Biography of Professional Wrestler Mildred Burke

About the female professional wrestler Mildred Burke, biography and history of the queen of the mat.

INCREDIBLE FOOTNOTE ATHLETES

Thoroughly Professional Millie

Mildred Burke stepped into the wrestling ring in the early 1930s and reigned as the queen of the mats for two decades thereafter. Born Mildred Bliss in Coffeyville, Kans., she originated professional wrestling for women and held the undisputed claim to the women's world championship title for most of her career.

A high school dropout, she became hooked on wrestling after watching the Missouri state wrestling champion, Billy Wolfe, in the arena. The petite, 5 ft. 2 in., 115-lb. girl began pestering Wolfe to let her try the sport. When he finally gave in, he was impressed with her nature ability and stamina. Mildred joined Wolfe on summer carnival tours in 1935 and 1936, during which she defeated close to 200 male challengers, wrestling under the name of Mildred Burke. She lost a match only once.

Wrestling had been suffering from the Depression doldrums when Burke made her professional arena debut in Bethany, Mo. When she pinned her male opponent before a packed house, the crowd went wild. She continued to fill stadiums, and the fans loved "thoroughly professional Millie."

Burke, who boasted bulging biceps, a 151/2-in neck, and a 5-in. expansion of her 31-in. chest, kept in condition with isometric exercises and weight lifting. Her wrestling weight never exceeded 140 lb. She was awarded the Southern championship belt at the first women's wrestling match in Alabama. A short time later, Mildred Burke laid claim to the world title for women by winning the 1937 Midwest Wrestling Association tournament in Columbus, O. Her midriff-covering, gold-plated, gem-studded world championship belt featured a picture of her muscular torso.

Early in her career, she had secretly married Billy Wolfe, thus becoming a partner in his profitable central booking agency for wrestlers. During 11 months of every year, the diamond-bedecked lady champ traveled the 100,000-mi. wrestling circuit in style. She appeared in the main event or as a special attraction in five or six towns each week. (She always spent Christmas in Kansas City with her mother and her son, Joseph, the product of a previous marriage.)

She dazzled her ringside fans with a brilliant white satin costume, worn under a floor-length fuchsia cape. One $1,100 robe, which she designed herself, was solid rhinestones and weighed 26 lb. She also starred in a wrestling film called Lipstick and Dynamite, which told it like it was.

Burke claimed her wrestling was "scientific." In her first year as a pro, she earned $50,000, and in her second, $75,000. By 1948 she was averaging about $15,000 a night. At her peak, her annual earnings were $100,000. In 1952, the year she divorced her unfaithful husband-partner, their business had grossed $250,000.

In 1954, when she was challenged by 180-lb. June Byers, Burke defended her title although she had a shattered right knee. Although Byers took the first two falls, the match was stopped in the third round because of a stalemate, and Burke retained her title. But upon her return from a tour of Japan six months later, Burke discovered that the referee had reversed his decision. Burke refused to concede defeat and allow the title to pass to Byers.

In 1957 Mildred Burke retired from the arena, virtually undefeated after 6,000 matches. She opened her private school of professional wrestling in San Fernando Valley, Calif., and founded the World Wide Women's Wrestling Association (WWWWA). Now in her early 60s, Mildred Burke sells wrestling films and continues to train and promote professional wrestlers.

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