wrestling / Columns

It’s All About The Moolah: WWE’s Women’s Evolution Gets Complicated

March 15, 2018 | Posted by Steve Cook
Fabulous Moolah Memorial Battle Royal

Another major WWE event means it’s time once again for the women Superstars to make history. I thought that they had run out of first-time match types to run after this year’s Royal Rumble, but I was mistaken. I forgot that women have yet to be involved in a WrestleMania battle royal. Silly me.

The men’s version serves the purpose of getting everybody on the card while paying homage to a legendary wrestler. Andre the Giant having a Memorial Battle Royal makes sense. He was highly successful in battle royals throughout his career & one of the key people that put Vince McMahon’s promotion on top of the wrestling world. The concept made even more sense because they debuted it the year Hulk Hogan hosted WrestleMania, & he was as qualified as anybody could have been to introduce the idea.

It’s a little tougher to come up with the perfect woman to dedicate a battle royal to. It’s not like there were a ton of big time ladies’ battle royals back in the 1970s & 80s. Had there been, I think it’s pretty obvious who would have won most of them. It would have been the woman for who all intents & purposes ran the women’s wrestling scene for parts of four decades. The woman who was credited with training most of her opponents. She held the World Women’s Championship for a length of time that makes Bruno Sammartino’s WWWF title runs look like Vince Russo booked them.

It makes a lot of sense from WWE’s perspective to start an annual event honoring The Fabulous Moolah.

To say that Moolah is a divisive figure among wrestling fans & historians is an understatement. There are those that consider her an icon of women’s wrestling. They point at all of her accomplishments as proof that she should be in every Hall of Fame related to pro wrestling. To them, Fabulous Moolah is women’s wrestling, and what’s happening now wouldn’t be possible without her.

On the other side are those that believe that she set women’s wrestling back decades with her antics & has no business anywhere near a Hall of Fame. They consider Moolah to be a harmful figure in the history of wrestling that did much to hold back her fellow women. They consider her guilty of acts that are more befitting a criminal than somebody that should be admired by young people today.

I’m pretty sure I understand why WWE made this decision. I’m not a mind reader, & Vince McMahon has an exceptionally tough head to get inside of. I still think I have a grasp on why he made this decision, though it has garnered much criticism from a percentage of WWE’s fanbase.

Once Fabulous Moolah gained the World Women’s Championship, it was hard to get it to anybody else. Of particular note here, though it wasn’t mentioned in the video, is the fact that she won it for the first time in a battle royal. Also of note: Vince McMahon Sr. gave her the “Fabulous Moolah” name.

Moolah took the American women’s wrestling scene to the WWF when she signed an exclusive contract with the company in 1983. The NWA never had much interest in promoting the championship, especially when Lou Thesz was World Champion & wouldn’t appear on shows with women wrestling. Vince Sr’s son saw some value there, especially when intermingled with celebrity. Once the Rock N’ Wrestling Connection got started and Cyndi Lauper got involved in a tiff with Captain Lou Albano, it made perfect sense to take their feud to the women’s portion of the card. Lauper was all about feminism & girls wanting to have fun, while Albano wanted them to know their place. Wendi Richter was chosen as the woman to represent Lauper & the future, while Albano took the side of Moolah, the established queen that knew her place in the world while holding down all that would try to take her crown.

The Brawl To Settle It All aired on MTV. Richter vs. Moolah, with Cyndi & Lou of course, was what people wanted to see. With what MTV has become, it’s tough to describe just how big a deal that was for the WWF. It legitimized Vince’s vision of sports entertainment and started the train rolling on the Road to the first WrestleMania. Richter’s victory over Moolah galvanized the public in a way that had never been seen in response to a women’s wrestling match.

It would be easy to say that they could have done the whole thing without Moolah. It would also be inaccurate. She had been World Women’s Champion for most of the past three decades. Even if it wasn’t twenty-eight years straight as it was sold as, Moolah was recognized as champion for all but thirty-eight days from September 18, 1956 until July 23, 1984. Whether people appreciated Moolah’s ability or not, they accepted that she was the top female in the business. Beating her meant several hundred times more than beating any other lady wrestler of the time period.

Wendi Richter’s victory over her at Madison Square Garden in front of an MTV audience was a seminal moment. Not just because of Cyndi Lauper’s involvement, but because she knocked the Fabulous Moolah off of her throne. Moolah proved her worth to Vince by helping establish the next big women’s wrestling star. When it was time to get rid of Richter, Moolah was willing to play a part in that too.

Contract issues between Richter & the WWF led to Vince deciding that the championship needed to change hands. Moolah donned a mask & became The Spider at an MSG event on November 25, 1985. Richter thought she was going over, but found out otherwise when Spider pinned her shoulders to the mat & the referee kept counting after she kicked out. It was a screwjob before the term forever became part of the wrestling fan vernacular. Moolah got the belt back into safe hands, and Richter’s mainstream career was over.

Moolah was eventually phased out & retired, but was still on the WWF’s side long after her retirement. She’d appear when the WWF passed through Columbia, South Carolina. She even became part of the show again during the Attitude Era, winning the Women’s Championship from Ivory at the age of 76. Her dear friend Mae Young took more of the spotlight in their comedic duo though, as she was more willing to do crazy things like go through tables & give birth to hands. Until the very end, Moolah was all about WWE.

That’s what Vince McMahon remembers about the Fabulous Moolah. She brought him her business, and was willing to solve problems. She was willing to do business. As a businessman first & foremost, that’s what he cares about. Whatever Moolah might have been involved in outside of her dealings with him is irrelevant. She was the dominant force in women’s wrestling for decades, and certainly deserves to have a battle royal held in her honor.

Things get a bit more complicated when you look past the surface.

WWE has presented a sanitized version of Moolah’s life in wrestling for many years. You heard today’s female Superstars putting over her positive traits. Charlotte Flair spoke in the video announcing the match about how Moolah wanted to empower other women. Many folks over the years have suggested quite the opposite.

Moolah trained a large number of woman wrestlers. She got them booked by promotions, and she also got most of the money from the promoters. Trainees would sign contracts that put Moolah in charge of their careers. They were required to live in condos on Moolah’s property & pay rent. As the woman in charge of their booking, Moolah made sure that none of her charges got bigger than the Fabulous Moolah.

There are even seedier claims made against Moolah by several different wrestlers that worked for her over the years. Ida Martinez claimed that some promoters demanded “personal services” before they would pay the talent, as it was part of the arrangement they made with Moolah. Luna Vachon said that Moolah sent her to an older man’s house to be photographed. Lesbians that worked for Moolah were encouraged to date men instead. The family of Sweet Georgia Brown claimed that Moolah was responsible for making her a drug addict & enabled incidents where she was raped.

In the #MeToo & #TimesUp Era, it’s somewhat shocking that somebody with these types of allegations against them would be honored by a publicly-traded company. Except when you realize it’s the same company that’s putting Kid Rock in their Hall of Fame on WrestleMania Weekend. Rock certainly has garnered his share of controversy over the past few years, but WWE still sees him as worth honoring. They will also present an award named after the Ultimate Warrior, a man who had offensive things to say about everything & everyone for years. Wrestling has never been a bastion of morality, and to expect WWE to change that too much is asking a lot. Ownership has proven that they’re all about the money. Or the moolah, if you will.

Even when you put aside all of the allegations, there’s still reason to cast aspersions the way of the Fabulous Moolah. As a fan that wasn’t around behind the scenes, I can’t personally confirm or deny any of the stories told about Moolah & how she treated her charges. All I can tell you about is what I’ve seen, which is enough to make me question the legacy of the Fabulous Moolah.

Do you know why women’s wrestling had such a low reputation with American wrestling fans for so many years? Go back & watch some of Moolah’s matches. I’d like to say that I’ve seen her have a quality match, but I would be lying to you. They were pedestrian affairs mostly involving hair-pulling & basic wrestling moves often poorly applied. When you watch them, you understand why yesterday’s wrestling fan had a negative view towards women’s wrestling. The matches weren’t entertaining.

Keep in mind that she was responsible for training every other notable woman of her era. Moolah’s plodding style was emulated by a generation of North American workers. There were a couple that broke out of the pack, but the vast majority were completely forgettable. That left the ones that were good with nobody to work with. Which is exactly what Moolah wanted. She wanted to be the top dog, and the best way to ensure that was to make sure nobody stood out. Making sure women’s wrestling stinks doesn’t sound like the best of business models. But if your business is yourself & your top priority is keeping your ego satiated, that’s probably the way to go.

Moolah’s ego set women’s wrestling in the United States back at least forty years. Why do you think Joshi puroresu took off in Japan at the same time North American women’s wrestling was a joke? Moolah wasn’t training them! Japanese lady wrestlers were encouraged to reach their full potential in the ring. They weren’t confined to hair-pulling & snap mares because that was all their trainer was capable of doing. They were trained like actual professional wrestlers, not wrestlers that were made to work a certain style.

It wasn’t until Moolah’s influence was gone and enough time had passed to wash away the stink that things began to get better here. Women started getting actual training. Indy wrestling wasn’t exactly overflowing with women trying to get in the business, so they had to train with men. They learned how to wrestle like regular professional wrestlers, not like regular lady wrestlers. Women that wanted to be wrestlers didn’t have to worry about Fabulous Moolah’s booking fees or arrangements she made with promoters.

There’s still plenty of shady things going on in 2018, but we have truly made progress. We’ve taken to mocking how WWE’s women are making history at every major event nowadays, but the fact that there’s enough to make it work is a good thing. It doesn’t come off as unearned.

The fact that it took until 2018 to reach the point where women can finally have a card-filling battle royal at a WrestleMania can be laid at the feet of the Fabulous Moolah.

When you think about it that way, maybe it’s only appropriate that it’s named after her.