
All I know is, I saw Johnnie Mae Young, she had men’s shoes on, men’s pants on with a zipper up the front, a cigar hanging out of her mouth—back in 1954 you didn’t do that—and she looked at me and she says “Hi, fuckface!”
When Mae performed, they would sometimes have to put chicken coop wire over the top of the ring, because of all the projectiles hurled by the audience.
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 (“Forever Young”)
The truth is, that although the physical location of women’s wrestling matches is no longer the carnival sideshow, the tone hasn’t changed much. More disturbingly, the level of exploitation didn’t change either. These women were managed by men who took half of their pay and controlled the outcome of every match. The Fabulous Moolah, perhaps women’s wrestling’s greatest celebrity, eventually found great success as a wrestling promoter, but even she took a large cut and exerted a lot of control over the wrestlers. Moolah was well-connected enough to keep anyone who wasn’t her client out of the high-profile matches, and she did whatever she could to retain power over these women. At least one former wrestler spoke about her experience wrestling in the Moolah era, saying that any time she started saving up in order to leave the industry, Moolah would deliberately not schedule her any matches for months, until she ran through her savings and needed to keep working. The training and competitions took a serious physical toll, even resulting in the death of a young girl, Janet Boyer Wolfe just starting out in her wrestling career (Mae Young and the other wrestlers onstage were initially arrested and almost charged with manslaughter.)
In the past twenty years, Mae moved away from the bone-shattering hardcore wrestling of her past and became more like wrestling’s beloved aunt who popped into matches once in a while to get body-slammed while everyone gasped. In Lipstick and Dynamite, many of her former competitors derided Mae and Moolah’s antics. It’s difficult to know if people are really laughing with them or at them when you see matches where the two women in their eighties wrestle dressed in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms. Most of the wrestlers who started out in the 40s, 50s, and 60s are firmly out of the industry (including one who now owns her own private detective agency, and one who has started yodeling.) In their minds, Mae and Moolah were undignified, being held up as objects of mockery and losing for women’s wrestling as an industry what limited respect it had fought for. On the other hand, as Murphy argues:
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.
And the truth is, at least in my opinion, even mainstream men’s wrestling hasn’t moved too far away from the sideshow model either. The amazing physical feats are completely overshadowed by showmanship and scenery-chewing character performances. Although there may be wrestling matches going on that are pure, serious, unfixed displays of physical prowess, they sure aren’t happening through WWE.
The women coming out of professional wrestling don’t come across as joyful retired athletes—they’re more like survivors who had to claw their way into the professional sphere and then claw their way out of it again. Mae was one of just a few women who remained passionate and involved in the industry. And though I fault the industry for the pervasive sexism and ageism that allowed Mae to be held up as a spectacle at times, she was really the only living person older than 80, male or female, who was so widely-known in the WWE. While it may not have the integrity or purity that some wrestlers may aspire to, Mae appreciated the raunchy spirit of things and was always a willing participant in the show (she held her own even when not under the direction of the WWE: when she was on Conan O’Brien, for instance, she spent most of her eight minutes alternately propositioning him and trying to attack him. Okay, not alternately, like, doing both at the same time:
Despite all the enmity in the ring, she shared deep friendships with many of the women she came up with, particularly the Fabulous Moolah, who she lived with for sixteen years until Moolah’s death. Roger Ebert, in his review of Lipstick and Dynamite, thought Mae and Moolah were an obvious romantic couple, which delighted me, although it’s certainly debatable. They also shared their home with little person wrestler Diamond Lil, who Moolah persisted in describing as “her damned midget” (at, she insists, Diamond Lil’s firm request.) Have you ever in your LIFE been so upset that reality shows weren’t a thing earlier? Even if Mae and Moolah weren’t a couple, there’s no doubt they were family—even before Mae’s death, it was public knowledge that Moolah was buried in a cemetery plot with a place for Mae and Lil.
In the first draft of this article, which was a profile of my living hero and not a memorial tribute, this is the part where I speculated about her next decade of wrestling and what it might hold for her. I may have predicted her giving birth to a woman dressed in a Slutty Gloria Steinem costume calling herself “The Spirit of Wrestling Feminism” on her hundredth birthday. Instead, I can tell you that the outpouring of support from other wrestlers has been both heartbreaking and also really, really amazing. The WWE put together a really fantastic tribute video that I demand you watch.
Natalya wrote that Mae Young had always inspired her to fight. Ezekiel Jackson, who weighs in at 280 pounds, said that “If I was as tough as Mae Young, I’d be a monster.” Mickie James posted on her Facebook that “She always made you feel beautiful & proud to be a woman in this madman industry.” From Samoa Joe: “May we all live as boldly as Mae Young, and at least be a quarter as tough.” And my personal favorite—from Mark Henry, the man who fathered that rubber fist: “Lots of people are calling Mae a diva. She was a WRESTLER an a damn good one.” As much as Mae took pleasure in goofing around and reveled in the theatrics of wrestling, no one who ever saw her wrestle could forget her enormous talent and presence in the ring.
Rest in peace, Mae, and give an angel a headlock for us.