Ellison’s life as a female professional wrestler was unprecedented. She faced down opponents in the ring and out of it, defying the male-dominated world of wrestling.
Professional wrestler. Known to the world as the “Fabulous Moolah,” Ellison was born in “Tookiedo,” South Carolina, the youngest and only daughter in a family of twelve boys. She spent her childhood on a farm, living life as a rural tomboy and fighting her brothers and anyone else who challenged her. Ellison was eight years old when her mother passed away. She spent her summers picking cotton and dreamed of becoming an aviator. Her father introduced her to professional wrestling on trips to Columbia for Tuesday night matches. She would then practice these moves on her brothers. At one of these matches young Lillian first saw Mildred Burke, the “Women’s Champ,” and got the idea that she too might one day become a wrestling champion.
The family moved to Columbia in Ellison’s teen years, and the pressure of so many protective brothers drove her to marry at age fourteen. She gave birth to her first and only child, Mary, at age fifteen. Wrestling was in her blood, however, and she soon went on the road to pursue her dreams. She fought her first professional match in 1949 in Boston against June Byers; she lost. Ellison spent years on the road, negotiating with a string of shady promoters and managers who more often than not exploited the wrestlers they represented. After spending several years as the character “Slave Girl Moolah,” a valet of sorts for male wrestlers such as the “Elephant Boy,” she came into her own as the “Fabulous Moolah.” When asked why she wanted to be in the ring, she famously replied, “I want to wrestle for the moolah!” She would maintain this stage persona for the next six decades, holding the Women’s Championship belt from 1956 to 1984, only to regain it in 1985 disguised as the “Masked Spider Lady.” From her days of backyard brawling with her many brothers, she brought an “anything goes” attitude to the ring, relishing the role of the bad girl who broke the rules by using dirty tricks, blunt objects, hair pulling, kicking, and cheap shots landed after the bell. Sensing that the crowd loved to hate a villain, Ellison pioneered this aspect of wrestling showmanship. Although she fought less often in her later years, she had sporadic victories as late as 1999, when she won the World Wrestling Federation women’s title.
Ellison’s life as a female professional wrestler was unprecedented. She faced down opponents in the ring and out of it, defying the male-dominated world of wrestling. Female wrestling was illegal in many states as late as the 1970s. Ellison and the legendary promoter Vince McMahon challenged and defeated this ban, enabling Ellison to become the first woman to wrestle legally in Madison Square Garden in 1972 in front of nearly twenty thousand stunned fans. Over the span of her career, wrestling evolved from a marginal traveling sideshow to one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America, in part due to cable television and pay-per-view. Her alliance with the McMahon family enabled her to profit handsomely from the sacrifices of her early career.
In 2003 Ellison was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. Never one to back down from a fight, she celebrated her eightieth birthday with Vince McMahon, Jr., at a “Rock and Wrestling” bout in Columbia, defeating her opponent. In 2004 Ellison still resided in Columbia, on a street that bears her wrestling sobriquet.
Ellison, Lillian. The Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Lipsyte, Robert. “They Hate Me but They Love Me.” New York Times, March 17, 1969, p. 52.
Pincus, Arthur. “19,512 Quiet Fans See Women Wrestle for First Time in State.” New York Times, July 2, 1972, p. S7.