Similar to how Mildred Burke dominated the women’s wrestling scene for decades before, The Fabulous Moolah, born Lillian Ellison in 1923 just outside Columbia, South Carolina, became the most powerful woman in wrestling for almost three decades. If you wanted to have women’s wrestling on your card, most of the time you had to go through Moolah!
In the book Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling, authors Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy wrote, “Respected by her allies and feared by her enemies, Ellison (Moolah) was a master politician and a shrewd, calculating businesswoman. As an in-ring competitor, she was widely considered the most well-known female wrestler in the game for 30 years. Her career as a trainer and promoter extended even further. And, in 1999, at age 76, she had one final run as WWF women’s champion, during a peak period in wrestling’s popularity.”
Before Becoming The Fabulous Moolah
Lillian Ellison was the youngest of 13 children and the only daughter. At the age of 8, her mother died of cancer at only 40. Her father, who was an avid wrestling fan, trying to cheer her up and distract her from this sad chapter, would take Ellison with him to the local matches when she turned 10. It was when Ellison saw Mildred Burke in the ring that she became determined to become a wrestler.
But her fate was almost that of a homemaker after marrying a man named Walter Carroll when she was still barely a teenager. They had a child named Mary who later briefly wrestled as Darlin’ Pat Sherry. Shortly afterward, Lillian and Walter got divorced. Moolah has said that she started wrestling at age 15, but more recent sources vary from her starting in her early to mid-‘20s.
According to Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling, July 20th, 1948 is when Lillian Ellison made her debut by approaching Billy Wolfe who controlled most of the bookings for women wrestlers and especially his star and wife, Mildred Burke.
Buddy Wolfe, Disliked By Most Women, Hated By The Fabulous Moolah
According to her autobiography, The Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle, Ellison took an instant disliking to Wolfe. Ellison recounts, “To my way of thinking, he was a despicable human being. Even so, I knew I had to deal with him — at least at first — to realize my dream.”
Wolfe told Ellison she was too small to be a wrestler and advised her to “go home and get yourself a job as a secretary so you can sit on some lawyer’s knee,” Ellison recalled.
Wolfe saw the potential money-making possibilities of featuring women on cards, unlike most promoters at the time. Unfortunately, he was also a male chauvinist who was known to sleep with other women and while on the road, had an “open marriage” with Mildred Burke. Ellison refused Wolf’s advances and says that this guaranteed her not getting the big push like his other girls.
When her father died, Ellison asked Wolfe for a $100 advance so that she could attend his funeral. To this, he answered, “You just left home two days ago. What do you want to do, go home and hold his hand?” She knew he wasn’t a good person, but this was low even for him. Through clenched teeth, she managed to blurt out: “I hope you die in the damned gutter and the worms eat your body before they find you!” Needless to say, the partnership between them ended with that confrontation.
Jack Pfefer Again Instrumental in Helping a Woman Wrestler
While dating wrestler Johnny Long, he introduced her to promoter Jack Pfefer who was always looking to make some money. Pfefer, who also helped Mildred Burke when she left Wolfe, saw an opportunity with Ellison. With his unique accent, she recalls that he began to ask her too many questions such as, “Vy do you vant to vestle all the time?” Finally, annoyed, she blurted out, “For the money! I want to wrestle for the MOOLAH!’”
She was then paired as “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers’ valet where she would wear a tiny leopard-print skirt and was called Slave Girl Moolah.
According to Moolah, Rogers began to pressure her to have a sexual relationship with him. Even though Rogers was one of the biggest draws in wrestling, she risked burning that bridge and told Pfefer what was happening.
Instead of getting rid of her, he decided to make her the valet of a newcomer known as Elephant Boy (Tony Olivas). This created controversy because he was a very dark-skinned Hispanic wrestler who was billed as being from “darkest Africa.” In one incident in Oklahoma, she almost got stabbed from a fan after she had kissed Elephant Boy on the cheek.
The Fabulous Moolah Begins to Go into Business on Her Own and Becomes Champion
Moolah soon later developed a relationship with wrestler Buddy Lee. They left New York and settled in Columbia, South Carolina and began training their own female wrestlers. Because she had no more ties with Wolfe or Pfefer, they needed to find a promoter that would use their trainees. This is where Paul Bowser out of Boston decided to put some of Moolah’s girls to work. Once this happened, other promoters from all over the country began to book her trainees also, after paying Moolah her fee of course!
On September 18th, 1956, when Mildred Burke’s career was fading, Moolah won her first version of the world title after defeating Judy Grable at the end of a battle royal, while other sources call it a one-night tournament. This title was one that was created by the promoters of New York, New Jersey and Baltimore lead by Vince McMahon Sr. According to Moolah’s autobiography, The Baltimore Athletic Commission had stripped June Byers of the title and that was the reason for the tournament. June Byers, who was Billy Wolfe’s main attraction, was not invited to participate.
Now working for Vince Sr., he dropped the name “slave” from her moniker and she would now be known as “The Fabulous Moolah.” She would continue using that moniker even when not working in a territory owned by Vince Sr.
Penny Banner stated in a 2008 interview that Moolah was never sanctioned by the NWA and that her group were considered “outlaws.” She points out that Moolah was actually just the champion of the territories held by Vince Sr., and not the whole NWA. But Capitol Wrestling Corporation was STILL part of the NWA during this time. It broke off from the NWA for the first time in 1963. Moolah’s title took almost 10 years to be recognized by the NWA, and the theory is because Wolfe still had a lot of influence inside the organization. Once he died, the title became recognized by the NWA.
The Fabulous Moolah went on to successfully defend the title against top women of the sport including June Byers who came out of retirement. Her business dealings began to close the doors on most every other woman wrestler who was not part of her camp creating a near-monopoly in the process.
Watch: The rough and tumble Fabulous Moolah in the NWA!
Many Tried, Few Succeeded
During her career, only a handful of women throughout history can claim victory over The Fabulous Moolah, and for only short periods of time before she eventually regained the title. Names such as Betty Boucher, Yukiko Tomoe (in Japan), Evelyn Stevens, and Sue Green were allowed a taste of “championship gold”, even for a fleeting couple of days, and they considered it a milestone in their careers.
Betty Boucher, Moolah’s sister-in-law at the time, held the belt for 13 days and said, “It was the highlight of my career. I loved wrestling for wrestling, but that title was the thing.”
“Beating Moolah was one of my favorite moments, one of my highlights,” said Susan “Tex” Green in a 2006 interview with Slam! Wrestling’s Jaime Kreiser as mentioned in Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling. In 1976, this win helped her to be voted Girl Wrestler of the Year by the readers of the vintage magazine Sports Review Wrestling.
Evelyn Stevens held the title for two days as Gary Hart in his book Playboy Gary Hart: My Life in Wrestling by Philip Varriale recounts, “Evelyn wasn’t one of Moolah’s girls — she was considered an independent. It was rare enough that Moolah was getting in the ring with someone she didn’t control, and now I was asking her to drop her belt to that person! Moolah had a lot of trust in me, though, so when I asked her if we could do a title switch, she agreed.”
A Wrestler Who Actually Owned Their Belt
At some point, The Fabulous Moolah became the legal owner of the most prestigious women’s wrestling belt of the time. She even had her picture in the middle of it so that nobody would be mistaken by whose belt it belonged to. Just think of the uniqueness of a wrestler owning a belt, instead of the promotion or promoter. Moolah had all the power in women’s professional wrestling and she wasn’t afraid to use that advantage in her favor. Owning the belt and wrestling against her trainees; women she trusted, almost ensured her continued dominance in the sport.
“For the better part of 25 years, every top girl wrestler was trained by Moolah, booked out by Moolah, and was controlled by Moolah’s group,” explains Jim Cornette in Dark Side of the Ring. The demand for women’s wrestling at the time was high, despite the competitors facing considerable sexism from bookers and audiences alike.
In the book Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling, authors Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy wrote, “Moolah would end up controlling women’s wrestling for three decades, and she wielded considerable political power. She could make a career or break one. In many ways, Moolah was women’s wrestling’s version of Don Corleone… and her tactics could be just as ruthless and cutthroat as those of “The Godfather.”
An Offer Too Good to Refuse
In June 1984, The Fabulous Moolah sold her rights to the Women’s World title to Vince McMahon Jr. after they had broken ties with the NWA once again. By agreeing to the very lucrative offer, she would also compete exclusively for the newly named World Wrestling Federation and became their first Women’s Champion.
Before this, it is estimated that from 1956 to 1983, The Fabulous Moolah held the title for 11,000 days (not straight, total).
On July 23rd, 1984 In The Brawl To End It All broadcast on MTV, The Fabulous Moolah with Captain Lou Albano in her corner lost her title to Wendi Richter who was accompanied by Cyndi Lauper.
The ending consisted of such an odd pinning predicament that the decision could have gone either way.
This was a pivotal moment in the Rock N’ Wrestling Connection era. Despite there being 11 matches on the card, this was the only one that was televised on MTV and was a huge step forward for women’s wrestling and the WWF in their continued pursuit to become the only pro wrestling company in the USA. Moolah, unaccustomed to losing, took out her frustrations at the end of the match on the referee!
Watch: The Fabulous Moolah is defeated at the Brawl to End it All
Conveniently ignoring the lineage of the belt and not recognizing the title changes before Moolah arrived in the WWF, the event was promoted as Moolah being the undefeated champion who had held the belt for 28 straight years. She went along with this lie of invincibility and when interviewed never mentioned the four times she had lost it.
Richter, after a couple of title defenses against Moolah, finally dropped it to Leilani Kai (with Moolah’s interference) in February of 1985. Richter regained it at the inaugural WrestleMania in March, but later that year Moolah became champion once again but in a very strange set of circumstances during a match that is often referred to as “The Original Screwjob.”
It is significant because, perhaps for the first time publicly on a big stage, we witnessed the lengths Moolah would go to maintain herself on top.
Ignoring whatever had been planned beforehand, Moolah disguised as The Spider gained a pin on Richter when it was obvious that her shoulders weren’t down. In kayfabe storyline, Moolah claims that disguising herself as the preliminary wrestler called The Spider was the only way she could get Richter to defend the title against her after six months of trying and being denied. Afterward, Wendi left WWF forever (until her WWE Hall of Fame Induction in 2010) and never spoke to Moolah again.
Theories on what exactly happened that night in Madison Square Garden abound. It has been said that Richter had various disagreements with Vince McMahon about her compensation. But if she was underpaid, it was compared to the male wrestlers. The only person earning more than her on the women’s WWF roster was Moolah.
According to David Shoemaker at Grantland.com, Richter was surprised to see Moolah on a card she wasn’t scheduled for, but she also saw “Glendean” or sometimes spelled “Glen Dean” who wrestled as The Spider. But more recent sources like the book “Sisterhood of the Squared Circle” published in 2017 assures that it was Penny Mitchell who wrestled as the Spider Lady on and off from the start, just after the inaugural WrestleMania. Richter realized something was amiss when she saw that The Spider had seemingly changed shape once she got a good look at her in the ring. She was now shorter and shaped like an older woman. Even the fans were yelling “Moolah!” about a minute into the bout.
Richter said that she expected anything from Moolah but added, “What I didn’t count on was the referee getting paid off.”
This might sound strange now but during this time the referees, time-keepers, and state-appointed medics were not WWF employees but instead assigned by the different State Athletic Commissions, and in this case it was the one from New York. The “crooked referee” in question; Dick Kroll was a former pro wrestler and was the head referee used in their monthly MSG shows.
You can read further about this screwjob in the link embedded below.
Semi-Retirement and Supposed Sabotaging of The Glamour Girls
Other than a six-day reign by Velvet McIntyre during an Australian tour, Moolah remained champion for two years after defeating Richter until dropping the belt to Sherri Martel on July 24th, 1987. She then participated in that year’s Survivor Series pay-per-view.
In 1988, North American fans were amazed at a hotly contested tag team feud between The Glamour Girls (Judy Martin and Leilani Kai) versus the Jumping Bomb Angels (Noriyo Tateno and Itsuki Yamazaki), but according to Leilani Kai, Moolah wasn’t happy over not getting a cut from the business dealings of the women on the WWF roster anymore. Judy Martin claims that it all started when Moolah stopped receiving her former student’s checks, and they were now being sent directly to their rightful owners. This led to her supposedly sabotaging everything.
After The Glamour Girls had lost the titles in the United States, the teams would face each other in Japan. Leilani claims that Moolah called the All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling promoter and told them that the WWF insisted on The Glamour Girls getting the titles back. So on June 8th, 1988, that’s what happened. Unfortunately, this was seen as a sign of disrespect to the Japanese and when the WWF and Pat Patterson found out, they assumed that The Glamour Girls had decided to “go into business for themselves.” Moolah, in good standing with the McMahons, got no repercussions and left the WWF soon after.
No longer wrestling, The Fabulous Moolah continued to make TV and event appearances with the WWF into the ‘90s, and in 1995, it seemed like her legacy had been sealed when she became the first female wrestler to be inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame.
The Fabulous Moolah returned to the WWF again in 1998 along with Mae Young. She repackaged herself and did mostly comedy skits, but in 1999 at No Mercy, she defeated Ivory to re-gain the WWE Women’s World title in a shocking upset. In 2003, Moolah, for her eightieth birthday, became the first octogenarian to compete for the WWE.
Watch: The Fabulous Moolah becomes champion once again in 1999 versus Ivory
The Controversy Surrounding The Fabulous Moolah
If speaking only about in-ring accomplishments, few could touch The Fabulous Moolah in her dominance of women’s wrestling and her overall influence on the sport, regardless of her actual wrestling talent or lack thereof.
But through the years, many rumors and disturbing anecdotes have surfaced. Former trainees have been very vocal in expressing their dislike on how they were allegedly treated by Moolah and how she handled their business, which some might say Moolah considered it to be HER business as well.
Things got out of hand when WWE announced that for WrestleMania 34, they would be having “The Fabulous Moolah Memorial Battle Royal.” The fan response was mostly negative and it just escalated with online posts basically crucifying Moolah.
Allegations of the mistreatment of her trainees, shady business dealings, and even many saying that she drugged and pimped out her girls spread like wildfire. Even Snickers, who was an exclusive presenting partner for WrestleMania 34, deemed the usage of Moolah’s name in the event “unacceptable”.
A few days later, WWE opted to remove Moolah’s name from the battle royal and issued this statement:
“After further consideration, we believe it’s best to proceed with the name ‘WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal.’ What remains most important is that this historic match is part of WWE’s unwavering commitment to the Women’s Division.”
But several of her peers did not remain silent about their dislike towards Moolah.
Examples of Reputed Misconduct and Questionable Dealings of The Fabulous Moolah
“My relationship with Moolah was never good,” Richter admitted. “She never helped get me to the main event. She used me kind of like Elvis Presley’s manager. She got 25% of my pay and there were times I didn’t even know what I got paid.”
Richter continued, “Once I started wrestling, the promoters were asking for me and she didn’t promote me. There were times they tried to get me and she told them I was booked and I wasn’t. I think she was a very hateful person… an evil person and I didn’t ever want to be around her. They [WWE] contacted me a long time after that [screwjob] and wanted me to do a battle royal and I said, ‘Is Moolah gonna be in it?’ I wanted to get back at her. She was already dead and gone to hell, so I never got to wrestle her again.”
Jeannine Mjoseth had a brief wrestling career in the mid-1980s as Mad Maxine (previously Lady Maxine). At 6’2″ tall and sporting a spiked green mohawk, she looked like someone from the Mad Max movies. She had been referred by Beverly “The Hammer” Shade to Moolah for training, but has few positive comments about her.
“She was an evil person,” Mjoseth said in an interview with SLAM! Wrestling back in 2014. “I understand why. She came from nothing. Her mother died when she was just eight and she was never going to be poor again.” She continued, “The trainees were isolated and exploited.”
Moolah charged them both rent to live in the barracks at her compound, as well as training fees, which Mjoseth says amounted to $1,500.
“She was taking at least half of what I was getting. The girls went into debt to her and she controlled their lives,” Mjoseth recalls. “I made sure I had a job so I could have a phone and a car. The others were kind of marooned. It was an environment ripe for abuse.”
She also claims, “Moolah did send girls out to this guy in Arizona and pimped them out. I actually spoke to him on the phone and asked him what he was looking for. He said, ‘If I’m spending all this money, you know what I want.’ That was part of Moolah’s way of making money. She was just a bad person. Moolah didn’t have a good bone in her body.”
Some of the strongest comments against Moolah came from Penny Banner in a blog post following Moolah’s death in 2007 where she wrote, “It’s wrong to speak bad of the dead, but the comments in the mainstream press and even AP wires come dangerously close to making Moolah seem like some kind of saint, and from a pro wrestling point of view as some kind of legendary tough shooter. That’s utter bullshit.”
She continues, “Moolah was a pimp. From her sprawling 42 acre estate in Columbia, South Carolina, Moolah would send out her half-trained underage female-wrestlers to ‘photo shoots’ that would by the standards of today be considered pedophilia and pornography. She sent trainees to wrestling promoters in set numbers. Renting them out to promoters in bulk, with the understanding that the girls would have sex with the promoter and all the wrestlers on the roster who wanted them. Promoters liked free sex, but what they also liked is for boys not to go outside looking for it and possibly running into trouble. Sex on a road with a steady and pliant group of semi-attractive women in return for money, that is what Moolah offered. The women that were sent out on these tours were not told of this “arrangement” ahead of time. They found out about it on the road. Those that refused to have sex with promoters and wrestlers were raped.”
She then goes on to comment that women’s wrestling in North America (compared to Japan) has remained largely a joke because Moolah was not a good worker and did not train her girls accordingly, hence setting women’s wrestling back decades.
Banner respected the previous torchbearer Mildred Burked much more and claims that she was as tough as the men of her era. She believes the women in the ‘30s and ‘40s worked longer and more technically sound matches than today. Moolah may have emulated Burke, but she was never a shooter or even a good worker according to Banner.
She retired in 1977 claiming that it became almost impossible to find work unless you were one of Moolah’s girls. Penny Banner died on May 12, 2008, nine months after Moolah’s passing.
We’ve also heard that although she ran the most well-known women’s wrestling school in the United States, Moolah handled very little of the training, leaving it in the hands of Buddy Lee, Donna Christantello (known as her right hand), Leilani Kai, or other students. Moolah was a trainer in name only.
And there are others like Ida Martinez, Sandy Parker, Sweet Georgia Brown’s daughter and Luna Vachon that agree with what Banner has claimed.
But There Are Also Many Defenders of The Fabulous Moolah
Dark Side of the Ring producer Evan Husney explained the difficulty around covering the subject of Moolah’s alleged crimes.
“In my own personal opinion, it’s really hard to tell!” Husney told Oxygen.com. “She’s obviously not here for us to ask her. Jim Cornette lays it out and says it’s a little bit of both. Obviously, she came through at a time when promoters were sketchier than they are now. So you learn those tricks of the trade. Did she have a huge ego and want to be the center of attention? Yeah, probably. In terms of the more harsh accusations, it’s really hard to say. I tend to believe anyone who has accusations of that nature. But I do think as far as her legacy is concerned: It’s complicated.”
In an interview with Nigel Sherrod, Sweet Georgia Brown’s son Michael McCoy stands up for Moolah and Brown’s promoter and husband Buddy Lee, and believes that the abuse she received is untrue. He does not dispute that Moolah took a percentage of his mother’s pay and says that his own family swindled them out of the money she sent home.
In the wake of all this, at least 9 women from different generations who trained and worked with Moolah, some for decades, stepped forward to denounce these accusations. The following are some of their quotes:
Leilani Kai said, “She never drugged any of us. She was a champion, a booker and a great legend. She deserves to be honored for eternity.”
This is interesting because Leilani Kai stated in a 2013 shoot interview with RF Video that Moolah in 1988 sabotaged The Glamour Girls (read above) and in the same interview went on to tell many horrible Moolah stories. Her partner Judy Martin also stands by Moolah and denies Moolah pimped anybody. She could barely contain her tears while saying, “The reason there are so many suicides is because people say such bad stuff about people.”
Susan “Tex” Green said that Moolah took 30% out of her pay, but she admits that she signed a contract so she had no problem with that. “She was putting me in the ring, in front of the people, in front of the writers that put my face and picture in magazines. So I took that all in stride.” As for allegations on Moolah pimping girls? “…nobody came to my room late at night.”
Peggy Lee Leather commented, “No, she was not a pimp. She was my booker. She booked me for a certain percentage. And all of this about being a pimp just makes me almost sick inside.”
Joyce Grable offered, “As far as I was concerned, she never sent me nobody. I was kind of pretty, long blonde hair. Especially when I went to Puerto Rico and Mexico. If she was gonna pimp someone out, I would’ve been #1 on the list.”
Beverly Shade mentions, “I knew Moolah well enough to know that she just wasn’t that type of person. I don’t know who started this. I can’t believe that anybody is that jealous or that stupid. I don’t know what they thought they were accomplishing. To take somebody that can’t speak for their self, and [drag] them through the mud like they’re doing her. She’s not here to defend herself, which is not right. I just don’t understand what they think they’re accomplishing.”
Brittany Brown added, “People have believed hearsay from bitter jealous women. I find it unbelievable that Snickers and the McMahons fell to this pressure, it’s unbelievable. I’m putting my money on 99.9% on what you’ve heard is untrue. I was there, I know.”
Listen: The women who defended The Fabulous Moolah
Recommended Reading: Kandi Malloy and Linda Gonzalez also defended Moolah amid the accusations and can be read about here.
The Fabulous Moolah’s accomplishments in women’s wrestling are in the history books but her legacy is still to be determined. One thing is for certain, Moolah will certainly have people talking about her for years to come, and if she were still with us, she probably wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
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