Lillian Ellison a.k.a. The Fabulous Moolah, “the First Lady of Professional Wrestling,” was born on this day in 1923. In a career that spanned nearly six decades, Ellison took a folded chair to pro wrestling’s glass ceilings, successfully lobbying to overturn New York’s ban on women’s wrestling and becoming the first woman to wrestle in Madison Square Garden. In 1995, she became the first woman to be inducted into the WWF (now WWE) Hall of Fame.
The youngest (and only girl) of 13 children, Ellison’s love for wrestling began at the age of 10, when her father began taking her to matches to help her cope with her mother’s death. While she was initially little more than amused by the competition, she was enraptured the first time she saw wrestling’s doyenne of the time, Mildred Burke. In a few years’ time, Ellison would herself be managed by Burke’s husband, Billy Wolfe, then the preeminent promoter of women’s wrestling.
As the appropriately-named Wolfe continually insisted upon more than a professional relationship, Ellison quickly defected to other managers. The first seven years of her career were unremarkable; when she wasn’t wrestling female opponents, she served as a “valet” for male wrestlers like “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers and “Elephant Boy” Tony Olivas. Her ascendancy to pro wrestling’s heights began in 1956 when she survived a 13-woman “battle royale” (everyone against each other, last one standing wins), winning the National Wresting Alliance’s World Women’s Championship. Moolah’s on-again-off-again (but more on-again) reign as titleholder would last for the next thirty years.
During that time and into her semi-retirement in the 1990s, Ellison was also involved in the training and promoting of other up-and-coming talent, founding Girl Wrestling Enterprises in the 1950s with her third husband, wrestler Buddy Lee. After the fact, many former protégés accused her of being heavily exploitative and vindictive, though not all trainees viewed her unkindly. Moolah formed a special bond with the 3'8" Katie Glass a.k.a. “Diamond Lil,” who ended up living with her for over forty years.
Such an arrangement exemplified a personal life just as colorful as any outfit she wore in the ring; in all, Ellison had five failed marriages over the course of her life, entering into the first when she was just fourteen years old. Her union with the 21-year-old man would last only a year, but produced a daughter, Mary, who would eventually give her six grandchildren. From 1991 until her death, Ellison also lived with close friend and fellow wrestler Mae Young.
Ellison died in 2007 at the age of 84, a mere four years after her final match — which she won.