After more than three decades, ring veteran Debbie Johnson breaks her silence on her amazing career… and shares memories of the Fabulous Moolah and others that you have NEVER heard before!
Shooting with Debbie Johnson
by Shiai Mata
For anyone familiar with women’s professional wrestling in the 1970s, the name of Debbie Johnson is immediately recognizable. She wrestled many of the biggest stars of the era, appeared in the classic ‘drama-mentary,’ WRESTLING QUEEN, and made history in 1972 by helping to break down the barrier against women’s matches in New York City, with her memorable world title match against the Fabulous Moolah before nearly 25,000 fans at Shea Stadium.
At the height of her career, Debbie left wrestling, and hasn’t looked back… until now.
In an exclusive conversation with LadySports Online, Debbie now shares her unvarnished, cut-to-the bone recollections about her years in the sport. She doesn’t hesitate to assert the truth as she saw it, and to reveal her honest feelings. This is an interview that will be talked about for years to come!
LadySports: Debbie, why don’t you get us going by telling us about how you got into wrestling?
Debbie: I was born and raised in a small town just south of Louisville, Kentucky, called Fairdale. My Aunt Mary started taking me to the wrestling matches when I was about 11, and I was so fascinated by it. And the first time I saw women, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was always kind of a tomboy type, and I thought, ‘What a way to make a living… I could beat the hell out of people and get paid to do it!’ I first entered into the sport at the age of 15. I was trained by Moolah at her school in Columbia, South Carolina. I trained only for two weeks, and went out for my first match! That very first match was in Mobile, Alabama, and it was a 9 girl battle royal. I remember walking out to the ring and looking around at all of the people in the arena, and all of a sudden I was terrified. I was always a little shy, and they were all looking at me!
LadySports: What led you from Kentucky to Moolah’s camp?
Debbie: Actually, it was because of one of the guys who wrestled regularly in Louisville… Dennis Hall. I used to bug the hell out of the guys, and finally Dennis gave me Moolah’s address and I wrote her. And she called a couple of weeks later, and off I went! She made it sound so great that I just had to go.
Little did I know what I was really getting myself into. I was so young and dumb about life in general, but I grew up very fast, and I was really good at keeping my mouth shut at first, and I listened very well, too.
I learned very fast that I had gotten into a world I knew nothing about, and was a little intimidated by it all. But I learned that if I was going to survive, I had to toughen up… fast!
LEARNING THE ROPES
LadySports: When you first began, were there any other wrestlers whom you patterned yourself after?
Debbie: No, not really. I was always kind of a rebel with my own cause… I was very unique in that I didn’t want to be like anyone, I just wanted to make my own mark in the business, and be known for me, and not as anyone else.
But if I had to say that I looked up to anyone else in the wrestling world, it would have to be Penny Banner.
LadySports: So you didn’t follow anyone else’s ring style?
Debbie: No, I was very much my own person, and wanted to create my own style. I never planned anything, I was just a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kinda gal… whatever felt good at the time is what I did. That’s why I stayed in trouble with Moolah so much. I was famous for not following her rules.
THE FABULOUS ONE
LadySports: Let’s talk about your relationship with the Fabulous Moolah, and what it was like to work for her.
Debbie: That’s easy. Moolah… first of all, she was just plain evil. Never trusted her or liked her very much. She took advantage of all who worked for her, in many ways. People think it was all glamorous… Moolah managed to make a lot of people think she was some kind of goddess… but nothing could be further from the truth.
I feel it’s way past time for the real truth to come out. I am not saying that everyone was treated the way I was. In fact, some were treated very well. I think part of it was because I was so young, and they thought I would always do what I was told to do. And I did for a long time, but when I saw others being treated differently from the way I was treated, it really pissed me off.
IN NAME ONLY
LadySports: One really can’t talk about Debbie Johnson without mentioning another wrestler from that era, Dottie Downs. She, of course, is your mother… but things were a bit more complex than that, weren’t they?
Debbie: Yes, she is my mother, but we haven’t spoken in years. She is my mother and I will always respect her as such, but I don’t have any contact with her. She was never a real mother… my grandmother raised me.
She was never supportive of me in anything I did. She was very much a ‘ME’ type of person. It was always about her. My mother had four children and gave us all away, so you can see why I don’t have a lot of love for her.
ON THE ROAD
LadySports: Where were some of the places you had wrestled?
Debbie: I worked all over the United States and Canada, and I went to Puerto Rico for six weeks once. I’d love to go back, it’s a beautiful place.
I was scheduled to go to Japan in the mid-70s; I got all of the shots and all that, and a week before I was supposed to go, the trip was cancelled. I was very upset, to say the least.
LadySports: And who were some of the women you worked with?
Debbie: I faced some of the best in the business… Moolah, Paula Kaye, Peggy Patterson, Donna Christianello, Toni Rose, Lilly Thomas, the White Venus, Vivian Vachon, and many others. I fought just about everyone in that era, and I can’t really say there’s anyone else I can wanted to face whom I didn’t. I won some and lost some, but it was always interesting, and a learning experience.
I did tag some, and if I had to pick the women that I seemed to be partnered up with the most, it would probably be Vicki Williams and Susan Green.
I usually worked as a face, but did get to heel a couple of times. But I was so used to being the ‘good guy’, it was a little harder for me to be the heel.
LadySports: Who would you say was your toughest opponent ever?
Debbie: I think the toughest one would be Toni Rose. She had a punch that could knock a horse out!
LadySports: Did any of your rivalries ever get down to a personal level?
Debbie: Yes, I had a few matches with Vivian Vachon that got heated, because she had worked for Moolah at one time, and had dated one of her nephews. And I was dating him later, at the time I was wrestling with Vachon, and she found out about it. From that day forward, she saw me as the enemy, so every match we had after that was SERIOUS. That’s how I got my first black eye!
LadySports: Were you ever seriously injured in the ring?
Debbie: Nothing really serious. A few broken fingers, a sprained ankle, and a couple of black eyes, but that’s about it.
LadySports: What were some of the other wrestlers you worked with the most like?
Debbie: Susan Green was a young dynamite type, but we were good friends. She was and still is a force to be dealt with! And Peggy Patterson was another person that I became friends with, even though we wrestled against each other many times; that was our job, but out of the ring it was difficult to make friends other than with the people you wrestled with and against. There was so much traveling involved it made it hard to make friends with the ‘real’ people. I was probably closest to Peggy, Susan and Paula Kaye.
LadySports: And did you ever have a bad fan encounter?
Debbie: Yes! While in Canada I was wrestling Vachon, and of course it was on her turf, so I was automatically the bad guy. And a fan kicked me right between the eyes! He left me with two big black eyes, and they hurt like hell.
THE MAIN EVENTER
LadySports: September the 30th of 1972 was the date of one of the most epic events in wrestling in t hat era, when the WWWF hosted its ‘Super Card’ at Shea Stadium in New York. You challenged the Fabulous Moolah for her title in the co-main event. Does that night still remain memorable for you?
Debbie: Yes… I remember it well. It was an outdoor card, and it was freezing cold… there was ice on the mat, in the ring, and it was so hard just to try to stand up! And even though the match didn’t last very long, it’s one that will be in my memory forever. That match without a doubt is my most memorable.
I was only the third woman in New York to wrestle after they finally opened it up to women, and that match was one of the best, even though I didn’t win it. It took a lot to go out there in the cold and face the one woman in the world I wanted to beat the most.
LadySports: You’re one of the people featured in what is undoubtedly one of the most frequently published wrestling photos of the era. There’s you, Christianello, Rose and Williams, all being held aloft in the arms of Andre the Giant!
Debbie: I remember well the first time I met Andre. He was the biggest man I had ever met, but also one of the sweetest and kindest men, too. ………..
LadySports: You had become one of the better known women in the sport, but then you suddenly retired and disappeared from wrestling.
Debbie: I left the wrestling world when I was 19. I had married and was expecting my first child, and I just believed it was time to get on with a normal life. I didn’t want my child to have to live traveling all of the time, and I wanted a more normal life, too. For the women, we had a very different position than the men did. They could stay in one place for years at a time. It wasn’t that way for us… we were constantly on the road, never knowing when we would see home again. We would be out for months at a time, and I didn’t want that kind of life for my family.
A lot of bad things were done to me at the hands of Moolah and my mother, and I wanted out so that I could have a real life. When I first started, I wasn’t old enough to sign a contract myself, so my mother signed one for me. And at 18 when the time came to renew it, I did sign for another three years. But I didn’t make it. Something very… bad… happened. I had to make some serious changes in my life in order to just have a life, and I thought the only way out was to get married. I told them I would ‘marry the first swinging dick that asked’… and that’s just what I did.
I married the first man that asked me. I had only known him for two weeks and been out with him once, and we were married! In my eyes, that was my only way out, so I took it. There were repercussions… Moolah tried to chase him off, but it didn’t work………..
These are just excerpts from the full interview, in which Debbie tells all about Moolah, her mother, what it was really like for women in the early days of wrestling, more about Andre the Giant, and her life since leaving wrestling! For the full story and lots more great photos, go to LadySports.com!