On September 17, 1965 superior Judge Harold F. Collins lifted the ban on women’s wrestling in California after Betty Ann Spencer and Barbara Baker had filed suit against the California State Athletic Commission. Spencer and Baker were represented by the attorney to the stars, Paul Caruso, who represented people such as war hero and actor Audie Murphy and Charles Manson follower Susan Atkins, filed suit against the CSAC for a writ of mandate to compel the issuance of wrestling licenses to women. While 44 other states allowed women’s wrestling at that time, aside from a brief period during World War II, California had held firm to the idea that women were “frail and gentle beings.” With the repeal on the women’s wrestling ban women’s wrestling would in a few months become a regular attraction at Los Angeles’ Grand Olympic Auditorium. It would also come to be a much bigger moment in the history of women’s wrestling thanks to the operator of a small chili parlor in Los Angeles, who in what seemed to be a lifetime before, was the greatest women’s wrestler the world had ever known.
Mildred Burke, who was born on August 5, 1915 as Mildred Bliss, had spent the last few years working odd jobs around Southern California to make ends meet. Having last wrestled in Cuba in 1956, and having not wrestled in the United States since July 1955, she ended up filing for bankruptcy in 1958 and her third marriage ended in divorce in 1962 forcing her to partially depend on the support of her son Joe. She remained connected to wrestling however, renting a small space at a gym in Northridge in 1962 and beginning to train women wrestlers. It wouldn’t be until California lifted its ban on women’s wrestling that her school would begin to take off however. Between the opening of her school on the lifting of the ban on women’s wrestling she worked as a registar at the Los Angeles Chiropractic College, a fitness director at a resort, a saleswoman for Culligan, and a ran a chili parlor that her son had bought with fellow former wrestler Mae Weston. Working at the restaurant she must have felt her life had gone full circle.
When Mildred Burke was 11 years old her parents had divorced and she moved with her mother to Kansas City. Her mother worked a cook to support their family. Eventually they moved to Black Rock, NM on the Zuni Indian Reservation where her mother worked as a cook and at 15 Mildred worked as a waitress. It was there she met Joseph Shaffer, who was about a dozen years older than her, and married him at the age of 17. Later in life she said “I would have married anyone to get off that reservation.” In 1933 Mildred and her husband had returned to Kansas City, where she continued to waitress. It was while in Kansas City that her husband took her to a wrestling show at the Midway Arena. It was at that first show she realized she wanted to be a wrestler.
By early 1934 she was pregnant, and her husband had left her. It was later in 1934 that she happened to meet Billy Wolfe at the diner she worked at. She had seen him on local wrestling shows and recognized him as a wrestler. Soon he became a regular at the diner, and after awhile Mildred informed him that she wanted to be a wrestler. He laughed and told her she was too small, but she persisted. After her son was born on August 4, 1934 she became more relentless. Finally Billy Wolfe gave in and agreed to a tryout for this 115 pound 19 year old waitress.
For her tryout she was put up against a much larger boy, who Wolfe had instructed in wrestling techniques prior and was going to pay the boy to “wipe the mat” with her. Only it didn’t work out that way. The boy tried to do a bodyslam on her, only she held on and brought him down with her, ending up on top and actually pinning the boy. On the second attempt she actually body slammed the boy. The cigar that Billy Wolfe was famous for always having in his mouth dropped to the floor. He agreed to train Mildred as a wrestler.
By 1936 Burke was wrestling a program with Clara Mortensen, who billed herself as the women’s champion, throughout the South and drawing big houses. Then, on January 28, 1937 in Chattanooga, TN at 21 years of age, Mildred Burke defeated Clara Mortensen to become the women’s champion. The five foot, two inches tall Burke would hold the women’s title for seventeen years and become one of the biggest drawing attractions in all of wrestling.
As champion Burke wrestled all over the country, and her popularity opened up new territories for women wrestlers that were previously closed. In 1952 she divorced Billy Wolfe, who was also her manager and things began to go south for her. Wolfe, who was a member of the NWA, used his power to with the organization to limit her bookings, even though as part of their separation he was not able to compete in wrestling. Wolfe began promoting his new star, June Beyers, who was also his daughter-in-law, and finally in August of 1954 Burke agreed to face Beyers in the ring.
The match which took place on August 20, 1954 in Atlanta became by all accounts a shoot fight. At the time championship matches were decided by 2 out of 3 falls matches, and Byers managed to win the first fall in 13 minutes when Mildred Burke injured her knee. That would end up being the only fall in the match. As the match was a legitimate shoot, the majority of the rest of the match took place with the two women clinched up and little to no action going on in the ring. As one would imagine the crowd was becoming quite agitated, and after one hour and three minutes the ref called the match. As June Byers only won 1 fall, Burke felt her title was safe. However the NWA recognized Byers as the new champion.
Burke, who still billed herself as champion, went on a tour of Japan in November 1954. This was a pioneering moment in women’s wrestling in Japan, and would lay the seeds for the future success of Burke’s wrestling school in Southern California. In 1955 in response to the success of Burke’s tour, the All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling Association was formed.
When the ban on women’s wrestling was lifted in California, Burke began promoting the women’s wrestlers she had been training. By this time Burke had moved her school to a new location in Van Nuys. Located in what looked to be an abandoned warehouse on Van Nuys Blvd, with the windows painted over and no sign on the building to betray what was going on inside. The school would go on to train some of the biggest women’s wrestlers in the world, however she was unable to make much headway into the United States market as most women’s wrestling was booked through the Fabulous Moolah.
Japan though was another story, and the promotion that would come to innovate the world of women’s wrestling was greatly influenced by Mildred Burke and her students. Mildred Burke brought what she claimed was the very title she retired with undefeated, the WWWA title, and held a tournament for it to be won by one of her students, Marie Vagnone. The belt would be brought to Japan and became the top title for All Japan Women’s, “the red belt.” The title would be traded between many of Japan’s top stars of the time such as Aiko Kyo, Miyoko Hoshino, Jumbo Miyamoto and Mildred’s students such as Sandy Starr, Sarah Lee, Sandy Parker, and Bambi Ball. None of the student’s that came out of the Mildred Burke School for Lady Wrestlers would make the impact that Monster Ripper did.
Coming from Calgary, Rhonda Singh wanted to be a professional wrestler, but the Hart Dungeon did not train women’s wrestlers at the time, but in 1978 she saw a magazine with an ad for Mildred Burke’s school in Van Nuys and enrolled there. After only a few weeks of training she was scouted by All Japan Women and joined their roster. She quickly became a big star, and was the first non-Japanese to hold the WWWA title since 1975, a span of 4 years. She won the title a second time in 1980. After her time in Japan she became the first ever Stampede wrestling women’s champion. In 1995 she debuted in WWF as Bertha Faye and eventually defeated Alundra Blaze to become the WWF women’s champion, becoming the second WWF champion to be trained in Southern California (after Ultimate Warrior). She later appeared in WCW as well.
The Mildred Burke School for Lady Wrestlers also began to produce mixed matches, where women would wrestle men, and found a very lucrative business selling photos and film of the matches. A single fifteen-minute match would sell for up to $52 and people from all over the world were buying the films. She later began to film matches were women would wrestle in bikinis and eventually would film women wrestling nude as well. The business did well enough that she was able to rent a better gym in North Hollywood and move into a bigger house.
Other notable wrestlers to come out of Betty Franco, Desiree Petersen, Irma Acevedo, Jackie West, Jane O’Brien, Jane Shirrel, Laura del Rio, Lita Marez, Patty O’Hara, Princess War Star, Sharon Lee, Susan Sexton, Susan Smith, Sylvia Hackney, and Tanya West.
With the success of her school Burke became to do consulting for films such as Smithereens and the Peter Falk film All the Marbles. Her health started to deteriorate in the 80s and she closed her school. She would continue to be a regular attendee at the annual Cauliflower Alley Club conventions, but had trouble walking due to a series of strokes. On February 14, 1989 she suffered a massive stroke at her home and died four days later. She is buried at Forest Lawn cemetery in Hollywood.
Students from the Mildred Burke School for Lady Wrestlers wrestled throughout the world including for both WWF and WCW and All Japan Women became one of the most important and innovative wrestling promotions in the world and the school and Mildred Burke were a big part of that legacy. While she is not as well known today, Mildred Burke was the biggest drawing and most famous women’s wrestler of all time, and the school she ran in Southern California played a very important part in the history of wrestling.
Of the two non-Japanese women to hold the WWWA title after Monster Ripper, one was also initially trained in Southern California, Amazing Kong who was trained at EWF’s School of Hard Knocks.
For more information on the life and career of Mildred Burke, check out Jeff Leen’s book, The Queen of the Ring. It is still available at Amazon.
Leen, Jeff. The Queen of the Ring. Grove Press, 2009.
Walton, Jeff. Richmond 9-5171 A Wrestling Story, 2004
Los Angeles Times