Born in the tiny community of Tookiedoo, S.C., Ellison was the youngest of 13 children and the only girl in the family. After her mother died when she was 10 years old, Ellison and her father began spending Tuesday evenings attending local professional wrestling matches. These nights away from her 12 brothers gave Ellison the opportunity to develop a relationship with her father; they also inspired her to conquer the male-dominated world of professional wrestling.
Ellison was just a teenager when she began working as a valet, a job that involved serving as both helper and eye candy to the male wrestlers. She worked her way up through the ranks, from wrestling promoter to trainer to manager, always demanding top dollar for her boys, most notably “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers.
In the late 1940s, Ellison decided to enter the ring herself. After training with Mildred Burke, a champion female wrestler, Ellison took to the squared circle. She adopted the name “The Fabulous Moolah” because the moniker perfectly described why she became a wrestler. “I want to wrestle for the moolah!” she’d often declare. When Burke retired in 1956, Ellison defeated Judy Grable in a tournament and won the “women’s world title.” She would retain her championship status for 28 years.
Although female wrestling used to be illegal in many states, Ellison was a star on the circuit. In the ring, the 5-foot-4-inch, 118 lb. wrestler had a huge personality and a vast repertoire of kicks and holds. Her signature move was called a “backbreaker,” but she would also do scissor kicks, monkey flips and clotheslines to keep her opponents from getting the upper hand. On her own, or alongside her partner in crime Mae Young, Ellison’s antics earned her the love — and enmity — of wrestling fans.
“Used to be, the crowd would always cheer for whoever I was going against. That was okay; I loved for the fans to hate me. It made me put on a better show. I’ll show you, I’d say to myself when I’d hear them call me ‘Bitch!’ or ‘SOB!’ — two fo my favorite, uh, nicknames,” she wrote in her 2002 autobiography, “The Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle,” written with Larry Platt. The memoir also provided candid insights about the times she spent hanging out with celebrities such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.
Ellison became a mother at 14. She married and divorced five times, and once turned down a proposal from long-time boyfriend and country music singer Hank Williams. She never officially retired from the fighting circuit, despite suffering numerous broken bones over the years, and even wrestled a match on her 80th birthday. In 1995, she became the first woman to be inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame. Her career was later profiled in the 2004 documentary, “Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling.”
When she wasn’t performing or appearing at special events, Ellison was busy training generations of wrestlers at her school on Moolah Drive in Columbia, S.C. One of her most notable students was Katie “Diamond Lil” Glass, a professional midget wrestler who became Ellison’s adopted daughter. Ellison also had six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.