When Mildred Burke was 18 years old, she was a waitress on an Indian Reservation in bumfuck New Mexico. To hear her tell it, she met a dashing man, looked around at the place, and said "Balls to this" and headed for the big city with him. Lucky for us she did, because that man introduced her to the world of professional wrestling and without this lucky stroke of fortune the wrestling world would be drastically different today. But i'm getting ahead of myself. Later on, despite being married with a child, Burke began dreaming of becoming a professional wrestler, being the sort of woman who vicious face beatings come naturally to. On a lark one day she went and introduced herself to a trainer by the name of Billy Wolfe and asked to train. Now remember, this was 1935. It wasn't exactly a golden age of equality for women, so when Wolfe saw this chick barging into his place thinking she was as good as a man, he decided to fuck her over to teach her a lesson. He sent one of his boys to body slam her to show her what was what and make her run away crying. Instead, Burke promptly picked his brawny ass up and planted him down with a picture perfect body slam, conceivably one handed, and asked to be trained again. Wolfe agreed and then left to change his pants.
Thus began a partnership between the two that would lead to Wolfe and Burke traveling the country together and eventually getting married. Their marriage was a shambles of course, he was still a dickhead remember and a womanizing one at that, but from the partnership Burke began to become known as the premier female grappler of her day. She shoot wrestled over 200 men during this time and lost only once and held the Women's championship all over the country, including becoming the very first NWA Women's champion and held the Women's World Championship for a whopping 17 GODDAMN YEARS. Thanks to her, an entire movement for women's wrestling began to grow with her at its head, and for years it seemed like things couldn't be better for her. Finally, though, her crazy terrible marriage took its toll and she sought a divorce from Wolfe. Unfortunately since this was 1952, getting a divorce from him meant that not only was she shunned as a pariah from many places that had welcomed her before, but Wolfe also got her kicked right the fuck out of the National Wrestling Alliance. After the NWA tried to convince her to be a good girl and get back together with her husband (at which point she allegedly sent them a picture of her middle finger) it was agreed that Wolfe would sell Burke the company she had gotten going, and would not run his own promotion in competition to her for at least 5 years.
He waited about 5 seconds.
Wolfe then began offering Burke's wrestlers 75% of the house to come and work for him, which was a totally ridiculous amount devised clearly only to bankrupt Burke. It worked. When she tried to convince the NWA to choose her and her money drawing over the guy twiddling his mustache like Snidley Whiplash in the corner, she was promptly told to no woman was allowed to be present at an NWA conference and forced her to wait in the lobby. They ruled that no woman could own a wrestling promotion and gave everything to Wolfe, and then theoretically went home and kicked puppies and stole candy from babies and performed other acts of cartoonish evil.
Then, in a scene so ridiculously pro wrestling that its hard to believe it really happened, Burke wrestled Wolfe's daughter in law Julie Byers for the title in a shoot fight that Wolfe rigged with a corrupt referee.
Burke lost the first fall, and then chaos ensued during the second so that no actual end to the match ever happened. Wolfe ran and told the NWA that Byers won, though, so they crowned her their new NWA Women's champion, and continue to to this day. Burke, though, believed that she was still the champion and took her actual title belt to her newly founded World Women's Wrestling Association. She defended the title there until she retired in 1956, and then through her tireless efforts to promote women's wrestling worldwide, it became the official championship of AJW. Otherwise known as the promotion where women like Jaguar Yokota, Akira Hokuto, Manami Toyota and Aja Kong plied their trade and their incredible achievements would never have been possible had not Burke brought the concept to their country and personally endorsed it every step of the way.
In the twilight years of her career, Burke trained wrestlers, and had a hand in the development of everyone from the Fabulous Moolah (who was her protege) to Bertha Faye. To this day, her name remains virtually blacklisted from the history books thanks to a lifelong smear campaign by her husband and the National Wrestling Alliance never acknowledged her accomplishments at any point after the split. But Burke couldn't be bothered to give two shits. No matter what obstacles people put in her way, she still managed to be the mother of women's wrestling worldwide, and perhaps one of the most influential wrestlers to ever live. And her influence lives on today.
Oh, and Billy Wolfe died horribly of pneumonia over in 1963. Burke would go on to outlive him by 26 years. So you know, happy endings and that.
We hope you enjoyed this spotlight on one of the most overlooked pioneers and draws in wrestling history. She wasn't special because she was a woman. She was a woman who was motherfucking special. We would love to hear about other women throughout wrestling history who have inspired you and who you don't feel have gotten their due, and if nothing else, hopefully this gets you thinking about how incredibly far we've come and how far we still yet have to go.