A stalwart of the women's wrestling scene in the 1940s and ’50s, Mae Young (1923–2014) was known for her cheap shots and cutthroat style—regularly finishing off opponents with an elbow drop or bronco buster. Young wrestled in eight different decades, appearing at World Wrestling Entertainment events even into her 70s and 80s. Young dreamed of wrestling on her 100th birthday, but she died at age 90 in 2014.
The youngest of eight children, Johnnie Mae Young was born March 12, 1923, in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, one of several children born to John Henry and Lillie Mae Young. Johnnie was not a wrestling nickname; it was her given name, combining her parents’ first and middle names. Young was a natural athlete, playing softball on Tulsa's national championship softball team and as a kicker for her high-school football team. She became interested in wrestling after her brothers joined the highschool team and taught her several moves. In addition, pro wrestler Ed “the Strangler” Lewis had ties to her hometown and was said to have given Young some training during her teen years.
Young's father abandoned the family when she was little, leaving Lillie Mae to keep the family fed throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s. They were extremely poor, and once she became old enough, Young worked at a cotton mill to help support her family.
When Young was about 16, she traveled to Tulsa to watch a match between Gladys “Kill ’Em” Gillem and Mildred Burke, then the reigning female world champion. Burke started her career fighting men on the carnival circuit in the mid-1930s and became the first well-known American female wrestler. Underwhelmed with Burke's performance, Young asked for a match-up with the world champ. Although Burke's manager and husband, wrestling promoter Billy Wolfe, refused, he agreed to give the teen a tryout and sent two of his top female wrestlers to Sand Springs. After Young defeated them, Wolfe agreed to sign her on, although she did not immediately join his crew. It was not known when Young first began wrestling; while the date 1939 is sometimes cited, some wrestling historians believe that she did not start full-time professional wrestling until 1941, when she was 18 years old.
Once Young began wrestling, she quickly assumed the role of the villain, dishing it out with her brutal, heavy-handed maneuvers and then taking the fall in the end. When she appeared in the 2004 documentary Lipstick & Dynamite: The First Ladies of Wrestling, she made it clear that she took satisfaction in her role. “Anybody can be a baby face, what we called a clean wrestler,” she explained. “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.” During her career, Young never adopted a fancy ring name. She was billed as “Mae Young” or “The Great Mae Young.”
Young was always the blonde vixen, tormenting and disgracing her opponents and forever attempting to upstage the competition. Fans hated her so much that wrestling promoters had to cover the ring with chicken wire before her matches because crowd often pelted her with rotten eggs and vegetables. Along the way, she developed a signature move called the “bronco buster,” which was still used by wrestlers in the 2010s. The name of the maneuver paid homage to Young's Oklahoma roots. To execute a bronco buster, she would toss her opponent into the corner so the person's head was resting on the turnbuckle. Next, she would proceed to leap across the ring and land on top of her opponent. She would grab hold of the ropes, straddle her adversary and proceed to bounce up and down, hammering her bottom side into the person's chest and throat repeatedly. The bronco buster was not particularly painful, but it was humiliating.
Young “would make a real good bar-room brawler. That was something she loved to do,” recalled fellow wrestler Ella Waldek in Lipstick & Dynamite. In fact, Young was known for her bar-room antics, which landed her in the headlines—and even in jail—more than once. In 1949, authorities arrested Young in Reno, Nevada, after she allegedly robbed a man and beat him to such an extent that he required hospitalization. Young claimed he made unwelcome advances at her so she showed him a thing or two. There were other instances where she was accused of beating and robbing men. Despite a couple of arrests, Young never faced trial.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Young played the role of inring rival to Burke, the beloved world champion, and their ongoing feud drew crowds. Promoters loved the match-up because Young was such an intense and credible wrestler that the outcomes did not look pre-determined. In the early 1940s, they headlined the first women's wrestling tour of Canada and in 1954, they introduced wrestling in Japan. During the height of Young's career, the schedule was grueling. Female wrestlers traveled by car, sometimes driving two days straight to reach an event. Young saw most of the United States, but mostly through car windows. As she later told Alex Marvez for Fort Lauderdale's Sun Sentinel, “We used to wrestle six matches a week, two-out-of-threefalls with an hour time limit. The biggest week I had was earning $52.”
While the female wrestlers were allowed to get wild and be “unladylike” in the ring, they were required to wear proper dresses, stockings, and high heels when they entered the ring. Their hair had to be fixed, as well as their nails. To keep their wrestling tank tops from falling off, the women sewed surgical tubing into the straps and inserted elastic into their shorts so they would not ride up during a match. Many of the female wrestlers were married, but not Young. “Mae was proud that she was tougher and stronger than many men,”Lipstick & Dynamite filmmaker Ruth Leitman told Washington Post writer Matt Schudel. “You see in her persona that she's very flirtatious. But there was a lot of speculation about her sexual orientation.”
Young enjoyed incredible longevity in the business through her friendship with Lillian Ellison, a woman better known under her wrestling moniker “The Fabulous Moolah.” Young helped train Moolah when she started in the business and the two remained lifelong friends. Moolah became female world champion in the 1950s after Burke retired. She also became a wrestling promoter with her husband, Buddy Lee, and continued booking matches for Young even as Young moved into her 40s. Young captured her first title more than 25 years into her career, in 1968, when she won the National Wrestling Alliance U.S. women's championship.
In 2000, a 77-year-old Young took part in a 17-contestant swimsuit contest at the WWF Royal Rumble at New York's Madison Square Garden. After parading around in her swimsuit, she pulled down her top to reveal a prosthetic bust and win the contest. The WWF became the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) in 2002 after losing a trademark lawsuit with the World Wildlife Fund. Young and Moolah continued appearing at WWE events in the mid-2000s. In 2004, Young and Moolah showed up on SmackDown! in a match-up that had them wrestling in plaid culottes in a “school girls” tag-team match against a pair of much younger and more supple opponents. The elderly duo won with Young performing her infamous bronco buster.
The 2000s also included a WWE storyline that had Young pregnant with the love child of wrestling strongman Mark Henry. She was also powerbombed through a table by Bubba Ray Dudley. Other female wrestlers from the 1940s and 1950s ranted against Young and Moolah's antics, claiming that it made a mockery of their professional careers. Young shrugged it off. “This is a business that you have to love and if you love it, you live it—then you move along with it,” she said in Lipstick & Dynamite.
“You grow along with the entertainment as it grows.” Young had moved in with Moolah in 1991, following her mother's death, and by the 2000s was staying on Moolah's 42-acre estate in South Carolina, a property that included a gym and training facilities. Midgetwrestler Katie Glass (aka Diamond Lil) also lived there. Moolah housed several wrestlers over the years, finally dying in 2007 and putting an end to the duo's WWE tag-team shenanigans. Young continued as a solo act and made her last appearance in a 2010 edition of Monday Night Raw where she won a “falls count anywhere” match. This type of bout allowed her to pin her opponent anywhere on the premises (and outside of the ring). Young was 87, making her the oldest wrestler ever—male or female—to compete in a match.
Throughout her life, Young maintained her celebrity status within wrestling circles and in 2004, she was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, New York. Burke had beat her to the punch with a 2002 induction, as had Moolah, who was enshrined there in 2003. In 2005, her hometown named her to the Sand Springs Education Foundation's Sandite Hall of Fame; three years later she received another professional honor when she was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
In her final decade, Young served as an inspiration, reminding others that it was possible to live your passion right up until the very end. While she complained, in 2000, to Wrestling Digest reporter Dave Scherer that friends were telling her it was time to hang up her wrestling boots and tights, she added that they were worried that she might get killed in the ring from all that body-slamming. “Best way to go,” she told Scherer, “because at least I'm going out doing the thing I love. I would like to see all the senior citizens take the attitude that, ‘Hey look, I'm going to live forever,’ instead of sitting down in a rocking chair, waiting for the morgue and creeps to come pick me up. They're going to have to catch me.” Death finally caught up with Young on January 14, 2014, when she died at her home in Columbia, South Carolina.
Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL), April 21, 2000, Alex Marvez, “Moolah and Young Give the Game Some New Wrinkles,” p. 42.
Tulsa World, May 4, 2005, Kristina Dudley, “Sandite Hall of Fame Inducts Two,” p. W2.
Washington Post, January 19, 2014, Matt Schudell, “Star of Pro Wrestling Workde and Lived Hard.”
Wrestling Digest, October 2000, David Scherer, “Life Begins,” pp. 46–49.
World Wrestling Entertainment website, http://www.wwe.com/superstars/maeyoung (December 12, 2016), “Mae Young.”
Lipstick & Dynamite: The First Ladies of Wrestling (documentary film), Ruth Leitman, director, Ruthless Films, 2004.❑