A look back through history: The Original & NWA World Women's Championship - Part Two
Paul picks up right where he left off last week as he continues a trip down memory lane.
Welcome to part two of the history of the Original and NWA World Women’s Championship!
Last week saw us start this latest journey down memory lane, and today sees us continue that journey as we pick up where we left off with Mildred Burke holding the title.
There are a lot of twists this week so let’s not put it off any longer and get straight into it!
Despite still getting some questionable reviews from some sections of the fan base, Women’s wrestling was increasing in population year on year, and with Mildred Burke as Champion, people were flocking to see her in action.
By 1947, it is said that Burke was averaging earnings of $50,000 a year ($600,000 in today’s money). Her marriage to Billy Wolfe, while by no means a particularly happy one due to his adulterous ways, was certainly keeping the money rolling in as he continued to provide her with high quality opponents. Her matches consistently sold-out arenas across the United States, and Burke herself was in high demand.
Sadly though, things began to unravel, and in 1951, Burke was involved in a terrible car accident. The accident would give her some pretty nasty injuries. She was left with a number of broken ribs, a severely injured neck, and dislocated sternoclavicular joint.
While she was not required to, and subsequently did not, forfeit her championship, her “husband,” Billy Wolfe (who I have to say I am liking less and less from what I am finding out in my research) saw an opportunity to move the title away from Burke and into the hands of a younger, more marketable woman. The fact that this woman was also one of his latest, shall we say, “personal conquests,” was not lost on Burke.
Wolfe was making plans for Burke to drop her championship to Nell Stewart, but Burke told him in no uncertain terms that this was not going to happen. She had no intention of intentionally dropping her championship to Stewart. This angered Wolfe, and his next move was an unforgivable one; He and his son would beat up Burke in a parking lot at a local grocery store, in front of her young son, and cause further injuries.
This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Burke filed for divorce from Wolfe. She also made an agreement with the fledgling NWA to take control of her championship, paying $30,000 to retain the rights to it and forcing Wolfe to sign an agreement stating he would not promote Women’s wrestling for five years.
Sadly, Wolfe stuck to that agreement about as well as Joe Exotic did credit to the music business with his album, and was soon back to promoting, organising a Women’s tournament which was to facilitate the crowning of a new Women’s World Champion. What made this worse is that the NWA gave him their full backing, despite Burke’s $30,000 purchase of the rights to her championship. It was a blatant and disrespectful attempt to discredit her as a person, and indeed as a champion.
Burke though did not take this lying down, and immediately went to the press informing them that Wolfe had orchestrated this tournament to ensure that Nell Stewart would emerge victorious. With his plans outed, Wolfe was forced to change his plans and instead went with his daughter in law, June Byers, as the winner of the tournament.
Despite countless complaints from Burke, the NWA refused to get involved in her dispute with Wolfe any further, and on August 20th, 1954, Byers would get her match against Burke and beat her for the title that Burke had paid such a lofty price for. The match became a legitimate fight, and was billed as a two out of three-falls match, but only one fall was ever credited. That fall went to Byers.
According to sources, Burke gave up the first fall in an attempt to come back strong for the second, but Wolfe being the sly weasel that he was, had bribed the referee, and after the first fall, he declared Byers to be the winner. You could say this was the original Screwjob.
At first, Burke thought her title was safe as she had only lost one fall, but sadly Wolfe went to anyone who would listen and stated that June Byers was now the undisputed Women’s World Champion. The press, and more damningly the NWA, got behind Byers as champion, and Burke was left to lick her wounds.
This, combined with relatively few loyal promoters still to work for, left Burke in a tricky position. She would end up creating the World Women’s Wrestling Association, while Byers would take up the mantle of champion.
Despite all the controversy of her career, Burke was posthumously inducted into the legacy wing of the WWE Hall of Fame in 2016, having passed away from a stroke at the age of 73 in 1989. While there was certainly no end of drama during her career, it cannot be argued that Burke was indeed a trailblazer for women’s wrestling.
Back to the matter at hand, the Original World Women’s Championship was essentially dead and buried, and was effectively unified with the NWA World Women’s Championship. With Byers now recognised as champion; she would be the face of the sport for the next decade.
DeAlva Eyvonnie Sibley, born May 25th, 1922 in Hoston Texas, was something of a tomboy growing up. She grew up around the business thanks to an uncle who worked for a local promoter and would occasionally ask the wrestlers she would meet to teach her some moves. On one occasion, that man Billy Wolfe saw her in the ring and instantly recognised her potential.
With her beauty and athletic body, dollar signs were shining from his eyes, and he immediately set himself on training her, which due to her poverty-stricken background, she accepted.
She chose the name June Byers due to her childhood nickname of June (owing to her parents not settling on her name until a month after her birth) and the surname of her ex-husband. Byers was trained in part by a lady we all know well (and, after a couple of incidents in the attitude era, a little too intimately!) Mae Young, who was impressed with the toughness of Byers. After debuting in 1944, she would tour with Wolfe’s promotion and win preliminary matches, but would come up short against opponents such as Young and Burke initially.
By 1952 she had won the Women’s World Tag Team Championship with Millie Stafford, holding the titles until March 1953, first with Stafford, then wit Mary Jane Mull who had replaced an injured and recovering Stafford.
Byers would win the tag team titles five times over the course of her career, teaming with Mars Bennett and Barbara Baker respectively, as well as a second run with Millie Stafford, but ultimately it was her World Championship triumph over Mildred Burke in the aforementioned controversy filled match that gained her the recognition she wanted.
And considering she won the title in controversial fashion; it is perhaps not surprising that she would lose the title in controversial fashion as well!
By 1956, rumours had begun to circulate that Byers was planning to retire as the undefeated champion. As a result of this a group of NWA promoters, led by a man by the name of Vince McMahon Sr (I wonder who he is...) convinced the Baltimore State Athletic Commission to strip Byers of the title. This then led to McMahon staging a tournament to crown a new Women’s Champion.
Byers of course, did not take this lying down, and with Billy Wolfe's, and the majority of the NWA’s support, Byers continued to be recognised as the champion. She was then recognised as the first AWA Women’s champion when the promotion was formed in 1960.
Unfortunately for Byers, despite this, it all began to unravel when Billy Wolfe died in 1963.
With his promotion in tatters, Byers teamed up with Sam Muchnick and Sam Meneker, later that year, and continued to put on great matches for the fan base she had helped to cultivate with her athletic style of wrestling. But unfortunately, it was one of those matches, and indeed one of those fans, that would end up killing her career.
During a match, a “fan” (a term I use loosely in this moment) launched a coke bottle into the ring, which would hit Byers square on the head. The resulting incident caused Byers to suffer from quadruple vision, and she would later crash her car into a tree. While the accident did not take her life, she was left with leg damage so severe, that it forced her to curtail her career at just 41 years old in 1964, and would suffer from quadruple vision for the rest of her life until she passed away in 1998 from pneumonia.
Going back to 1956, with Billy Wolfe out of the way, Vince McMahon had planned his tournament to crown a new Women’s Champion, and in September of 1956, another woman we know very well from the attitude era would be declared the winner and the new NWA World Women’s Champion; The Fabulous Moolah.
Unless you have been living under a rock (and no I don’t mean Dwayne Johnson!) for the last 50 years, chances are you know the name of Fabulous Moolah.
Mary Ellison had a complicated start in life. Being born on the family farm in 1923, she would end up living with her grandmother when she was just eight years old after her mother died. Still distraught a couple of years later, her father took her to a wrestling show to cheer her up. While she liked what she was seeing it wasn’t until she saw Mildred Burke in action that her eyes were fully opened to the world of professional wrestling.
Ellison would move back to her paternal home, and would marry a young man named Tom Carroll when she was just 14. Unsurprisingly, despite the birth of their daughter, the marriage didn’t last, and soon after Ellison left the child in the care of a close friend to pursue her dream of becoming a wrestler.
After initially seeking out Billy Wolfe for training, she realised pretty quickly that unless she was willing to compromise her morals and essentially whore herself out to Wolfe and all his dirty, scummy friends, she was not going to get the opportunities that she wanted. She was later quoted as saying;
“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 realise my dream.”
Her premonition was correct. She would lose the majority of her matches, albeit to people such as June Byers, and she would eventually leave Wolfe’s employ and team up with Johnny Long, and a short while later, Jack Pfefer.
Pfefer was a somewhat controversial promoter, having previously exposed the business in 1933 and being involved in some pretty shady shenanigans in order to double cross promoter Al Haft and subsequently the World Champion Ali Baba, resulting in Dave Levin winning the World Championship (All of this is covered in the History of the Original World Heavyweight Championship articles, that you can find here).
Pfefer would name Ellison “Slave Girl Moolah,” and she would become a valet for Buddy Rogers, and later the Elephant Boy, Tony Olivas. This move would create serious backlash in America at that time as the young, pretty Moolah was subserviently following a black man, meaning that she would oftentimes be put into some pretty dangerous situations.
Thankfully, the world has moved on a lot more since then. Not enough evidently as racism is still prevalent in the world, but it is markedly better than it was back then, thanks to people such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.
Moolah eventually began a relationship with wrestler Buddy Lee, and this led to them moving to South Carolina and starting their own company, Girl Wrestling Enterprises. Sadly, Moolah employed a lot of the same tactics as Billy Wolfe had (minus the sexual sleaziness) and would dictate the appearance of her contracted talent, as well as demanding a 25% cut of their pay, and enforcing a rule that they had to rent accommodation from her.
She would later team up with Paul Bowser and Tony Santos, two of the most powerful promoters in the game, and from here her name would skyrocket as she continued to build her own reputation as a wrestler, as well as getting a booking fee anytime one of her trainees was used by Santos and Bowser.
September 18th,1956 saw Moolah victorious in becoming the new World Women’s Champion after last defeating Judy Grable at the end of a 13-woman battle royal. Moolah was not fully recognized by the National Wrestling Alliance as the new NWA World Women's Champion however until 1964. That snake, Billy Wolfe, with whom Moolah was still involved in something of a feud with, still controlled most of the NWA, and as such sought to discredit her as champion, remaining insistent that June Byers was still the rightful champion.
Ultimately, he failed as once Byers retired due to her aforementioned injuries, Moolah was recognised as the champion. This is when she truly became the big name we all know today.
Moolah would hold the title for the vast majority of an incredible 30 years! Despite a couple of losses to Bette Boucher (herself a trainee of Moolah), Yukio Tomoe, and an unrecognised loss to Sue Green, she would be champion for a total of 9,925 days out of 10,000.
Her reign would only end once the WWWF, and later WWF, withdrew from the NWA, and Moolah sold the title to them, being credited as the first WWF Women’s Champion. In return, WWF recognised her 30-year reign as uninterrupted, while the NWA vacated the NWA World Women’s Championship on New Year's Eve of 1983.
Moolah would become a 4-time WWF Women’s Champion, the last of which came in 1999 when she beat Ivory at the grand old age of 76. Whilst that particular reign only lasted a week and was mainly sentimental, Moolah will always be known for the legacy she left behind, which includes her induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995. Her passing in 2007 left the entire wrestling community in a state of mourning, as we honoured one of the best women to ever grace the squared circle.
The NWA World Women’s Championship was still vacant, and remained that way until 1986, and that is where we will pick up next time...
Thank you for joining me for part two of the history of the Original & NWA World Women’s Championship. We covered a lot of ground here today thanks in no small part to the legendary Fabulous Moolah, and next week will continue our journey through wrestling’s past as we come into the more modern era of the eighties and nineties.
As ever, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!