By Neil Genzlinger
Shelly Adams and her siblings were playing in the basement of their home in Columbus, Ohio, with the television on in the background. Their mother was off at work. The children had only the vaguest idea what she did for a living, since she didn’t talk about her job much.
The children interrupted their play when they noticed a familiar-looking figure on the television screen.
“We stood there — ‘Does that look like Mom on TV?’” Adams recalled. Then came a close-up, “and we just started screaming.”
Adams tells that story in a new documentary whose title gives an idea of just how surprising the moment must have been. The film, by Chris Bournea, is called “Lady Wrestler: The Amazing, Untold Story of African-American Women in the Ring.”
Their mother, who wrestled under the name Ethel Johnson, was one of the stars of a professional wrestling circuit that, beginning in the early 1950s, put black women in the ring, capitalizing on the success of white female wrestlers like Mildred Burke.
The period was one of several so-called golden ages of professional wrestling (others came in more recent decades as the sport grew ever more gaudy), but one that is an increasingly hazy memory. Perhaps that is why Johnson’s death on Sept. 14, 2018, in Columbus drew scant attention beyond a brief notice in The Columbus Dispatch and mentions on some wrestling websites.
Adams said her mother died of heart disease. She was 83.
Johnson was born Ethel Blanche Wingo on May 14, 1935, in Decatur, Georgia, to Gladys Chase and Clifford Wingo. She was one of three wrestling sisters.
In Bournea’s documentary, she says she was about 12 when she first began going to the gym where her older sister, Betty (ring name: Babs Wingo), had begun wrestling. When she turned pro in about 1950, she took the stage name Ethel Johnson to distinguish herself from her sister, who turned pro at about the same time; they would often wrestle each other, though many in the crowd were unaware of their connection. Their younger sister, Marva (ring name: Marva Scott), soon got into the business as well.
Johnson (who outside wrestling was known by her married name, Hairston) signed on with Billy Wolfe, a promoter who had been building up the women’s circuit since the 1930s and was married for a time to Burke. In the documentary, Jeff Leen, author of “The Queen of the Ring,” a 2009 book about Burke, says that Wolfe took notice of the surge in interest in major league baseball when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and hoped he could copy it by introducing black women into what had been a white sport.
“Billy Wolfe was always looking for, ‘What’s the thing I can do that’s going to create excitement?'” Leen says in the film.
Although the bouts themselves were rarely interracial, Johnson and her sisters traveled a vast circuit with the other women in the Wolfe fold. Wrestling was popular in Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest, but Bournea, in a telephone interview, said there was also widespread interest in Canada, Japan, Australia and elsewhere.
The “lady wrestlers” (as Wolfe called them, hoping to capitalize on their glamour as well as their muscle) also toured the South, and Johnson experienced the same discrimination that jazz musicians, actors and other entertainers did during the Jim Crow period.
Johnson could certainly do the glamour thing. “One of matdom’s local lovelies,” one newspaper account called her. “The Negro Venus of lady wrestling,” said another. But in the ring she was a dynamo, albeit a small one. She was 5-foot-5 and, for much of her career, 115 pounds; her opponents were generally considerably heavier and taller.
“That’s lots of wear and tear on your body,” Johnson, interviewed by Bournea not long before her death, says in the documentary, “because you’re hauling heavy people, so you’ve got to find a way to compensate for that, which I did by working fast, working quick.”
As a newspaper account put it: “Ethel’s so small compared to some of her opponents that she’s got to be fast to keep from getting squashed. ‘I can get in two licks to their one,’ sez she.”
Johnson said that when she first began dropping by the gym, her older sister and other wrestlers would use her for practice.
“They would really experiment on me,” she said.
But she was soon learning the moves herself. She said she put in three hours a day at the gym. She and her older sister also picked up tumbling and defensive judo techniques at the Columbus YMCA to help them execute falls, flips and such. When they faced each other, Ethel was usually the heroic figure, Babs the villain.
“Johnson, the more naturally athletic of the two, used standing drop-kicks and a version of the flying head scissors, so she worked as a babyface to Wingo’s heel,” the women’s wrestling website diva-dirt.com wrote earlier this year. “Babs would use more of a mat-based style, including an arm wringer or other basic holds, but they were both ahead of their time. They were definitely worlds above the hair pulling and slapping women’s wrestling regressed into later.”
Johnson retired in 1976, when she was 41, according to the film. Her sisters both died in 2003. Her husband, Leon Hairston, died in 2010. In addition to Adams, she is survived by two other daughters, Pamela Coleman and Nina Whitehead; a son, Leon Jr.; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Bournea first learned about Johnson in 2006 when he wrote an article about her for ThisWeek Community News, an affiliate of The Dispatch. Among the people he interviewed for that article was Penny Banner, a fellow wrestler, who said of Johnson, “That girl could stand still and drop-kick you in the face.”
Bournea, whose film will be shown on Dec. 15 at the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit, said that in person Johnson was soft-spoken and reserved. In the ring, she was something else entirely.
“She was really a powerhouse,” he said. “They called her a hurricane.”