The Queen of the Ring
Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend
About the book
Mildred Burke was an eighteen-year-old waitress in a Kansas City diner when she saw her first wrestling match. A single mother barely scraping by on Depression-era tips, she had the inspiration and guts to crawl between the ropes and try to make something of herself.
What followed was the astounding odyssey of the most unlikely champion the sporting world would ever see. At 5-2 and 120 pounds, Burke would use both beauty and brawn to captivate audiences across the globe and rise to the top of America’s most masculine pastime. Her story is a lost piece of Americana that is recaptured in The Queen of the Ring, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jeff Leen’s extraordinarily researched account of Burke’s rise to fame and riches.
It all began in that diner in 1934 when Burke convinced a male wrestler named Billy Wolfe to take her on and train her. Tough, crusty and twice her age, Wolfe was a skilled wrestler and an even better businessman, a savvy hustler with his eye on the main chance. Wolfe was skeptical until he saw Burke pin a good male wrestler; then he married her and put her to work in his carny troupe, where she wrestled men who hoped to earn $25 by pinning the little woman. Burke’s extraordinary talent in the ring and her singular style made her an instant star.
Together, Burke and Wolfe built a brand-new business out of their sweat and dreams. Her muscles and his mind made the industry of women’s professional wrestling in America and helped save the whole sport, coming along at a time when men's wrestling was reeling from newspaper investigations about fixed matches and fake champions.
They reached the pinnacle of their business, with Burke celebrated as the shining champion and Wolfe touted as the brilliant manager. She sported diamonds and minks and was written up in Time and Life and hundreds of other publications; he draped himself with his own diamonds and slept with the other female wrestlers. Burke did not care as long as she was champion; that was her one true love.
And then, at the peak of their success, it all came apart. Wolfe tried to replace Burke as champion with one of his girlfriends, and a physical fight between them turned into a divorce battle and a struggle over the business. Through canny legal maneuvering and with the backing of the National Wrestling Alliance, the monopoly that controlled wrestling, Wolfe outsmarted Burke, and soon she was destitute.
At her gravest hour, she entered the ring to face her toughest opponent, the female powerhouse June Byers, in the last wrestling championship match in America fought out for real.
The Queen of the Ring is a tale filled with sex, muscles and diamonds, but it is also a story of greed, intrigue and betrayal, and one women's indomitable will to survive and triumph.