Her life wasn’t perfect; there were brushes with the law along the way — and wrestling was the perfect fit. This is the unforgettable story of Mae Young.
Mae Young – Just “One of the Boys”
Sputnik Monroe met Mae Young in unique circumstances while in Memphis, Tennessee. He was standing naked in the dressing room and admiring how good he thought he looked in his new tailor-made boots when Young barged into the dressing room.
A startled Monroe quickly covered up with a towel, but she jerked it down and told him, “You ain’t got nothing to scare anybody, and I’m one of the boys!"
“When I first started rassling professionally,” Mae Young once said, “the men didn’t like the girls because we’d go out and steal the show. Truth of the matter is, most girls liked the way I wrestled because I wrestled dirty," admitted Mae, with a glint in her eyes.
Penny Banner — who became one of the top female performers of her era — vividly recalls the first time she encountered Mae Young.
"All I know is that when I saw her, she had on men’s shoes, men’s pants with the zipper up the front, and a cigar hanging out of her mouth. Back in 1954, you didn’t do that," said Banner.
Mae Young then introduced herself to her by looking over and yelling, "Hey, Fuckface!"
Johnnie Mae Young was, indeed, "one of the boys."
Early Life and Becoming a Wrestler
On March 12th, 1923, Johnnie Mae Young grew up the youngest of eight children in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression. Her mother, Lilly Mae Young, took care of them after John Henry, their father, abandoned and left them to fend for themselves.
While living in a "boxcar house" outside of town, the family struggled to just get by under the care of only the mother.
As World War II began in the late ’30s and as more U.S. males entered the war effort, Mildred Burke was no longer just an AT show attraction. She began to gain popularity in larger venues such as the Tulsa Coliseum in Oklahoma, where scrappy teenager Johnnie Mae Young was in the audience watching Burke take on Gladys “Kill ’em" Gillem.
At Sand Springs High School, Mae Young was already a naturally gifted athlete who routinely challenged the boys and played on a national championship softball team and a local women’s football team. Young joined the wrestling team in high school in an era when that concept was practically unprecedented.
After watching pro wrestling for the first time, something captivated Young, and she issued a challenge to both Gillem and Burke. Promoter Billy Wolfe consented to give her a tryout against Gladys "Kill ‘em" Gillem instead of his champion Mildred Burke.
Depending on who tells the story, neither woman admits defeat. Reports of Young quickly disposing of Gillem are unconfirmed. Nonetheless, she certainly made an impression on Wolfe, thus adding her to his growing stable of women wrestlers.
Johnnie Mae Young and Her Tough Reputation
In the book Sisterhood of The Squared Circle by Dan Laprade and Dan Murphy, wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer stated, "There is little doubt she was among the toughest of any of the women wrestlers who were in the so-called golden age in the ’40s and early ’50s."
Mae Young’s first-rate toughness, rough-and-tumble performances coupled with prominent athletic ability and dirty tactics became her calling card. She never failed to stir a crowd and was a capable and respected worker who carved out a reputation for always speaking her mind and never backing down.
She sealed her spot in Billy Wolfe’s stable, where she became the top heel, supplanting Gillem.
Within months of graduating from high school, Young found herself challenging Mildred Burke and giving her a run for her money in front of thousands of raucous fans. Soon, Nell Stewart, Elvira Snodgrass, and later June Byers would work with Mildred Burke as heels too.
As the years passed, Byers became an increasingly important wrestler in Wolfe’s stable.
The heat Young generated was so intense, often the promoters had to take precautions to protect her.
"Many times they had to put a chicken wire fence around the ring because they hated me so bad," remembered Young.
"The people would come and bring rotten eggs and throw vegetables at me. The truth of the matter is most of the girls liked the way I wrestled because I wrestled dirty and I was a tough son of a gun. Fact in case, Nell Stewart bleached her hair blond because she wanted to be like the one and only ‘Great’ Mae Young."
By 1941, Billy Wolfe’s traveling troupe included most of the best female wrestlers in the country: the champion Mildred Burke, the villainess from Alabama Gladys "Kill ‘em" Gillem, the Tulsa toughie and shooter Johnnie Mae Young, the Nebraska sisters Mae Weston and Wilma Gordon, the athletic Ann Laverne and Elvira Snodgrass, a country-type from Tennessee that wrestled barefoot and wore overalls.
Outside of the ring, Mae was a devil-may-care free spirit who on a whim got into brawls in bars, hotel rooms, and everywhere in between. "She’d play poker with the boys and lift up her leg, letting out a big fart," recalls Freddie Blassie, who was one of the legendary heels in wrestling.
"If a guy did something to piss her off, she’d try to provoke them into a fight. She knew how to take a punch from a man, then kick his ass."
"When I had to wrestle men, I’d beat them," proclaimed Young. "I wouldn’t let them beat me."
The statuesque Ella Waldek, who wrestled from 1952 to 1971, was also a notorious brawler and Billy Wolfe’s policeman in the ring.
If someone got out of line, she was there to make sure they got back with the program, but she too admitted that Young was a handful saying that Johnnie Mae Young "would make a real good barroom brawler, that was something she loved to do."
Waldek also claimed that Young used to be a preacher and "got herself off in a jury trial for murder." She remembers Young took a guy out in the desert, took all his clothes off, and left him out there. "She was just a rough, tough broad," she added.
Johnnie Mae Young got some unwanted publicity in the papers when she was arrested for robbery in Reno, Nevada, after allegedly slugging a 210-pound man and taking $100 from him after a night on the town.
She reasoned with the police that she did this after he made "certain improper advances." She was eventually acquitted of a first-degree robbery charge, proving that she could take care of herself.
Pat Patterson recalls an unexpected visit from Mae Young in Boston during the early ‘60s as recounted in his book, Accepted: How the First Gay Superstar Changed WWE.
"One night around 1 a.m., I heard banging on my door. It was Mae Young wearing only her bra and panties with a martini in her hand. What the hell?"
"Patterson, let me in."
"What’s the matter?"
"Don’t worry, Pat, I just want to talk bullshit with you."
Ida May Martinez and Ruth Boatcallie attended tryouts Billy Wolfe was having at a Houston, Texas hotel. Of course, Young made an immediate impression on the wide-eyed greenhorns as recounted in The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, and Diamonds, the highly recommended biography of Mildred Burke.
When checking into the Park Hotel, which Martinez recalls as a "third or fourth-rate hotel," they immediately ran into Johnnie Mae Young and went to have a drink at a biker bar across the street.
"All of a sudden, I hear this commotion, and Mae Young was arguing with this woman," Martinez recalled. "And when the woman turned around, Mae threw a sucker punch at her, and it started a riot. I left because I didn’t want to get arrested on my first day as a wrestler!"
Joe Wolfe, son of Billy Wolfe and Mildred Burke, also recalls the unbelievable stories of Mae Young outside the squared circle. He heard that she got into a bar fight with a man in Columbus because somebody was flirting with Young’s girlfriend, and so she got pissed and "beat the shit out of him and actually bit his genitals!"
"On another occasion, Young fought with a woman in the back of the Hi-Fulton (a diner the wrestlers frequented). Another time, Young reportedly decked a male wrestler who pulled down his trunks and exposed himself to her in the locker room."
Young was a natural heel and became one of the head trainers for Buddy Wolfe’s new acquisitions when they needed to learn the hard-edged ways heels worked in the ring. She was largely responsible for training Lillian Ellison, who later became the world-renowned and controversial Fabulous Moolah.
In the entertaining 2005 documentary Lipstick & Dynamite: The First Ladies of Wrestling, which shines a spotlight on many of the women wrestlers who were pioneers in the sport, Young claims that she never worked babyface.
Also, Lillian Ellison wanted to become a heel after meeting her, which initiated a lifelong friendship lasting more than half a century.
"These were wild times, and there were a lot of wild girls on the road back then. Mae was one of them," Moolah later wrote in her autobiography, First Goddess of the Squared Circle.
"She used to like to go out drinking ’til all hours, smoking cigars and picking fights with big, bruising men in dark honky-tonks. She’d always laugh later about that expression on their face, a mixture of surprise and shame, just before they hit the floor after she’d conked them upside the head."
Often promoter Billy Wolfe attempted to keep his troupe under his boot; he needed to remind them who the boss was. But this tactic backfired when he tried it with Johnnie Mae Young.
"Billy Wolfe used to have all the girls fighting all the time and was always looking for someone to beat me," recalls Young.
"So, he got a girl who wanted to be a boxer and sent her down to West Virginia and trained her for about four to five months. Then he brought her in and said that he wanted me to fight her. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll put the gloves on with you then.’ And I took one jab, hit her, and she took a flip in the air."
As she tells the story, her smile confirms the joy she felt when knocking the boxer out cold. Billy Wolfe immediately stopped the fight to prevent any more damage to his hired gun.
Rivalry With Champion Mildred Burke
"I don’t know what it was, but he hated me so much that he was afraid that I’d beat up his wife Mildred Burke for the championship," said Mae Young, one of the few people on record to say anything derogatory about Mildred Burke.
She ceaselessly claimed that in a shoot (legitimate) fight, she would’ve gotten the coveted title. "She wasn’t the great champion she thought she was. She got to believin’ her own publicity, and she got paranoid."
Women’s champion Mildred Burke affirmed Johnnie Mae’s roughness in her unpublished autobiography when remembering how Mae left a scar above one of her eyes after she’d slogged her during a match.
"That was a twenty-foot ring there, and the blood was shooting clear to the center. I wore white satin, so you can imagine how all that red blood looked."
But according to the same book, in 1954, tensions between her and Mae Young came to a head during a Japanese tour Burke booked herself on after she had parted ways with Buddy Wolfe.
"How come you’re always the main event, and we’re not?" Burke said Young had asked her.
"What do you think a world champion should be, a preliminary to you?
Burke said that Young drew back her fist.
"I’ve got a notion to knock your teeth right down your throat," Young said.
"Johnnie, before you swing that fist, let me tell you that you’d better be prepared to eat it because I’m going to shove it right back in your mouth."
Young took fifteen seconds and finally lowered her fist. "There was no more mutiny from Mae Young," Burke wrote.
Burke said she thought Wolfe put her up to it. "Whatever the real background to Mae Young’s threat, she didn’t frighten me. We had wrestled untold dozens of times through the years. She knew she couldn’t beat me on the best day she ever saw."
In an interview decades later, Johnnie Mae Young insisted that she could’ve beaten Burke if given the opportunity. "I could have beat her any time I wanted to. Mildred was not a great wrestler, but she made a good presentation."
Controversial Return To Wrestling For Mae Young
After some brief retirements, Mae Young always found herself back in the ring, even though by the ‘70s, women’s wrestling was falling out of favor. Later she stepped away to care for her ailing mother in California.
After her mother passed away in 1991, Young moved in with The Fabulous Moolah and former midget wrestler Diamond Lil in Columbia, South Carolina.
In the ‘90s, Young wrestled with Moolah’s Ladies International Wrestling Association in Las Vegas, where she continued to take bumps and wrestled a very physical style.
In 1999, WWE introduced Mae Young and Moolah to a new generation of fans, and Young again proved to everyone why she was "one of the boys."
Young was on the receiving end of a pair of frightening powerbombs from Bubba Ray Dudley — one off the top rope through a table and the other off of a staging area near the entrance through another table.
Dudley said Young absolutely refused to be handled any differently just because of her age or gender.
He claims Young told him, "Hey, hotshot! If you’re gonna slam me, you slam me like one of the boys," This is documented in an interview for the book World Wrestling Entertainment Unscripted. "I was like, ‘Holy crap, yes ma’am, no problem. Whatever you need.’"
"By far, that was the toughest person, pound for pound, we’ve ever been in the ring with," agreed D-Von Dudley in the same interview.
In his recommended book, The Hardcore Truth: The Bob Holly Story, Holly recalls when Young demanded him to bring it!
"Mae planned out a spot where she should be in the ring with Crash, and I’d sneak behind her. She’d then turn around, and I’d clothesline her.
"I said to her, ‘Mae, I’ve got all the respect in the world for you, but if you’re asking me to clothesline you, you need to know that I lay it in there.’
"She said, ‘Sure, I know that. I want you to clothesline me.’
"I said, ‘No, you don’t understand. When I clothesline somebody, I try to rip their head off. It’s TV, I don’t want it to look bad, but I don’t want to hurt you.’
"This nearly 80-year-old woman just looked at me and said, ‘Bring it, motherfucker.’
"In Gorilla Position just before the match, I gave her a hug and thanked her in advance for the match, then asked if she was sure about the clothesline. She said, ‘If you don’t bring it when we get back, I’m going to kick your ass."
Young also took a big scoop slam and a top rope splash at the hands of the team called 3-Minute Warning comprised of Matt Anoa’ I and Eddie Fatu.
She too took vicious slams from Test, Kurt Angle, and was splashed by the weighty Viscera.
Watch Viscera Attack Mae Young:
Many of her peers, like Ida May Martinez and Marie Laverne, lamented that she and Moolah returned to the ring at their age because they felt it made them look bad and diminished their past accomplishments. But the 76-year-old Young proved that she was game for any story pitch and went to great lengths to entertain the fans.
Like when participating in a handicap evening gown match that saw her strip down to her bra and panties. Or when she did an angle where she announced that she was pregnant (at the age of 77) with Mark Henry’s baby and later "gave birth" to a rubber prosthetic hand on television.
She also allowed Gene Snitsky to massage her feet, performed a bronco buster on Eric Bischoff, and made out with The Rock.
She also won the Miss Rumble 2000 swimsuit contest when she took her top off, revealing a very realistic-looking saggy prosthesis underneath for the audience in attendance to see. Thankfully the visuals were blurred and spared for the viewers at home. Lye for everyone’s eyes would’ve been needed!
"That’s just the business that you have to love," Mae Young admitted. "If you love it, you move along with it and grow along with the entertainment as it grows."
Legacy and Farewell To Mae Young
Johnnie Mae Young maintained that on her 100th birthday, she would wrestle one more time alongside The Fabulous Moolah and against Stephanie McMahon.
Unfortunately, she died in 2014 at the age of 90, having competed in at least seven decades.
Fabulous Moolah preceded her in death by seven years, passing away in 2007 at the age of 84. Young lived life to her fullest and left a storied legacy in the sport of professional wrestling that is fondly remembered by fans.
"There will never be another Mae Young," said Vince McMahon after she passed away. "Her longevity in sports entertainment may never be matched, and I will forever be grateful for all of her contributions to the industry."
As one of the pioneers of women’s wrestling, the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum inducted Johnnie May Young in 2004. The WWE followed suit in 2008. Always remembered as "one of the boys," they sure don’t make them like Mae Young anymore. Perhaps they never will again.
Since 2017, the WWE honors Johnnie Mae Young in an annual tag team tournament called The Mae Young Classic. But after the 2018 edition, the tournament has been put on hold indefinitely. Hopefully, it will be promptly revived.
These stories may also interest you:
- Fabulous Moolah – Her Career and Controversial Legacy
- Mildred Burke | Embarrassing Men & Blazing Trails for Women in Wrestling
- Mark Henry – From the Olympics to the Squared Circle
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