Moolah, the WWE, and History

About five years ago, my friend was running a podcast and invited me to appear on an episode where we would discuss our love of pro wrestling. I had just started to get back into wrestling after a good 11-12 years away from it, so I was more than happy to participate. We each picked some of our favorite wrestlers, and then rambled about pro wrestling for an incoherent but wonderful two hours (I believe alcohol was a factor). If memory serves, my list consisted of Randy Savage, Rick Rude, Ric Flair, and The Fabulous Moolah.

Last year, when we published a list of our Top V favorite wrestlers, only Savage and Rude remained from that first list. Moolah didn't even cross my mind. And with good reason.

When I recorded that podcast, I wish I would have done some simple research about Moolah and not just relied on my memories of her in the WWF.  In short, what's been an open-secret in wrestling circles was that Moolah was a rather horrible promoter and wrestler. A protegee of the notorious Billy Wolfe, Moolah ran a circuit of women's wrestler alongside Paul Bowser and Vince McMahon, Sr. during the 1950s and 1960s. During that time, not only did Moolah rarely relinquish the championship belt, she began to alter the look of women's wrestling. Instead of having skilled-matches between women, Moolah favored a hair-pulling, nonathletic-style of wrestling that would become the de facto became the dominant wrestling aesthetic for women in the United States until the last ten years; she would also agree to a number of insulting programs with the WWF during the late-1990s that are best left undiscussed.

Moreover, she had a reputation as a ruthless businessperson. As Jamie Greer details:

From a business perspective, Moolah was arguably the most successful women’s wrestling trainer in the country, if not North America. Girls flocked from all of the country to work with her. But they soon found out that it was a long way to the top if you wanted to go through Moolah. It was ironic that for a woman who began her career as “Slave Girl Moolah”, she made almost all of her “girls” into slaves themselves. The girls had to stay on Moolah’s compound in quarters that she rented out to her trainees and stars – they also had to pay their own utilities. And they only got paid what Moolah felt like paying them. She took anywhere from 25% to 50% off their booking pay as a “finder’s fee”, and even then, she was notorious for skimming more off the top for herself. Women were constantly discovering they’d earned far less than they’d been promised for an appearance. And while Moolah controlled the NWA Women’s title, she would let the promoters she booked her girls with control over the women’s matches on their card – and it was often determined by what the girls offered in exchange. This horrible abuse of power wasn’t just something that Moolah was aware of, but something she seemingly encouraged and promoted.

It wasn't just unsavory business practices either. As Penny Banner detailed after Moolah's death:

Let’s get this out of way first, so I don’t have to dance around the subject – Moolah was a pimp. From her sprawling 42 acre estate in Columbia, South Carolina, Moolah would send out her half-trained underage female-wrestlers to “photo shoots” that would by the standards of today be considered pedophilia and pornography. She sent trainees to wrestling promoters in set numbers. Renting them out to promoters in bulk, with the understanding that the girls would have sex with the promoter and all the wrestlers on the roster who wanted them. Promoters liked free sex, but what they also liked is for boys not to go outside looking for it and possibly running into trouble. Sex on a road with a steady and pliant group of semi-attractive women in return for money, that is what Moolah offered. The women that were sent out on this tours were not told of this “arrangement” ahead of time. They found out about it on the road. Those that refused to have sex with promoters and wrestlers, were raped. 

These complaints about Moolah -- from a number of sources over a number of years -- all make the WWE's announcement that the upcoming women's battle royale at Wrestlemania will be named in Moolah's honor all that more puzzling. Women have played an integral role in the history of professional wrestling, and they deserve recognition for their work and accomplishments -- especially from a company that degraded them for decades.

Yet for all the company's talk about respecting women in the era of #MeToo and pushing people like Charlotte Flair, Asuka, and Rhonda Rousey, the fact that they have selected one of the legitimately worst figures in the history of the sport shows, at the very least, a tone-deafness that is stunning.

And yet this is hardly surprising for a company that has consistently tried to tweak any historical narrative to fit its own propaganda, and is also becoming more and more reactionary in its politics -- both behind the scenes and in its product. So it makes sense -- with their own twisted logic -- that the WWE would try and reclaim the legacy of Moolah. And if the company can have people like Natalya, Bayley, and Charlotte become talking heads who praise Moolah, then all the better.

So while there is considerable fan-backlash to this announcement, put me in the "doubtful" category that the company will alter course and rename the event in honor of someone more deserving (Sherri Martel would be my vote). Like others in the United States who try and whitewash history, the WWE wants to promote its vision of a problematic figure and ignore the very real pain that person inflicted on others.

**Editor's Note: The day after we published this, the WWE decided to no longer have its Battle Royale named after Moolah. But they should have never named it after her in the first place**

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