If you’re anything like us, you’ve fallen in love with the fierce and fabulous ladies of Netflix’s new series, GLOW, based on the syndicated women’s professional wrestling circuit, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
In the 1980s, these women kicked, grappled, and scraped their way to the top and made audiences and fans realize there was more to them than just their looks. We can look no further than the Mae Young Classic, which ran last weekend, to find their legacy.
After you’ve finished binge watching the entire series, take a look at our list of 5 influential women who shaped the face of the industry, based on our definitive guide on the evolution of the sport: The Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling.
1. Mildred Burke
Burke was born Mildred Bliss on August 5, 1915. The youngest of six children, her parents divorced when she was 11 years old. Bliss was an athletic girl, excelling in soccer and track. She married Joseph Martin Shaffer at just 17, who took his betrothed to her first wrestling card at the Midway Arena in Kansas City. It was an experience that would change her life.
“Watching these bouts fascinated, absorbed, and excited me in a way that I had never known before,” she later wrote. “Something deep in my core had been tapped awake. Immediately I began fantasizing myself in the ring, applying those grips, holds and throws. A desire and a drive to fill in those fantasies with flesh and blood came surging to life.”
After the show, she told her husband that she wanted to become a wrestler herself. He laughed in her face.
Mildred met Billy Wolfe in the summer of 1934 when he became a regular at the restaurant she worked at. Billy seduced the mother-to-be with stories from the road and the wrestling lifestyle. She begged Wolfe for a tryout at his gym, and he gave her a chance.
Her matches with female opponent Clara Mortensen drew full houses; Mortensen, as the senior attraction, was put over, which Burke resented. On January 28, 1937, Burke finally defeated Mortensen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in front of 6,157 fans, in what was then the most-publicized women’s match ever. Many believe it to be the start of modern women’s wrestling. With the win, Burke had a claim of being women’s champion. By 1938, Burke was a star.
2. Mae Young
They don’t make ’em like Mae Young anymore.
It’s impossible to imagine Young being anything but a wrestler. She was brash, tough, and confident, and she lived to perform. Even into her late 80s, she was still popping the crowd as wrestling’s most beloved sex-obsessed, whiskey-swilling great grandma.
Young claimed to have wrestled in nine different decades (from the 1930s to the 2010s), although that claim has been disputed. She said she began wrestling in 1939, although most historians believe her first match was in 1941 for Billy Wolfe. Her sole match in the 2010s (a handicap match against Michelle McCool and Layla El in 2010 that never even made it to the ring) was more of a skit than a match.
According to legend, Young got her start in pro wrestling when she attended a wrestling card in 1939 and, being an accomplished amateur wrestler, tried to issue a challenge to Mildred Burke. By the late 1940s, she became one of Wolfe’s top trainers, and she was largely responsible for training Lillian “The Fabulous Moolah” Ellison when she joined Wolfe’s group in 1949.
“These were wild times — and there were a lot of wild girls on the road back then. Mae was one of them,” Moolah later wrote in her autobiography. “She used to like to go out drinking ’til all hours, smoking cigars and picking fights with big, bruising men in dark honky-tonks. She’d always laugh later about that expression on their face, a mixture of surprise and shame, just before they hit the floor after she’d conked them upside the head.”
Her namesake inspired the WWE Mae Young Classic, an all-women's tournament featuring competitors from both NXT and the independent circuit, which ran from July 13 to 14, 2017.
Without a doubt, a whole generation of wrestling fans associates Mae Young with the woman who would take the next era of women’s wrestling by storm.
3. Trish Stratus
The youngest wrestler ever inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, Trish Stratus revitalized women’s wrestling in WWE in the 2000s, restoring credibility to the women’s title while carrying the division.
She began her career as a fitness model. Her physique and sultry look were noticed by WWF scouts, who asked her if she was willing to work for the company. Actually, WCW was also interested, and Terry Taylor had told Jim Ross that he would call her if WWF didn’t. A longtime wrestling fan, she quickly accepted the offer, signing with the WWF in 1999. She began training with Ron Hutchison at Sully’s Gym in Toronto.
“Trish had the guts to enter a boys’ world and more than held her own. She was the only female trainee at the time,” remembered Hutchison. “She came into the gym, saw that it was populated with just guys [who were taking a pounding] and told me, yes, she was certain she wanted to learn."
She debuted with the WWF under the name Trish Stratus in March 2000, acting as manager of the tag team Test and Albert, known as T&A. Her first major physical storyline saw her take a vicious powerbomb through a table from Bubba Ray Dudley at Backlash 2000. She began a rivalry with Lita as her team feuded with the Hardy Boyz, defeating Lita in an Indian strap match in July 2000, thanks to an assist from Stephanie McMahon.
Stratus won the WWF women’s title for the first time at the 2001 Survivor Series, winning a six-pack challenge match to claim the title. It would prove to be her first of a record-setting seven WWF women’s title runs.
4. Manami Toyota
In his 2002 book Top 100 Pro Wrestlers of All Time, John F. Molinaro refers to Manami Toyota as “the Ric Flair of women’s wrestling, arguably the greatest female pro wrestler of all time.”
It’s heavy praise, but it may just be warranted. Toyota raised the bar for women’s wrestling to even greater heights in All Japan Women during the 1990s. However, unlike Flair, Toyota was both a master technician and a high flyer, dazzling fans with her moonsaults, suicide dives, and diving headbutts off the top rope.
Born March 2, 1971, she began wrestling at the age of 16, making her debut in August 1987. She quickly began to stand out from her peers for her pacing, the depth of her moveset, and her incredible sense of timing, making last-minute kick-outs from pin attempts that kept fans on the edge of their seats. All Japan Women named her its Rookie of the Year in 1988.
“Before I came to test [try out] at AJW, I was a very shy girl,” Toyota said in a 1987 interview with Joshi Puroresu magazine, shortly after her debut. “I didn’t dare talk to anyone. But after discovering wrestling, everything changed.”
If Toyota was shy in real life, it certainly didn’t come across in the ring. She possessed a natural showmanship and an innate understanding of wrestling psychology. She also had the strength, balance, and agility to pull off an assortment of innovative and exciting power and aerial moves.
Toyota was named Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Year for 1995, an award given based on workrate. It was the first — and only — time that award was given to a woman, as Toyota beat out the likes of Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, and Chris Benoit.
“Manami Toyota is maybe the most influential Joshi star in women’s wrestling,” Sara Del Rey told Diva Dirt in a 2011 interview. “She was one of the first women I saw doing things equally spectacular as the guys. You could tell she had a heart and a passion in the ring that was like no other. She presented herself with style, grace and a feminine beauty, but you also knew she could downright kick your butt."
Once she’s done with wrestling, LuFisto will be remembered as one of the better female talents of the past 20 years never to be signed by one of the main wrestling organizations. There may be reasons for that, but her workrate, her wrestling skills, her presence, her understanding of the business, and her passion are not among them.
After having been coached by Pierre Marchessault and Patrick Lewis, she met former local wrestler Lise Raymond. “Mulling over that today, I can say that meeting her was more than crucial. Lise Raymond told me to stand tall, fight for my ideas and never to allow the wrestlers who didn’t want women in their world demean me. She even told me that it was better to be a bitch and secure one’s spot than to get along with them, that wrestling’s a cut-throat profession and that I should always keep my head held high in order to be considered a serious wrestler,” she relates.
This is exactly what Goulet did. Under the name Precious Lucy at first, and later under the name LuFisto, she’s wrestled across the Montreal territory, Ontario, British Columbia, the United States, Mexico, Europe, and Japan. After having adopted a very popular extreme style in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the wrestler, who was then nicknamed the First Lady of Hardcore, was rewarded for her choice.
In April 2003, Goulet was scheduled in Toronto, Ontario, for an inter-gender hardcore tag team match. But some time before it, she got an email letting her know her appearance had been canceled. Why? Because another promoter had filed a complaint to the Ontario Athletic Commission, which had a clause that women couldn’t wrestle men, even if by then it was pretty much known that wrestling was sports entertainment. Even WWE had presented some mixed matches in Ontario.
Goulet retaliated with a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. “From the first moment I spoke with a representative at the OHRC, I received nothing but unconditional support for my cause,” Goulet said. They saw what I saw, that the regulation in question was a violation of my human rights, based on my gender. I filled out the necessary paperwork and it was time to take down that regulation.”
On May 10, 2006, she won the fight and also changed everything. The OAC decided not only to change its ruling but also to deregulate professional wrestling altogether. [You can learn more about this story at this SLAM! Wrestling article, as well.]
“She’s worked hard to get where she is,” noted WWE’s Kevin Owens. A regular with SHIMMER and SHINE, LuFisto has also worked for most of the biggest independent federations in the United States, including CZW, PWG, WSU, and ROH. In 2014, she was voted fifth in the PWI Female 50, her highest ranking to date. In Quebec she’s considered almost a demi-goddess by other female wrestlers. Many among them chose to become wrestlers because of her, and they are often awestruck when they get to work with their hero.
THE SISTERHOOD OF THE SQUARED CIRCLE is in stores now!