Most professional wrestling matches begin and end without controversy. Ever so
often, there is a bout that doesn't go as one of the wrestlers or promoters planned, and
becomes wrestling lore. Among them are Gorgeous George-Don Eagle from 1950 and
the more modern double-cross, Bret Hart-Shawn Michaels from 1997. In 1954, there
was a match between Mildred Burke and June Byers that also figures onto this rare list.
The evidence will be examined with a look at the various players and their motivations.
One of the keys to this study is the interview Mildred Burke did with Department of
Justice investigator Stanley Disney on March 23, 1955. Burke, it is assumed, spoke
with some level of candidness in this conversation, but all things will be taken into
consideration. Including that fact that she was a woman scorned with a complete
I'd like to say that Jeff Leen's book on Mildred Burke should be consulted for a full
synopsis of women's wrestling and this situation. It is a terrific resource.
A quick back story of this match involves the relationship of Mildred Burke with the
booker of women's wrestlers for the NWA, Billy Wolfe. Wolfe had a strong monopoly
over the girl grappling field, and with Burke leading the way, turned what was mostly
considered to be a sideshow into, well, less of a sideshow. It was still perceived to be
more entertaining and colorful than men's matches.
Wolfe was known as being very friendly with the ladies under his care, and the
difficulties in their marriage soon became too much to continue. Wolfe and Burke
divorced on bad terms in February 1953, but because Wolfe was still booking women
wrestlers, and his ex-wife was the undisputed champion, something had to be done
from Wolfe's perspective. His push of Nell Stewart and June Byers was implemented.
At the same time, the "boys club" that was the National Wrestling Alliance sided with
Wolfe, after all he was a member, and recognized his endeavors while Burke lost her
voice in the business. She tried to keep as prominent as possible, but was quickly
overshadowed by the efforts of Wolfe and his connections throughout the Alliance. To
say that Burke and Wolfe hated each other at this point would be an understatement.
Late in their relationship, there was a claim by the woman wrestler that she had been
beaten up by Wolfe and his son, Billy Jr.
Wolfe then created a new Women's Championship on April 14, 1953 when a
tournament was staged in Baltimore and backed by the Maryland State Athletic
Commission. That night, the wife of Wolfe's son, June Byers went over Wolfe's
girlfriend (and future wife), Nell Stewart in the finals to capture the championship,
beginning a new lineage. At you can see, Billy was keeping the hierarchy of women's
wrestling in his "family."
In her interview with Disney, Burke explained that she "wouldn't have had a chance in
such a tournament." The value of her name and reputation across North America was
still somewhat valuable, and Burke tried to protect it by putting an advertisement in the
NWA Official Wrestling Magazine. However, the editors of the magazine changed her
advertisement to show that her championship lineage extended from "1937-1953," and
then ran an announcement that June Byers was the new women's world champion
through her tournament victory. Burke then sued the magazine, but it had since gone
out of business.
It was crucial for Burke to create a traveling troupe of women wrestlers similar to what
Wolfe had been doing, and continue making appearances as the rightful claimant to the
championship. She had never been defeated. In February 1954, she formed a group
with Cowboy Luttrall of Tampa and Don McIntyre of Atlanta, and organized 12 women
grapplers to tour with. However, at the same time, Wolfe was still actively writing
letters to NWA members telling them to avoid using Burke. In affect, she was being
Burke's opportunities were few and far between at this point. Very strong and skilled,
she was able to defend herself in the ring, and having been in the ring with June Byers
and Nell Stewart many times before, Burke wasn't concerned that either one of them
could take her in a straight match.
She sent out a letter to NWA members in November 1953 that rebuked the idea that
she'd only wrestle a single girl grappler. In turn, she listed the women she'd "be very
happy to work with," and listed Byers and Stewart as number one and two.
Behind-the-scenes, Wolfe worked with McIntyre and Atlanta's NWA Member Paul
Jones to arrange a match between Burke and Byers to be held on August 20, 1954.
Results of the 1953 Tournament in Baltimore:
Baltimore, Maryland: Tuesday, April 14, 1953
(The Coliseum) … Women’s Wrestling Tournament for World Championship … June
Byers b. Lilly Bitter (22:00) … Nell Stewart b. Gloria Shelton (9:00) … Violet Viann b.
Joyce Ford (10:00) … Ida May Martinez b. Mary Jane Mull (14:00) … June Byers b.
Violet Viann (14:00) … Nell Stewart b. Ida May Martinez (12:00) … June Byers b. Nell
Stewart to capture the Women’s World Title (5:00) … (promoter: Ed Contos)
Notes: Byers was said to be 27-years old and a veteran of 1,200 matches. After she’d
won the tournament, Jim Holmes, chairman of the Maryland State Athletic Commission
presented her with the championship belt. The Baltimore Sun newspaper stated that
Byers’ victory was an upset. It also stated that “Early in the day, a telegram signed by
Miss Mildred Burke criticized arrangements made for the tournament. The wire said, in
part: Congratulations to Ed Contos for promoting a tournament in which Nell Stewart
is to win from nobody. I wrestled Nell Stewart last year in seven matches for the title
and defeated her seven straight falls. These were the last matches she wrestled me.
No champion in history has ever defended his title that many times in succession
against one opponent. This wire is dated and timed before the Baltimore tournament.
Donna Marie Dieckman tried to enter the tournament but was denied.” Contos
reportedly said that there were several claimants to the heavyweight title and he
arranged the tournament to clarify the situation. He mentioned Lillian Ellison, Clara
Mortenson and Mildred Burke as being claimants. The newspaper article stated that
“each contestant looked as if she should visit a beauty parlor at the conclusion of each
|Mildred Burke vs. June Byers, 1954, Atlanta