William Harrison “Billy” Wolfe (July 4, 1896 – March 7, 1963) was a professional wrestling promoter who was active from the 1930s to the 1950s. Wolfe was the husband and manager of Mildred Burke and ran a traveling troupe of women wrestlers alongside her.
William Harrison "Billy" Wolfe was the second child born to John and Lucinda Wolfe, in Daviess County, Missouri. He was drafted into the military in World War I and began pursuing wrestling at a Kentucky duty station. As a competing middleweight, Wolfe claimed the Missouri State title in 1923, and established himself as a challenger to Charles “Midget” Fischer of Wisconsin. He was revered by his peers for doing whatever was necessary to win a match.
Relocation to Kansas City
He married Margaret Johnson on February 22, 1922 and celebrated their first child, George William Wolfe, known as “Billy Wolfe, Jr.” After the birth of their second child, Violet, the Wolfe family moved to Kansas City. Billy decided to instruct women at his gymnasium. After a divorce from Margaret, Billy married wrestler Barbara Ware, known for competing with men.
Marriage to Mildred Burke
His marriage to Barbara Ware failed. While training aspiring women wrestlers, he was drawn to a young brunette named Mildred Bliss. Bliss, was an office stenographer by day, but had outstanding muscle development, and was hoping to become a wrestler. Wolfe tutored her and realized that she was the prospect for which he was waiting. The close proximity of training resulted in a relationship and ultimately marriage. Changing her name to Mildred Burke, she defeated Clara Mortenson for the Women’s championship in January 1937.
In late 1949, Wolfe joined the National Wrestling Alliance, making his stable of 30 women available to all promoters. At each show, he received a percentage of the gross, and his promotion of women grapplers earned him riches that resulted in extravagant living. On the road, he stood as a father figure to the women he trained and managed, but he also earned reputation as a womanizer. His marriage to Burke was not monogamous, as he enjoyed the companionship of women with whom he traveled.
Tensions emanated from the extramarital activity, and in 1952, Wolfe and Burke went their own ways. Wolfe retaliated as he froze Burke out of wrestling among all NWA channels. Burke consulted Jack Pfefer for help. The Alliance attempted to reconcile the couple and the final result was that one would sell out to the other. Burke actually volunteered to sell for $50,000 but was rebuffed. On January 26, 1953, Wolfe sold to Burke, who created the company Attractions, Inc. The deal was for $30,000, all alimony was waived and Wolfe was barred from participating for five years. The pledge lasted only a few months as Wolfe started promoting wrestling in Columbus, Ohio. Wolfe tempted many grapplers by offering 50 percent of the proceeds. Burke challenged him by offering 60 percent of the proceeds from her promotion but Wolfe settled on the figure of 75 percent.
Controversy over competing promotions
Attractions, Inc. went into bankruptcy and into the hands of receiver James Hoff of Columbus. Eight months later, Hoff named Wolfe as administrator and was approved by Franklin County Judge William Bryant. In a memorandum dated August 20, 1953, Wolfe announced that he was the booker for Burke and her stable of 27 wrestlers.
Burke disputed this claim on August 26, 1953, stating that the issue was settled in the courts. She stated that her contract prohibited Wolfe from competing in wrestling and was in breach of the binding agreement. Aligning herself with Leroy McGuirk, she hoped to be vindicated by the Alliance at their September 1953 meeting in Chicago. The result was that the Alliance declined to recognize women’s wrestling. Wolfe had regained his stake. The result was that his son’s wife June Byers (real name DeAlva Eyvonnie Sibley), was touted as world champ following a tournament in Baltimore. Wolfe’s girlfriend Nell Stewart was recognized as Women’s U.S. Titleholder. Many women were loyal to Burke and refused to wrestle for Wolfe.
Discrediting Mildred Burke
Despite the fact that the NWA declined to recognize women’s wrestling, the Alliance was still at the center of many conflicts between Wolfe and Burke. In a letter to Alliance members on November 4, 1953, Burke refuted Wolfe’s claim that she would wrestle only one woman grappler.
Despite listing 12 grapplers that she would work with, Wolfe used his influence to get her frozen from NWA members. The result was that her run in the Southeast with Cowboy Luttrall and Paul Jones in 1954 fizzled. Adding insult to injury, Burke wrestled Wolfe’s daughter-in-law June Byers. The match took place on August 20, 1954 in Atlanta and the match was a shoot. By having the local commission in his corner, Wolfe slid a friendly referee into the match. Despite giving up the first fall with the intention of competing stronger in the second, Burke never had the opportunity. Officials called the match, and the second fall never had a finish.
Burke left the ring believing that her title was safe because she had not lost two falls. Many in the press stated that Byers had defeated her and the image of Burke’s championship was tarnishing. Wolfe had done everything possible to discredit Burke and the result was one of the nastiest rivalries in wrestling history.
Death and legacy
Wolfe maintained membership in the Alliance until 1957 and promoted women’s wrestling until his death. Near Opal, Virginia, Wolfe became sick and was taken to Fauquier Hospital in Warrenton where he died. His funeral was in Newark, Ohio and was attended by a number of his peers and a number of women grapplers. Billy Wolfe, Jr. died on August 8, 1964 in Newark.
Negative stories about Wolfe by the women who wrestled for him are legion. In her autobiography Lillian Ellison (aka The Fabulous Moolah) recalls his extreme chauvinism (he turned to managing women wrestlers only after failing as a wrestler and as a manager of male wrestlers), his financial misdealings and routine sexual harassment of his "girls" before, during and after his marriage to Mildred Burke. Due to his managerial contract with her he was able to leave Burke penniless when she divorced him, taking all of their marital assets and leaving her with nothing to show for decades of hundreds of wrestling matches per year. The horror stories of Wolfe led to the success of the far more ethical manager Jack Pfeffer and of Moolah herself. In her autobiography, Moolah ultimately felt great sorrow for Wolfe because of the number of personal tragedies he suffered later in life. Despite being highly criticized for his morals, Wolfe was responsible for making women’s wrestling profitable. Instead of being viewed as a sideshow, Wolfe tried to make it respectable. Part of Wolfe’s contributions to women’s wrestling was the creation of a tag team title and the integration of African-American wrestlers.
- National Wrestling Alliance, The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling, p. 290, Tim Hornbaker, ECW Press, 2007, ISBN 1-55022-741-6
- SLAM Wrestling
- National Wrestling Alliance, The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling, p. 291, Tim Hornbaker, ECW Press, 2007, ISBN 1-55022-741-6
- Ellison, Lillian. First Goddess of the Squared Circle, p.44–46.
- National Wrestling Alliance, The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling, p. 292, Tim Hornbaker, ECW Press, 2007, ISBN 1-55022-741-6
- Ellison, Lillian. First Goddess of the Squared Circle, p.51.
- National Wrestling Alliance, The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling, p. 293, Tim Hornbaker, ECW Press, 2007, ISBN 1-55022-741-6