The WAWLI Papers, page 1


by Elliott Almond
Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1989

Mildred Burke, the female professional wrestler who never met her match, suffered a stroke February 14 and died Saturday in a Northridge hospital.   She was 73.

Burke was best known for her muscular physique and feats that made her the women's world wrestling champion from 1936-56.   She claimed to have won 150 matches against men and more than 5,000 against women without losing.   But, of course, in professional wrestling the outcome isn't always decided on the mat.

"I've had two or three girls say they beat me," Burke said in a 1981 Times profile, "and I've threatened to take them to court, because they never even wrestled me."

She was in Ripley's Believe It or Not for doing 100 body bridges on the editor's desk.   Her sinewy, well-defined body was such that the Los Angeles Police Department once displayed her poster in its offices to shame the officers to stay in shape.

In her prime, she was 5-foot-2, 138 pounds.   She was best remembered as the young woman in posters with flexed biceps, dressed in a championship belt and a low-cut blue wrestling outfit.   Even in her later years when she operated an Encino wrestling school for women she kept her muscular build.   But she always was concerned with her looks, and in the 1940s she was voted one of the world's best dressed women.

"She was totally feminine," said her son, Joseph Wolfe of Canoga Park.   "More than anything else, she stressed being very feminine and a loving mother."

Still, a teen-aged Joseph quickly discovered that it was best not to challenge his mother.   One time, after getting into mischief, "she threw me over her shoulder," Wolfe said.   "I never bothered to give her any trouble again."Wolfe, who subsequently wrestled at Manual Arts High School and Valley Junior College, had plenty of company.   In 1935, Burke, 19, started wrestling on the carnival circuit, offering $25 to any man of reasonably similar weight who could pin her within 10 minutes.   None did.

Mildred Burke was born August 5, 1915, at Coffeyville, Kan., the youngest of six children.   At 15, after shuttling between Kansas and California with her family, she started working as a waitress on the Zuni Indian reservation near Gallup, N.M.   When she was 17, her boyfriend stopped to see her on his way to California and asked her to marry him.   She accepted. "I would have married anyone to get off that reservation," she said.

She first saw a wrestling match in Kansas City, and eventually met Billy Wolfe, the Missouri state champion who ran the city YMCA.   Joseph Wolfe said Mildred was attracted to Billy, who would become her second of three husbands, and started pestering him to teach her to wrestle.   "Finally, one day she pestered him enough and Billy let her climb into the ring with a really good wrestler," Joseph said.   "They met at the center and this fella picked her up and slammed her real hard.   She got up and went back to meet him at the center and did what she saw him do to her.   She picked him up and slammed him and then pinned him.   That's when she knew she wanted to be a wrestler."

Burke attributed her invincibility in the ring mostly to the "alligator clutch," a Burke invention with which she figures she ended about 4,500 of her matches.   The move is a devilish pinning maneuver in which you make a pretzel of your opponent and then sit on him, or her.

For two decades, Burke wrestled six days a week, 50 weeks a year.   Joseph, who had a stepbrother and stepsister, said he spent much of the time with relatives.   "But when mom was home, wrestling was something that was never discussed," he said.   "She was really quite the average mother."

Burke's life, however, was anything but.   Besides the rigors of travel, her profession was dangerous.   Along the way, Burke said she broker her nose, had five knee injuries and had each of her thumbs ripped out of the joint and pushed back to her wrist.   Her worst injury was when she was on her back and an opponent stomped on her mouth, loosening all her teeth.   Eventually, they all had to be removed.   "I beat the living hell out of her," Burke recalled.   "I was hurting so bad, I went insane."

Joseph said his mother also suffered from temporary blindness from wrestling.   "She had taken a tremendous beating her whole life," he said.   "All of it attributed to her retirement."

Burke's daughter, Violet Wolfe, also was a wrestler, but died from an injury suffered during a match, Wolfe said.   Mildred lived with her son for the past six years and had just completed an autobiography of her life when she died.   Joseph said the manuscript does not have a publisher.   "Now I don't know what to do with it," he said.

Memorial services will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday (February 22) at Forest Lawn of Hollywood Hills.

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