Behind the glitz and the glamour of professional wrestling is a legend of a true pioneer for women in the sport – Mildred Burke. Burke was considered as one of the toughest competitors in professional wrestling and she fought her way into the history books. Undefeated, she held the World Women’s Championship for over fifteen years.
Burke was born Mildred Bliss on 5th August 1915 in Coffeyville, Kansas and was the youngest of six siblings. Her love for professional wrestling did not materialise until her late teens when she saw her first bout at the Midway Arena in Kansas City and in 1932, she decided she would try it herself.
She began working in an office during the day and but longed to get involved into the sport and met Missouri Middleweight Champion Billy Wolfe. She begged Wolfe to train her but Wolfe refused. She pestered him until Wolfe gave in and invited her to the gym. He instructed a male wrestler to rough her up to detract her away from the sport. However, Mildred rolls over the wrestler and pinned him. Wolfe thought it was a fluke and asked her to do it again, and she did. Impressed, Wolfe saw potential and agreed to teach her and through their training, they bonded and they started dating and eventually married
Already boasting a muscular physique and great strength at aged 19, Wolfe began promoting her on the carnival circuit. The announcer would proclaim that a $25 reward was on offer to any man of similar size to try to pin Mildred within a ten-minute time limit – no man could. Wolfe would take much of her fortune, openly cheat on Mildred and violently beat her.
Changing her name to Mildred Burke she started wrestling on shows and within a few months, she won the Midwest Wrestling Association Women’s Championship tournament clinching her first belt. By January 1937, she then moved around the United States defending her title and defeated the number one women’s champion, Clara Mortenson, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She wrestled and defeated all comers, wrestlers such as Mae Young, Mae Weston, Gladys Gillem and Elvira Snodgrass keeping her championship belt. For a time, she also mentored The Fabulous Moolah. The business was great for Wolfe and Burke was featured in Life magazine where it was deemed that she earned over $50,000 at the height of her fame in the late ’40s.
Since its inception in 1948, she butted heads with the National Wrestling Alliance. The NWA board declared that the Men’s World Heavyweight Championship could not be defended on shows with women’s matches featured so this stopped many promoters booking female bouts. In 1949, her husband Billy Wolfe became the NWA’s agent for promoting women wrestlers, Burke was known as the NWA Women’s Champion and he was profiting heavily.
The marriage of Burke and Wolfe began to crumble and Wolfe, a known womaniser, was sleeping with his trainees. After Mildred had an affair with his son and the couple grew a great hatred for each other and in 1952, they were divorced. Wolfe froze out Burke and she was struggling financially so she reached out to New York promoter Jack Pfefer for help and began defending the NWA belt against her own promoted wrestlers. The NWA was not happy and appointed a committee to attempt to work out a solution between Wolfe and Burke.
The conclusion came in January 1953 when Burke and her benefactors bought out Wolfe with $30,000. The deal meant he could no longer promote women on wrestling shows for five years, however, he did not keep to the deal and started gazumping Burke booking her wrestlers in Columbus for more money. Burke’s company ‘Attractions, Inc.’ could not cope and was declared bankrupt only a few months later.
Her assets went into the hands of James Hoff, a Columbus promoter and he employed Wolfe as his administrator. Wolfe claimed he held the contracts of Burke and 27 of her wrestlers but Burke disputed this due to $30,000 deal. Her contract stated he could not promote for five years and he was breaching that commitment. She aligned herself with Tulsa promoter Leroy McGuirk, a prominent member of the Alliance.
The NWA held in meeting in The Blackstone hotel in Chicago to discuss the mess but as only male members were allowed to attend the meeting, Burke, fighting for her livelihood, was shunned and had to stay in the Blackstone’s lobby. Wolfe had a seat at the table and once the meeting concluded the NWA announced that they no longer recognised women in the sport.
Following a tournament held in Baltimore, Wolfe professed June Byers (his daughter-in-law) as the NWA Women’s champion and his girlfriend Nell Stewart as the United States champion. He reached out to all of Burke’s contractors to book them but a lot stayed loyal to Mildred and some even retired from the sport. In November 1953, Burke wrote to the NWA and stated she would wrestle any woman in the business including Byers and Stewart to settle the claims of this phoney champion.
On the 20th of August 1954, Burke wrestled Byers in Atlanta in a three-fall contest with obvious genuine heat. Wolfe booked to have Byers win the championship and she won the first pin but Burke refused to be pinned for the second fall. They fought for over an hour until officials called the match without a winner. With Wolfe lining their pockets, the press reported Byers won so she became the legitimate NWA Women’s champion however, Mildred maintained her right to her title.
In fear of her safety, she travelled with an escort at all times but refusing to be beaten, she promoted women’s wrestling on an international basis creating the World Wide Women’s Wrestling Association promotion and the WWWA title. In a hugely successful business decision, she took women’s wrestling to Japan in November 1954 with instant success.
The U.S. Department of Justice investigated the NWA in 1955 due to accusations of monopolising the sport and Burke vented against the Alliance. Her testimony targeted NWA members and included stories of corruption, adultery, tax fraud and accusations directed at ex-husband Wolfe of domestic abuse and a horrific allegation that over-training their adopted daughter Janet which resulted in her 1951 death.
The NWA emerged from the investigation with little punishment and Burke retired from in-ring competition in 1956 and vacated her title. She continued to promote the WWWA in Japan, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and parts of the U.S. and in 1970, the hugely popular All Japan Women’s Wrestling bought the legal rights to the WWWA championship, a title that was contested until 2005.
After retiring, Burke lived in California and operated a women’s wrestling facility nurturing many women’s wrestlers including Rhonda Sing, who went to wrestle for AJW, Stampede, the WWF and WCW.
Burke suffered a stroke in February 1989 and passed away for days later at Northridge Hospital, Los Angeles aged 73 years old. Mildred left a legacy for many potential Women’s champions, courageously fighting for females in a male-dominated sport, she paved the way for future generations of women in professional wrestling.