Wrestlers, relatives remember 'The Fabulous Moolah'

The epitath on the crypt of former wrestler Mary Lillian "Fabulous Moolah" Ellison at Greenlawn Memorial Park.
The epitath on the crypt of former wrestler Mary Lillian "Fabulous Moolah" Ellison at Greenlawn Memorial Park.

COLUMBIA -- The white casket with gold accents was just flashy enough to carry the wrestler known as The Fabulous Moolah, yet as simple as the hymn that accompanied it down the aisle, "The Old Rugged Cross."

Mary Lillian Ellison, who died last Friday from complications following shoulder surgery, was the first woman to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and held the world's women's championship title for 28 years beginning in 1956.

As friends and relatives gathered in the Dunbar Funeral Home's lobby Wednesday to share stories about the 84-year-old wrestler, it was clear Ellison was as caring as she was tough.

"She was sweet as can be until you crossed her," said Joyce Grable, who began training with Ellison in 1971.

Grable recalled how Ellison held a benefit match to help her and her three children after her husband had a heart attack in 1996. "God took care of me, and so did Lillian."

About 200 people attended the noon service to hear Stephanie McMahon-Levesque, daughter of WWE chief Vince McMahon Jr., deliver the eulogy. McMahon lauded Ellison's accomplishments in the ring and her fortitude in surviving childhood with 12 older brothers.

"I love you, Shane, but I can't imagine having 12 older brothers," she said to her brother, Shane McMahon, who was seated with the family.

She told of the time her grandfather, Vince McMahon Sr., founder of what would become the WWE, surprised a young Ellison with a cake on her birthday.

"She couldn't believe anyone even knew it was her birthday," McMahon-Levesque said. "She felt like she was a part of the McMahon family. And I'd like to say that she is very much a part of the McMahon family. She always will be."

Also with the family was Ellison's daughter, Mary Austin of Conway, her adopted daughter, Katie "Diamond Lil" Glass, and her six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Austin was only a toddler when Ellison began her wrestling career.

"I never looked at her as anyone but Mom," she said at the visitation Tuesday. "She belonged to everybody. She loved her fans, and they loved her."

Austin had dabbled in wrestling, she explained as she adjusted her mother's sparkling pink sweater and placed a Starlite mint in her hands. "But they'd want me to be like her, and who could fill those shoes? You know she's already up there teaching the angels how to fall so they don't get hurt!"

Teaching and looking out for others was a huge part of Ellison's life. Over the years, she taught hundreds of men and women how to wrestle at her school on Moolah Drive in Columbia.

"She fine-tuned every one of us," John "Johnny Z" Ziegler said. "She taught us how to protect ourselves in the ring and financially. She always told us to act professionally and carry ourselves professionally."

For many wrestlers, Ellison was the key to getting a job with the WWE.

"If you wanted to wrestle for McMahon, you had to go through Moolah," former student and trainer Buddy Burke said. "Moolah Drive went all the way to New York."

Her longtime wrestling partner and best friend Johnnie Mae Young and Ellison didn't really believe in retirement. They often appeared at WWE events together until a few years ago.

"She was great inside the ring and out," Young said. "She'd sign autographs after a match as long as there was someone there. She's a great loss to me. There'll never be anyone else like Lil."

Above Ellison's mausoleum in Greenlawn Memorial Park, four columns support a granite block with "Moolah" engraved on it. Below the columns are two tombs. On the left is Glass' future burial place, and on the right is Ellison's tomb. It is adorned with a color photograph of Ellison in her Fabulous Moolah wrestling leotard holding her championship belt, ensuring that she'll be remembered in death by the career that defined her in life.

Earlier, during the service, pastor Rick Kirchinger of Alpine Baptist Church shared his thoughts on what it meant to be a champion, and how that title applied to Ellison.

"She was a champion," he said. "She dedicated her life from a young age to be the dominant force in her profession."

And in the next life, too, perhaps. To the right of Ellison's tomb is an identical one with Johnnie Mae Young's photograph on it. "She'll be waiting up there for me so we can wrestle on her 100th birthday."