For seven decades, Ms. Young built a career as a tough-talking bad girl in the tawdry, disreputable world of professional wrestling. She liked being the “heel” in the ring, the snarling villain who dishes out pain and absorbs the sneers of fans — and who usually takes the fall in the end.
“Truth about it is, I wrestled dirty and I was a tough son of a gun,” she said in a 2004 documentary about female wrestlers, “Lipstick & Dynamite.” “Anyone can wrestle clean, but it’s the heel that steals the show. Always been a heel and I wouldn’t be anything else.”
In her younger years, she was a lissome blonde with a movie-star smile. But she had the strength of a stevedore and liked to toss her opponents — occasionally men as well as women — around the ring.
Through the 1940s and 1950s, Ms. Young had a long rivalry with Mildred Burke, the perennial champion of women’s wrestling, which came to prominence during World War II. By design, Burke, whose husband was a major wrestling promoter, won almost all their matches. But aficionados recognized that Ms. Young, in spite of her devious tactics, had remarkable skills.
She reveled in the spotlight and the hard knocks of wrestling, perfecting a series of moves that were both physically demanding and sexually suggestive. Her “bronco buster” move, in which she moved up and down while sitting astride the chest of a fallen opponent, excited the imagination of spectators and has remained a crowd-stirring maneuver in pro wrestling.
“She really enjoyed being the villain,” filmmaker Ruth Leitman, the director of “Lipstick & Dynamite,” said Saturday in an interview with The Washington Post. “She was like the queen who could never be the champion. She had a certain credibility that none of the other women had.”
When Ms. Young was in her prime, pro wrestling took place in smoky auditoriums and was part competition, part sideshow. It was mostly the province of men, but when women entered the ring in their tight tops and hip-hugging shorts, it became a fevered exhibition of sex appeal and violence, glamour and sadomasochism that wasn’t for the faint of heart — or delicate of taste.
Ms. Young often sustained injuries, including broken bones, but by all accounts she was as rough outside the ring as inside it.
“When I met Johnnie Mae Young, she had men’s shoes on, men’s pants on with a zipper up the front,” wrestler Penny Banner said in “Lipstick & Dynamite.” “Back in 1955, you didn’t do that.”
In 1949, Ms. Young was arrested in Reno, Nev., after a man named Nelson accused her of robbing him of $100 and beating him so badly that he ended up in a hospital.
“Maybe I did work Mr. Nelson over a little,” she said at the time. “He made advances to me. Improper advances.”
Charges against Ms. Young were dropped. Other wrestlers recalled stories, whether true or not, in which she left battered men abandoned on the side of deserted highways.
“There were a lot of wild girls on the road back then,” Lillian Ellison, a wrestler better known as the Fabulous Moolah, wrote in her 2003 autobiography. “Mae was one of them. She used to like to go out drinking till all hours, smoking cigars and picking fights with big, bruising men in dark honky-tonks. She’d always laugh later about that expression on their face, a mixture of surprise and shame, just before they hit the floor after she’d conked them upside the head.”
Johnnie Mae Young was born March 12, 1923, in Sand Springs, Okla. She grew up playing football, softball and other sports and always had a fascination with wrestling. In her teens, she was coached by Ed “Strangler” Lewis, a champion wrestler of the 1920s and ’30s, who taught her a variety of holds and moves.
By some accounts, a 16-year-old Ms. Young challenged Burke, already a champion in 1939, to a match in Tulsa. In any case, Ms. Young was on the road as a pro wrestler in 1941 and never looked back.
She reportedly took time out to be an evangelist in California, but soon saw that venture as something like a betrayal of her true livelihood.
Ms. Young trained other wrestlers throughout her life and was credited with launching Ellison’s career. Beginning in the early 1990s, they shared a house on Moolah Drive in Columbia, S.C., with Katie Glass, a diminutive wrestler known as Diamond Lil.
Ms. Young continued to make appearances at wrestling events well into her 80s. In a swimsuit competition featuring many young, curvaceous female wrestlers in 2000, the 77-year-old Ms. Young was declared the winner after she pulled down the top of her swimsuit and paraded around the ring. Wrestling officials said she was wearing a “prosthetic device,” but many observers were convinced that what they saw was all Mae, all the way.
Ms. Young never married or had children.
“Mae was proud that she was tougher and stronger than many men,” filmmaker Leitman said. “You see in her persona that she’s very flirtatious. But there was a lot of speculation about her sexual orientation.”
Leitman said it took her a year to persuade Ms. Young to appear on film for “Lipstick & Dynamite.” She finally won her trust by engaging in a wrestling demonstration.
“She taunted me, she challenged me,” Leitman said Saturday. “I was completely out of my comfort zone.”
Ms. Young was approaching 80, and it was all in fun, but even then, Leitman said, “I was no match for her at all. She had a death grip.”