Wrestler’s Rep Packed A Wallop

The Florida Times-Union – December 5, 1999

Diamonds were a girl’s best friend.

Mildred also was partial to the alligator clutch.

That’s how she got her diamonds.

Mildred Burke was the greatest woman’s wrestler of her time.

She wore 50 grand worth of diamonds to work, until they got too heavy.

Also, she married a guy called Diamond, who brought her to Jacksonville, where the wrestling promoter was George Romanoff.

Romanoff had wrestled Billy “Diamond” Wolfe enough times to persuade him to bring his wife to Jacksonville early and often to fill the seats in the Main and Beaver streets arena.

Thus it was that Millie Burke brought the family jewels to town 54 years ago this week, a week that coincidentally marked the start of something big.

While sports fans were all atwitter about the return of Mildred Burke, they were quite underwhelmed by the announcement that South Carolina and Wake Forest had been signed to play in the first, and perhaps only, Gator Bowl football classic.

“Admittedly not as good an attraction as they would have liked,” began Jacksonville Journal sports editor Charlie Baker.

The local Lions Club had finally matched two Southern conference rivals for a New Year’s game in Municipal Stadium.

The Jacksonville Naval Air Station Fliers were the local gridiron power in December 1945. They had just ended a 9-2 season 48-0 over the Pensacola Navy Goslings.

And the high school Andrew Jackson Tigers’ upcoming Kiwanis Bowl tilt against the Middletown, Conn., Tigers, figured to draw more than the Lions affair.

But all paled before Mildred Burke.

Mildred Burke had taken women’s wrestling out of the burlesque theater and put it where it belonged, like the Main and Beaver arena.

Mildred’s rags-to-rocks story began when she saw her first wrestling match in Kansas City.

“I had the same dream over and over,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1981.

“I’d be at the head of the steps, and there’d be a crowd of people applauding at the bottom, and I’d take off . . . like an angel.”

Her dreams detoured when she became a waitress on the Zuni reservation near Gallup, N.M. She ran off with an initial husband and took up wrestling after meeting Wolfe, director of the Kansas City YMCA and Missouri wrestling champion.

Soon, she was regularly beating up men in carnivals and fairs and, in 1936, won a woman’s “championship” tournament Wolfe organized in Betheny, Mo.

That’s where she got her first diamonds.

The championship belt was said to be worth $2,500.

It would be chump change to the dough in Millie’s future.

Mildred, Diamond and the belt came to Jacksonville in 1937. In time she was bringing in 300 grand a year.

The new champ packed the arena to beat the famous Stella Steker, the Arizonian Amazon who had perfected the airplane spin, thus demonstrating that a good alligator clutch could beat a good airplane spin.

(The alligator clutch involved twisting one’s opponent into a knot and sitting on her. Burke figured she ended 2,400 matches that way.)

In 1938, Burke was in what Life magazine said was the first women’s mud-wrestling match. In the 1940s, she wrestled in a Jacksonville ring covered with swamp mud and melted lard.

By the end of World War II, Mildred Burke was a household name. Mud wrestling days were far behind.

She wrestled six times a week, 50 weeks a year. She became the first wrestler to wear a fancy robe and become a pin-up girl.

The diamond collection kept getting bigger and bigger. She became America’s best-muscled sex symbol. Once she was named one of America’s best dressed women.

You can imagine how Mildred Burke could overshadow the mere birth of the Gator Bowl.

“Comely Kansas City cyclone,” the Jacksonville Journal called her.

“Bulging muscles like a man, but a cute chick in street clothes.”

“Miss Burke will have her costly diamond-studded championship belt ready to turn over in the event she loses,” the Florida Times-Union said. “Which is not very likely.”

She had gone undefeated — fighting six nights a week, 50 weeks a year — for seven years.

Going up against Burke was Mae Young, a bigger blonde Chicago tusslerette who had beaten up June Byers for the privilege of appearing in the Main and Beaver street arena. (Byers would one day make off with Mildred Burke’s Diamond Wolfe and her title, but that is another story.)

On this night, before a crowd that “all but overflowed” the Main and Beaver arena, Millie took Mae in two straight falls that took a total of 31 minutes, probably longer than it took to clear Municipal Stadium, which did not overflow, after the Wake Forests beat the South Carolinas.

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