Women's Wrestling Star Lillian Ellison, 84

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007

Known to generations of fans as the Fabulous Moolah, Lillian Ellison was for more than 50 years perhaps the greatest star women's professional wrestling has known. Ms. Ellison, who was 84 when she died Nov. 2 at a hospital in Lexington, S.C., of complications of shoulder-replacement surgery, continued to make appearances at wrestling shows until several months ago. She lived in Columbia, S.C., on Moolah Drive.

She won a tournament to claim the "women's world title" of pro wrestling in 1956 and, except for a few short intervals, she held on to the championship belt for nearly three decades. The petite Ms. Ellison had an outsize personality that stirred crowds to a frenzy, whether they were cheering her exploits or showering her with boos and curses.

"I would go in the ring and I'd get everything thrown at me, from rotten eggs to rotten oranges and everything else," she said in a 2005 interview on NPR's "Fresh Air." "And then when I'd come out of the ring, they'd be tapping me on my back and [saying], 'Moolah, we love you.' "

Known for her vast repertoire of not-always-legal kicks and holds, Ms. Ellison was just as crafty outside the ring. She took charge of her career while still in her 20s, becoming a promoter, trainer and manager in the male-dominated and sometimes sordid world of professional wrestling.

In 1995, she was the first woman named to the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Fame. Two years ago, she was featured in a documentary about early female wrestlers, "Lipstick & Dynamite," and appeared on the "Tonight Show" to promote the film.

Ladies' wrestling, as it is called, has always been part cheesecake and part street fight. The 5-foot-4 Ms. Ellison, who usually performed in red nail polish, proved adept at both elements of the game. Her signature move was the "backbreaker," but she was also known for her leg lock and knee-drop clothesline, as well as an assortment of flying drop kicks, scissor kicks and other flashy maneuvers. She made no apologies for her sometimes devious tactics.

"Yes, there's rules," she told NPR, "but everybody does not abide by the rules, and I'm one of them. . . . I wouldn't mind choking you or gouging your eyes, pulling your hair or kicking you below the belt. It wouldn't bother me at all."

She began her career in the late 1940s, after working as a scantily dressed "valet" in the entourages of male wrestlers. An early manager deemed the name Lillian Ellison too pedestrian for a marquee and asked her why she got into wrestling.

"For the money!" Ms. Ellison declared. "I want to wrestle for the moolah."

Mary Lillian Ellison was born July 22, 1923, in the blighted Tookiedoo community near Blythewood, S.C. She was the youngest of 13 children and the only girl. She picked cotton when she was young and was 8 when her mother died.

Her father took her to wrestling matches, and in her mid-teens, Ms. Ellison -- already a mother -- began to work on wrestling's fringes. She trained with Mildred Burke, the premier female wrestler of the time, and claimed Burke's crown after she retired in 1956.

Ms. Ellison broke from an early manager who made overbearing financial and sexual demands and became a shrewd promoter on her own. She managed the career of prominent male wrestler "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, among others, and always demanded top dollar.

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