To many wrestling fans today, Mae Young – the legendary namesake of the Mae Young Classic tournament on the WWE Network which has it’s final tonight at 10pm EST – is best remembered for her repeated powerbombs through tables from the Dudley Boyz or giving birth to a hand after a love affair with Mark Henry. But while Mae Young – then well into her 70’s – was an eager participant in the zaniness of the Attitude Era (and still willing to take bumps that men half her age were still hesitant of taking), Mae Young’s legacy was defined long before she began showing up as the WWE’s version of the Golden Girls alongside her lifelong friend, The Fabulous Moolah. To judge Mae Young’s career on the final years of her life would be like grading Ric Flair solely on his TNA run. You’d be missing the true impact and legacy that she created. Which is why she was honoured as the namesake for this prestigious new tournament.
Born Johnnie Mae Young in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, in 1923 and was a lifelong wrestling fan. At age 15, she was on the boys high school squad, overpowering the best of them, and at 16 challenged then World Champion Mildred Burke to a contest at a traveling show. The promoters refused to let this scrappy, boisterous girl from the audience wrestle their champion – perhaps out of fear that the teenager may not realize that the matches were scripted and potentially hurt Burke. So promoter Billy Wolfe let her wrestle his shooter, Gladys “Kill’em” Gillem, in a ‘tryout’ at his gym. Gillem was one of Wolfe and Burke’s trainers and was routinely used to soften up new trainees or take down any aggressive challengers at the side shows. But young Mae took Gillem down with ease. He sent in his second shooter, Elvira Snodgrass, who once against tasted quick defeat. But Wolfe was sold and when she turned 18, she began training to become a professional wrestler.
Billy Wolfe was an abusive and terrible man – his wife Mildred Burke would leave him years later and venture on her own. Mae Young chose to follow Burke and leave Wolfe behind. In the early 40’s, she travelled with Burke to Canada where they helped spread the popularity of proper women’s wrestling, working with Calgary’s Stu Hart, as well as travelling to Japan to introduce women’s wrestling in the East as well – Burke and Young headlined the first ever professional women’s match in Japan in 1954. She’s also credited as being the first woman to use a dropkick in a woman’s wrestling match – after seeing early star “Jumping” Joe Savoldi use it on a card that her and Mildred Burke were on, she turned to Burke and said simply “Well, tonight, you get a dropkick.” And she did.
It wasn’t until she returned to the WWE family in 1999 (she’d worked with Vince McMahon Sr. in the earliest days of the WWE when it was still Capitol Wrestling) that she began to work as a face. She’d spent the previous 60 years as a heel. “Anybody can be a baby face, what we call a clean wrestler,” she told interviewers in the 2005 documentary on women’s wrestling, Lipstick & Dynamite. “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.” Her rough and tumble personality in the ring was not much of an act. She was as tough as they came outside of the ring too. “Young is a natural roughneck,” said former rival Elvira Snodgrass. “This night in Little Rock she said something to a man fan and he kicked her in the face. Then Mae took him. His wife came to his assistance and Young sent both of them to the hospital.”
She travelled with Mildred Burke and her girls and always acted as the chaperone and bodyguard for any of the naive newcomers who may succumb to the advances of suspect men in the bars after the matches. Mae would always intervene and it usually ended up with Young leaving the men severely beaten and in some cases, mugged for preying on the girls. Most men were too proud to report the incident, and those that did often embellished the details to appear to have been swindled.
Mae Young retired in 2008, with the longest professional wrestling career in history. After her training and official debut in 1941, she went on to a 67-year career inside the squared circle, wrestling in seven different decades. Her closest rival is Lou Thesz, who wrestled for 58 years (1932-1990).
While she never won the big titles (her friend Moolah dominated the title for 30 years, even from her best friend), but there’s no denying that Mae Young’s fighting spirit was a beacon of hope for any young woman who wanted to be a wrestler in a man’s world. Her indomitable spirit and willingness to take any comer, man or woman, created a legacy that would live forever.
The Mae Young Classic Final: Kairi Sane vs. Shayna Baszler is tonight at 10pm EST on the WWE Network