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» WrestlingClassics.com Message Board » Professional Wrestling & General Discussion '99-June '07 » Ethel Johnson

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Zarr Zanyo
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An intresting article from the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch , about Ethel Johnson. Photos at the bottom.

A body-slamming success
Hard work helped Columbus woman make name for herself as wrestling pioneer

Thursday, March 02, 2006
Stories by Chris Bournea
THISWEEK NEWSPAPERS


Long before the flashy World Wrestling Entertainment was created, a Columbus native was blazing a trail in the ring.

Ethel Johnson battled sexual and racial discrimination as a professional wrestler during the 1950s and ’60s.

"It was hard to be there, really, because everybody thought women were supposed to be at home, cooking," recalled Ethel Johnson Hairston, as she is known today.

She joined other pioneering women in central Ohio — including Ramona Israel, Lula Mae Provo and Marva Scott — to help make female professional wrestling respectable.

Women’s freestyle wrestling, recognized by the Olympics in 2004, will make its debut this year at the Arnold Sports Festival, to take place Friday through Sunday in Columbus.

At age 15 in 1950, Johnson was inspired to wrestle by her older sister, ‘‘Babs" Wingo (since deceased), who trained at a popular Downtown gym.

‘‘I was watching her working out and decided just to work out, too," she said. "I used to go to the matches and watch them. That’s when they had the old Memorial Hall on Broad Street, and they would give everybody passes to go down there."

At 5 feet 5 inches but only 115 pounds, Johnson — who adopted a stage name over her maiden name, Wingo — worked out three hours a day to compete against much larger rivals.

Like her fellow wrestlers, without the advanced equipment that athletes have at their disposal these days, she endured a grueling regimen.

"I remember we had these old-fashioned ‘roll-it’ machines, where you rolled it, and then you had this big, old medicine ball," she said. "Everybody was punching you in the stomach. It was hard."

Penny Banner, who last year became the fourth woman inducted into the National Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, called Johnson one of her toughest opponents.

"That girl could stand still and drop-kick you in the face," said Banner, who lives in St. Louis.

Johnson was small but feisty, said Banner, who counts the first American Wrestling Association women’s championship among her titles.

"She was constantly on you. I was larger . . . (5 feet 8 and 160 pounds at the height of her career), and I was stronger, . . . but she was on me."

Johnson entered the ring during what fans consider the golden age of women’s wrestling — the 1950s through the ’70s.

She never achieved the fame of other pioneers such as Banner; Mildred Burke; or the Fabulous Moolah, whose exploits are chronicled in the 2004 documentary Lipstick & Dynamite, **** & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling.

Yet, because she was wellrespected in the ring, Johnson benefited from similar promotions: Like other female wrestlers of the day, she competed in bathing suits and was depicted in pinup poses.

She is amused by the pageantry and spectacle of modern professional wrestling.

In her time, she said, wrestling was more about athleticism.

"They had show in there, but you still had to be able to perform because, if they can take your head off, they’re going to take it off."

Unlike male wrestlers, Johnson and the others were sometimes denied licenses to compete.

New York and California for a time banned female wrestling and boxing.

"They were outlawed there because they felt like girls were indecent to do that," she said. "It didn’t stop people from trying, because everybody’s dream was Madison Square Garden."

She never reached Madison Square Garden but challenged black and white opponents in every state except New York and California.

Having been raised in Ohio, Johnson struggled to adjust to segregation during trips to the South.

"It wasn’t an easy time," she said. "The white girls who would go down there with us, they’d go to jail for being in the same car with you. You couldn’t even be on the sidewalk. If a white person was on the sidewalk, you had to get off."

Because of whites-only policies at hotels, black wrestlers often had to stay in the homes of other blacks when traveling in the South.

Her peers, however, refused to be cowed by racism, Hairston recalled.

They forfeited a match in Springfield, Mo., because black patrons were refused admission.

"At first we thought it was because the house was too full, but we looked out there" and saw that blacks were being turned away, she said.

"We decided that we weren’t going to work no more if they weren’t going to let them in."

The fortitude that such wrestlers displayed outside the ring, Banner said, bolstered their athletic prowess.

"All those girls deserve recognition," she said. "They were the pioneers. Them being ‘colored’ — I want to use the right term of the era — they really broke some real taboos. They had such courage and such get-up-and-go about them. I just really admired them."

Even though many of her bouts were out of state, Johnson was never away for more than a couple of weeks at a time from her husband, Leon, and their four children — who weren’t told much about her career.

"They didn’t see you going out here, people slamming you down," she said. "You didn’t want them to be afraid of what you did."

Like her siblings, daughter Shelly Adams had only a vague notion of what their mom did for a living and no desire to go into her line of work.

"We were aware that she was wrestling, but we never saw wrestling, never went to any of her matches," said Adams, 43. "She never brought her work home."

When she hung up her shoes in 1976 at 41, Johnson was content to focus on her roles as a wife and mother.

"I stopped because they were becoming teenagers," she said. "I figured it was time for me to come on home and look at a different life."

Athletes such as Johnson and Tricia Saunders, who will become the first female inductee in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in June, have paved the way for countless young women, said Brian Nicola, head wrestling coach at West High School in Columbus.

His team, which includes three female athletes, recently won the City League championship.

"There are middle schoolers who look to my girls for inspiration," Nicola said. "They’re hungry for role models."

Despite the lack of role models at the time and other obstacles, Hairston looks back on her career with fondness.

"We loved it," she said. "We ate it; we slept it; we talked about it. It was our life."

cbournea@thisweeknews.com

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Still a force to be reckoned with: Ethel Johnson Hairston in 2006
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[ 03-02-2006, 01:13 PM: Message edited by: Zarr Zanyo ]

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doc
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For many more important reasons than the fact that I own a poster on which she's featured, I'm glad that Ethel Johnson is still around; she's one of the people whose inner strength triumphed over the vile treatment meted out by her own country, and I'm in awe of her (and many others') extraordinary dignity and grace.

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"All we have left is our memories, Lou. It's all we have."
--Count Billy Varga to Lou Thesz at a long-ago CAC banquet at the Sportsmens Lodge in Sherman Oaks, California

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Zarr Zanyo
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Doc: I went back and added some photos to the post, after I originally posted the text. There is a poster included. Is it the one you have?
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Mark from WA
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I remember reading about her & Marva Scott having matches back in the 70s (in the wrestling magazines).

Excellent story.

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I've been loved and put aside
I've been crushed by the tumbling tide

And my soul has been... psychedelicized

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Ken Viewer
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Zarr, thanks for posting the article and the photos.

Ken

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Crimson Mask I
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I never knew she and Babs Wingo were sisters. Hard to imagine now what the black girl wrestlers had to put up with back then. Just being a black entertainer was plenty, let alone female and a wrestler.

So long from the Sunshine State!

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Cincinnati Kid
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I saw her and Babs Wingo in a tagteam match against Lola LaRay and another girl at the Cincinnati Gardens in late 1959. I didn't know they were sisters, either.
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doc
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quote:
Originally posted by Zarr Zanyo:
Doc: I went back and added some photos to the post, after I originally posted the text. There is a poster included. Is it the one you have?

No, Zarr. I have one for a match that took place in Boston. I'd give you the exact locale and date, but I'm away from my office--out of town--and will be 'til June.

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"All we have left is our memories, Lou. It's all we have."
--Count Billy Varga to Lou Thesz at a long-ago CAC banquet at the Sportsmens Lodge in Sherman Oaks, California

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mike zim
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Looks like she's on Facebook.
I just sent her mail, wondering if she remembers my dad.
wildbillzim.com
Mike

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mike zim

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