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Profile – Mildred Burke

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.

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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 YoungMae 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.

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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.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

Source: Tim Hornbaker – National Wrestling Alliance, Jeff Leen – The Queen of The Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds and the Making of an American Legend

PROFILE: Paul Boesch

Paul Boesch left a legacy in Houston and Texas in general, as the heart and soul of professional wrestling to the thousands of fans that had witnessed his product. Through his efforts, Boesch had turned Houston into one of the best promotions in the territories era.

Boesch was born in Brooklyn, New York until him and his family moved twenty miles to Long Beach.  He went on to graduate from Long Beach High School in the summer of 1929 and Boesch was a natural athlete. To earn money, he got a job as a lifeguard on the Long Island beaches and during this time, he was lured by Jack Pfefer’s wrestling shows in New York.

Although he is build was athletic, he was never the biggest of guys but he started to train and he stepped into the ring himself on 25th October 1932 in Staten Island for a Pfefer show. He continued to build a good living and wrestled throughout the northeast and travelled to St. Louis on occasion.  Although never a headliner, Boesch was regularly booked and toured through Canada, California and the South Pacific.  During this time, he became good friends of Calgary wrestler and promoter Stu Hart, and Boesch had the privilege of introducing Stu to his future wife Helen, while the Canadian was wrestling in the New York area.

Once World War II broke out in 1939, his career came to a halt as he enlisted to fight in Germany.  Boesch was deployed over to Europe and serve for the States in the one of the fiercest conflicts of the war – “The Battle of Hürtgen Forest”.  Although he received some injuries, he returned home a hero and was awarded many medals including the Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Distinguished Unit Citation.  Boesch wrote and released Road to Huertgen: Forest In Hell later in 1962, which was his memoirs of the battle.

Missouri wrestling promoter Tom Packs invited members from Boesch’s Regiment to the wrestling program labelled “The GI Night” on 5th October 1945 at the Kiel Auditorium.  It was a tremendous tribute and honour for Boesch, who climbed into the ropes to defeat Dick Lever using judo holds in front of over 8,000 in attendance. In the crowd were 118 members of the Gray Bonnet Regiment and 26 convalescents from the Jefferson Barracks who had served with Boesch throughout his military career.

Paul “Bombshell” Boesch settled in Houston wrestling full-time for the Gulf Athletic Club under the leadership of promoter called Morris Sigel.  Just after the first World War, Morris’ brother Julius had started promoting wrestling shows at the City Auditorium, weekly on Friday nights to great success.  By 1929, Julius left Texas to promote shows in New Orleans and Shreveport in Louisiana, leaving the promotion in the hands of his brother.

Although Morris was inexperienced in the wrestling business, he steered the promotion though good times with his robust business wisdom and the likes of Jim Londos, Orville Brown, Lou Thesz, Wild Bill Longson, Buddy Rogers and Womens’ Champion Mildred Burke on his cards.  Sigel would surround himself with people capable of running wrestling shows and during this time, due to a horrific car accident, Boesch would ultimately become one of Morris’ employees.

On 22nd October 1947, Paul was travelling to Corpus Christi for a show with two other wrestlers, Frank Vallois and Miguel Guzman.  They did not make the show that night. A trailer truck had failed to break at a stop sign and crashed into Boesch’s vehicle on Highway 66 and Military Drive in San Antonio – all three were injured.  Boesch suffered a break in his right leg and numerous cuts on his head and face.  The injury to his leg was fatal to his wrestling career as doctors advised him never to compete in the ring again.

Paul reached out to Morris and Boesch took up administrative duties in the office and trained young wrestlers – he even taught Verne Gagne how to apply the sleeper hold.  This would then escalate into commentating on Sigel’s wrestling bouts on radio station KLEE and in January 1949, Boesch would present the first-ever televised wrestling show in Houston simply named “Houston Wrestling with Paul Boesch” – a show that aired for nearly forty years!

Boesch would also occasionally step back in the ring throughout the early 1960s and this spiralled into eventually booking his own shows when Morris sadly passed away on Boxing Day in 1966.  In early 1967, he purchased the promotion from Morris’ wife and held good relationships with both the National Wrestling Alliance and Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association, so he had a wealth of talent at his disposal.  Bringing the very best wrestlers to the Sam Houston Coliseum would elevate the venue as the home of Houston Wrestling.

This was the biggest arena in the area and for Boesch’s shows, the Coliseum would sell-out to nearly 10,000 fans.  The venue held some big championship matches, but it was never acknowledged by nationwide wrestling fans as a legendary arena in comparison to the likes of Madison Square Garden, the Kiel Auditorium and the Greensboro Coliseum.

Boesch caught the attention of the NWA which declared Houston “The Wrestling City of the Seventies” at their annual convention and it became home to many World Heavyweight title bouts but only one title switch happened at the Coliseum – Jack Brisco defeating Harley Race on July 20th 1973.

Throughout the years, Boesch formed relationships with many affiliates of the NWA with the likes of Joe Blanchard’s Southwest Wrestling but one of the most profitable connections was with Fritz von Erich’s Big Time Wrestling.  The Texan Fritz and his sons were huge draws for Boesch and this continued until they severed ties in 1981 as Fritz looked to expand his promotion.

In 1981, NWA world champion Harley Race failed to attend an event despite being heavily promoted, Boesch was dismayed that he felt he had let the Houston fans down. He took action and immediately informed the NWA that he was withdrawing his membership.

Boesch forged a relationship with Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling. Stars like Magnum T.A., Butch Reed, Steve Williams, Jim Duggan and tag teams like the Midnight Express and the Rock N’ Roll Express all ventured into the Coliseum and did tremendous business.Shitloads Of Wrestling — Tom Prichard & Paul Boesch [1982] What a ...

A young Tom Pritchard with Paul circa 1982As 1984 emerged, Boesch and Watts was forced into competition with Vincent K. McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation as the McMahon-owned Titan Sports invaded Texas and secured TV time on two independent stations KTXH (Houston) and KTXA (Dallas and Fort Worth).  The fans, that had only ever known Boesch’s product, took to the WWF programming well and Boesch, Watts and Von Erich merged to compete with Titan’s shows.

In early 1987, Watts sold his promotion to Jim Crockett Promotions and Boesch was forced to arrange a deal with the Vince McMahon to hold WWF shows in Houston.  This was a huge transformation from the city’s longstanding run with the NWA and Watts.  Professional wrestling was experiencing a transitional period and WWF was implementing a different style of the sport – a huge contrast to Boesch and his predecessors’ product.  The deal only lasted four months and Boesch eventually shut down his Friday night shows at the Coliseum. The end of Houston Wrestling.

Due to failing health, after 55 years of contributions to the sport as a wrestler, a referee, a radio commentator, a TV announcer and a promoter, Boesch decided to call it a day on 28th August 1987.  On that night, McMahons’ WWF hosted his retirement show at the Coliseum in his honour.  He had drawn a sell-out crowd one last time.

Boesch did temporarily return and made a deal with Crockett in 1988, so JCP’s stars would wrestle at the Sam Houston Coliseum and they agreed that Boesch would also have an on-air role.  However, like the WWF deal, this did not last long Crockett sold his promotion to Ted Turner in November of that year.

Aged 76 years, Paul sadly passed away on March 7th 1989, after suffering a heart attack at his home in Sugarland, Texas.

Boesch was not only a war hero for his country. Due to his lifelong commitment to the industry, he was a hero in many eyes in professional wrestling.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

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