Princess Jasmine, who passed away Friday morning at age 60 after a long battle with cancer, died knowing how highly she was regarded in the wrestling business, having been recognized for her contributions at the Cauliflower Alley Club just weeks earlier.

Though at that point she was unable to travel to accept the award herself, the honour was something that Jasmine (real name Cynthia Johnson) was exceptionally proud of, according to her best friend in the business, fellow performer Beverley Wenhold (who worked as Beverley Shade), who accepted the award on her behalf.

“She knew that she was going to get it, and she was proud that she was being honoured like that,” said Wenhold. “I asked the people at the CAC to send the award to her home, and in the last few weeks, it spent a lot of time beside her hospital bed. Her friends and family can’t be sure if she knew what it was, but they think she did.

“When she found out (about receiving the award), she said ‘How come they picked me?’, because she’d only been to the CAC one time before that, and I told her that it was because of her contribution to women’s wrestling. She had met Penny Banner when she attended that year, and they really hit it off. And Jasmine said that to be honoured with people like Penny Banner and the others who had received the award, really made her feel good.”

Before she was ever a performer, Jasmine was merely a fan of wrestling, who caught the eye of eventual co-trainer Dick the Bruiser while attending the matches in home city of Chicago. No doubt he was intrigued by a woman who was both beautiful, and at a muscularly-toned 5ft 9in, had the athletic proportions to be a commanding wrestler. But any hope he may have had for her did not affect his attitude to teaching the former trainee nurse, as he and Calvin “Prince” Pullins strenuously put her through her paces for a full three months before her first match.

“They were very hard on her at the beginning,” continued Wenhold. “She told me that they beat the hell out of her, just to see if she wanted to keep doing it, and I think that’s one of the reasons that she worked as rough as she did. It takes a special kind of woman to go through that – either you have to be some kind of crazy, or you have to really want to be in this business, and Jasmine really loved the wrestling business.

“She loosened up a little bit as she got older, but she was always firm. She was really a very smooth mover in the ring, it’s just that when she put the holds on you, she put them on tight and hard. She let you know she was there. One thing about her though, was if you were in a match with her and there was any kind of danger, she would protect you. I remember when we were wrestling down in Puerto Rico — with me as the heel and her as a babyface — I had her outside the ring with my back to the fans. They started to come after me and she turned me around, so that they wouldn’t get me in the back. You didn’t know if those people had a knife in their hand, or what they had.”

Despite the selflessness of that avoided incident, Wenhold didn’t immediately become great friends with Jasmine when they met in 1970. But much of that was down to Jasmine’s aforementioned style of working, but when Wenhold got to know her in-ring foe a little better, she discovered some of the wonderful traits that she had as a person.

“I met Jasmine in Ontario, Canada when I was wrestling for Dave McKigney. The other girl in the territory had to go home for some sort of emergency, which left me without anyone to wrestle. So Dave got in touch with Dick The Bruiser, and brought in Princess Jasmine and Prince Pullins. So Dave and I began working mixed tag team matches with them.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t care for her that much to begin with (laughs), but I don’t think she cared much for me either. I’ve always teased her about being the worst crowbar I ever worked with — wrestling her was just like shoving a TV set around. She would grab a hold on you, and you just thought your arm was going to break. Or she’d pull your hair and you’d think it was going to come out by the roots.

“We worked for about a month there, and then I met her again when I went to the Caribbean. We went against each other there, and that was when we kinda got to know each other. We became friends then, and we’ve been friends ever since. Once I got to know her, I realized that she was very independent, but also very compassionate. If she liked you, she’d do anything in the world for you.”

Beverly Shade, Marla Bastien, and Princess Jasmine at the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in 2008. Photo by John Arthur Lowe

The pairs’ travels around the world — which Jasmine enjoyed immensely — brought the two closer together, even if they did work more as in-ring enemies than friends. The memories clearly come flooding back to Wenhold in conversation about world tours, not least the unforgettable story of how an African chief once wanted to hold over the “Princess” as his bride.

“We really did work all over the world together: the Caribbean, Africa, and Japan — although of course, when we went to Japan, the American girls all worked against the Japanese girls. The Japanese girls would try to hurt you if they could. Thankfully we knew what they were up to, and once they found out that we weren’t going to just take it from them, we started having some pretty good matches. It was something you had to establish with them straight away, and it wasn’t hard with Jasmine being as rough as she was.

“I think they thought of us in the same way that we thought of the English girls. When we went to Africa we were warned about the English girls, and were told that they were shooters and would break an arm if they wanted to. So we were a bit scared of them, but then we realized that they were also a bit scared of us, and really, we all worked the same.

“I remember that we went to Nigeria on that Africa tour, and when we got there, we were sent in groups in all different directions, and the two girls who won the most matches on the tour would face each other at the big show at the end. So, it ended up being me and Jasmine in that big match, and she beat me, of course (laughs). I remember that she took me outside the ring and slammed me on the concrete. We had a good match.

“Africa at the time was quite the place — you really would’ve had to have gone and seen the way that they lived there. It was filth and it was terrible. And this guy wanted to keep her there as his wife, and she told him to go to hell. She said ‘There ain’t no way I’m staying here!'”

That kind of attitude evidently served Jasmine well when it was required, and it certainly helped her when she got the opportunity to use the microphone. In many ways, Jasmine was a total package in women’s wrestling, with that ability to talk, and a great look, added to her tough wrestling. Wenhold, in fact, would put her right up there with the very best that she ever stepped into the ring with.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that she was one of the best, and I worked with Moolah, Mae Young, Leilani Kai, Judy Martin, and all kinds of people. So it was an honour to work with Jasmine, and it’s also an honour to say that she was one of my best friends.

“That’s a friendship going to back to 1970, which is amazing because in the wrestling business it’s so difficult to keep friends. You can be friends with someone in a territory and then go your separate ways, and maybe you won’t see them for years. So it was really nice to find someone that I was able to stay in touch with for all those years.”

Woods Funeral Home, 1003 S. Halsted St., Chicago Heights, Illinois, (708) 755-2010, is handling the funeral for Cynthia Johnson. There will be a viewing at the funeral home on Tuesday, May 12, from 2-7 p.m. The funeral itself will be held Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at Calvary Missionary Baptist Church at 241 E. 15th Street in Chicago Heights, IL 60411, burial to follow at Restville Cemetery.


Princess Jasmine took her act to the road