Sad news that Lillian Ellison, better known as The Fabulous Moolah, died on November 2 in her home on Moolah Drive in Columbia, S. C., probably due to complications following recent eye and shoulder surgery. She was 84, and had spent over 50 years in and around the squared circle, not only as a wrestler and performer, but as a trainer and sponsor of new talent, including Wendi Richter, who famously challenged her with manager Cyndi Lauper during the WWF "Rock 'n Wrestling" golden era. Born in South Carolina, she was the youngest and only girl of 13 kids. Her mother died when she was 8, and she and her father bonded over pro wrestling matches they attended in Columbia. She leaves behind her partner, Mae Young, one daughter (born when Lillian was only 14), six grandchildren and six great grandchildren, as well as an extended family of wrestlers who became daughters and sisters.
Moolah was trained by Mildred Burke, the most famous wrestler of her day, and then went on to become the biggest women's wrestling star of all time. She held the championship for 28 years, from 1956 to 1984, then reclaimed the title a year later for two years, and came back yet again at the age of 76 for a final championship year in 1999! WWE hype is that she has the longest continuous championship in pro sports but this actually discounts 'temporary' transfers of belts in minor bouts during a season, a common feature of pro wrestling drama. Still, it's difficult to see how any womn will ever approach her record.
Most of the time Moolah played a heel, but coming up in the 50's, she was old school and believed strongly in standards and decorum, of a sort. i'm sure her chosen persona enhanced and developed her poise - she liked to say she was called "Moolah" because she was "in it for the moolah!". She was always well turned out, with a taste for bling in and out of showbiz. She was a friend of Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, a clean liver yet a risk taker, and is the only big name female wrestler to successfully span wrestling's move from sport to entertainment.
Anyone as successful as Lillian Ellison is bound to meet with a little controversy, and Moolah's detractors usually point to her long association with the McMahon family, Vince Sr. and Vince Jr.. There is no question that she owed a great deal to the McMahon wrestling empire, which encompasses the WWF/WWE, and absorbed the WCW, and ECW, eventually making the WWE the only major wrestling group in North America. Vince McMahon Sr. worked with Moolah to reinstate women's professional wrestling in New York after it had been banned, and she was at the center of the women's drama which was the catalyst for Vince Jr.'s first WrestleMania in 1985, which changed wrestling, and sports entertainment forever. Women's pro wrestling has always been a precarious career at best, and due to her close personal relationship with the McMahon's and her loyalty, she was rewarded with a seat at the table for events or at least a few camera shots, even when women's bouts were out of style. It's valid to point out that Ellison cultivated and exploited a special relationship to advance herself and her protoges, what's less clear is what alternate path to success existed for women - or men - in pro wrestling.
The wonderful 2005 documentary Lipstick and Dynamite - The First Ladies of Wrestling touches on the tensions between Moolah and other gals who knew her back in the day, when there were lots of small promotions and everyone's horizons seemed limitless. In her delightful 2002 autobiography, The Fabulous Moolah:First Goddess of the Squared Circle, there is a great deal of gushing about Daddy Vince, and more about Vince Jr.. To this reader her love seems genuine, in spite of the fact that without the WWE, the book would never have been published. There is no question that Moolah put her own interests and those of the McMahon's first, as demonstrated by her collusion to take Wendi Richter's title without advance notice (and you naysayers believe it's all set up) at Madison Square Garden in 1985. The WWF had a contract dispute with Richter, and this infamous bout was hence known as the "original screwjob", followed by the "Montreal Screwjob" of Bret Hart by McMahon and Shawn Michaels in 1997, and subsequent real and faux "screwjobs". Moolah and Vince Jr. have both exploited their image as heavies to stir up the fans and the money. But as she's remembered today by those of us who saw her perform, as a heel with a touch of class, and most definitely one of a kind.