The promotional copy for Lady Wrestler: The Amazing Untold Story of African-American Women in the Ring tells us it’s an 82-minute documentary that “chronicles the stories of Babs Wingo, Ethel Johnson, Marva Scott, Ramona Isbell and dozens of other African-American women who braved racism and sexism in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.”
Against all odds, those women managed to succeed in the male-dominated world of pro wrestling. They raised families while blazing a trail for female athletes long before many of the breakthroughs of the civil rights and feminist movements occurred.
The formula that was used — “sex, muscles and diamonds” — changed the image of combat sports. Promoter Billy Wolfe and his wife, world champion Mildred Burke, sold glamour and action. The women entered the ring dressed like Hollywood starlets, doing battle in satin bathing suits and tight leotards while performing some of the industry’s most difficult moves and introducing new ones, which became their signature. Johnson’s flying dropkick and other aerial maneuvers made the women more exciting to watch than the men.
Wolfe became the first promoter to welcome Black women into the wrestling ranks in the early ’50s with Babs Wingo of Columbus, Ohio. Wingo fought against Burke in the first integrated women’s championship match around 1952. Her sisters Ethel Johnson and Marva Scott, along with Kathleen Wimbley and other Black women, soon joined. The “Negro lady wrestlers,” as they were known, were fierce and fabulous. The public’s curiosity made them the next big thing in wrestling. Segregated audiences clamored to see these female gladiators with their strong, muscular physiques. The rest, as they say, is history.
For 13 years, journalist and filmmaker Chris Bournea labored to unearth the history of these African-American pioneers. His research began in 2005 in his native Columbus, the home of women’s wrestling. While working at a newspaper called This Week, a subsidiary of the Columbus Dispatch, he had a friend named Terry Anderson suggest a story idea about a local woman who used to be a wrestler. Bournea followed up — and ended up with the great fortune of interviewing Columbus native Ethel Johnson, the first Black female wrestling champ. During her career, she was billed as the biggest attraction to hit girl wrestling since girl wrestling began. The sportswriters of the day called her “the Black Venus.”
Representatives of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s annual Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus read Bournea’s article on Johnson. They said they had never heard the history of these amazing wresters and were wondering if Bournea could help them get in touch with Johnson so they could honor her with a lifetime-achievement award. Having an international superstar acknowledge Johnson motivated Bournea to continue his research into women’s wrestling. He soon uncovered the hidden history of these unsung “sheroes.”
I saw Lady Wrestler when it was screened in New York at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the Fist and Sword Martial Arts Series curated by Warrington Hudlin, and I was captivated. How did you find so much information on these women?
I interviewed Ethel Johnson and Ramona Isbell and their children and then Marva Scott’s daughter Kim Martin. Kim remembered a lot of facts. I was fortunate that my friend Wil Haygood works for The Washington Post. He’s a very accomplished journalist, and he referred me to Jeff Leen, who I interviewed in the documentary [and] who is also a Washington Post reporter who had written a biography of Mildred Burke. He told me that the University of Notre Dame has a huge wrestling archive, and that’s where I found a lot of the archival photos and press clippings that had background about the women. The University of Notre Dame was really just a treasure trove of information.
How did those women train? In the footage, they appear to be in superb physical condition with incredible athleticism.
They really had to know the holds, how to move and fall. Ethel Johnson talks about how she and her sisters took gymnastics when they were kids, not knowing that it would pay off later. So they knew how to tumble and fall, do the acrobatic things. It wasn’t just getting up there and faking it.
When Billy recruited them as teens, he wanted young women who were like martial artists. They had to have the flexibility and almost be like acrobats. They knew how to fall so that they didn’t break their arms or neck or something. Their young bodies could take all that type of really grueling tough training and abuse.
Ethel, her sisters Marva and Babs, Kathleen Wimbley and others were among the first Black women to train in Billy Wolfe’s gym as part of his fighter-development program. They trained with his more experienced white female fighters, having medicine balls thrown into their stomachs, lifting weights, [doing] deep knee bends, practicing wrestling techniques, flipping over the ropes.
Through this type of training, the women really developed the endurance of an Olympic athlete.
Gerry Chisolm was Black Belt’s 2020 Instructor of the Year. For more information about Lady Wrestler, visit ladywrestlermovie.com