Mildred Burke: The Cyclone From The Midwest
by Dan Murphy
Scroll to the bottom of the article to see the interview with NWA Women's Champion Kamille on Mildred Burke.
“Millie Burke had wrestled before thousands from Los Angeles to Boston, from Miami to Mexico City, from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. In Havana, the Cuban president himself had welcomed her to his marble-lined palace. In Washington, she had basked in in the adoring attention of senators. In Manhattan, she had performed eighty body bridge exercises on the desk of Robert L. Ripley, who enshrined her in his Ripley’s Believe It or Not! She had been written up in Time and Life and by hundreds of newspaper hacks across the land. Leading a life lit by flashbulbs, she went out into the night draped in diamonds and furs and the finest silk dresses.… With her speed and skill and style, Millie Burke had helped saved the sport and send it on to its greatest heights in the new age of television.” - excerpt from The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend by Jeff Leen.
Mildred Bliss was born in Coffeyville, Kansas, on August 5, 1915. She was the youngest of six children and grew up in a tiny one-bedroom home. A tomboy growing up, she hoped to become an interior decorator, but the divorce of her parents and the stock market crash of 1929 forced her out of high school and into a boarding house with her mother.
At the age of 17, she married a man nearly twice her age, hoping he could help her discover a better life. On one fateful night, her husband took her to a wrestling card at Midway Arena in Kansas City. The event made an indelible mark on Mildred.
“Watching these bouts fascinated me, absorbed and excited me in a way that I had never known before,” she later wrote. “Something deep in my core had been tapped awake. … Immediately I began fantasizing myself in the ring, applying those grips, holds, and throws.”
Women’s wrestling existed in the 1930s, but it was still a rare novelty as a somewhat erotic spectacle relegated to travelling circuses, Parisian nightclubs, and American saloons. Women didn’t wrestle on the same cards as big-name male stars like Jim Londos, Strangler Lewis, and Ed Don George. The general public mostly saw women’s wrestling as tawdry and unladylike. In 1934, Mildred became pregnant, and her husband walked out on her. She found work as a waitress in a small diner. One day, fate – in the form of promoter Gust Karras and wrestler Billy Wolfe – walked in through the diner door.
When Mildred learned that they were involved in the wrestling business (Wolfe trained wrestlers at a gym within walking distance of the diner), she told them that she wanted to learn how to wrestle. She pestered Wolfe for months until he finally agreed to give her a try-out.
According to the story repeated by both Mildred and Wolfe countless times through the years, a young male wrestler scooped Mildred up for a bodyslam at that try-out, but Mildred managed to counter the move and take the young man to the mat. “She knocks him out so fast that it leaves me thinking that maybe she’s got something there that I didn’t see before,” Wolfe later told the National Police Gazette. Wolfe sensed he had a star on his hands.
After training with Wolfe, Mildred made her wrestling debut on a carnival tour in 1935 under her new ring name of Mildred Burke. She faced all comers – male and female – on the carnival circuit with Wolfe acting as her hype man. Before long, Burke and Wolfe were involved romantically. They married in April 1936, even though Mildred had already caught Wolfe with other women on multiple occasions. While Wolfe may have been a philanderer, he was also her key to an exciting new life and money to care for her infant son.
Wolfe landed Burke a series of matches against Clara Mortensen, who was widely recognized as the women’s wrestling champion of the era. The series had box office appeal, drawing big houses across the circuit. On January 28, 1937, Burke defeated Mortensen before 6,157 fans in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to earn the distinction of women’s world champion.
Wolfe and Burke relocated to Columbus, Ohio, where Wolfe formed an alliance with the local promoter, Al Haft. Wolfe recruited and trained more women, creating a steady stream of challengers to take on Mildred. Wolfe also worked tirelessly to promote his wife with the media, bringing her to meet with newspaper reporters and to show off her impressive physique in photo ops, with pictures running in newspapers all around the country. She innovated her signature hold, the brilliantly named “alligator clutch,” which evoked images of an expensive handbag as well as a feared submission hold.
With Burke as the centerpiece of Wolfe’s empire, women’s wrestling experienced a boom in popularity in the United States. Despite some protestations from the wrestling establishment who still saw women’s wrestling as a tasteless spectacle, women’s matches began to be included on men’s wrestling cards. Mildred Burke took women’s wrestling mainstream.
Burke often wrestled wearing a brilliant white reinforced swimsuit (which, under the harsh overhead arena lights, could make her look nearly naked, no doubt adding to her appeal). She had a rhinestone-encrusted ring robe designed to sparkle under the ring lights made for $1,100, a tidy sum during the years of The Great Depression.
She was fit, tanned, athletic, and glamorous. At her prime, she stood 5’2’’ and weighed in at a muscular 138 pounds. She was, in many ways, the ‘new American woman’ – a woman stepping out of the traditional feminine role of housewife and homemaker and becoming a liberated and independent athlete and entertainer.
Women’s wrestling continued to thrive with the outbreak of World War II. As men enlisted following the U.S.’s entry into the war, women moved into the workplace to fill the void, and more women were attracted to the exotic appeal of professional wrestling. A woman wrestler could travel the country, have her picture in the newspapers, and make more money than their mothers had ever made in a lifetime. In one newspaper interview, Burke claimed that she earned $22,000 in 1943, which would have made her one of the highest-paid athletes of her era.
In 1944, Burke defended her championship in front of 12,000 fans in the Arena Coliseo in Mexico City. In 1948, she finished sixth out of 16 candidates in an Associated Press poll for female athlete of the year. That same year, Wolfe was invited to join the National Wrestling Alliance, the newly established governing body for professional wrestling. Wolfe managed not only Burke, but an entire roster of women, and worked to slot them on shows for various NWA territories, expanding his empire even further.
However, by this time, the always tumultuous personal relationship between Wolfe and Burke had come to frazzled end. Wolfe’s cheating ways, coupled with the influx of young women coming to him to try to become ‘the next Mildred Burke’, had caused a deep rift in both their personal and professional relationships.
Wolfe pushed Burke to drop the championship to his next handpicked star, Nell Stewart. Burke refused, knowing that dropping the title to Stewart would effectively end her wrestling career. In 1952, Burke demanded a divorce. When her application to join the NWA was rejected, Burke bought the rights to the championship, only for Wolfe to then announce he was holding a tournament to crown a new champion, in an attempt to force Burke out of the picture.
On August 20, 1954, Burke faced June Byers (Wolfe’s champion) in a very personal match that is widely regarded as a shoot (or legitimate) best-of-three-falls bout. The match went 63 minutes until it was stopped, with Byers winning the only fall. Technically, as no one had scored two falls, the match was a draw, but Wolfe heralded the match as a win for Byers and most newspapers and promoters followed his lead.
However, the nasty personal battles between Burke and Wolfe ultimately soured the NWA on women’s wrestling. None of Wolfe’s subsequent women had the star power or drawing ability of Burke. Women’s wrestling went into a tailspin in the United States.
Effectively shut out from the NWA, Burke continued as a wrestler, a trainer, and a promoter. She vacated her championship in 1956 and retired from in-ring competition. She established International Women’s Wrestlers, Inc. and successfully fought to get women’s wrestling legalized in California (one of the few states that still had it banned) in 1966. She organized women’s wrestling tours of Japan, introducing the sport to that nation where it took root and eventually became a sensation in the 1980s and 1990s. Joshi wrestling remains a popular and influential attraction today.
While The Fabulous Moolah largely took control of the American women’s wrestling following Billy Wolfe’s death, Burke continued to promote on the West Coast and organized tours to Cuba, Mexico, the Philippines.
Burke died following a stroke on February 18, 1989, at the age of 73. In addition to the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, she has also been inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (New York/Wichita Falls), the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame, and was named a Legacy Member of the WWE Hall of Fame in 2016.
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