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Wrestling Fans Mourn Mae Young, 90 — A Pioneer Of The Ring

She had a career that sometimes defied common sense and the laws of good taste. She famously competed in wrestling matches over a span of more than 70 years. And last week, word went out that Mae Young has died at age 90.

"There will never be another Mae Young," WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon said on a remembrance page. "Her longevity in sports entertainment may never be matched, and I will forever be grateful for all of her contributions to the industry. On behalf of WWE, I extend our sincerest condolences to her family and friends."

The famed wrestler and trainer's death came days after news accounts emerged that prematurely reported her passing earlier this month. Her funeral was held this afternoon in Columbia, S.C., where she died in hospice care at her home last week.

Johnnie Mae Young's signature move was called the Bronco Buster — a reference to her roots in Sand Springs, Okla. For much of the decades in which she wrestled, she was known simply as The Great Mae Young.

Young laid the groundwork for her career while in high school, when she challenged a visiting top female wrestler to a match in Tulsa — and won, as WWE Hall of Fame commentator Jim Ross notes. That led to a contract offer, which Young accepted after she graduated from high school.

More from Ross:

"It was widely known that Mae Young was the bona fide toughest and most dangerous female in the rough and tumble world of old school, pro wrestling.

"Mae told me many stories of smoking cigars and playing poker with her male peers that only enhanced the legend that was 'The Great' Mae Young. Mae once discovered a male wrestler cheating at cards for which he paid an embarrassingly physical price."

The Superstars section of the World Wrestling Entertainment website lists Young's career highlights: "First-ever NWA United States Women's Champion; competed in the ring in eight different decades; winner of Miss Royal Rumble 2000 Bikini Contest; 2008 WWE Hall of Fame Inductee."

Young was destined to be an athlete. As Mike Mooneyham writes for the (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier, she wrestled boys in high school, was a star softball player and kicked field goals for the football team. She also worked at the local cotton mill as a teenager, in post-Depression Oklahoma.

Decades after the heyday of a career that took off in the 1940s, Young returned to the ring to compete and entertain new audiences that were sometimes mystified by her ability to keep wrestling — and by her taking part in ludicrous gags.

In recent years, Young sometimes partnered with another wrestling legend, Mary Lillian Ellison — The Fabulous Moolah (who spoke to Fresh Air in 2005) — whom she trained decades ago. Together, they brought a bit of a "Golden Girls" vibe to WWE. Both wrestlers were also featured in Lipstick and Dynamite, a documentary about women in pro wrestling.

"She had men's shoes on, men's pants on, with the zipper up the front — a cigar hanging out of her mouth," a fellow wrestler said of Young in that film. "Back in 1954, you didn't do that."

Later, Young and Ellison, as Mooneyham reports:

"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."

Young trained many male and female wrestlers who went on to their own productive careers. Her role as a pioneer and as a tough competitor endeared her to fans and to her fellow wrestlers.

When news of her passing spread — after that incorrect early report and then last week — Young's colleagues used Twitter to express their sadness and send condolences. Several younger female wrestlers also thanked Young for making their careers possible, and for her advice.

Even the Iron Sheik tweeted, "Mae Young die she break my heart. I love her forever God bless her."

During their return to competition, the veterans Young and Ellison took on — and defeated — much younger opponents, including one match in which all the wrestlers wore schoolgirl uniforms.

Young also took part in several outlandish skits, including a storyline that portrayed her becoming pregnant in her late 70s. A spectacle was staged to resemble a hospital room, where a roomful of people pretended to help her give birth — only to welcome the arrival of a mysterious rubber hand festooned with jewelry.

The "Hand" later made an appearance, as an adult.

And between bouts, she sometimes used her iron grip to grapple with men and give them a messy kiss. She always came away smiling; the men often looked dazed, as a highlight video on the WWE site shows.

Another storyline saw Young "powerbombed" — driven through a long folding table — by male wrestlers known as The Dudley Boyz on more than one occasion. The wrestling site Slam! calls the incident "the most famous — or notorious — powerbomb in WWE history."

The site quotes Young's opponents that day, citing the book World Wrestling Entertainment Unscripted:

"When you've got an 80-year-old woman like Mae Young, who you're supposed to put through a table, at first you go, 'What?' " said D-Von Dudley. "But when she comes up to you and slaps you in the face and tells you, 'Don't be a wuss with me; throw me through; I wanna go through' — what are you gonna do? By far, that was the toughest person, pound for pound, we've ever been in the ring with."

From Bubba Dudley: "I picked her up very lightly, put her down very gently. After the match was over and we'd gone to the back, she came up to me, grabbed me by the wrist like only Lou Thesz could have done, 'Listen, hotshot, if you're gonna slam me, slam me like one of the boys.' You could imagine the look on my face, seeing this little, blonde lady telling me that. From there, we did the spot where I Superbombed her off the top of the stage, 12 feet from the ground, through two tables. She has since suggested to me on three different occasions that we do the same spot from the top of the steel cage."

Even after her good friend Ellison died in 2007, Young had no intention of quitting. When she turned 90 last year, WWE threw her a party, complete with a cake and a championship belt.

At that event, Young said, "I expect to wrestle when I'm 100."

She said that she still lifted weights, and she named Stephanie McMahon, the WWE chief's daughter and an occasional wrestler, as a possible opponent.

"I'm gonna put my money on you," WWE impresario Vince McMahon told her.

Young then showed her softer side. "I love Stephanie. She's like my little kid," she said.

No one told her that her potential opponent might actually be more like her granddaughter.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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