Professional wrestling is about to lose one of its greatest contributors to the sport and the business. Reports out of Charleston and Mike Mooneyham, the well-respected author and wrestling columnist site sources that state Young, 90, is gravely ill, has been taken off life support and is not expected to live much longer.
While Young was involved in some the WWF/WWE’s most bizarre skits and programs, it was her work early on in her career which helped to pave the way for woman in professional wrestling as more than just eye candy outside the ring, but more of an attraction in the ring as a performer, not a sideshow.
Johnnie Mae Young was born in Sand Springs, Oklahoma in 1923. According to her Wikipedia page, she was an amateur wrestler on her high school’s boys’ wrestling team at the age of fifteen. Her brothers Fred, Eugen, Lawarence, and Everett taught her to wrestle and helped her join the team. She was the youngest of eight children (one died at birth).
While still in high school, Young went to a professional wrestling show and challenged then-champion Mildred Burke when she visited Tulsa to wrestle Gladys Gillem. Because the promoters told her she could not wrestle the champion, she wrestled Gillem in a shoot fight, beating her within seconds. After the fight, promoter Billy Wolfe wanted Young to become a professional wrestler. She left home two years later to wrestle professionally.
Young is credited with Mildred Burke for using Canada as a springboard for women to wrestle. Both women they worked for Stu Hart. She was wrestling in Memphis, Tennessee on December 7, 1941, the day that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, which led to the United States entering World War II. During the war, Young helped women take advantage of the fact that the men were fighting overseas by expanding their role in the sport.
She fought under the nicknames of “The Queen” and “The Great Mae Young”, but she used her real name for most of her matches. During the 1950s, she wrestled for Mildred Burke’s World Women’s Wrestling Association (WWWA). In 1954, Young and Burke were some of the first females to tour Japan after the war.
In September 1956, she participated in the battle royal to determine the new NWA World Women’s Champion after June Byers was stripped of the title, but the championship was won by Young’s friend The Fabulous Moolah. In 1968, she became the NWA’s first United States Women’s Champion.
Moolah and Young were pioneers in the business for the simple reason they fought, battled, and wrestled – move for move, injury for injury. But as she was brought back to the squared circle by the WWF in 1999, the bizarre became synonomous with the former champion.
At the age of seventy-six, she was named the WWF’s “Miss Royal Rumble 2000” at the Royal Rumble by winning a bikini contest. Young appeared to remove her top during this pay-per-view show, which aired from Madison Square Garden. Young, however, was wearing a prosthesis and was not actually exposing herself.
Also in 2000, Young began a storyline where she dated WWF superstar Mark Henry including an announcement that Young was pregnant. During this storyline, The Dudley Boyz, specifically Bubba Ray Dudley, power-bombed Mae through a table twice in back-to-back editions of Raw – the first being in the ring and the second, in which Young was bound to a wheelchair and neck brace, being off the entryway stage. The “child” was eventually delivered and found to be nothing more than a bloody rubber hand.
Young’s determination to break down barriers and stereo types is what I will most remember her for. Not the stupid crap that is sometimes associated with the WWE and its story lines. Those affected Henry as much as they did Young and while she was technically not an active wrestler at the time, those programs ultimately held Henry back from attaining superstar stats at a much earlier time in his career.
And no matter where she went, Moolah (Lillian Ellison) was by her side later in life. The two were inseparable until Ellison’s death in 2007.
At the age of 90, she is one of the last remaining superstars that link the past of a culture of carny following and gimmick matches to the golden age and television and the height of wrestling’s popularity.
Follow David on Twitter @davidlevin71
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