On Monday night, during this week’s edition of Monday Night Raw, WWE made an announcement that was half expected and half a surprise. The part that everyone expected was the news that WWE’s female talent would be getting their own counterpart to the annual Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania. What was not expected was that the distaff women’s version would be called the Fabulous Moolah Memorial Battle Royal.
In a sense, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. In WWE lore, the two uber-legends of women’s wrestling have been Moolah (real name Lillian Ellison) and her mentor/companion Mae Young; the two passed away in 2007 and 2014, respectively. Given that last year’s women’s tournament having been named the Mae Young Classic, it made a certain sort of sense that the corresponding battle royal would be named after Moolah. But there was a reason that it wasn’t. For the past year or so, WWE had basically ignored Moolah’s existence and treated Young—who was, while a good wrestler, never quite the big name that WWE made her out to be—as the one true legend of women’s wrestling. Some of this seemed to be a result of WWE scion Stephanie McMahon’s friendship with Young, and ordinarily that would be reason enough. But there’s another reason why WWE might have wanted to disappear Moolah from its official history.
Moolah’s treatment of the women that she trained to work in her stable of wrestlers from the 1950s through the 1980s has, in the social media age, become something much more than the open secret that it used to be. Moolah, it turns out, was a user, and while what exactly that exploitation entailed and how explicit she was about it depends on the source, it almost always involves taking an excessive cut of her troupe’s earnings and often involves sexual exploitation of the wrestlers. As of late Monday night, WWE’s tweet of the announcement video had over 800 replies, almost all of them negative, with most citing Moolah’s reputation and some joking about naming the match after Chris Benoit or Jimmy Snuka instead. Maybe half a dozen were negative for other reasons, but just one of the many that I saw was actually pro-Moolah. If there was an increasing sentiment that WWE had veered away from Moolah because fans now know about the allegations against her, that sentiment seems at least half right. It is, as always, hard to know what WWE was thinking. But fans seem to know what Moolah was about, and don’t seem especially eager to celebrate it.
“The Fabulous Moolah challenged the gender norms of a once male-dominated sport,” says the narrator in WWE’s video. (That narrator also got Moolah’s real last name wrong as “Ellis.”) While one can argue whether pre-Moolah women’s wrestling was the same as the men’s product or more a thinly-veiled T&A exhibition that just happened to feature serious wrestling performances, there’s no arguing that she only worsened the in-genre gender divide. Moolah favored an in-ring style low on athleticism and heavy on hair-pulling, and that was what she taught her students. The result rendered women’s wrestling much more of a sideshow. Before Moolah, in the era of Mildred Burke and later June Byers, the world women’s title was a legitimate headline attraction. Under Moolah, that came to an end.
The line in the video itself that particularly rankled viewers was the narrator—in a video that conspicuously had only modern female talent and the McMahons as talking heads— calling Moolah a “trailblazer for women’s equality.” In light of what some of her students have said about her, that outwardly anodyne statement was particularly offensive.
“Moolah did send girls out to this guy in Arizona and pimped them out,” said Jeannine “Lady Maxine/Mad Maxine” Mjoseth in a 2014 interview with Slam! Wrestling. “I actually spoke to him on the phone and asked him what he was looking for. He said, ‘If I’m spending all this money, you know what I want.’ That was part of Moolah’s way of making money. She was just a bad person. Moolah didn’t have a good bone in her body.”
A 2006 Free Times feature on the late Susie Mae “Sweet Georgia Brown” McCoy, sourced from interviews with her children, recounts how McCoy told her daughter that she knew to undress when she heard a knock at her motel room door at “strange hours.” McCoy’s daughter, Barbara, also told the Free Times’ Murfee Faulk that, in Faulk’s words, “she was raped, given drugs and made an addict” in what “her family now believes was an intentional attempt to control her.” The same article also cites Ida Mae Martinez, another wrestler of that era, as saying that promoters “demanded personal services” before paying female wrestlers. Dave Meltzer’s Moolah obituary from 2007 in his Wrestling Observer Newsletter also alludes to how “different promoters had very different ideas of what being professional meant.”
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Other interviews, like with Sandy Parker and Ann Casey, meanwhile, add to the narrative that Moolah took an excessive percentage of her wrestlers’ earnings or was otherwise financially abusive.
There are a couple factors that make the renewed canonization of Moolah particularly irritating. The first is that it seemed like WWE had decided not to honor her anymore in the first place. The second and more salient point is that there were numerous other, better options.
The latter is complicated by many of the worthier candidates having either little connection to WWE or having died of a drug overdoses. The older legends without the same baggage, like the aforementioned Mildred Burke, are not really part of the WWE narrative, although Burke was eventually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame along with other pioneer era and early television era figures. The deceased women who are part of that narrative—Chyna, Luna Vachon, “Sensational” Sherri Martel, or even a non-wrestler like Miss Elizabeth—all died of drug-related deaths. That’s not exactly the kind of thing that the reflexively image-conscious WWE wants to shine a light on every year at its biggest event, despite what all those women contributed to the sport.
Chyna, with her “9th Wonder of the World” nickname, would have provided nice symmetry with the men’s battle royal being named after Andre The Giant, the “8th Wonder of the World.” But she also appeared in porn production that had a McMahon family incest theme, which is unsurprisingly another potential holdup. In a logical world, Martel, a WWE Hall of Famer and an incredible in-ring performer, beloved locker room presence, and respected mentor to younger women, would make the most sense to pick. Clearly those in WWE with the authority to make that kind of call don’t think that way.
A request for comment on both the backlash and the past allegations against Moolah, sent to a WWE spokesperson on Monday night, has not yet been returned as of this writing. The event will almost certainly go forward as planned. History is written by the victors in the macro sense. In wrestling, it’s mostly written by whoever is in the best position to write the story they want to write.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix