AJW to The Burke: Mildred Burke’s Legacy Continues To Shine

Mildred Burke
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Earlier this week, it was revealed in a story by Sports Illustrated that Billy Corgan, frontman for Smashing Pumpkins and owner of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), had secured the original Women’s World Championship belt originally held by Mildred Burke, pro wrestling’s original game-changer for women in pro wrestling. The belt will be on display at NWA events over the weekend for NWA’s all-women PPV, EmPowerrr, and NWA 73 as Corgan told SI “I want to share the belt with the public…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.”

Mildred Burke won the Women’s World Championship in 1937 and after winning it a second time later that year, went on to hold it until 1953. Despite wrestling and defending the title in the NWA territories upon the NWA creation in 1948, the NWA never officially recognized a women’s world title during Burke’s nearly 20-year reign. It wasn’t until June Byers defeated Burke in a controversial fashion (similar to the Montreal Screwjob of 1997) that the NWA Women’s World Championship was officially created, and in the fallout, Burke was blackballed for the most part in the NWA and United States. Burke retained her championship for her own purposes, creating the World Women’s Wrestling Association (WWWA) and creating the WWWA World Championship. She defended her new title in Las Vegas for NWA Los Angeles in May of 1954, but after that, her U.S. bookings ceased to exist thanks to the work of her ex-husband Billy Wolfe (who ran the women’s scene until his death in the 1960s) and later, The Fabulous Moolah. In November of 1954, she headed to Japan with her WWWA girls, including Mae Young, Ruth Boatcallie, Gloria Barattini, and a couple of others, where they did a week-long tour, drawing up to 15,000 spectators a night. She returned to the U.S., but with promoters refusing to promote her, she finally retired from the ring in 1956, emotionally exhausted from her constant blockades in her career.

But her week-long tour of Japan proved to be one of the countries most important wrestling exhibitions, with Burke’s no-nonsense approach to strength, conditioning, and technical prowess laying the groundwork for the rising Joshi movement in Japan. All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling (AJW) began in 1968, and when they rebranded their titles in 1970, they were introduced as WWWA titles (with Burke’s blessing, as they had allegedly bought the rights from Burke), with their top title, the WWWA World Single Championship, modeled after Mildred Burke’s title, complete with its red leather strap. With Mildred Burke a near-forgotten revolutionary in the early 1970s in the U.S., in Japan she was considered a visionary on the same pedestal as Rikodozan. The WWWA World title remained AJW’s top prize until the company folded in 2005, and the first Women’s World title to pay tribute to the legacy of Mildred Burke.  AJW’s WWWA title was then the inspiration for a new company’s top title, when Stardom introduced their own “Red Belt”, the World of Stardom Championship, in 2011. A spiritual successor to AJW’s top title, it became the second belt in the legacy line of Mildred Burke, and one that is still defended today in Stardom.

Today, thanks in large part to Billy Corgan, the NWA is finally acknowledging Burke’s influence in pro wrestling history, with the NWA World Women’s Championship now nicknamed “The Burke” in Mildred’s honor. In 1996, oddly enough, Mildred Burke’s first Hall of Fame induction came in the form of the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame, followed in 2002 by the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, and in 2016 by WWE. And now that Corgan has secured Burke’s original Women’s World title from her near 20-year reign as the benchmark for women’s pro wrestling in its early days, it’s a safe bet that Mildred Burke will finally get the recognition from fans around the world that only historians and Japan have revered for so many decades.

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