Johnnie Mae Young was an amateur wrestler on her high school's boys' wrestling team at the age of fifteen. Her brothers Fred, Eugen, Lawarence, and Everett taught her to wrestle and helped her join the team. She was the youngest of eight children (one died at birth). Her mother Lilly Mae Young was a single mother (her partner left to find work and never returned) living during the Great Depression. Young's oldest sister Inie was severely disabled by whooping cough at a very young age. Young also played softball with Tulsa's national championship team. While still in high school, Young went to a professional wrestling show and challenged then-champion Mildred Burke when she visited Tulsa to wrestle Gladys Gillem. Because the promoters told her she could not wrestle the champion, she wrestled Gillem in a shoot fight, beating her within seconds. After the fight, promoter Billy Wolfe wanted Young to become a professional wrestler. She left home two years later to wrestle professionally.
In 1941, Young, along with Mildred Burke, opened up Canada for female wrestling. In Canada, they worked for Stu Hart. She was wrestling in Memphis, Tennessee on December 7, 1941, the day that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, which led to the United States entering World War II. During the war, Young helped women take advantage of the fact that the men were fighting overseas by expanding their role in the sport.
She fought under the nicknames of "The Queen" and "The Great Mae Young", but she used her real name for most of her matches. During the 1950s, she wrestled for Mildred Burke's World Women's Wrestling Association (WWWA). In 1954, Young and Burke were some of the first females to tour Japan after the war. In 1951, she became the National Wrestling Alliance's (NWA) first Florida Women's Champion. Five years later in September 1956, she participated in the battle royal to determine the new NWA World Women's Champion after June Byers was stripped of the title, but the championship was won by Young's friend The Fabulous Moolah. In 1968, she became the NWA's first United States Women's Champion.
As an instructor, her students included Ric "The Equalizer" Drasin and The Fabulous Moolah.
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