An article by Mike Mooneyham
(Published in 1995)
At first glance, Lillian Ellison might strike one as the soft-spoken, grandmotherly type. But don’t let the gentle demeanor fool you.
Behind those bright, twinkling eyes and pleasant smile is a tigress who set the sport of women’s wrestling on fire and became a worldwide sensation several decades ago.
And like her name says, she’s fabulous and she’s made plenty of money in the grappling business.
Lillian Ellison, better known to thousands of fans as The Fabulous Moolah, rose to stardom in the unique world of professional women’s wrestling during the 1950s. Like Gorgeous George, Moolah was a pioneer who brought flamboyance and color to the sport and made it a hot television commodity.
With her sequined robes and her trademark wrestling boots inscribed with a dollar mark, Moolah began wrestling at the age of 15 and won the women’s world championship in 1956, holding the crown until 1884 when she was dethroned by Wendi Richter at Madison Square Garden, ending the longest dynasty in the history of the sport.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Moolah, however, came back under a mask six months later, however, as Spider Lady and regained the championship. No one has ever come close to lasting 29 years as champion, nor is that record ever likely to be broken.
The Fabulous Moolah, part of an era that included such greats as June Byers and Judy Grable, transcended that period of wrestling and was able to adapt to a different generation – the Rock ‘N Rasslin’ boom that catapulted Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation to instant success during the mid-’80s.
A longtime Columbia resident, Moolah is still going strong, running a wrestling school, a non-profit organization for retired wrestlers, spot wrestling shows throughout the state and occasionally stepping into the ring herself.
Moolah lives on a 42-acre estate in Columbia that includes a 13- room home, eight- and 12-acre lakes, a row of lake houses and a gym equipped with a wrestling ring. She bought the land 25 years ago, with only a lake house occupying the area at the time. She later decided to build her home there, and now her estate lies in the back of a fully developed neighborhood in the suburbs of Columbia.
Her land used to extend even further until Interstate 77 was built, and she sold several acres to the state to accommodate the highway.
“It’s very peaceful,” says Moolah. “I love it here.”
Johnnie Mae Young, another celebrated lady wrestler from years past who trained Moolah nearly a half century ago, was invited by her former protege to take up residence on the Columbia estate a year ago.[ad#MikeMooneyham-468×15]
“She was in California and had lost all of her family, and I told her this big place was just sitting here and she could have the whole upstairs,” Moolah says.
Moolah’s Southern-style graciousness doesn’t go unrecognized, however.
“As a person, she’s the greatest lady in the world,” says Young, who as The Great Mae Young was one of the first women wrestlers to appear in Japan in the early ’50s and helped pave the way for today’s female athletes.
“She’s been a real friend through the years. You can’t get any better than that. You can’t buy friendship. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world. If you can find a friend in your life, you’re very fortunate – you’re rich.
“Of course, she’s always been very ambitious and wanted to be a great wrestler like the one and only Mae Young, so she got to be better.”
Moolah’s exact age remains a mystery, but she was born Lillian Ellison in a small community between Blaney and Pontiac, S.C. She was the youngest of 13 children – including 12 brothers – and began a love affair with wrestling at an early age.
“I was only eight years old when my mom died,” Moolah says. “And I was very close to my mother. My dad tried to get me interested in something because I almost had a nervous breakdown. He loved wrestling, so he started bringing me to the wrestling matches. And I just fell in love with wrestling. My dad would buy two seats annually, and we went every Tuesday night in Columbia.”
Moolah’s passion for the sport led to her pursuing a career in the squared circle. But promoters said she was too small and discouraged her from seeking a ring career.
“Billy Wolfe, the guy who all the girls at that time were wrestling for, told me that I was too small to wrestle and told me to go sit on some lawyer’s knee and be a secretary. “I said, `No, I’m going to be a wrestler, and I’m going to be the best.’ I met a promoter named Jack Pheifer and he had `Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers at the time. He needed a valet for him, and I worked with Buddy for a little while. And then The Elephant Boy came up, and I worked with him for about two years. And then I got a little heavier, and I got back into wrestling and I just kept going.”
Moolah, as Elephant Boy’s attendant, was known then as The Slave Girl and carried his $5,000 robe to the ring, learning at the same time about holds and showmanship. And with Wolfe, the famous coach from Columbus, Ohio, as her teacher, and later wrestler Buddy Lee, Moolah was quick to learn the tricks of the trade.
“I met Buddy Lee in the early ’50s,” says Moolah. “I took him under my wing and ended up marrying him. It was nine long years. We’re very good friends now. He’s very nice now that we’re not together. But we were just too much alike and couldn’t get along.”
Lee later moved to Nashville and established the biggest country music booking agency there – Buddy Lee Attractions.
Moolah, who admits to being married “at least twice,” was also wed at a young age to wrestler Johnny Long, who at the time was a top draw for the Charlotte-based Crockett Promotions. The short-lived marriage produced Moolah’s only natural daughter, who also wrestled briefly as Darling Pat Sherry in the late ’60s and early ’70s and was best known for her Marilyn Monroe-like looks.
“My daughter’s 14 years younger than I am,” says Moolah. “She lives in Myrtle Beach and has five children, and I’m helping her adopt a little girl soon.”
Moolah has wrestled throughout the world, including tours of Japan, China, Mexico, Australia, Argentina and South Africa. She has also suffered her share of injuries – broken collarbones, broken fingers, teeth knocked out, cauliflower ear. Despite the injuries, she has stayed in top condition, a fact she attributes to being a firm believer in clean living.
“I’m in good health. I work out every day and train with the boys. It helps keep me in shape. And I love to play golf when I have the time. I stay busy all the time.”
Moolah’s last major run in the sport came in the mid-’80s when she worked in the WWF for Vince McMahon Jr “I loved it because it packed my purse full. That’s why they call me Moolah. I love the moolah. And Vince McMahon is the best-paying promoter in the business. He takes care of you. “And his dad, Vince Sr., was a wonderful man. Vince Jr. is good, but he couldn’t hold a candle to his daddy.”
Moolah considers Judy Grable, the “Barefoot Contessa,” as the toughest woman she’s ever met in the ring. She trained Grable, along with the majority of the top women wrestlers from the ’60s on through the ’80s, including Wendi Richter, Lelani Kai, Vivian Vachon, Angelle (Luna) Vachon, Judy Martin, Joyce Grable, Patty Bray, Sabrina, Margaret Garcia and Rita Cortez. Buddy Rogers was the greatest in the men’s category, says Moolah.
“Buddy was sporty, good-looking and an excellent wrestler. He had it all.”
Moolah still keeps up with many of her former colleagues, but some have moved on to other stages of their lives outside of the wrestling business.
Moolah, recalling the whereabouts of several women stars during her heyday, says that some during their later years failed to realize the success and happiness they achieved in wrestling. Some have battled alcoholism, she says, while others have “let themselves go.”
One lady star Moolah trained, who during her prime was “skinny as a rail,” now weighs almost 280 pounds, she says. “I asked her how in the world could she ever get her skin to stretch that much?”
Moolah continues to train wrestlers, mostly men, at a wrestling school located on her Columbia complex. Among those who have graduated from Moolah’s mat camp is former University of South Carolina All-American football star Del Wilkes, who appears regularly in Japan as The Patriot.
During her 40 years in the business, Moolah has seen many changes, not all for the good, she says. She laments the fact that ability has taken a back seat to size and gimmicks.
“That’s why everybody loves our shows,” she says. “If you see any of my cards, it’s better than what you’ll see on TV. We concentrate on the wrestling part of it, not the gimmicks. These guys really know how to wrestle.”
Although Moolah portrayed a villainous in the ring during most of her career, her benevolent nature outside the squared circle is well documented. Moolah trained a number of midget wrestlers during the height of her career and even brought in one who she considers a daughter – former midget star Diamond Lil.
“Yesterday was her birthday, and she turned 49 years old,” Moolah says proudly. “She came to me when she was just 17. She calls me mom. The first day I picked up her at the bus station, I felt so sorry for her. She asked if she could call me mom. I said, `When you throw that damn cigarette away, you can call me mom if you want to, but my daughter doesn’t smoke cigarettes.’ She threw it out of the window, and that was it. She’s called me mom ever since. She’s a sweetheart.”
Besides running the wrestling school, Moolah serves as president of the Ladies International Wrestling Association. She has trained wrestlers in Columbia for the past 30 years and started the non-profit LIWA eight years ago.
Moolah’s self-proclaimed dream is to build a retirement home for wrestlers and a wrestling hall of fame on her estate in Columbia. There are a row of duplexes across the lake that could serve as a retirement center, and a five-acre field on the other side on which a hall of fame could be built, she says. Along with business partner Mae Young, she plans to make her dream become a reality.
“When my mother passed away, it left it open for me to move back here,” says Young. “But we had been planning this for some time. We both love wrestling, and that’s a key to our friendship.
“Lillian is wonderful, I’m very proud of her. We’ve accomplished a lot in wrestling. Lil’s been champion for 29 years, and you can’t get any higher than that. So let’s build a retirement center for not only girls, but boys too. And we really need a hall of fame. Right here in Columbia would be the ideal setup.
“This is our whole dream. Fans from all over could come down and visit with the wrestlers. It would really be a shot in the arm to to the wrestlers. Many of them need a place for retirement, because a lot of them are not as well off as others. And they were top wrestlers. We won’t stop until it becomes a reality. We’re people who don’t give up.”
Moolah and Young are in Las Vegas this weekend for the eighth annual LIPA convention, a gathering of wrestling stars from the past and present that includes a dinner cruise, press conference, Golden Girls Extravaganza, benefit dinner, awards ceremony and dance.
“It’s a wonderful time seeing all of our old friends,” says Moolah.
Moolah, despite her outgoing personality, prefers to remain a private person. She finds herself busier now than when she was traveling the globe on a full-time schedule defending her women’s world title.
“When we have a new neighbor, I always meet them and introduce myself and I tell them that if they need me – I don’t care if it’s 4 in the morning – you’re welcome to call me and I’ll do what I can, but I’m not a `coffee person.’ I don’t have time for coffee here or coffee there. But if you need me call me. Usually if you get mixed up with your neighbors, the next thing you know you’re arguing, and I’ve never had an argument with any of my neighbors, and that’s the reason why.”
The grand lady of the mat, as she watches squirrels, ducks and birds congregate around her lake, says that, despite the twists and turns, life’s been awfully good to her. But wrestling, she readily admits, was her ticket to that good life.
“Wrestling has meant everything to me. It’s got me what I dreamed of. I know if I had a regular job as a secretary, I would never had gotten what I have now. Wrestling has been my love and my life.”