Mildred Burke: Founder of the World Women's Wrestling Association
Mildred Burke is considered to have been one of the strongest female competitors to ever participate in professional wrestling. Before starting her wrestling career, she was an office stenographer. Burke began wrestling professionally in the early 1930s. She gained a lot of attention from wrestling and defeating many male wrestlers. Several men tried to pin her and could not. Women who tried to wrestle her were even less successful. Burke became the Women's World Champion soon after she began her wrestling career. It was a title she kept for nearly two decades. She was the first women's champion in the United States to hold the title for more than 15 years.
Mildred Bliss was born on in Coffeyville, Kansas, on August 5, 1915. She was the youngest of six children. At the age of 15, she started working on the Zuni Indian reservation as a waitress. When she was 17, her boyfriend asked her to marry him, and she agreed. The first wrestling match she ever saw was in Kansas City. This is when she was able to meet the Missouri state wrestling champion named Billy Wolfe. At the time of seeing her first wrestling match, she was pregnant and had been married for three years. Wolfe would eventually become her second husband as well as wrestling coach and manager.
In 1935, when Burke was 19, she started working on the carnival circuit as a wrestler. A reward of $25 was offered to any man of similar weight to wrestle Burke and try to pin her within a 10-minute time period. There was no man who was able to earn the $25. The carnival work didn't pay much, and she got a job working in an office as a stenographer. She asked Billy Wolfe to train her. Initially, he didn't want to train Burke. He told her to wrestle a man that he instructed to body slam her; he hoped this would make her leave him alone. The man did and then Burke came back and body slammed him. Wolfe then agreed to train Burke for professional wrestling.
Marriage to Billy Wolfe
Burke wrestled more than 200 men during the 1930s. She won every match except for one of them. Billy Wolfe was making a significant amount of money promoting women wrestlers. When he was on the road with the women he trained and managed, Wolfe developed a reputation as a womanizer. Burke found this behavior unacceptable and in 1952, the couple divorced. This resulted in Burke being ostracized from many channels of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA).
The future of women's wrestling was discussed by the NWA in Chicago at the Blackstone Hotel in 1953. During this meeting, Burke was forced to stay in the hotel's lobby. Only the male members of the NWA were permitted to attend this meeting. Burke's ex-husband Wolfe was able to freely speak to the members of the NWA. After this meeting, the NWA refused to recognize women's wrestling. Women were banned from the annual NWA conferences. This decreased the value of women in the world of professional wrestling.
In 1936, Burke won the Midwest Wrestling Association Tournament. This gave her the first Woman's World Title. She successfully defended the World Title in 1937 by defeating female wrestler Clara Mortenson. Burke then traveled around the United States and the world defending her title. In 1948, she wrestled and defeated well-known female wrestler June Byers. She defeated Elvira Snodgrass in 1950 at the Coral Gables Coliseum in Southern Miami. During the same year, she defeated Mae Weston. Burke once again wrestled Snodgrass in 1951. She won the match and again kept her title.
Promoting Women's Wrestling
During the early 1950s, Mildred Burke was in Los Angeles and created the World Women's Wrestling Association. During this time, she was considered to be a woman with a perfect physique. The Los Angeles Police Department would post pictures of Burke around the police station. The goal was to inspire police officers who were out-of-shape to start working out in the gym. The NWA eventually started promoting women's wrestling and claimed June Byers was their champion. Burke also maintained her title. She worked with Bill Newman to create the International Women's Wrestlers Inc. The organization had offices in Sydney, Australia, New York City, and San Francisco. Burke also promoted women's wrestling on an international basis. She created the World Wide Women's Wrestling Association (WWWA). After retiring, Burke lived in California and operated a women's wrestling school.
During her wrestling career, Burke experienced many types of injuries. She had five knee injuries as well as a broken nose. Her thumbs had been pushed back to her wrist after being torn from the joint. Once Burke was on her back and an opponent stomped on her face. This caused severe damage to her teeth. After winning one intense match, Burke also suffered temporary blindness.
Burke had a signature wrestling move she called the alligator clutch. Burke credited this move for her success with wrestling. It is the one move she used to end the majority of her matches. It was a wrestling move that required speed and just the right timing. She would maneuver her opponent to be bent in an odd shape and then Burke quickly used her weight to pin them down.
- Three-time Women's World Champion
- WWWA World Heavyweight Champion
- NWA World Women's Champion
- Member of Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Member of WWE Hall of Fame
- Member of Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame
Mildred Burke was able to play herself in the movie Below the Belt, which was released on November 26, 1981. Robert Alrich produced a movie called All The Marbles. It was released on October 16, 1981. Burke was able to serve as a wrestling advisor on Alrich's movie. Each of these films was critically acclaimed and focused on professional women's wrestling.
There were books written about Mildred Burke. The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend was written by Jef Leen. It was released on September 1, 2018. Pro Wrestling: The Fabulous, The Famous, The Feared and The Forgotten: Mildred Burke was written by Robert Murillo. It was released on December 2, 2015. Mildred Burke: Champion Girl Wrestler was written by Robert Grey Reynolds Jr. It was released on May 27, 2015.
Mildred Burke suffered a stroke on February 14, 1989. She died on Saturday, February 18, 1989, at Northridge Hospital. Burke was 73 years old. She is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in the Hollywood Hills.
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