Women’s wrestling star Toni Rose has made her mark on the business. Struggle



Editor’s Note: This is the second in a row by Women’s Wrestling Hall of Famer Toni Rose.

Toni Rose was a spirited, bright-eyed teenager in 1963 when she left her native Indiana to pursue a career in the rough and tumble world of women’s professional wrestling.

Not long after her debut, Rose established herself as one of the most talented and athletic women in the sport.

Trained by Fabulous Moolah (Lillian Ellison) at her legendary facility in Columbia, where she broke through most of the aspiring female wrestlers of the time, Rose was a quick learner who embraced the business and set out to make her own mark.

The dark-haired beauty was a top-ranked contender in the women’s category, which included strong performers such as Mullah, Penny Banner, Betty Butcher, Judy Grable and Susan “Tex” Green. As a singles wrestler, Rose held the Georgia version of the NWA Southern Women’s Championship in 1970.

Although Moolah was her trainer and frequent tag team partner, Rose was also an occasional challenger to Moolah’s NWA Women’s World Championship. Like many others, however, Rose was unable to wrest the title from her mentor.

Rose would become known as a tag team specialist, sharing the NWA Women’s Tag Title on five separate occasions with two different partners.

Rose said of Mula: “She didn’t like tag teams because she didn’t want to share the glory with anyone, and those were her words. Despite this, the duo won the NWA World Tag Team belts twice. Acting as heels, their style was similar, says Rose.

“She coached me, so our style was very similar. I originally tagged Moolah. She was always in heels. I got along well with her. And I didn’t want to be a babyface, “It was more fun being a heel…yeah it was!” she said.

Rose was one of the few female wrestlers living on the Moolah property at the time.

“I really had no problem. I didn’t live there. But we got along well along the way,” she said.

In recent years, Rose has fended off criticism from some of her former charges, taken excessive booking fees, and held the top booking for herself as a perennial world champion.

“She didn’t hold a gun to anyone’s head. No one should have stayed there,” Rose said. “You can leave any second you want. But now she is dead. She cannot defend herself. I think it’s wrong for them to let her down so badly.”

Mula, predeceased by her daughter Mary Lillian Ellison in 2007 at the age of 84.

Scary in Australia

Now 77 and a longtime resident of Columbia, Toni Rose says she was lucky to escape serious injury 17 years into her business. She says the most disturbing happened in a match in Australia in 1969.

“Jessica Rogers stuck her finger in my eye and I was completely blind in both eyes,” Rose recalled of her torn cornea. “I left the stage and went to the eye doctor. They put medicine and all in it. It was a week or so before I saw it. The doctor said, his other eye widening in sympathy.

But Rose somehow still has to fight and fulfill her obligations. Promoter Jim Barnett came up with an idea that would help her go through the motions and work a series of matches on her schedule.

Women's wrestling great Toni Rose has found a rewarding career.

“They were sending someone to the ring in front of me,” Rose said. I’ve done a lot of matches like that. This certainly would not happen in our world today,” he said.

Of course, Rogers didn’t intend to inflict such damage on her opponent.

“Jessica didn’t want to do it. It was something,” Rose said.

Label-group chemistry

Rose said she enjoys doing mixed tag matches with the midget ladies who were used as special attractions in the ’60s and ’70s. Usually those feuds pit the heels Rose and Diamond Lil against babyfaces Betty Butcher and Darling Dagmar, Fran Gravett and Dagmar, or Brenda Scott and Dagmar.

“We used to do a lot of mixtapes with midgets. That was fun. Diamond Lil has always been my partner. She’s a funny little girl,” she says of Lil (Katie Glass), who lives in Columbia and whom Rose talks to regularly. “You never know what they’re going to do next. We all enjoyed it.”

Rose was enjoying one of her biggest runs against Pittsburgh’s talented female grappler, who served as Mula’s right-hand man at Columbia’s training camp.

Winning the NWA Women’s World Tag Title on three separate occasions, Rose and Donna Cristianello teamed for several years, touring Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and South America.

After a three-year reign as champions, they lost to the team of Joyce Grable and Vickie Williams in October 1973 at Madison Square Garden for the title. It wasn’t until October 1975 that Rose and Christantello regained the title, holding it from Grable and Williams for nearly four years.

“We were good friends,” says Rose. “Donna always had your back and always looked out for you. She was a great worker and was right there with you no matter what.

She was also a good cook. Sloppy, but good,” laughs Rose. “She loved making those Italian dishes. She would make a sauce that would take me 10 minutes to make, but it took her all day. Of course mine won’t be as good as hers.

Donna Cristantello (Mary Donna Alfonsi) passed away in 2011 at the age of 69.

Life on the road

While life on the road may have been tough for many wrestlers in those days, it was a way of life, and Tony Rose knew it from the start. She says it has created an opportunity to see the world.

“I got to go to places I’ve never been or had the chance to visit. I wouldn’t want to do it now, but it was fun then,” she says.

For Rose, it was the learning of a lifetime, traveling throughout the United States, Canada, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and many other locations.

She says that one of the strangest places she had to fight was in India.

“It was amazing. A lot of times we wrestled outside, and people were sitting on the floor in the ring,” she said. “We wrestled some Indian girls, but we never knew them. We didn’t see them before the game or anything. We stayed there for over a month. We went there for a promoter in Canada (Tiger Jet Singh) who is running some shows there.

“I really liked Singapore,” she says. “It was a beautiful city with flowers and orchids everywhere.”

She had the opportunity to work for various promoters and major wrestling organizations in this country, including the NWA, WWWF and AWA.

“I really liked North Carolina and San Francisco,” Rose said, endorsing Jim Crockett Sr. and Roy Shires, respectively.

“Jim Crockett was a good man. He was always good to us. Every time we were on the card, he would sit in the dressing room for a few minutes and talk. Roy Shires was tough, but he was good.

Rose told WWWF boss Vince McMahon Sr., Ray Gunkel in Atlanta and Ed Francis in Hawaii that she loves working.

“We’ve always loved being in Honolulu,” she said.

Rose quotes the great Charleston promoter Henry Marcus.

“He was always a character! He used to call them ‘Yatche’. I don’t know why I remember, but I do,” she says.

‘Strong Broads’

Rose has had her fair share of battles over the years, but two “tough broads” stand out among the pack.

One person who is afraid to step into the ring is the hard-working celebrity Mei Yang.

“That was one woman,” said Rose. “I worked with her a few times, and she was very challenging.”

No less than the great Ed “The Strangler” Lewis shared that opinion, who once told Young, “I don’t like women’s wrestling, but if there’s anyone born to be a wrestler, it’s you.”

To be honest, at her core, Young was heavier than her bustier male counterparts on the circuit. The late Fred Blasey, one of the greatest heels of all time, once said that Mae was harder than 60 percent of the men in the business. And that, by most accounts, was a conservative estimate.

“She was a rough, tough broad,” said one of her former opponents. And Rose knew her name well through Moolah, who came through the business in the same generation.

“Betty Butcher and I were driving through Arizona on our way back to South Carolina when Moolah called. She said Johnny Mae was running some matches that night in some town in Arizona. We were not far from it, so we stopped; she said; “She and the girl with her were beautiful; But we told Johnny Mae that we should go back to the hotel and have some rest before the show.

“Big mistake,” Rose laughs. “Me was drinking too much, and she didn’t have her ring. She just couldn’t take it off. So we left and went back to South Carolina.

Rose got another chance to work with the stunning May Young during a visit to Florida.

“I was there by myself, and she went out crazy and didn’t know what she was doing. I told Mooh that I don’t care how you do it, but since I don’t make enough money to work with this crazy woman, you better send someone else here. Damage in this way. I don’t know what she did in the end, but I let it go.”

While Rose has traditionally worked as a heel, working with Young has been an exception.

“You couldn’t be a heel with Johnny Mae,” she laughs. You should have been a babyface with Johnny Mae.

Rose mentions Anne Laverne, who broke into the sport in the 1940s and was known as the only female wrestler with cauliflower ears of the era.

With the intimidating presence and fear of many of her opponents, Laverne takes on all challengers, female or male.

“She was a strong woman,” Rose said of LaVerne, who died in 1999 at age 77. “I have worked with her many times in the mobile area. She was nice to me, but she scared you to death. All she had to do was look at you. She was a strong woman. I didn’t know her personally, but I am friends with her daughter, Marie Laverne Nelson. I talk to her twice a week.”

Marie, incidentally, had her first proposal with Yang, a friend of her mother’s.

“She was fantastic,” Nelson once said of Young in an interview. “She had a reputation for throwing punches at anyone, including men. If people tried it, they would know how real she was. I remember one time she told me on the phone, ‘If someone tried to make a movie about my life, they would have to censor all the scenes.’ She was a character.

The young man passed away in 2014 at the age of 91.

Next: Life after the fight for Tony Rose.

Contact Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His latest book – “The Last Bell” – is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and Amazon.com.

Did you know this?

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Chelsea Green. (WWE Photo)

Chelsea Green set a new record for the fastest women’s Royal Rumble elimination in five seconds this year.

Liv Morgan previously held the record for the fastest woman in Rumble history by eight seconds.

On this day…

Ric Flair says Hulk Hogan will be on WWE Raw XXX (copy).

Hulk Hogan

Twenty-eight years ago today (March 19, 1995): Hulk Hogan defeated Vader in a leather strap match to win WCW’s Raw Pay-per-view in Tupelo, Miss.

Hogan was awarded the match by Vader when he dragged Ric Flair, who had interfered in the match, to the four corners.

After Randy Savage came to congratulate Hogan and company, he revealed a masked man.

Photo of the week

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Paul Baer “salutes” the fans during a WWE show at the North Charleston Coliseum 17 years ago. In the year Bill Moody (real name), who passed away in 2013, loved the gimmick (which wasn’t a gimmick since he was a real-life mortician). (Mike Mooneyham Collection)


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