Queen of the Canvas

Looking back on Oklahoma wrestling pioneer Mae Young
By Sean Chaffin, For The Oklahoman Modified: March 11, 2014 at 3:09 pm •  Published: March 9, 2014
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THE world of modern professional wrestling revolves around spectacle, with beefy, brawny men the main attraction in the ring — battling it out in front of eager fans. But women have had their fair share of time in the ring — and Oklahoma’s Mae Young helped pave the way for female wrestlers who hoped to get in on the action.

An icon of women’s professional wrestling, Young died in January in Columbia, S.C., at age 90, after squaring off in the ring in nine different decades.

Born in 1923 in Sand Springs, Young was taught to wrestle by her four brothers and joined her high school’s amateur boys’ team by age 15. Raised by a single mother of eight children, Young was a natural athlete and excelled at softball as well. After attending a professional wrestling show in Tulsa, she left home a couple of years later, according to the WWE, embarking on her storied career in 1939.

“Throughout the 1940s, she blazed a path for future female grapplers everywhere; with World War II in its midst, many territories that didn’t feature women’s wrestling began to open up those doors, which Young and her contemporaries kicked down,” WWE.com notes of her career.

Gruff, grandmotherly

Throughout her career, Young had a reputation for being gruff, which is probably what allowed her the opportunity to wrestle in the days when women’s wrestling was largely written off by male promoters, says Erin Lynch, editor in chief of Diva-Dirt.com, a site devoted to the women of professional wrestling. That gruffness extended to her onscreen persona — smoking cigars and cursing were all part of the act.

Despite that reputation, Young became a fan favorite wrestling throughout the country in the 1940s and ’50s. Female wrestlers had become more popular as men shipped off overseas during World War II. Young won numerous championship titles and was one of the first women to wrestle in Japan after the war. In these early years, Young preferred playing the “heel” (wrestling jargon for the bad guy — or woman in this case), as she believed the baddies were the wrestlers who carried the shows and caused the most reaction from audiences.

In 1999, Young first appeared in a WWE television show, getting hit with a guitar while in the ring. Through the next decade and a half, she would appear in numerous story lines including being slammed to the mat or even through a table even into her late 70s.

In 2004, this “queen of the canvas” was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008. Young’s last action in the ring came in 2010, but she made WWE television appearances even as recently as last year, when her 90th birthday was celebrated.

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