The Most Influential Women's Wrestler of All Time
Mildred Burke: The Greatest Woman You May Never Have Heard Of
Hello, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today, in conjunction with several members of the Bleacher Report crew, I will be presenting a "Diva-centric" article in appreciation of the fairer side of the professional wrestling industry for "Women's Appreciation Week."
Women have been just as much an integral part of the Pro-wrestling scene as men, even if historically, they haven't received the recognition they are due. Women have been inspiring and entertaining people young and old, the world over, since the early days of the business.
From the days of 1930's and 1950's with starlets like Judy Grable and The Fabulous Moolah, to the modern era of Sports Entertainment with lovely mavens such as Layla El and Gail Kim, female wrestlers have graced the squared circle with beauty, athleticism and charisma.
But of all the women who have entered the world of professional wrestling, there are none who are more preeminent and more integral to the sport of women's wrestling than the one and only Mildred Burke.
This article is going to spotlight the single most influential women's wrestler of all time. And no, that is not Mary Lillian Ellison, better known as The Fabulous Moolah. For without Burke, there would be no Moolah.
Without Burke, there would be no Grable, no Stratus, no Sable, no Velvet Sky or Mickie James.
Today, we honor the foremost pioneer of the art of women's wrestling:
Mildred Burke: Simultaenously Arousing and Frightening Men in the 1940's
Born Mildred Bliss, on Aug. 5th, 1915, the woman who would go on to be known as "Mildred Burke," would be infected by the wrestling bug in her teenage years.
Having been exposed to it at the age of 18 by an amorous liaison, Bliss was one of those rare few whose passion for the exhibition that was being presented before her went beyond that of simple fan, but dug deep into her soul to create what would become a future Hall of Fame wrestler.
However, It was a different time in the early 1930's when this all began.
In modern times, women have many options in where they may go and learn the business and ply their trade. Whether it be in a WWE developmental system, TNA, SHIMMER, ROH or any of the hundreds of other global promotions both large and small, women have a place next to men to perform.
This was not so over 80 years ago.
In that social climate, women were expected to be in the kitchen, or taking care of the children. The massive changes that would come for women as far as respect and independence in a "man's world" wouldn't even begin to dawn for women until 1939, at the start of World War II, when men were drafted out of the workplace and onto the front lines to do battle against the Axis Powers and Adolph Hitler's repugnant regime.
Women weren't supposed to work a man's job in a factory, let alone get in a ring and perform combat sport for entertainment like men.
There was no room for a woman in a man's world.—let alone a man's ring.
And even if there was, professional wrestling itself was on its death bed, reeling from being exposed in that same year, 1934, as being kayfabe and considered an illegitimate sport, perverted from the days of pure grappling competition provided by the likes of George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch.
Thus, there were not many options for Mildred, but the one that had presented itself in front of her, with all the pleasure and pain that it would bring.
Mildred would approach the sole man who was promoting the women's wrestling match that she had seen and ask him to train her: Billy Wolfe.
From there, Mildred, and pro-wrestling as a whole, would never be the same...
Billy Wolfe was a lone voice in the middle of a Kansas City area and greater National Wrestling Alliance that really had no tolerance for women in wrestling.
Billy was a visionary of sorts who saw the value in presenting something different from what other promotions were trying to provide with men like Ed "The Strangler" Lewis, Lou Thesz and Steve "Crusher" Casey.
After failing as a wrestler himself, and failing to manage male wrestlers, Wolfe believed that he would make a profit by training and utilizing women as a form of entertainment that would appeal to both sexes for different reasons.
Much like Vince McMahon after him, he realized that not just athleticism, but sexuality, albeit muted for the 1930's, would sell.
Regardless of his ideas, when he was approached by the 5'2" Mildred Bliss, he certainly didn't want to bother with attempting to take her into his stable of aspiring women wrestlers for training.
Bliss, showing the eventual tenacity that would lead her into the annals of pro-wrestling history, refused to concede to his rejections.
In a story akin to when Hiro Matsuda broke Hulk Hogan's leg to discourage him from pursuing wrestling, Wolfe had instructed a male wrestler to slam Bliss to deter her from her decision.
Instead, Wolfe was the one who had a change of heart as Burke prevented the man from slamming her, but instead, slammed him to the ground. As one can see from the above picture, while Bliss only stood 5'2", she was by no means a frail woman.
Bliss had been muscular and athletic all of her young life up to that point, which was immediately displayed before Wolfe.
Wolfe realized then and there that the woman he had been pushing away was the very woman he had been waiting for all along...
Mildred Burke with Billy Wolfe directly behind her.
Wolfe began to train Bliss up in the ways of grappling, and the performer "Mildred Burke" was born.
But beyond holds and throws, something more developed between Burke and Wolfe: Love.
The two would be married in under a year of training.
In 1934, Wolfe concocted a scheme that would lead to greater success than either he or his new found wife and starlet could imagine.
Traveling on the carnival circuit, Wolfe would offer $25 ($338.64 today) to any man who could enter the ring and pin his wife in under 10 minutes.
Understand that this was not kayfabe, not staged. He legitimately let random men enter the ring with his wife and attempt to legitimately manhandle her for a substantial sum of money.
No one ever succeeded.
She was that strong.
The fame that she had gained from her feats of strength and skill on the carnival circuit placed Burke in a position to challenge for the Women's World Title, a title without even so much as a promotion name attached to it, which was held by Clara Mortensen.
The outcome was never in doubt.
But, what wasn't expected by anyone except perhaps Mildred and Billy themselves is that the outcome of every match that would follow for the next 19 years would never really be in doubt, either.
From 1935 to 1954, Mildred Burke would face over 150 men and 5,000 women for her title.
And she only lost once.
If you thought Goldberg's streak of 174-1 was impressive, I believe 5,149-1 trumps that. Especially considering that this was an era where shoot matches were interspersed with kayfabe matches as frequently as hardcore matches are utilized today.
In between this unprecedented winning streak, something else occurred: Fame.
Burke was known the country over. A woman, a professional athlete and professional wrestler, was deemed worthy enough to cover the face of Life Magazine amidst other publications. Mildred Burke was not only the talk of the town, but she single-handedly elevated women's wrestling to a whole new level of public consciousness.
Not just the praise and applause, not just magazine covers, radio shows and being voted the best dressed woman of the 1940s, not just appearing in "Ripley's Believe It or Not" for doing 100 body bridges on the editor's desk, but money.
Exorbitant amounts of money.
With the fame that Mildred was garnering, and a stable of 30 other women wrestlers from which to draw from and loan out to other promoters within the NWA Territories systems, Billy Wolfe was raking in riches like he never expected.
Life was good.
But, much as everyone who draws breath knows: Life is rarely good forever...
Mildred Burke: Standing Tall Through It All.
When one experiences a great deal of success with a proven formula, the last thing a person wants to do is meddle with it.
People are willing to tolerate almost anything at times, if it means that tolerating that thing will keep a comfortable and familiar lifestyle around them and those they love.
But, even the most merciful and tolerant of souls can reach their breaking point.
And after 17 years of marriage, after countless acts of infidelity, Mildred Burke had finally reached hers.
She had tired of the fact that Billy Wolfe was always known for sleeping with the other women in the promotion and keeping an "open marriage" when on the road. For years, she knew the stories. For years, she watched him flaunt his womanizing ways in her face.
And after nearly 17 years of infidelity and chauvinistic behavior, she had enough and divorced him.
Sadly, Wolfe, perhaps his ego too far gone to see what he had brought on himself, perhaps drunk with money and power, thinking that there would be no way this woman who he "made" could leave him, in a venomous reprisal, had Burke blackballed from the National Wrestling Alliance circuit.
No more shows. No more appearances. No way to survive where the money was. He had her cut off from the one thing she excelled at the most. He went for her jugular with no mercy.
This man she loved.
This man she forgave countless times but could forgive no more.
This man for whom she became an obedient golden goose.
This man was now trying to destroy her.
The irony was sickening, for certain.
Even more ironic?
The man she had to turn to, in order to try and save her from her own ex-husband, was the very man who nearly destroyed the entire industry by exposing it as scripted in 1934, Jack Pfefer.
Pfefer himself had helped to build the mecca of pro-wrestling, the New York market, and had been pushed out, much like Mildred found herself.
In response, he went to the New York papers and exposed all the insider dealings of the sport when people thought it was still real, although they had their suspicions that the fix was in.
It nearly killed the entire industry.
Now, this man who nearly destroyed her dreams before she ever got to live them, without even so much as knowing she existed, is now the man she is counting on to bridge the gap between herself and the National Wrestling Alliance.
Strange bedfellows, indeed.
Through Pfefer's consult, The Alliance was moved to try and bring a reconciliation between Burke and Wolfe.
While there could be no repairing of their fractured marriage, they did come to an agreement for Wolfe to sell his share of their women's wrestling promotion to Burke for $30,000 ($256,855.47 today).
Along with this buyout, was the tacit agreement that Burke would waive all alimony in their divorce proceedings and Wolfe would not compete in the pro-wrestling market for five years.
But, if you've caught a theme here, it's that Wolfe wasn't exactly a distinguished character...
Pictured: Billy Wolfe: Man of Integrity.
After only a few months, the betrayer struck.
It wasn't enough that without Mildred Burke entering his life, he would still be a penny-ante promoter playing to the carnival crowd in Kansas while using his talents as half wrestler/half sex-toys.
It wasn't enough that she tolerated his infidelity for nearly two decades while lining his pockets with gold.
It wasn't even enough that he had tried to ruin her once already for leaving him.
He wouldn't be content until he destroyed not "Mildred Burke," but the woman he promised to love and cherish, and did not, Mildred Bliss.
And sadly, he was finally successful in his efforts.
Billy Wolfe went right back into women's wrestling and directly competed with Burke's new company established from their deal: Attractions Inc.
Basing his attack from out of the heart of Ohio, Wolfe sneakily undercut Burke's pay-rates to performers by paying out higher rates than she could manage and still keep her company afloat.
When Burke was offering under 50 percent of the gate to performers, Wolfe underbid her by going 50. Burke lowered to compete by going to 60. Wolfe, practically throwing a chance at profit away just to destroy Burke, lowered his take to 25 percent with 75 percent of the proceeds going to performers.
It successfully put Attractions Inc. into bankruptcy and, through the courts, right back into the hands of Wolfe.
Not content with breaking her, he then attempted to humiliate her by sending out flyers throughout the region, claiming that he was now the booker for Burke and her 27 talents.
Burke would obviously fight this claim in court, but more importantly, she hoped that by leaning on some of her contacts inside of the National Wrestling Alliance, she could turn around the fate of not only herself, not only her two children that she had with this beast, but also the 27 women who were loyal to her.
She would hope in vain.
The NWA wouldn't even so much as let her sit in on the meeting, leaving her to sit in the lobby while they acknowledged that what Wolfe had done was acceptable. (This is where I remind you that this is a lone woman in 1953 fighting against not just a man, but her ex-husband and ex-promoter with deep ties to the NWA.)
Even after all this: Wolfe still wasn't done with her.
He spread lies claiming that she wouldn't work with other female wrestlers, he created animosity between her and other bookers and killed her pushes as an in-ring competitor against men in territories. He hounded and terrorized her to such a degree that a man might be thrown in jail today for stalking and harassment.
Certainly, he would be sued blind. But in 1954, a single mother of two didn't have much legal recourse or standing.
Finally, the last slap in the face.
On August 20, 1954, with her financial options gone, Mildred Burke agreed to do business with Billy Wolfe one more time and face June Byers for the Women's World Championship still in her possession.
In a screwjob that would predate both Moolah and Richter, as well as Hart and Michaels, through his connections, Wolfe placed a friendly referee in to judge the match between Byers and Burke, which would become a shoot fight, as they genuinely hated each other. (Moolah alleged that this was because Byers had been sleeping with Wolfe when he and Burke were still married.)
The match was to be three falls to a finish. Byers won the first fall, which Burke conceded in order to rally for the second and third. But the officials ended the second fall in the match as a sudden stalemate. This purposely created confusion to prevent Burke from winning the fall, and possibly the third fall, so that they could more easily award the World Women's Championship to Byers.
And that is exactly what happened.
The NWA recognized Byers as the true Champion, and Burke's reign was officially ended.
Remember that 5,149-1?
That was her "1."
But, as they say, "You can't keep a good woman down"...
Pictured: More Intestinal Fortitude than Mick Foley.
Perhaps you can't call it a comeback, as Burke never really admitted defeat.
She was strong to the core.
She had been cheated on, cheated out of her title, blackballed, stonewalled, slandered and mocked.
But she refused to back down.
However, she wasn't completely stupid.
With perseverance, take also wisdom, so that you might succeed.
Burke moved away from all of the nonsense with the NWA and Wolfe in the region.
She relocated to Los Angeles, California, the City of Angels.
There, still recognizing herself as the true Women's Champion, as she had never truly lost in her bout with Byers, she began the World Women's Wrestling Association. She would continue to recognize herself as the champion for two more years, until she retired from in-ring competition in 1956.
Now focused on solely promoting the sport of women's wrestling, Mildred Bliss accomplished in the remainder of her career more than Billy Wolfe could have ever hoped to accomplish.
Through the WWWA, the world's first all-women's wrestling promotion, Bliss spread the art of women's grappling to both sides of the country in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, as well as internationally to places like Australia and Japan.
Well, as for Billy Wolfe?
He spent the rest of his life as a promoter with the NWA after "defeating" his ex-wife.
All seven years of it.
His reputation would be utterly butchered because of his unethical practices, and he would eventually die of an illness on March 7, 1963. Burke, however, would go on to take women's wrestling to new international heights for another 20 years after he was deceased.
But hey, perhaps Billy wasn't all bad. He did open the door for African-American women to perform before anyone else in the nation.
Of course, that's probably just because he wanted to have sex with them.
As for Mildred...
Mildred Burke inspired and helped launch The Fabulous Moolah to Stardom.
While Mildred Bliss would do much for women's wrestling during her career as an active wrestler, it is her deeds after surviving the horrors of the NWA and Billy Wolfe that would truly cement her legacy.
The WWWA is known for many things, but primarily, you may know it as the organization that was a key stepping stone for one of the greatest women's wrestlers of all time: The Fabulous Moolah. Mildred also was the woman who inspired Moolah to become a wrestler when she was young. It was one of Mildred's matches that lit the spark in her at age 15.
The WWWA also catapulted the careers of women like Mae Young to new heights as well as the late Rhonda Singh. All Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling (AJW), the Japanese arm of the WWWA would go on to produce other memorable wrestlers like Akira Hokuto, Aja Kong, Bull Nanako and the most dominant women's wrestler today: Awesome Kong a.k.a. Kharma.
But beyond all the women's wrestlers that Mildred Bliss helped to bring into the industry, she also laid the foundation for creating and operating an all-women's federation. Without Mildred, there may never have been a SHIMMER or a GLOW.
The women that Bliss produced, especially The Fabulous Moolah, took women's wrestling to such a higher height, that major promotions like the WWF even took notice in women as a draw. Without Moolah, there may never have been room for anyone.
Truly, if Hulk Hogan is the man who built the platform for men through the explosion of Hulkamania, than Mildred Bliss must be the woman that built the platform for women through her actions, as well.
And though Mildred is no longer here to see it, having passed on Feb. 18, 1989, from complications due to a stroke, one would have to imagine that she's looking down from Heaven on the thousands of women wrestlers around the world, from Natalya Neidhart to Mickie James to the indie wrestler you've never heard of, with a smile on her face.
Mildred Bliss a.k.a. Mildred Burke.
The Most Influential Woman In Professional Wrestling History.
Yeah, so, basically, thank you for giving us TNA Knockouts, Mildred! They're awesome.
This article is dedicated to Mariah Hewitt, who inspired this Women's Appreciation Week and to all of the female readers here on Bleacher Report.
While most of the time we guys end up writing lists about "Who's the Hottest Diva?", many of us do recognize and appreciate the contributions that women give to our sport. and we also appreciate and respect our female fan counterparts, as well.
I'd also like to give a special shout out to Chinmay, who orchestrated the Women's Appreciation Week. Truly a stand up guy and a good writer. Thanks for taking the time out to do this, and thank you for inviting me in on the project.
Lastly, I'd like to give you, the readers, some links to other writer articles who are participating in Women's Appreciation Week. They are listed below:
From Kevin Berge:
From Jon Fisher:
From Sharon Glencross
Be on the look out for Chinmay, William Gullo and Ashley Morris' articles coming soon.
Thanks for reading, all.