On Monday WWE announced a major new match coming to this year’s WrestleMania. The Fabulous Moolah Memorial Battle Royal was going to be the women’s equivalent to the annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, the next step in WWE’s ongoing “Women’s Revolution” that has seen women’s wrestling become a major part of the company’s programming. Like the men’s battle royal, it would be named after a legendary figure from wrestling’s past who loomed large for generations: the Fabulous Moolah, whose career spanned from the golden age of wrestling, through the WWF’s Hulk Hogan-led national expansion in the 1980s, into the Attitude Era of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.
On Thursday the company announced that they were striking Moolah’s name from the match, after WrestleMania’s sponsor, Snickers, issued a statement about how disappointed they were with the decision.
What happened between Monday and Thursday to change the mind of WWE, a company who usually digs in when faced with criticism? What made America’s favorite nougat, caramel, peanut and chocolate candy bar read WWE the riot act? For that we have to go back decades, to the mid ‘50s, when Moolah (real name: Mary Lillian Ellison) became the de facto leader of American women’s wrestling.
The Fabulous Moolah dominated women’s wrestling in America for decades, holding the women’s world title for all but about a year and a half between 1956 and 1986. She also trained and managed most prominent woman wrestlers during that same time period. During the territorial days she had a tighter stranglehold over her little corner of the wrestling business than perhaps any other person over any aspect of the business at any point in time. When Vincent J. McMahon sold his share of the WWF to his son Vincent K. McMahon, he asked his son to always take care of a handful of loyal employees, one of whom was Moolah. She worked for the WWF throughout the ‘80s, and after retiring still made frequent appearances on WWF programming throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s. On the surface it shouldn’t seem weird for WWE to name a special match after such a notable and long-serving employee, as they did with the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royall.
There’s one thing people now know about Moolah, though, if allegations from multiple former employees and their families are true: she abused her students mentally, emotionally and financially throughout her career, and essentially forced them into sleeping with promoters and wrestlers throughout the country.
This isn’t a secret or a new revelation. Paste ran an article about it last year from David Bixenspan, who has been on top of the current controversy over at Deadspin all week. These stories have circulated for years—this article about the mistreatment and exploitation of wrestler Sweet Georgia Brown (real name: Susie Mae McCoy) was published in 2006, and in 2014 a former protege of Moolah’s named Jeannine “Mad Maxine” Mjoseth told Slam Sports that Moolah “pimped [her students] out”—so it’s impossible that WWE wasn’t aware of them. And yet they named a spotlight match at the biggest wrestling event of the year after Moolah, and aired a video on their TV this week that uncritically praised Moolah as a legend of the business and a “trailblazer” for women in wrestling.
Even if Moolah didn’t effectively steal from and prostitute the women she trained and managed, she was about as far from being a “trailblazer” as possible—she was directly responsible for almost killing off women’s wrestling as a viable part of the industry. In the 1930s and ‘40s women’s wrestling was a big draw throughout America, with wrestlers like Mildred Burke and June Byers competing in athletic matches that more closely resembled what male pro wrestlers were doing in the ring than what Moolah would eventually establish as the standard. When Moolah took over in 1956, American women’s wrestling devolved into a prelim spectacle, collapsing in popularity until it was basically just a sideshow. The mainstream wrestling business is only now getting over the damage Moolah did to the art during her lifetime, with WWE finally portraying women wrestlers as equal to the men in terms of athleticism and significance over the last few years. One reason Japanese women’s wrestling has progressed light years beyond its American cousin over the last 40 or so years is because they didn’t have a Moolah-like figure holding the title into her 60s and enforcing a match style that prioritized gimmicks and comedy over wrestling skill.
So WWE’s so-called “trailblazer” was, at worst, a woman accused of pimping out and stealing from the employees who trusted her, and, at best, the primary reason American women’s wrestling fell off the map and lagged far behind the rest of the industry over the second half of the 20th century. Either way, she’s not the kind of person a company wants to be honoring in 2018.
Unlike a lot of wrestling news, this received significant coverage beyond the wrestling media, from mainstream sports outlets like Deadspin, Bleacher Report and more. It also struck a chord with wrestling fans, who were largely critical of WWE naming the match after Moolah on social media and online comments. Most complaints about WWE rarely break out beyond the wrestling bubble, but this one quickly burst right past that and made a larger mainstream impact.
And that’s when Snickers got involved. On Thursday morning Snickers sent a statement to Wrestling Inc. reporter Raj Giri. It included the following:
“We were recently made aware of the World Wrestling Entertainment Inc’s (WWE) decision to honor a former wrestler during the upcoming WrestleMania 34 event. As a principle-based business that has long championed creating inclusive environments that encourage and empower everyone to reach their full potential, this is unacceptable. We are engaging with the WWE to express our disappointment.”
Within hours WWE announced that the match would now be known as the WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal. This is the same company that repeatedly aired a breathless tribute to accused murderer Jimmy Snuka just months after he was found unfit to stand trial, and who still honors virulent homophobe and all-around asshole the Ultimate Warrior every year with an award that’s often given to sick children. No amount of criticism from the wrestling media has gotten WWE to rename that award or be more thoughtful about who they celebrate. Once the mainstream media weighed in on Moolah, though, sponsors had to take notice, and that’s one critic WWE can’t ignore.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.