The Queen of the Ring by Jeff Leen

June 12, 2019

This biography of Mildred Burke goes straight into the top tier of must-read historical wrestling books.

Many such titles fall into one of two traps. Some are cobbled together with little research or overly reliant on a single source, meaning it’s hard to determine the accuracy of either small details or the overall narrative. Others are the result of meticulous research but the author falls prey to the desire to leave nothing else, even at the expense of readability.

Leen has found the perfect blend between the two, pulling off the approach of John Capouya’s Gorgeous George, but arguably improving upon it. In the body of the book itself, Leen always cites a source for material where there’s reason to doubt it, or where it’s significant to know any bias or perspective which could affect its interpretation.

However, this is only done where necessary and the text itself is allowed to breathe without excessive ifs and buts. Instead of footnotes, the book has an exhaustive section at the back where you can look up the source of virtually every claim or piece of information if you so choose.

That list of sources includes contemporary documents from newspaper articles to personal letters and court papers. It also includes author interviews with Burke’s son and many of her former female wrestling colleagues. And it includes an unpublished autobiography by Burke that Leen uses extensively to gleam her perspective and insight, while never losing sight of the fact that nobody, not least a professional wrestler, gives a completely trustworthy and accurate recollection of their own experiences.

None of this would matter if there wasn’t a good tale to be told, but Burke’s is an amazing one. Without giving too much away, she was arguably the first major female wrestling star and the only woman to ever be a consistent drawing card at the same level as the men. Her personal and professional relationship with womens wrestling promoter Billy Wolfe and his son is fascinating, and this is as much the story of female grappling in the pre-Moolah era as it is Burke’s life.

And the truly shocking behind-the-scenes dealings leads to a moment that was surely a literary gift to Leen: the 1954 bout between Burke and June Byers that was likely the last genuine pro wrestling shoot (as in a match with no planned finish) until the days of Pancrase four decades later. Leen gives the match its appropriate historic perspective without romanticising it and makes clear that it was a dreadfully dull experience for the unsuspecting spectators.

Sadly this isn’t available in the UK, but is certainly worth tracking down for a transatlantic order.

Buy on Amazon

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5 Comments

  • Jason Presley June 12, 2019 at 3:17 pm

    This is an outstanding book, and one of the essential reads for anyone interested in wrestling history. While being probably the best book on any female wrestler, it is also one of the very few to cover that specific time in wrestling history, that being the 1930s-1950s, that is not territory specific. And where Capuya’s book is loaded with speculation, Leen’s book is much more grounded in fact, with interviews and documentation to back up his conclusions. I can’t recommend this book enough.

  • AW September 16, 2019 at 1:44 am

    I had considered getting this last year, but I was skeptical of how accurate and substantial it might be. The odds are slim when it comes to wrestling books, however your review has encouraged me to put it on my list.
    I just stumbled upon this site today, and have left a lot of comments on the books I own that you have reviewed and you have found and mentioned a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses in those books as I have noticed, so it’s hard not to respect your opinion and recommendations. I’m enjoying this site greatly and appreciate your efforts. Thank you.

    • jnlister September 16, 2019 at 1:09 pm

      Thanks for your kind words and glad to know you are finding the site useful. Just to catch you up, there were originally about 150-200 reviews here, but the entire site was trashed during an ill-fated hosting move. I’ve got most of the ones I could recover back up now, so the pace will slow a little in a few weeks, but I’ve got several new releases on the review pile.

      • AW September 16, 2019 at 4:46 pm

        Ugh. The wonders of technology. I can relate though. Ten years ago, I had transferred all of the songs I had written and recorded on a Tascam 4-track from cassette tapes into WAV. files on my computer. It took months, adjusting the levels, scouring the tapes, finding where they began and ended, etc. Three years later (and after I had them all backed up on my IPod), my computer crashed. I thought “no worries; I have them on my IPod.” What I didn’t know is that the IPod wipes out your music when you sync it to a new computer unless it’s been authorized. Seven years later, I still haven’t been able to force myself to pull out the tapes and start the process over again.
        I’ve subscribed to the site and have email notifications set, so whenever you have a post I’ll be here checking it out. Thanks again.

  • AW September 23, 2019 at 7:59 pm

    Got this in the mail Saturday. Sat down and read it through yesterday and am glad for your review, otherwise I probably would have continued putting off buying it. Burke truly deserves more recognition than she has received and the book is very good.
    Though it was alluded to in Tim Hornbaker’s NWA book, this, alongside the recent reprint of Fall Guys by Crowbar, shed a light on how important the city of Columbus, OH was in the old days. I’m an Ohio native and lived near a lot of the addresses mentioned in the book, so I know Broad Street, High Street, Reynoldsburg, etc. very well, though most of the locations are long gone.
    Thanks for your recommendation and tolerating my long-winded, epic length posts.

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