Buried deep in the annals of women’s professional wrestling history, hidden beneath the glitz and glamour of modern-day showmanship, lays the story of a true pioneer, one who paved a path for generations of competitors to follow.
Known as Muscles and the Kansas Cyclone, Mildred Burke dedicated her life to professional wrestling, creating and often struggling to maintain an outlet and opportunity for women to persevere in a sport dominated by muscle-bound, chauvinistic men.
Set against a scene of a Great Depression Era New Mexico Indian reservation, a young Burke, born Mildred Bliss on Aug. 5, 1915, found herself 18 years old, pregnant and slaving hours at a restaurant attempting to support herself and her unborn child.
With a sweeping marriage proposal, Burke found herself on the fast track out of the West, headed to Kansas City, Mo., where her destiny would take form.
It was there she discovered the art of professional wrestling and met Billy Wolfe, the Missouri state wrestling champion who would become her manager, groom, and eventual nemesis.
From Kansas City, Burke’s career would undergo a metamorphosis, transforming into a story for the ages, one complete with a championship reign spanning three decades, a fight against the monopolizing National Wrestling Alliance and a twisted story of romance involving her abusive manager, as well as his grown son.
Burke’s story, however, had also become one largely lost through the ages, preserved only in the minds of those who witnessed her grace the squared circle or appear on the pages of magazines and newspapers across the country.
Her story was one lost in time, until now.
For five years, Jeff Leen, head of the Washington Post’s investigative unit, traveled the country, researched legal documents and scoured the pages of Burke’s unpublished biography to uncover the true story professional wrestling’s female pioneer.
Leen’s work culminated in the publication of his second book, "The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend," released this week by Atlantic Monthly Press.
“I wanted to try to treat the subject really seriously and report to the ground truth on something that hadn’t been reported,” Leen said. “I wanted to do more than interview several people and ask their memories.”
Bonding with Burke
“To me, she was almost like a superhero character.”
Leen’s journey into the pro wrestling arena followed a much different path than that of his subject.
Raised in 1960s St. Louis, oft considered “the world capital of pro wrestling” at the time, Leen followed the careers and tales of legendary characters such as Harley Race and Dick the Bruiser.
Promoter Sam Muchnick ruled St. Louis and led the city in securing a concrete spot in the rich history of sports entertainment.
A young Leen flipped the pages of various wrestling magazines, always noticing that “in the back, there was this woman flexing her muscles.” The woman, featured alongside the women she trained, managed and wrestled, was none other than Burke, by that point a retired champion.
“She had this incredible reputation,” Leen said.
As the years passed, Leen grew older and professional wrestling underwent its own metamorphosis. Television came into play, and showmanship and extravagant stunts took precedence in the wrestling ring.
His days of following wrestling closely dissipated alongside many independent territories as they became nothing more than memories.
In 1989, Leen co-authored his first book, "Kings of Cocaine: An Astonishing True Story of Murder, Money and Corruption," with Guy Gugliotta. The book, based off a series of investigative articles the duo completed for the Miami Herald, exposed the inner workings of a Columbian drug cartel.
After completing “Kings,” Leen desired to pursue a second book, and memories of Burke’s rise through the wrestling ranks often resonated in his mind. But it wasn’t until 10 years later that he would seriously begin pondering the possibility, and five years after that before he’d begin the research phase of the project.
Using his nights, weekends and time off from the Washington Post, Leen launched his own personal investigation into the life and legacy of Mildred Burke, who had died on Valentine’s Day 1989.
Leen’s quest for information led him across the country to locales extending from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana to courthouses in Columbus, Ohio, and Kansas City, Mo., to the Library of Congress and National Archives in Washington, D.C.
At Notre Dame, he spent a week researching and analyzing a 100-cubic-feet collection of materials that once belonged to famed wrestling promoter Jack Pfefer.
He also scanned newspaper and magazine clippings at the Library of Congress and tracked a lawsuit filed against the National Wrestling Alliance by the U.S. Department of Justice through the National Archives.
Missing pieces of the puzzle of Burke’s life tale were added when her son granted Leen permission to use her unpublished biographical manuscript.
“They thought it was a good story to begin with,” Leen said of the publishers to whom he pitched his idea. “All of it combined to make it something they wanted to do.”
Creating a legacy
“She had to do it in one of the toughest businesses there was.”
Hailing from Leen’s native St. Louis, Lou Thesz dominated the national professional wrestling scene in the early- to mid-20th Century, laying claim the National Wrestling Alliance championship for a combined length extending beyond 10 years, an unprecedented feat of the time.
But as much as Thesz meant to men’s professional wrestling, Burke meant the same (if not more) to the other gender’s side of the sport.
Under Burke’s reign, which included being recognized as the world’s women’s wrestling champion from 1936 to 1956, women often stole newspaper and magazine headlines from their male counterparts.
A Feb. 21, 1989, Los Angeles Times article regarding Burke’s death reads, “She claimed to have won 150 matches against men and more than 5,000 against women without losing. But, of course, in professional wrestling the outcome isn’t always decided on the mat.”
Several critics wouldn’t hesitate climbing on board with like-minded criticism, as a stigma of planned competition and predetermined outcomes continues to cloud the sports entertainment atmosphere today.
But Leen argues Burke, standing at 5 feet, 2 inches and weighing 132 pounds at her best physique, faced unprecedented challenges and struggles both inside and out of the wrestling ring.
“She broke the barrier. Before her, there wasn’t an established attraction in arenas for women’s wrestling,” he said. “She worked tremendously hard to create herself, to build her body, to create this glamorous look in the ring… Nobody gave that to her.”
In the “golden days” of wrestling, women were also held to the same, higher standards as men, which meant Burke and the women she fought against and alongside needed to be the best possible technical wrestlers.
For the champion, an added sense of alertness and preparedness also had to exist in the event an opponent (or even an ally) may attempt a double-crossing maneuver and legitimately steal the title.
In 1947, an Associated Press poll named Burke the No. 6 female athlete in the world, an unprecedented level of recognition for any wrestler, man or woman.
But, in those days, and especially in wrestling, talent alone wasn’t enough to create a star.
Burke married promoter Billy Wolfe, nearly 20 years her elder, to position herself better in the ranks of the wrestling world.
Wolfe openly cheated on Burke, reportedly sleeping with nearly every woman he managed and promoted, but Burke accepted the fact and become involved in a side relationship of her own, with her stepson, Wolfe’s child from a previous marriage.
“He had a lot of good ideas, and he was an important part of the success of this,” Leen said of Wolfe, who organized the first mud wrestling match in modern history.
In a 1951 automobile accident, Burke broke five vertebrae and suffered several internal injuries, and many viewed the tragic accident as the end of a career. But, defiant against the odds, Burke returned to the ring only four months later.
By this time, a battle brewing between Burke and Wolfe had reached its boiling point, which serves as the climax of Leen’s book, when Wolfe wanted to replace Burke with the beauty Nell Stewart. Burke refused and a physical fight between her and Wolfe erupted.
The result of this altercation was the booking of a “shooting match,” or a legitimate wrestling contest without the choreography and theatrics of a planned match, between Burke and one of Wolfe’s other performers, June Byers.
“This was actually for the title and for control of the business,” Leen said.
“Ultimately it’s about what price you’re willing to pay for respect, and in the end, she paid the price.”
“I was surprised at how rich and interesting the history of professional wrestling is in America.”
Through his research, Leen learned more about wrestling than could fit in one book, but his goal was to ensure “Queen” was more than a story about professional wrestling.
It’s a story about a woman fighting for power, equality and survival in one of the toughest businesses in the country, during some of the toughest times in America’s past, from the Great Depression to World War II, when the business floundered as men fought overseas rather than at home on a four-sided canvas mat.
“This is really a Midwestern book about Midwestern people,” Leen said. “I’m not even sure if people on the East Coast will get the same out of it as us Midwesterners.”
Leen follows Burke’s story through her death in 1989, but he recognizes the storied tale of women in wrestling continues. In the afterward of his book, he examines the issues of more modern professional and amateur wrestling.
Five thousand females currently wrestle on their high school teams, and in 2006, Michaela Hutchison of Alaska became the first female to win a state wrestling championship.
“They’re proving girls can wrestle if they train,” Leen said.
As for the women in today’s professional wrestling scene, he only had one sentence to say: “There’s a few of them who are talented, but none of them are Mildred Burke.”
“The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend” is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other retailers where books are normally sold. Listing price for the book is $25.