AMERICAN WOMEN WRESTLERS

RITA LEISTNER


From Roland Barthes,  “The World of Wrestling” in Mythologies (1972)

 

“There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle . . . The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.”

“In the ring and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.”


Mama Said Knock You Out
Text by Amy Kayishian for BUST Magazine

 

“The other day, Mae said to me, ‘Do you know I’m going to be 80 years old?'” Lillian Ellison says, speaking of her best friend and wrestling partner, Mae Young. “And I said, ‘Well, do you feel like you’re 80 years old?’ And she said, ‘Hell no, I don’t need no rocking chair!'” The two ladies crack up, bubbling over with matching Southern-belle lilts. “That’s from a George Jones song,” Mae adds when she realizes that I don’t get the reference. “You are a Yankee!” she crows, as the laughter bubbles up again.

Ellison is better known as “The Fabulous Moolah,” the woman who won the National Wrestling Alliance’s Women’s Championship in 1956 and held the title for 28 years. Ellison was also the first woman to wrestle legally in New York City. In 1971, New York was one of a handful of states that kept women out of the wrestling ring, but Moolah fought several highly-publicized matches in their quest to break the fallopian-tube barrier in wrestling, and within a year, the law was changed.

Mae Young began her wrestling career in 1939 and claims she taught Moolah everything she knows. “I guess I taught her too good,” she says, when asked why she never beat her for the title.

Ellison and Young have fought side-by-side—and sometimes against each other—for the last 60-odd years. When they’re not on the road, Young shares Ellison’s house on Moolah Drive in Columbia, South Carolina. And they will not stop sparring.

“We’d like for these people who call themselves ‘old people’—Mae is going to be 80 in March, and I’m going to be 80 in July—to know that 80 isn’t old,” Ellison says. In fact, she says, she has shaken hands with Vince McMahon, the impresario of the glamorous World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), on a deal to fight a match on her 80th birthday. Against whom, she’s not sure. But whoever it is, she promises her—or him—and ass-whopping.

Sometimes Mae and Moolah fight in the WWE, alongside The Rock and Triple H and a lot of explosives. Sometimes they perform in much smaller venues, with Women’s Extreme Wrestling and the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, where these photos were taken. “I’ve seen my mother drive from Columbia to Baltimore to fight a match for 20 dollars just because she loves it,” Lillian’s daughter Mary says. “If she had to quit, I don’t know what she’d do. It’d probably kill her.”

No matter how small the crowd is, the two women, who fight as a tag team, still manage to knock the tar out of their opponents. For a long-time wrestling fan, it’s a sight that can make you feel a little nervous. They may not know they’re 80, but you do. And to tell the truth, they look a little fragile.

Still, they insist they haven’t changed their routines. When told they must have come up with some ingenious new moves, since there’s no way they can still be doing flying drop-kicks, Young insists, “No, we wrestle just they way we always did. Age, that never comes into our thoughts. We still think we can do the things we did when we were 16.”

“My brothers used to put me in a tire and roll me down the hill,” Ellison adds. “Sometimes I’d go into the creek and sometimes I’d bang into a tree, but I looked forward to it.”

What makes them so tough? The ladies say that, as women, it comes with the territory. “Women can endure more,” Young says. “When a man gets a bruise he has to lie around for six weeks. If you ask most women about their husbands, they’ll tell you they’re the stable ones, not the men. A man is like a little child.”

“Would you want to see a man have a baby?” Ellison interjects. “No, you would not! Because he could never live through it!” As for her in-the-ring injuries, she insists that she treats them now as she always did. “You tape it up and soak it in Epsom salts and then you go back in there and see if you can do it to somebody else.”

Their marvelous costumes, all glitter and spandex, must also be a source of strength, since they look like they’ve got enough wattage to light the Eastern seaboard. “I’ve always worn this, since I started,” Ellison says. “‘Moolah’ means ‘money,’ so I have a dollar sign on my boots and my tights and my jacket. Mae has a crown on hers. We’ve always had that when we go in the ring. When they see that, they say, ‘There’s Moolah and Mae.'”

“Nothing is hard if you enjoy it,” Mae adds. “We was born to be in the wrestling ring, and it’s in our blood, and we love it. It’s like getting up in the morning for us.”


Rita Leistner in the dressing room with member of G.L.O.W. (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), Miami, Florida 2002.