She was a trailblazer, a pioneer and a role model for generations of women wrestlers and divas who would follow her into the profession.
But above all, Johnnie Mae Young was a force of nature.
Several years ago she made a deal with WWE exec Stephanie McMahon that, on her 100th birthday, she would wrestle Stephanie’s oldest daughter, who by then would be approaching 18 years of age.
Until she drew her very last breath Tuesday evening, with 90 years notched on her belt, no one ever doubted that she would reach that goal.
Mae Young, quite simply, was one of the most incredible characters to ever step inside a pro wrestling ring.
And she did it — for a remarkable nine decades — with force and fury, and with grace and guts.
Plenty of guts.
Know of any other 77-year-old woman who would tell a hulking behemoth half a century her junior that he didn’t hit hard enough? Especially when she was on the receiving end?
Mae did just that when she got power-bombed through a table on a 2000 episode of Monday Night Raw.
When Bubba Ray Dudley expressed reservations about doing the high-risk spot, Mae grabbed his wrist and demanded that he treat her like a regular opponent.
“Hey hot shot, if you’re gonna slam me, you slam me like one of the boys,” Dudley later recalled being told. “I was like, ‘Holy crap, yes ma’am, no problem, whatever you need.’”
Bubba Ray apparently got the message — loud and clear — and the next week power-bombed her off the stage and through another table.
“By far, that was the toughest person, pound for pound, we’ve ever been in the ring with,” Dudley later said.
Truth be known, in her prime, Mae was tougher than many of her grizzled male counterparts on the circuit. The late Fred Blassie, one of the greatest heels ever, once opined that Mae was tougher than probably 60 percent of the men in the business. And that, by most accounts, was a conservative estimate.
“Hands of Stone” Ronnie Garvin, a mere neophyte out of Montreal when he broke into the pro ranks in the early 1960s, found out the hard way.
Making an advance toward Young, whose natural beauty predated WWE’s pinup-model divas by decades, Garvin quickly found himself on the business end of a haymaker.
“I’ve never been hit so hard in my whole life,” Garvin later joked.
It would be a painful lesson many would learn over the years.
You didn’t mess around with the Amazing Mae Young.
Young’s longevity in the wrestling business is unparalleled. It’s highly doubtful — and likely impossible — that any future mat performer will ever be able to match her nine decades of active participation in the profession.
She began her career in 1939 and was in a Memphis locker room two years later when news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor broke. Nearly 60 years later she would win WWE’s title of Miss Royal Rumble. And, on Nov. 15, 2010, she won a “falls count anywhere” contest against the team of LayCool,
Her last appearance with the company was on March 3, 2013, during an old-school episode of Raw. The roster celebrated her 90th birthday, and after the show WWE owner Vince McMahon presented her with a replica of the WWE divas championship, naming Young “the greatest divas champion of all time.”
Those many years in between her debut as a 15-year-old rookie and a nonagenarian on the WWE roster saw the tenacious spitfire tackle a variety of jobs ranging from auto mechanic to evangelist, in addition to being a top-flight lady grappler and trainer.
Life, though, wasn’t always easy for Young, who grew up in the post-Depression Dust Bowl in Sand Springs, Okla., a small town eight miles west of Tulsa. The youngest of eight children, Mae never knew her father, who left the family before she was born and never returned.
But Mae was an exceptional athlete who knew she would one day cash in on her physical talents.
When she wasn’t beating boys on the high school wrestling team, starring on a nationally recognized softball squad or kicking field goals for the football team, she was working at a cotton mill to help ends meet at home.
“She had such great admiration for her mother,” recalls Ruth Ellen Henry, one of Young’s closest friends over the past 25 years and a fellow native of Sand Springs. “She absolutely idolized her mother. Her mother took care of Mae’s grandmother and an invalid sister. Mae would walk back and forth to school for lunch, and she would work before she was (legally) old enough at our cotton mill to help support her family.”
Ed Dubie, a beloved local high school football coach who had played collegiately at the University of Tulsa, was the first to recognize the superior athletic potential in Mae.
“He always said she could kick the football further than any boy he had ever seen,” said Henry.
It’s only fitting that a bronze statue of Young, recognizing her place in the Sand Springs Hall of Fame, occupies a prominent spot today in the Ed Dubie Fieldhouse.
“She loved every award she ever got, but that’s the one she would ask me about the most,” said Henry, 70, whose mother attended school with Young. “She loved Sand Springs.”
Mae and Moolah
No name is more closely associated with Mae Young than perennial women’s champion The Fabulous Moolah (Lillian Ellison). Young trained Moolah, hooked up the South Carolina native and her troupe of girl wrestlers with the late Vince McMahon Sr.’s Northeastern-based organization, and shared a special friendship with Moolah until her death at age 84 in 2007.
Their strong bond and relationship with the McMahon family has endured to this day.
“Vince (Jr.) is a great man. He loved Lil,” Young once said in interview. “I was one of the first girls to work for Vince Sr. when he opened up Joe Turner Arena in Washington, D.C. At that time, Lil (Moolah) had never worked for Vince Sr. She had been calling me and writing me to use some of her girls.
“Mildred (Burke) and Billy (Wolfe) had split up at that time, and Vince asked me what I thought about getting Lil and his girls. I told Vince that would be the greatest thing that ever happened.”
Moolah, in fact, sold the rights to her championship to Vincent K. McMahon in 1983.
“There will never be another Mae Young,” McMahon in a statement last week. “Her longevity in sports entertainment may never be matched, and I will forever be grateful for all of her contributions to the industry.”
The relationship between Mae and Moolah extended beyond the boundaries of the squared circle.
For nearly 20 years Mae, Moolah and Katie Glass (former women’s midget star Diamond Lil, who Moolah adopted many years ago when the 17-year-old knocked on her door looking for work in the wrestling business) lived on separate floors of Ellison’s 42-acre estate in the back of a tranquil neighborhood in the suburbs of Columbia — appropriately dubbed “Camp Moolah” — that included a 13-room home, eight- and 12-acre lakes, a row of lake houses and a gym equipped with a wrestling ring where hundreds of men and women came to train over the years.
“Johnnie Mae was in California and had lost all of her family, and I told her this big place was just sitting here and she could have the whole upstairs,” Moolah once explained.
The two golden girls, both members of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, were delightful hosts and reservoirs of grappling history.
A couple of ordinary senior citizens and matronly grandmothers these queens of the canvas weren’t.
And if proof was needed, one only had to venture a few hundred feet from the sprawling house to watch the grand ladies of wrestling in action, training (and sometimes stretching) aspiring mat hopefuls with ease at their official training facility, which in reality was a cramped building that resembled a little red barn.
The professional wrestling community — past and present — would collectively agree that Mae Young, dubbed “The Great” and “The Amazing” throughout her career, was as fearless as they had ever witnessed. She boldly proclaimed that she was one of the dirtiest fighters alive, and tried to prove it every night by pulling hair, gouging eyes and taking cheap shots.
“She was a rough, tough broad,” said one of her old opponents.
The late Penny Banner recalled feelings of utter fear upon meeting Young.
“She had men’s shoes on, men’s pants on, with the zipper up the front, a cigar hanging out of her mouth,” said Banner. “Back in 1954, you didn’t do that.”
“I don’t like women’s wrestling, but if ever there was one born to be a wrestler, you’re it,” the legendary Ed “Strangler” Lewis once told Young.
Young was a villain, and she played the role to the hilt.
“Anybody can be a babyface, what we call a clean wrestler,” Young said in “Lipstick & Dynamite: The First Ladies of Wrestling,” a 2005 documentary film about the early pioneers of women’s wrestling. “They don’t have to do nothing. It’s the heel that carries the whole show. I’ve always been a heel, and I wouldn’t be anything else but.”
But there was another side to this remarkable lady. A spiritual one.
“She was a fine Christian woman. She taught me so much,” said Henry, who escorted Young to many of her wrestling functions in recent years, an arrangement facilitated by the McMahon family.
It’s that side of the many faces of Johnnie Mae Young that Henry feels is important for her fans to know.
“It’s how she loved the Lord with all her heart. And she led a lot of people to the Lord.”
Ellis said she was overwhelmed by the love and support shown by her friend’s fans and colleagues.
“We were able to share some wonderful, wonderful times. And I got to meet so many of her wonderful friends. It was amazing how many people loved Mae … especially the women (divas). They all loved just being around her and listening to her stories. They loved her because she had set the path for them. It was really something to see.”
Ellis fondly recalled the night in 2008 when Mae was inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame.
“She was so happy that night. When we walked in there that night and the crowd went crazy, she was just on cloud nine. She loved her fans.”
Pro wrestling, now more commonly known as sports entertainment, has changed dramatically over the years. It’s a different business since the days Young and her contemporaries traveled, often piled up in cars, on rural back roads, on endless journeys of one-night stands. Women’s wrestling has long evolved from its roots as a sideshow attraction that was banned in several states and even considered taboo for young ladies to join.
But Young’s love for the business never wavered.
“This is a business that you have to love, and if you love it, you live it,” she said in “Lipstick & Dynamite.” “You move along with it. You grow along with the entertainment as it grows.”
And Mae never stopped growing and evolving despite her longevity.
She had even worked the past 30 years with just one kidney that was only partially functioning. Her strict physical regimen of doing crunches and leglifts before going to bed at night and upon getting up in the morning most likely allowed her to outlive her failing kidney.
But she never used it as a crutch or an excuse. The show must go on, and there was no greater practitioner of that old adage than Young, whose sense of humor allowed WWE colleagues to sometimes respectfully poke on-air fun at her advanced age,
“When God said let there be light, Mae Young flipped the switch,” WWE commentator Jerry “The King” Lawler would often crack during WWE telecasts.
“There’s been only one Mae Young, and there will only be one ever,” said WWE Hall of Famer Pat Patterson, who inducted her into the WWE Hall.
Tributes poured in following Mae’s death last week.
From world-famous celebrities like The Rock to the many independent performers who had been fortunate enough to train with Mae and Moolah.
“She’s a wrestling pioneer. I truly had deep affection and respect for ‘Aunty Mae’ Young, tweeted Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“I have so much respect for Mae Young. Incredible person and pioneer of the wrestling business. An honor to sit in the WWE Hall of Fame with her,” 16-time world champion Ric Flair chimed in on his Twitter page.
“You lived the life that most could only dream of. You touched so many lives. You certainly touched mine. You, despite aging, were forever young,” posted Johnny Cook of Columbia, who wrestles under the name Johnny Flex.
Henry said her friend would be “beside herself” to see the outpouring of love from all corners of the world.
“If you think she danced on that WWE stage, just think what kind of dance she’d be doing now.”
And no doubt Moolah would be ribbing her.
“Moolah’s voice is still on her answering machine. She never took it off.”
Henry said she expects Glass to continue to live in the Columbia home she shared with Young.
“Katie was her angel. She’s a rough and tough little gal, but I’ll tell you what. She would have killed for Johnnie Mae. She really loved Johnnie Mae and would have given her heart to her.
“And I do think Katie was there at the right time. There a scripture my mother used to tell me about ‘in His time, all things are perfect.’ I think that was one of the reasons Katie was put there … to be special for Johnnie Mae. I know Moolah loved her greatly too.”
Henry said her friendship with Young was special.
“She was amazing, but she was the great Mae Young,” says Henry. “She touched my heart in such a way that few people will ever understand. When we would say goodbye and she told me she loved me, it was from the heart. And there was no doubt. We loved each other … we were best friends.”
While Young’s passing leaves a tremendous void in her life, Henry said she can only be encouraged because she knows where her friend is today. There is no more sorrow and pain in Young’s new home, said Henry, but a renewed body in a happier world.
“I loved her with all my heart. It’s very sad, but she is free. Those eyes that couldn’t see well … they’re now seeing colors and things that we can’t dream imaginable. I know where she is because I know her soul. She’s fine. I will see her again.”
When the time grew near for that final bell, the old warrior was ready, said Henry. There would be no kickouts this time.
“It’s not good,” Mae confided in her friend shortly before her passing.
“But,” she added, “I know where I’m going. And I’ll be there waiting.”
Mae Young, indeed, was the last of an old guard that will never be forgotten. Few have lived a life such as hers.
“She lived to the hilt,” said Henry. “If you could write your own story and go out on a comet, she did. She did it all. Next time I see a beautiful shooting star, I’m going to know who it is. That’s the way she left this earth ... and went right straight to heaven. There is no doubt in my mind.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham (843) 937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.