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.
This month we witnessed the fallout from the shocking betrayal of Larry Zbyszko on his mentor Bruno Sammartino – they meet in the ring for the first time since the horrific incident.
Lots of title changes this month around the territories but first, we start our look at March 1980 with the travels of Harley Race, our NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race defended his title eleven times this past month, see the table below for all the results.
Georgia Championship Wrestling – General James White Coliseum, Knoxville, TN
Harley Race defeated Dick Slater to retain the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Title.
Central States Wrestling – Memorial Hall, Kansas City, KS
Harley Race defeated Bruiser Brody
Houston Wrestling – Sam Houston Coliseum, Houston, TX
Harley Race and Tony Atlas went to a one-hour draw for the NWA Worlds Title.
CWF – St. Lucie County Civic Center, Fort Pierce, FL
Dusty Rhodes beat Harley Race via DQ. Race retained the NWA Worlds Title.
Big Time Wrestling Texas – Dallas, TX
Harley Race and Bruiser Brody wrestled to a no-contest.
Stampede Wrestling – Victoria Pavilion, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Harley Race defeated Leo Burke to retain the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Title.
Stampede Wrestling – Exhibition Auditorium, Regina, Alberta, Canada
Harley Race defeated Leo Burke to retain the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Title.
Georgia Championship Wrestling – Memorial Gym, Hazard, KY
Harley Race defeated Stan Hansen to retain the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Title.
CWF – The Armory, Tampa, FL
Harley Race and Manny Fernandez went to a one-hour draw for the NWA Worlds Title.
CWF – Miami, FL
Harley Race defeated Steve Keirn
CWF – Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Jacksonville, FL
Harley Race defeated Manny Fernandez to retain the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Title.
St. Louis Wrestling Club – Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis, MS
Harley Race and Ric Flair went to a double count-out for the NWA World Heavyweight Title.
CWF – Lee County Civic Center, Fort Myers, FL
Dusty Rhodes beat Harley Race via DQ. Race retained the NWA Worlds Title.
CWF – Jai Alai Fronton, Orlando, FL
Dusty Rhodes beat Harley Race via DQ. Race retained the NWA Worlds Title.
ALL-JAPAN PRO WRESTLING
AJPW finished their Excite Series 1980 sixteen-day tour on March 5th with a three falls main event that saw Jumbo Tsuruta defeating Dick Murdoch to regain the NWA United National Championship.
Towards the end of the month, the 8th Champions Carnival tournament began with the following participants: Abdullah The Butcher, Carl Fergie, Dick Slater, Giant Baba, The Great Kojika, Jumbo Tsuruta, Motoshi Okuma, The Mysterious Assassin, Ray Candy, Rocky Hata, Ted DiBiase, Terry Funk and Tiger Toguchi.
The tournament is set to run through to 1st May. By the end of the March, Abdullah topped the table as he got off to a perfect start winning his first three matches against Okuma, DiBiase and Slater. We will release the table next month once all of the league matches are completed and preview the finals of the competition.
BIG TIME WRESTLING (DETROIT)
The promotion returned to Cobo Arena on the first of the month with a huge main event. In a rematch from the AJPW Real World Tag League finals of December 1979, Terry & Dory Funk Jr. tasted defeat and their own blood in a Steel Cage Texas Death Match against Abdullah the Butcher and The Sheik. Dory gained revenge on Abdullah on the 15th in a Japanese Spike Match beating the Man from Sudan. The match had a unique stipulation with four wooden boards of three-inch spikes surrounded the ring, and yes, you guessed it… both men lost a lot of blood.
BIG TIME WRESTLING (TEXAS)
Harley Race was close to losing his NWA World Title to Bruiser Brody at the Sportatorium on the 16th. A controlling performance by Brody but he failed to capitalise on his dominance as the match was declared a no contest.
NWA Women’s Champion Fabulous Moolah was in action the next night in Fort Worth defeating Winona Little Heart to retain the strap.
Things did not go to plan for “Gorgeous” Gino Hernandez this past month, he lost various important matches. The standout was against El Gran Markus (6/3 – Beaumont, TX) in a Texas Death Match. He was defeated by Tiger Conway Jr. the next night in Arlington and against David Von Erich in the Sportatorium on the 30th.
CENTRAL STATES WRESTLING
In his first title shot of the month, Bruiser Brody took NWA World Champion Harley Race to the limit but ended up losing at the Memorial Hall, Kansas City in front of the champion’s home crowd. In other news, the NWA Central States champion “Bulldog” Bob Brown successfully defended his belt numerous titles against Japanese superstar Takachiho.
CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING FROM FLORIDA
NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race worked six shows for Eddie Graham’s territory defending the belt on five occasions. Race outlasted the challenges of Dusty Rhodes and Manny Fernandez, although he lost all three matches to Rhodes via DQ and was took to a one-hour draw with Manny.
Manny Fernandez had a bad month, unable to clinch the World title he also lost his NWA Florida Heavyweight Title to Don Muraco at the Convention Center in Miami Beach on 26th March.
New NWA Florida Tag Team Champions were crowned as the team of Jack Brisco and Jimmy Garvin dethroned Bryan St. John and Stan Lane for the titles in West Palm Beach, Florida (3/3). Despite numerous rematches throughout the month, Brisco and Garvin head into April with the belts.
EMPRESA MEXICANA DE LUCHA LIBRE
Two big title changes in Mexico this month as Lizmark dropped the Mexican National Heavyweight title to Americo Rocca in Mexico City on the 29th March. In addition, Satoru Sayama has dropped the NWA World Middleweight title to El Satánico at a live event in Arena Mexico on the 28th March.
GEORGIA CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING
On Georgia TV, the new team of Tony Atlas and Kevin Sullivan are making waves in the territory and are undefeated through March 1980. They will look to take on the NWA Georgia Tag Team champions The Russians in the coming months, a championship that Atlas has held five times previously. Speaking of the champions, early in the month Alexei Smirnoff and Ivan Koloff defeated Lars and Ole Anderson on TV to retain the straps.
On the 9th, there was yet another big at the Omni. The main event saw Terry and Dory Funk lose to the team of Dusty Rhodes and Wahoo McDaniel that sent the Atlanta crowd home happy. Mr Wrestling II held onto his NWA Georgia Heavyweight title against Austin Idol however, this would not be the last time they met this past month.
The promotion returned to the Omni on the 23rd where Mr Wrestling II defeated Idol once again to retain the title but on the 29th March TV show, after playing hot potato with the National TV title since the turn of the year, Idol managed to uncrown Mr Wrestling II for the Georgia strap to become a two-time champion.
Also, on the 23rd Omni show, the fans were treated to a Dusty Rhodes vs. Terry Funk classic Texas Bullrope Match with Dusty as the victor.
After last’s month angle setting the bout up, Tony Atlas got his shot at Harley Race and the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. The impressive Atlas pushed Race to the limit but failed to defeat the champion before the one-hour time limit expired and the three falls match resulted in a 1-1 draw.
Jose Lothario and his protégé Tiger Conway Jr. regained the NWA American Tag Team Titles defeating JJ Dillon’s team of Mr. Hito & Mr. Sakurada at the Sam Houston Coliseum (14/3). Lothario and Conway lost the titles to the Japanese contingent in the same arena in January this year.
There was more than one title change at the Coliseum show on the 14th as Bruiser Brody claimed the NWA Texas Brass Knuckles Title defeating Mark Lewin in a bloody brawl.
MAPLE LEAF WRESTLING
The partnership with Mid-Atlantic thrived once again this month in Toronto. Stars like Greg Valentine, Ray Stevens, Blackjack Mulligan and Jay Youngblood made it over the border and the bloody feud of Mulligan and John Studd continued. On the 9th, the big men squared up in a vicious Texas Death Match which Blackjack coming out the victor. Also, at that show, Dewey Robertson held onto his NWA Canadian Heavyweight Title despite a valiant challenge from Greg Valentine to send the fans home happy from the Gardens.
MLW was back at the Gardens at the end of the month (30/3) with NWA United States champion Jimmy Snuka defending against Angelo Mosca. Mosca won the match via DQ as Snuka’s cornerman Gene Anderson smashed Mosca with the cane and the referee called for the bell. In the main event, Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood took their feud with Valentine and Stevens up to Canada. The good guys won as Youngblood pinned Valentine after a 30-minute war.
MID-ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING
A busy month in Mid-Atlantic as the winner of TV Title Tournament has been decided as Masked Superstar was crowned the new champion as Blackjack Mulligan lost his cool and was DQ’ed in the final. Bitter rivals for years, Mulligan and Superstar defeated Swede Hanson and Johnny Weaver in the semis respectively and met in the final on the 12/3 TV show. Mulligan had been injured by both Masked Superstar and Superstar #2 at a house show previously, with the Superstars smashing Blackjack’s hand with a steel chair. The injury was so severe that Mulligan was forced to wear a cast to protect the hand and he used this to his advantage in the final. However, Superstar managed to rip the cast off and began to punish Mulligan’s hand. In obvious excruciating pain, Mulligan flipped and threw Superstar over the top rope and was disqualified. Superstar was declared the champion and he and his partner rubbed salt into Mulligan wounds stomping away trying to do more damage to the hand until Ric Flair made the save for the Texan.
US champion Jimmy Snuka held onto his title month despite strong contenders. Snuka overcame the challenge of Ric Flair in three bouts, winning two via count-out and pinfall due to Gene Anderson’s help behind the referee’s back and also losing one via DQ. Near the end of the month in Charleston, Snuka managed to get past big Rufus R. Jones.
The NWA World Tag Team title war raged on between champions Steamboat and Youngblood vs. Stevens and Valentine. No less than nine matches took place throughout the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia before heading to Toronto for Maple Leaf Wrestling. The biggest match, however, was held on Saturday the 29th at the Charlotte Coliseum for the World Tag Team Titles. On Mid-Atlantic TV a few days prior, challengers Ray Stevens and Greg Valentine announced they were no longer on probation by the NWA and a title match was set for Charlotte. The challengers defeated Steamboat and Youngblood for the NWA World Tag Team Titles in a match full of controversy – more on that next month as officials have promised to show the videotape of ending of this match on Mid-Atlantic TV in April.
NEW-JAPAN PRO WRESTLING
The Big Fight Series 1980 tour took over the total of March with Days 2 to 25 covering the month with the tour set to finish on 4th April. The Iron Sheik was on the excursion but was not very successful. The man from Tehran, Iran faced Tatsumi Fujinami and Antonio Inoki in singles competition on many nights of the tour but could not find a win. He also tagged up with Stampede regular Bad News Allen and The Super Destroyer to face Inoki and Riki Choshu but again fell to losses. His only successes were at the start of the month in six-man tag team main events on the 3rd and 4th.
Towards the end of the month, Stan Hansen and NWA International Junior Heavyweight champion Mike Graham joined the tour and were defeated in a great match with Inoki and Fujinami in Fukuoka on 28th. Graham is set to defend his belt against Fujinami on the big end of tour show on 4th April. On the same night, Hansen will face Inoki in which should be a fantastic hard-hitting contest.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST WRESTLING
Throughout the month, Buddy Rose and The Sheepherders, Luke Williams & Butch Miller challenged the ever-popular Roddy Piper to a ‘Hair on the Line’ match. Andre the Giant was announced to be returning to the area to team with Piper. Rose and The Army goaded Piper by saying by the time Andre entered the territory: “the Giant will be teaming with a bald man.”
On March 1st, Piper faced Luke Williams with whoever lost the bout who gets his head shaved. Don Owen ordered that Rose and Miller to be handcuffed to the ring post so they could not interfere. The match and challenge backfired on Rose’s Army when referee Sandy Barr was bumped out of the ring in a collision with Piper. Williams brought a chair into the ring and raised the chair above his head to smash Piper in the head but the Scotsman nailed a dropkick to get the win. A barber’s chair was set-up and the Sheepherder had his head shaved bald much to Buddy Rose’s chagrin. Later that week Andre and Piper combined to defeat Rose and The Sheepherders in a three on two handicap match,
Rick Martel returned to Portland to team with Piper a few weeks later to beat The Sheepherders and after Miller brought a pair of scissors into the ring to cut Piper’s hair he lost control, Martel grabbed Miller so that Piper could trim Miller’s hair. After the match, Miller challenged Piper to a hair match with Buddy Rose as the referee. Piper accepted the challenge but nominated Martel as a second referee.
Come Tuesday night March 19th, Piper defeated Miller and shaved the Kiwi’s head. Piper challenged Rose to a Hair match to complete the Army’s new hairstyles.
SOUTHEASTERN CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING
Southeastern promoted a huge show at the Civic Coliseum in Knoxville on the 16th March with two new champions crowned. Troy T. Taylor defeated “Dirty” Dutch Mantel to win the NWA Southeastern TV Title and in the main event Killer Karl Kox pinned Ole Anderson to become the NWA Southeastern Heavyweight champion. Stan Hansen also appeared on the event defeating former tag team partner Bobby Jaggers with a stiff lariat.
ST. LOUIS WRESTLING CLUB
The usual bumper crowds attended the Kiel Auditorium for two big Sam Muchnick shows this month. The first held on the 7th saw Kevin Von Erich retain his NWA Missouri title against Ed Wiskowski and Bob Backlund defended the WWF Championship against Dick Murdoch. The second Kiel show was on the 28th and was headlined by a great NWA Worlds title match between champion Harley Race and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. The match ended in a draw after 28 minutes due to a double count-out.
The gigantic Loch Ness Monster formed a tag team with the petite fellow Englishman Dynamite Kid and they had some blistering matches with Stampede International Tag champions Bret and Keith Hart. They battled throughout the month until the heels uncrowned the Harts to become the new champs (pictured above with manager J.R. Foley).
Keith Hart must have been sick of the sight of Dynamite as he lost his British Commonwealth Mid-Heavyweight championship to young Englishman too in Red Deer, Alberta on the 24th. Also in the territory, NWA World Champion Harley Race appeared for a pair of successful title defences against Leo Burke.
VANCOUVER ALL STAR WRESTLING
The feud between Buddy Rose and The Sheepherders versus Roddy Piper ventured up to Vancouver with Andre the Giant and Don Leo Jonathan joining Piper in six-man action. Piper and company defeated Rose’s Army on the 10th and then Roddy went one on one with success against Rose later in the month.
WORLD WRESTLING FEDERATION
After the horrific betrayal of his protégé Larry Zbyszko last month, Bruno Sammartino looked to gain some revenge by getting his hands on Zbyszko on two of the WWF’s biggest shows.
However, in both matches, Zbyszko got the win via disqualification after Bruno lost his cool and the referee threw the match out. At the Philadelphia Spectrum on the 1st, Bruno was DQ’d for striking the referee in anger after Bruno failed to stop on the five-count choking out Zbyszko. At Madison Square Garden, in front of an excess of 26,000 people, again Sammartino failed to release a chokehold on Zbyszko. It took Arnold Skaaland and referee Dick Kroll to remove Bruno’s hands from Larry’s throat while Zbyszko escaped to safety.
NWA WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION
NWA WORLD TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS
GREG VALENTINE & RAY STEVENS
1. Dusty Rhodes
1. Ricky Steamboat/Jay Youngblood
2. Bruiser Brody
2. Giant Baba/Jumbo Tsuruta
3. Tony Atlas
3. Jose Lothario/Tiger Conway Jr.
4. Andre the Giant
4. The Sheik/Abdullah the Butcher
5. Jimmy Snuka
5. The Sheepherders
6. Giant Baba
6. Mr. Hito/Mr. Sakaruda
7. Manny Fernandez
7. Terry Funk/Dory Funk Jr.
8. Ric Flair
8. Antonio Inoki/Tatsumi Fujinami
9. Dick Slater
9. Bruiser Brody/Angelo Mosca
10. Jumbo Tsuruta
10. Dynamite Kid/Loch Ness Monster
NWA United National Champion Dick Murdoch travels to All Japan Pro Wrestling to defend against the man he beat for the title, Jumbo Tsuruta. From the Civic Auditorium in Kuroiso, Tochigi, Japan on the 5th of March. The final day of the Excite Series 1980 tour.
AJPW: The finals of the Champions Carnival will be set, we will provide a breakdown on how the finalists reached the Carnival’s conclusion.
Georgia: Will Kevin Sullivan and Tony Atlas get their shot at the Georgia Tag Team champions The Russians, Alexei Smirnoff and Ivan Koloff?
Mid-Atlantic: Promotion officials have stated they will look at footage of Ray Stevens and Greg Valentine’s NWA World Tag Team Title win over Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood on Mid-Atlantic TV in early April. We will have full news on the outcome of this presentation. Also, see if Ric Flair can finally capture the NWA United States Title from champion Jimmy Snuka.
Pacific Northwest Wrestling: Will the Roddy Piper-Buddy Rose Hair match finally get signed?