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With a decades-long tradition of obscuring backstage realities in favor of building mythic legends, the pro-wrestling industry continues to grapple with the alleged shady behavior of some of its more iconic stars. Viceland's docu-series "Dark Side of the Ring" is now highlighting that tension between the fabricated story lines of pro-wrestling and what actually happened behind the scenes. Amongst the narratives discussed on this show is the legacy of Mary Lillian Ellison, better known by her stage name The Fabulous Moolah, which remains hotly debated within the pro-wrestling industry. Why is it that Moolah's name continues to create such debates among wrestling fans?
The Fabulous Moolah's wrestling career began in the late 1940s, during which she faced opponents like the legendary Mildred Burke, according to David Shoemaker's book, "The Squared Circle: Life and Death in Professional Wrestling." After becoming the National Wrestling Alliance's Women's Champion by defeating 12 other women in one night in 1956, Moolah began touring the country and eventually amassed a stable of women wrestlers that she trained herself.
"For the better part of 25 years, every top girl wrestler was trained by Moolah, booked out by Moolah, and was controlled by Moolah's group," explains controversial wrestling personality Jim Cornette in "Dark Side of the Ring." The demand for women's wrestling at the time was high, despite the competitors facing considerable sexism from bookers and audiences alike.
During the 10 years Moolah held the title, Moolah remained a nationally beloved star, according to Shoemaker. Her career continued to flourish with the formation of the WWF, which experienced an explosion of popularity in the 1980s as WWF CEO Vince McMahon agreed to position her as the face of the women's division, despite the fact she was in her 60s.
But Moolah expertly manipulated backstage politics so that younger rising talent would not be able to dethrone her. Even as she advanced in age, Moolah continued to appear in joke-y backstage segments and comedy matches after the WWF rebranded itself as the WWE in the early 2000s until her last appearance with the company in 2007. She is considered to be the first octogenarian to compete in a WWE ring. She passed away in November 2007 at the age of 84.
Although her decades-long, groundbreaking wrestling career remained a symbol of the enduring draw of women's wrestling, accusations about her behavior with regards to her students began surfacing. Moolah's former student Mad Maxine (neé Jeannine Mjoseth) claimed Moolah's school hardly resembled a dojo: In an interview with Slam Sports, Mjoseth said that students often went into debt while paying for both an entry fee and lodging that sometimes cost up to $1500 a month.
"Moolah did send girls out to this guy in Arizona and pimped them out," added Mjoseth. "I actually spoke to him on the phone and asked him what he was looking for. He said, 'If I'm spending all this money, you know what I want.' That was part of Moolah's way of making money. She was just a bad person. Moolah didn't have a good bone in her body ... Moolah was taking at least half of what I was earning."
Because of an agreement among wrestlers to maintain the narrative of wrestling storylines even outside the ring, Mjoseth said she felt unable to report Moolah's crimes to police or peers.
"Kayfabe is like brainwashing," she said. "I didn't want to betray the other wrestlers. I felt uncomfortable talking about it for a long time."
In the book "Sisterhood of the Squared Circle" by Pat Laprade, former wrestler Penny Bramer also claimed Moolah acted as a pimp, renting out girls to various promotions as a form of sex trafficking.
In an article for The Free Times published in 2006, the children of Moolah's trainee Sweet Georgia Brown (neé Susie Mae McCoy) suggested Moolah had provided their mother with drugs, forcing her to become dependent. They alleged she had been repeatedly raped by clients of Moolah's, who had tortured her as a means of control.
"When my mom went into wrestling she was with the so-called Great Moolah. She said she was forced to do a lot of things against her will," Barbara Harsey, Brown's daughter, says in "Dark Side of the Ring."
"She was told to drink and pop pills. She was made to have sex with other men," Harsey continues. "From what my mother told me, she was their favorite. You can call it entertainment. It's still pimping and prostitution."
Contradicting those stories, several others in the industry have spoken out against the more nefarious descriptions of Moolah. Michael McCoy, another child of Sweet Georgia Brown's, contests the narrative his siblings presented.
“I come to say today, that’s not true. That’s not true at all," he said, according to ProWrestling Sheet. "Especially knowing the Moolah that I had grew to know. I’m not a fake. I’m not a phony and I’m not fronting today. And nobody is coercing me to say what I’m saying. Moolah did the right thing and she helped my mother.”
Former wrestlers Selina Majors and Beverly Shade similarly defended Moolah. Shade went on record on the matter in a 2018 interview with Nigel Sherrod.
"I knew Moolah well enough to know that she just wasn’t that type of person," said Shade. "I don’t know who started this. I can’t believe that anybody is that jealous, or that stupid. I don’t know what they thought they were accomplishing. To take somebody that can’t speak for their self, and [bring] them through the mud like they’re doing her. She’s not here to defend herself, which is not right. I just don’t understand what they think they’re accomplishing.”
Amid these discussions, the WWE had begun reinventing its women's division. Although WWE had frequently featured sexually explicit storylines and showcased relatively little of the athletic ability of their female talent in the so-called Attitude Era from the late 1990s and early 2000s, WWE CBO Stephanie McMahon promised a revitalized focus on legitimate women's wrestling in 2016. At the same time, the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, social media campaigns responding to the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and harassment against women, had begun gaining momentum throughout the United States.
Nonetheless, the WWE controversially decided to name an inaugural women's Battle Royale at Wrestlemania after Moolah in March 2018. The decision sparked widespread criticism within the industry, with many claiming the company's tradition of historical revisionism was at play. Fans of women's wrestling vehemently opposed the honorific gesture and contacted WWE's sponsors en masse, prompting them to drop the Moolah moniker from the match, according to Forbes.
WWE offered no public apology or explanation for the name change.
"Dark Side of the Ring" producer Evan Husney explained the difficulty around covering the subject of Moolah's alleged crimes.
"In my own personal opinion, it's really hard to tell!" Husney told Oxygen.com. "She's obviously not here for us to ask her. Jim Cornette lays it out and says it's a little bit of both. Obviously, she came through at a time when promoters were sketchier than they are now. So you learn those tricks of the trade. Did she have a huge ego and want to be the center of attention? Yeah, probably. In terms of the more harsh accusations, it's really hard to say. I tend to believe anyone who has accusations of that nature. But I do think as far as her legacy is concerned: It's complicated."
Vickie Otis, a former pro-wrestler who went by the ring name Princess Victoria, remains torn on how Moolah should be remembered in the concluding segment of "Dark Side of the Ring."
"If I choose not to like her because of what she did to me, that's fine," Otis says. "But Moolah needs to be remembered. She was an icon in this business. You can't take away her history because she was an a--hole!"
The debate around Moolah's past puts bigger problems within the wrestling industry into perspective: Will the controversies around a wrestler's personal life be forgotten for the sake of kayfabe? To what extent does wrestling have to address the criminal histories of its most beloved stars? And how will wrestling handle issues like sex trafficking and sexual abuse in the future? These questions, at least for now, remain unanswered.
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