One of pro wrestling’s trailblazers is about to receive the recognition she deserves.
The late Mildred Burke set the standard for women in the industry, overcoming atrocious amounts of degradation and discrimination to become a genuine star. She perfected the craft and headlined over men during the height of her popularity, an incredible rise to extraordinary heights after her start at Midwestern carnivals. But despite her run of fame, Burke went on to suffer the greatest indignity of all, which was to be written out of history.
Yet Burke, who died in 1989, is a forgotten pioneer no longer, as Billy Corgan and the National Wrestling Alliance have acquired Burke’s championship title belt.
“As it pertains to female wrestling on the international stage, it begins with Mildred Burke,” says Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkins frontman who is the owner and president of the NWA. “She is the one who defined it, and we are still in her shadow.
“A title defines a wrestler’s journey. In many ways, it is the source of their power. In Burke’s case, it was proof that she accomplished a feat extremely rare. This secures that her legacy and story will be told going forward.”
The NWA women’s championship is already referred to as “The Burke,” and Corgan now plans to further highlight her and restore her legacy. Burke’s championship belt will be on display in the ring at the NWA’s upcoming all-women EmPowerrr pay-per-view later this month before the women’s title match, which features emerging star Kamille defending the title against AEW’s Leyla Hirsch.
Though she is a WWE Hall of Famer, Burke entered posthumously without much fanfare five years ago as a “Legacy” member. Her life story is told in striking detail by Washington Post investigative editor Jeff Leen, who wrote the superb book The Queen of the Ring. Equally fascinating and heartbreaking, the story delves into her abusive relationship with wrestling promoter Billy Wolfe, who for a stretch of time single-handedly held all of the power in women’s wrestling. Once their relationship ended, so did her opportunities in the NWA.
The NWA as a governing body never recognized Burke’s title. She performed in an NWA ring as a champion all across North America, but she was never an official NWA champion because there was never an official NWA women’s championship. The story is sordid and captivating, ultimately reaching its crescendo when Wolfe demanded that Burke drop her title. She objected, and this is what led to the critical moment of her career, a real fight in the ring against June Byers, Wolfe’s daughter-in-law. This was the 1954 version of the “Montreal Screwjob,” and, regardless of what transpired in the ring, Burke was destined to lose.
Since the NWA was a factor in the decision to box Burke out of the industry, Corgan takes great pride in restoring her legacy.
“I want to share the belt with the public,” says Corgan, who intends to restore it to its original design. “So many of wrestling’s treasures aren’t on display. This was a rare opportunity to reclaim a very important piece of the NWA’s past. Burke’s legacy runs so deep, and we intend to embrace her journey overcoming endless obstacles to rise to absolute heights on the world stage.”
Corgan acquired the belt from Burke’s granddaughter, Wendy Koep. Though there was great interest in her grandmother’s belt, she believes it is best served to have Corgan as its guide, especially considering Corgan’s goal is not simply to own the belt, but rather to magnify its symbolism and highlight Burke’s role in creating a space for women in pro wrestling.
“My father worked so hard to get her the recognition she deserved, so this is very meaningful,” says Koep, who is working on her grandmother’s memoir, which could be released as soon as 2022. “I’m so happy that the NWA is going to take such good care of the belt. It was just sitting in a safe in my storage unit. There were so many people who were so interested in it, and that’s when Billy got ahold of me. He is the right person to have the belt and take care of her legacy.”
Honoring that legacy will be a prominent feature of the NWA moving forward, as Burke is an indispensable feature of pro wrestling history, a founding mother of professional wrestling.
“Mildred’s story is so timely,” said Corgan. “Everything we are currently seeing, whether it’s women main-eventing Dynamite on national television or Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair headline at WrestleMania, it all goes back to one person, and that’s Mildred Burke.
“As steward of this legacy, it’s our responsibility to honor how we got here. She connects to the history of the NWA, which we are reinventing in the 21st century, so we’re doing more than just restoring her legacy. She’s riding shotgun with us.”
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.