A look back through history: The Original & NWA World Women's Championship - Part One
It's been a while, but Paul is back with another deep dive into the history books, and this time it's the women that are the focus of his attention.
Well, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I haven't delved into the history books for nearly two months!
Rest assured, there is still plenty to come from your resident Championship historian, but a little time was needed to recharge the batteries, not to mention focus on the build-up to Wrestlemania!
With that said though, I am thrilled to be back in action doing what I love most; Researching Championships!
And what better way to start a new series than to go right back to the beginning?
When Real Rasslin started in August of 2020, my first article series on the history of the Original World Heavyweight Championship was incredibly well received. If you haven’t read it yet, you go to the articles section to find all my previous articles.
But back to the point, the success of those articles got me thinking. In the last few months, I have covered the complete histories of the Original World Heavyweight Championship, the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship and the IWGP (World) Heavyweight Championship. All three are incredibly important titles, and rightly so.
But in doing this, I have focused solely on the men's side of the business, and we all know that there are just as many legendary female performers that are deserving of having their achievements recognised also. With this in mind, it seemed only fitting to go back in time to learn more about the women's wrestling world.
Well, I certainly found a lot of information! And in doing so, it became apparent that the original Women's Wrestling Championship has not been covered too much. Once I noticed this, I knew what I had to do.
And so here we are, as I present to you my newest article series: The History of the Original and NWA Women’s Championship!
Now, you may be thinking; “But Paul, for the men's titles, you did two separate series!”, and you would be right. But trust me, all will become clear in time.
So, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Women’s wrestling was widely considered something of a carnival sideshow for much of the sports early years, and as such it did not come to prominence until the early 1900’s. During the preceding years, Josie Wahlford was often referred to as the pinnacle of the women's game, and was often cited as the World Champion, but officially the title of First Women’s World Champion belongs to Cora Livingston.
Born in the late 1880’s, Livingston endured much heartache in her early years. Her parents died while she was still young, and as a result of this she spent her formative years being raised by nuns at a convent.
Very little else is known of her early life, but at sixteen years old she began her journey to wrestling superstardom when she joined the circus. At 5ft 5in and weighing around 138lbs, she would wow fans and circus goers alike with her abilities, trained as she was by acclaimed Scottish catch wrestler and former American Heavyweight Champion, Dan McCloud, as well as another former 3-time American Heavyweight Champion in Dr Benjamin Roller.
Her first match was in 1906, but it was when she beat widely renowned wrestler, Laura Bennett, that her star began to shine brightest. At the time, Bennett was considered by most to be the best women’s wrestler in the world, and so when Livingston beat her, she was crowned as the "first to be recognized as Women's Champion of the World".
Livingston garnered her fair share of controversy though (which creates cash, right Uncle Eric?).
While Livingston experienced her first loss when she lost to May Nelson in 1910, the original match had been stopped after just thirteen minutes as fans attempted to storm the ring, irate that she was being so rough with Nelson, but when the match began again a few days later, Nelson was actually able to beat Livingston. However, her title was not on the line in this match.
An excerpt from the Pittsburgh Press read;
“TWO THOUSAND MEN AND BOYS TRIED TO STOP A WRESTLING MATCH AT THE ACADEMY OF MUSIC LAST NIGHT BETWEEN CORA LIVINGSTON, CHAMPION WOMAN WRESTLER OF THE WORLD, AND MAY NELSON, OF THE SOUTH SIDE. KICKING AND GOUGING IN THE MATCH ENRAGED THE SPECTATORS AND THEIR SHOUTS COULD BE HEARD FOR A SQUARE. EIGHT POLICEMEN UNDER CAPTAIN JOHN DEAN WERE CALLED TO PREVENT A RIOT.”
“SOON AFTER THE MATCH BEGAN CORA LIVINGSTON BEGAN KICKING HER ADVERSARY AND GROUPS IN THE AUDIENCE SHOUTED TO REFEREE ARCHIE PARKER TO STOP THE CONTEST. WHEN MISS NELSON WAS PROSTRATE ON THE MAT THE CHAMPION STRUCK HER SEVERAL HARD BLOWS. EXCITEMENT IN THE AUDIENCE REACHED FEVER HEAT. WHILE HUNDREDS OF MEN YELLED THEMSELVES HOARSE, THE WOMEN FOUGHT VICIOUSLY. HAIR PULLING WAS INCLUDED WITH OTHER ROUGH TACTICS. THOSE IN THE FRONT ROW ATTEMPTED TO CLIMB ONTO THE STAGE, BUT WERE PULLED BACK. WHEN THE MATCH HAD BEEN ON 13 MINUTES THE THEATER MANAGEMENT ORDERED THE WRESTLERS OFF THE STAGE AND TRIED TO PACIFY THE MOB. THIS DID NOT SUFFICE, FOR MISS LIVINGSTON HAD OFFERED TO THROW ANY WOMAN WRESTLER IN THE CITY. FRANK SERRY, A REFEREE TAKEN TO THE THEATER BY MISS NELSON, WAS SUBSTITUTED FOR PARKER AND THE MATCH WENT ON.”
This was not her only controversy though, as in that same year, Livingston, and two women's wrestlers by the names of Lou Harris and Daisy Johnston were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Fans in attendance, of which there were around 1,200, reported seeing Livingston and Harris using questionable tactics against each other such as clawing, biting and scratching. In fact, when the police turned up to stop the match, Harris was trying to gouge out Livingston’s eye!
The Chicago Tribune declared the fight to be “the most disgraceful thing of the kind ever seen in Chicago”, quite the accolade!
After this, Livingston would embark on a tour of America and Canada, taking on the best women's grapplers in each town, and further solidifying her status as an outstanding women’s champion in competitive, but ultimately dominant, victories.
Livingston retired sometime around 1925, unbeaten as Champion. She had married Paul Bowser, a fellow wrestler, in 1913, and after retiring she helped him run the New England wrestling scene. Her death in April of 1957 was mourned fiercely by wrestling fans the world over, but her legacy continues to this day.
With Cora’s retirement, this left the Women’s wrestling scene without a World Champion, and it remained that way for several years. It wasn’t until 1932 that the sport celebrated a new Women’s Champion in the form of Clara Mortensen.
Clara was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1917, and was born into the sport. Her father, Fred, was known as “The Terrible Dane” in his native country of Denmark and was their Lightweight Champion. When they moved to America, Fred continued to wrestle whilst also training Clara and her brother, Leo.
Clara developed a real toughness as a result of training with boys from a young age. As they were able to throw her around fairly easily, she soon learnt that she would need to become accustomed to it if she was to continue to train. Eventually, she would be able to perform on an even footing with the boys, and actually made her professional debut against her brother, winning $81 ($1,200 in today’s money).
Clara would continue training with boys until 1932 when she made the decision to fight Barbara Ware for the still vacant Women’s World Championship. Barbara Ware was no slouch, she was a fantastic competitor and extremely popular, thanks to the actions of her manager, Billy Wolfe, who at the time was the biggest promoter of women’s wrestling in America.
Mortensen was only sixteen years old, and significantly smaller than the veteran Ware, so everyone was stunned when she was not only able to stand toe to toe with the popular veteran, but to actually beat her and become World Champion. Naturally, Ware denied this ever happened, claiming that she, in fact won. There are also those who are not entirely sure that Ware was the person beaten by Mortensen in this match. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Mortensen was the World Champion.
Undeterred by this, Mortensen would seek to further cement her status as Champion, and did so by joining up with a circus company named “Crafts Big Shows” (presumably not Paul Wight’s company...), and embarking on a tour of her own with her family. By 1934 she was regularly touring across America, including wrestling in front of some 31,000 people at an event in Hawaii.
Her schedule was so packed that she would often wrestle three to four times a week, and within a four-month period in 1937 was reported to have earned around $37,000, which in today’s money is close to $700,000! Bearing in mind at this point that she was still a young woman of just 21 years old, her feats are all the more astonishing.
Her biggest match, and indeed biggest test, was to come in that same year when she paired off with a young up and comer by the name of Mildred Burke (Widely known as RR Crew member James’ favourite women’s wrestler!)
While Mortensen was not overly familiar with Burke, she was very familiar with her husband, Billy Wolfe (anyone else getting Ed “Strangler” Lewis vibes at this point?).
Wolfe was pushing for Burke to get a match against Mortensen for the title, and their initial match ended in defeat for the challenger. Ten more matches followed, with four ending in draws, and Mortensen winning the other six. In today’s wrestling world, that kind of form is likely to get you pushed down the card, released and your stuff to be sent to you in a black plastic sack before you can even say “Future Endeavoured”. But in 1930’s America, this was not the case, and a twelfth match was sanctioned between the two. It should be noted that by this point in time, much like the men’s division, the women’s division was also having matches end in predetermined fashion, something that Burke would state in a later autobiography that she hated, alongside Clara Mortensen.
And as we all know the saying goes, “Twelfth time lucky”. January 28th, 1937, a crowd of just over 6,000 fans saw Mildred Burke finally rip the World Title away from Clara Mortensen, handing her a first defeat in five years. But to this day, no one is sure whether Burke was supposed to win or not. Some say she broke script and legitimately beat Mortensen, while others say that Mortensen allowed her to win in order to “pump the gate” for upcoming matches. In either case, Mortensen looked to avenge her loss almost immediately, and did so by winning back the Championship just two weeks later on February 11th.
Again, controversy followed, as it was claimed Mortensen only won due to a fast count from a bribed referee. Burke claimed she was so angry that she stormed into Clara’s dressing room and beat her bloody. Burke was quoted as saying;
"Soon she was blubbering pitifully and begging me to stop, a sorry picture of a would-be champion."
By April 1937, the title was back in the hands of Burke, the details of how and why are sketchy to say the least, but more on that shortly. By this point in time both women were at the forefront of women’s wrestling, but trusted each other about as much as anyone would trust MJF (he IS the best heel in wrestling after all...)
Both women would claim they were champion numerous times over the years, with Mortensen claiming she had won back the title, and Burke insisting she hadn’t. Nevertheless, the official records, while also sketchy, state that Mildred Burke was the champion.
Burke was born Mildred Bliss in Coffeyville, Kansas on August 5th, 1915. Little is known about her early life, but by age eighteen having worked as a waitress, she left Kansas after agreeing to marry her boyfriend at the time. It was this boyfriend who took Burke to a wrestling event, and piqued her interest in the sport.
Despite having impressive muscular development, Burke did not immediately get into training, as she would work as a stenographer for a time. When she discovered that local wrestling trainer Billy Wolfe was training aspiring women, she repeatedly asked him to train her. Wolfe though was not convinced that Burke was worth training and so instructed one of his male trainees to body slam her in hopes of deterring her from wanting to train. Fortunately for him, this only made her mad and she ended up body slamming the male trainee!
Wolfe agreed to train her, and eventually came to the realisation that she was the one he was waiting for both professionally and personally. In the course of her training, they developed a close relationship and would eventually marry. Their marriage was not a happy one though, as Wolfe was a serial womaniser, being the top women’s wrestling promoter of the time, and cheated on Burke numerous times.
After completing her training, Burke would tour the carnival circuit, offering $25 to any man who could either defeat her or last ten minutes without being pinned. She would record 200 victories, and only one loss in that time. Despite her diminutive 5ft 2in frame and weighing just 130lbs, she possessed incredible strength that most men could not hope to possess themselves. After the carnival circuit options started drying up due to inter gender wrestling being illegal in most states, the pair turned to professional wrestling, and it was in 1936 that Wolfe was successful in getting Burke a match against then champion, Clara Mortensen.
As stated above, Burke would win the title from Mortensen, only to lose it again a couple of weeks later. Burke would win the title back in April of 1937, but as mentioned earlier, the details are somewhat sketchy. It is widely believed that Mortensen simply refused to lose the title to Burke, and so Mildred was forced to legitimately beat her for the Championship. But this was the 1930’s American wrestling scene, and as we learnt from the Gold Dust Trio of Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Toots Mondt, and Billy Sandow, a lot of promoters simply ignored that this title change ever occurred and stayed loyal to Mortensen as champion. Be that as it may, officially, Burke was now the champion.
Burke’s claim to the women’s title was undeniable by the time she beat Betty Nichols in 1938, making her a 3-time women’s champion. After this, she would hold the title for an incredible fifteen years.
The woman that Burke would lose the title to would set off a chain of events that had widespread repercussions for women’s wrestling, setting the stage for the popularity of the women’s wrestling scene to soar. And it is there that we will pick up next week.
Thank you for reading part one of our look back at the history of the original Women’s Championship. As ever, please do follow us on our social media channels and subscribe to us on YouTube for some of the best wrestling content on the planet!
Until next time, I’ll see you at the matches.