Thirty years ago two female wrestlers took part in an historic mixed tag-team match with two male wrestlers at a packed Omni Coliseum in Atlanta. This was not the usual mixed tag with the ring action strictly segregated by sex. The women were not wrestling separately on teams paired with the men but together as a team against the men. This was a true battle of the sexes, male versus female on the mat, no quarter given and no place to hide. Joyce Grable and Judy Martin put Jerry Roberts and Steve O. through their paces in a straight-up, nip-and-tuck bout that was raw, physical and deadly serious — at times a little too serious. The crowd of 12,000 exploded at every dramatic turn. The fact that the members of the so-called weaker sex acquitted themselves so well is just one amazing part of an untold story.
The match displayed the timeless elements that have defined classic combat through the ages: an apparent mismatch in the strength of the opponents, a contrast in styles, a seesaw struggle full of surprising shifts and bold feats. It asked the eternal questions: Can speed and savvy overcome strength and size? Can a skilled middleweight beat a skilled heavyweight? Can a determined female grappler stand up to a powerful male pro? Can she beat him?
With all that as backdrop, the capacity crowd was in for a rare sight at the special Thanksgiving Day matches put on by Georgia Championship Wrestling. And they would look on in awe as the two husky blondes whaled into the two muscle-bound hunks. The speedy, athletic gals confidently traded grips with the beefy guys, getting them into trouble and even repeatedly putting them on their backs. Split-second escapes and a final body slam rescued male wrestling pride from a fate similar to what Billie Jean King had served up to Bobby Riggs seven years earlier.
The wrestling version of the battle of the sexes got nowhere near the attention of King vs. Riggs. But the 1980 match offers up a far more unlikely and transgressive chapter in the ongoing struggle of women to achieve a place of their own in sports.
Nowadays mixed matches are common currency on a wrestling landscape that has seen scores of female pros defeat men in the squared circle and even occasionally take possession of male title belts. Chyna wrested the WWF Intercontinental Championship title from 226-pound Chris Jericho at No Mercy on Oct. 17, 1999, Jazz upended 224-pound Jason at Heatwave on Aug. 2, 1999, and as recently as last summer, 160-pound Sara Del Rey pinned 232-pound Claudio Castagnoli with a crucifix shortly after the 13-minute mark in the main event of Chikarasaurus Rex: Night Two. In amateur wrestling, women have defeated men at the college level and three high school girls have even won boys’ state championships. Seven thousand girls now wrestle in high school, most of them against boys. Today, Cyndi Lauper might just as well sing “Girls Just Wanna Rassle.”
A woman whipping a man in wrestling today is almost blasé. But when Joyce Grable and Judy Martin entered the ring on the night of Nov. 27, 1980, they were planting female wrestling boots down on uncharted male turf, like explorers wading ashore in the New World without knowing if the natives were friendly.
There were plenty of women wrestlers back then, but the idea that one of them could take on a male pro on equal terms was viewed as sheer fantasy. Still, in an age of women’s liberation, the question kept coming up and was sometimes debated in wrestling magazines — “Can Gals Beat Men in Pro Mixed Matches?” Ring Wrestling asked in a cover headline in 1970. Women, especially female wrestlers, seemed more curious about such matches than men, whose response was usually widespread scoffing. A true mixed match remained the last taboo.
It was the booker and wrestler Ole Anderson, working for the famed promoter Jim Barnett, who put such a match before the public, in a big way. The Omni Thanksgiving Tag Team Tournament in Atlanta featured big-name wrestlers and was televised on TBS.
Anderson didn’t think much of the ability of women wrestlers, but he did think they might be good for business.
“On the surface, I wasn’t crazy about it, but I came up with an idea that I thought might draw some money,” Anderson said in Inside Out: How Corporate America Destroyed Professional Wrestling, his 2003 autobiography written with Scott Teal. “It was an idea similar to the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. Billie Jean King beat Riggs in the exhibition that was billed as the Battle of the Sexes. I used that as an example. I was just trying to create a little interest.”
People thought Ole Anderson was crazy, of course. Verne Gagne, the wrestling legend and former world champion, was one of the most vocal opponents. “Ole got a lot of flak about it,” recalled Joyce Grable. “Verne Gagne told him, ‘What are you thinking? This will never go over. Who will accept two girls wrestling two guys?’ ”
“When Verne heard that I put the girls in the tournament with the men, he was really ticked off at me,” Anderson wrote. “He called and said, ‘Boy, talk about exposing the business. How in the hell can the girls wrestle with the men?”
“Jeez, Verne,” I replied. “That’s nothing compared to all the goofy stuff that’s been done in this business.”
The choice of women couldn’t have been better. Under their big blond Farah Fawcett manes, Grable and Martin were formidable wrestlers. At 27, Joyce Grable was a three-time Women’s World Tag Team champion, currently holding the title in a tandem with the powerful Wendi Richter. The Georgia-born Grable was a wily eight-year veteran of the ring, skilled at aerial moves like the dropkick and the flying head scissors and equally adept at chain wrestling moves like the body scissors and Boston crab. She knew how to use the holds to tell a story and create drama, and she knew how to handle herself if things got rough. For the historic mixed bout, she would be by far the most experienced wrestler in the ring, and her wrestling smarts would help the women set the tone and pace for the match. Her partner, Judy Martin, was a 24-year-old from Conway, S.C., who had been wrestling for only a year. When she made her debut in October 1979 against the Fabulous Moolah, Martin was so nervous that she trembled in the ring and threw up on the ride home after the match. She had since gotten seasoning in Japan and Mexico and was becoming known for her exceptional strength. But she was still essentially a rookie.
“At the time, I don’t think everybody realized on my side how green I was,” Martin recalled.
Grable and Martin were chosen in part because they were sturdy enough to look credible wrestling men. Grable was listed at a very solid 5-6 and 140 pounds, and looked even bigger in the ring, and Martin was an even more imposing 5-8 and 155. “It had to look like this person could actually wrestle that person, that we could beat them,” Grable recalled. “That people would buy it.”
To this end, the men they faced were big and well muscled but not behemoths. Twenty-year-old Jacques Rougeau Jr., a native of Quebec who wrestled as Jerry Roberts, was 6-3 and listed at 234. Steve Olsonoski, who wrestled as Steve O., was a 26-year-old from Minnesota who had learned scientific wrestling from Verne Gagne himself. Steve O. stood 6-1 and weighed 230. He was a college graduate who got into wrestling when he was laid off as a teacher. “I didn’t really have any big desire to do it other than I had nothing else to do,” he says now. Both he and Roberts were relatively new to the business, with only a few years of experience between them. They were more junior heavyweights than heavyweights, still trying to mark their mark on the business, but they were also both good-looking he-men who would dominate any bar they walked into.
The match was announced in October, and there was more than a month devoted to the build-up. Joyce Grable made the most of it, appearing on TV every Saturday to thrash such female competition as Princess Victoria and Winona Little Heart, then talk up the upcoming battle of the sexes. “Women’s lib was right there in the middle of it,” Grable recalled. She upped the ante with her mouthy taunts. “I was making everybody mad because I was doing interviews,” she recalled. “I would say, ‘Every time you men walk in a courtroom, we women take everything you make, we get everything you worked your life for.’ All the men just hated me. I loved it.”
It was great for the box office.
So it would be the two blonde Southern girls going up against the two dark-haired Northern guys, with much more than a mere wrestling match at stake.
The men were in a tough spot. They had to put on an entertaining match without appearing to brutalize the women. They had to win, of course, but they had to win and make the women look good as well. It was a very difficult needle to thread.
“In the early 1980s, there was more downside to it than upside” for men who wrestled women, Olsonoski said in a recent interview. “We really didn’t want to do it at first. It could only make you look bad or worse, if it didn’t go over. Jacques Rougeau was more against it than I was. He didn’t have as much experience. He was younger and he wanted to make a name for himself. He thought it was a putdown to have to wrestle the girls. We had to drag him along. It was kind of a macho thing that Jacques took more seriously than I did.”
The women knew that Jerry Roberts didn’t want the match. “He didn’t want to do it because he thought it was beneath him to wrestle two girls,” Grable said.
“Ole told him, ‘You’re going to work with them or you’re not going to work at all,'” Martin said. “I don’t think he really thought we actually could work in there with guys, but we had trained harder than most of the guys at that time.”
“I definitely didn’t like the idea of wrestling against girls,” Rougeau recalled in a recent interview. “I’m sure I didn’t like the idea because where do you want me to put my hands? Where would you want me to put my hands on her? Can’t touch her ass, can’t touch her, you know, so, no.”
“I probably felt bad about putting my hands on them, because, like I said, you body slam, you pick up between the legs — I’m just trying to think — if she grabs a headlock on you, you’ve got her tits in your face.”
The women wrestlers were well aware that the match in Atlanta would give them a unique opportunity to test themselves against male competition. Anderson wrote that the women’s message in their interviews was just give us a shot: “We know we can’t beat all of the men wrestlers, but we’ve been wrestling for years and we think we’re pretty tough. We just want an opportunity to wrestle and give an accounting of ourselves.”
“The girls were very enthusiastic about it and I could see why it was a big deal,” Olsonoski said. “They were very excited about it and Jerry and I looked at it like, ‘Oh, Man, what if this doesn’t work?’ ”
Things were made even harder because there was no blueprint to follow. Neither the men nor the women knew what kinds of holds would work in such a match. They had never worked together before, and, amazingly, there was no practice or rehearsal. They were literally laying hands on each other for the first time. The wrestlers did not even have an opportunity to talk to each other before they entered the ring. They were like dancers who were perfect strangers yet were expected to improvise brand-new steps the moment they walked onstage, before a live audience.
“It wasn’t like it is today, with all these moves scripted and worked out in advance,” Grable said. “We never talked about it. We never said, ‘I’m going to get in there and give you two hip tosses and a dropkick.’ You do what comes natural. A real wrestler can work with anybody.”
The one thing the wrestlers were told was that the men had to win the one-fall match.
“Of course, I had the girls lose to Jerry Roberts and Steve O. in the first round of the tournament,” Anderson wrote. “If I had put the girls over, I would have had to go out and hang myself.”
“We were told the guys go over because they were going to stay in the territory,” Grable recalled. “But they did not tell us how.”
“We were expected to win,” Olsonoski said. “The ending was pretty much pre-determined. But we really didn’t have much of a plan. You just go in there and create what you think should happen. As you go along the intuition kind of takes over.”
There were a lot of nerves in the women’s dressing room before the match. There always are, but this was an historic first with an angry male wildcard. Martin was worried about Roberts. “Joyce took more of the control in the ring because I was so new,” Martin said.
“I asked. ‘How it’s going to be with them with us? I wonder if they’re going to let us do anything.’ And Joyce said, ‘If they don’t, take it. If they’re not going to work with us, we’re going to go for it’.”
“Judy and I, we just talked,” Grable recalled. “We said, ‘We can do this.’ Roberts had made some comments. What if he tries to hurt us? I told Judy, ‘Hey, don’t worry about us. We’re two women and the two of us can take care of the one of him. We’ll take care of it when it comes up.’ And when it came up, we took care of it.” She laughed at the memory.
The men had nerves, too. “I did have mixed emotions about it,” Steve O. said in an interview a few days after the match with Gordon Solie. “I felt good for the girls that they won their battle with the NWA to be included in the tournament. And yet, on the other hand, I was a little apprehensive about possibly being the first male wrestler to be body slammed by one of the girls.”
Thanks to the big build-up and the novelty of pitting women against men, the arena was buzzing the night of the match with a sellout crowd and a special frisson in the air. The wrestlers were aware of the carnival atmosphere that had overtaken them. Olsonoski recalled that by match time he had warmed to the idea of putting on such a big bout on such a big stage. “It was really fun at the time,” he said. “The place was rocking. It was a capacity crowd. It was in Atlanta.”
Video of a portion of the match still survives on YouTube.
On the tape, Joyce enters the ring all in white, one-piece suit, boots and jacket, topped off by her signature Stetson, like a cowgirl ready to wrangle a steer. Judy follows behind her, resplendent in red suit and red boots, managing to appear both svelte and muscular, like a bathing beauty built out of red brick. The women’s strength and fitness is evident, a far cry from the eye-candy look of many of today’s female wrestlers. Save for their shaggy 1980s hairdos, Joyce and Judy look like they could have just stepped out of the Golden Age of Wrestling in the 1950s. The men have that classic, conservative look, too. Roberts is in blue trunks and black boots, Steve O in black trunks and white boots. This could be Nell Stewart and Ella Waldek against Lou Thesz and Ruffy Silverstein at the Boston Garden in 1953. The Eisenhower-era attire sends a message: This is to be a serious contest of scientific wrestling, no joke of a match playing up some comic or sexual angle.
Judging merely by appearances, the women will be worthy opponents.
Appearances quickly become reality. From the bell, the women are the aggressors. After the introductions, as the men confer in their corner, Joyce bounds into the center of the ring in a boxer’s stance, bouncing on her toes and beckoning the men forward to face her.
“She wanted to box, she wanted to fight,” Steve O. said in his interview with Solie. “She was out to prove that she could beat the men wrestlers.”
On the tape, Steve O. cautiously comes out to confront her. While she appears to be stalking him with her piston-like legs, he is hesitant, edging carefully forward with small steps, clearly uncertain about how to wrestle a woman. They lock up and she quickly pushes him into the ropes, laying her entire body into him for leverage and putting her powerful legs to good use. The referee gets them off the ropes, then, quick as a cat, Grable flips Steve to the mat with a hip toss. He is instantly on his back and she pounces on top of him, pinning him down as Judy Martin claps on the ring apron behind the ropes. But he kicks out at a two-count, staggering to his feet against the ropes as Judy taunts him and the crowd boils over. “I said to him, ‘Oh, you thought us girls were going to be a pushover, didn’t you?'” Martin recalled. “And Joyce showed you, didn’t she?”
From her perch ringside, Martin was surprised to hear that the female fans were vocal in their support of the male wrestlers. “You would have thought that because we were women wrestling men the women in the crowd would have been behind us. Most times they were asking those guys to kick our butts. I heard them say, ‘Kick her butt.'”
Back in the ring, Steve O. seems stunned by Joyce’s powerhouse moves.
“I was surprised at the strength,” Steve O said after the match. “But you also know in wrestling it’s balance and leverage. She had the leverage there on me, and just caught me quick off my feet, but I was able to power out of it.”
Olsonoski says today that he went with Joyce’s hip toss and helped sell the move with his staggering. “My options are to block it and make her look bad or go with it and make her look good,” he said. “In wrestling, you have to work together to make a good match.”
For the women, so far, so good.
“The match starts, Steve O., great guy, he’s in the ring for them,” Grable recalled. “We go out there and we’re wrestling.”
Joyce and Steve O. worked well together because there was a measure of trust and respect. Despite the pressure of the occasion and the crowd, he was allowing her to work in her moves, she said. They were creating the dance that wrestling becomes when it’s working well.
But Olsonoski also recalls how amped up Joyce was. “One of the slaps she gave me, I see stars. I was in the corner and I got out of there in a hurry. I remember having my hands full just trying to control her. I can remember the girls being so pumped up you had to kind of settle them down a bit.”
After Joyce and Steve tagged out, Judy and Jerry faced off.
Judy was nervous but she was also stoked. The momentousness of the occasion had roiled her up into an almost frenzied state. “It was like, I can’t believe I’m in the ring against two guys,” she recalled. “It was just exciting. We’re really doing this, the first time ever, two girls versus two guys in a tag team. There were a lot of nerves and a lot of excitement. I wasn’t really scared, scared. I was nervous about how the guys were going to see it.”
Things soon went wrong, according to the women. “Roberts came in and he grabs Judy in a headlock and he won’t let her go,” Joyce recalled. “He’s wringing her neck. She starts yelling, ‘Joyce! Joyce!'”
Judy tagged out pretty quickly, and Joyce squared off with Jerry. “I locked up with him and he started wringing my neck.”
He was wrestling hard and rough, not giving an inch, according to the women. Joyce struggled out of Jerry’s hold and quickly realized she had to send a message.
“Come on, big boy, try me again,” she taunted.
When he came at her to lock up this time, she dealt the trump that has been the great equalizer between the sexes since ancient times. She put the boot to him.
“I wore cowboy boots that night and my leg with the toe of my boot went between his legs just as hard as I could kick. KA-POW-EEE!. He went down to his knees and he had tears in his eyes.”
Unfortunately for him, he was not wearing a cup. “The guys don’t wear those, because it would be too hard to move in the ring with that,” Grable said. “Now he knew what it meant to be a guy rassling a girl.”
Joyce had actually delivered two messages in one: The women would not be abused; and if they were vulnerable, well, then the men were vulnerable, too.
“Joyce kicked the crude out of him,” Martin said. “He hollered out that we were stiff. I said to Joyce, ‘He’s calling us stiff when he’s the one that’s stiff.'”
Stiff, the worst insult one wrestler can give another, meaning wrestling tight and hard, like an amateur, so that none of the spectacular pro moves are possible. Might as well call somebody a pencil-necked geek or a square.
With Jerry down, Martin said she heard Joyce give him an ultimatum. “Joyce said, ‘Are you going to work now or are we going to do it the hard way?”
Jerry quickly tagged out.
Grable said the kick was a simple survival instinct. “When you get people out there with attitudes that is when you have to get out and fight for your life. If you don’t man up against them, then they’re going to kick your nose into the dust. If you don’t stand up to them, then they’re winning already.”
The kick is not in the YouTube video, which is only a four-minute excerpt shown to go along with a television interview Solie did with Steve O. Olsonoski says today he does not remember the kick but doesn’t doubt the women’s recollections.
“If she kicked him in the balls for real, I wouldn’t put it past her,” he said, laughing. “She was tough. I’m just glad she didn’t do it to me.”
Rougeau said he did not recall being too rough with the girls in the ring or being kicked in the crotch.
“I never was an aggressive type, I never would take advantage of girls — at least not in the ring,” he said, laughing. “But I definitely don’t recall that move where she, she thought that she did it. Maybe I’d don’t have as much balls as she thinks I did, because I don’t remember it. I don’t remember having any altercation with anybody.
“The way I was cranking it in there, I was working it. I always worked intense like that, but I was never stiff. I always had a lot of character. I always made my things look real. But never, never was there any animosity in that.”
What is on the video is what happens when Jerry gets back in the ring with Judy. To Joyce, it is clear that her well-placed kick has taken some of the starch out of him. “When he came back in you could tell that he was different,” Grable said. “He didn’t try to dominate everything.”
Roberts may have eased up, but Judy was now loaded for bear. She viewed his rough stuff when they first locked up as a declaration of war. Martin said she had made the decision on her own at this point to wrestle for real against Roberts because she didn’t know what he was capable of and had to defend herself. And adrenaline had taken over. “I had already psyched myself up to be very aggressive and tough in there,” she said. “I really felt they were going to go all out and we were really going to have to fight for everything we got.” Now she wanted to him to beat him or at least win his respect.
As the tape shows, the 155-pound female rookie goes on a rampage with a display of raw wrestling ability that in rapid succession frustrates and confounds the 236-pound male pro and puts him down for three two-counts.
In the first one, Judy puts Jerry in a side headlock and tries to hip toss him. He stiffens and resists, refusing to give ground. She suddenly redoubles her efforts, rotating her hips 180 degrees and twisting his head high into the air behind her back before swinging him down onto the mat with a great crash. He is on his back now and she has him pinned down, still holding him very tightly in a snug headlock. But he manages to kick out at two. If this is fake wrestling, it doesn’t look it.
“I remember telling Joyce later, ‘Lordy, Joyce, he really didn’t want to go,” Martin recalled. “I just had to snatch him really. And she said. ‘Well, you got him down, he really went down on that one.’ And I said, ‘Well, gosh, he really didn’t want to.”
On the tape, the critical moments in the match, the key seconds when it appears that the women could have turned an historic appearance into an historic upset, come after that hip toss and two-count. At first, though, the vaunted male strength advantage finally seems to have asserted itself. Jerry is in command as he lifts Judy high in the air as a prelude to a titanic body slam. Now she is helpless and imperiled. It doesn’t look like just the end of the match and certain victory for the men but also like serious injury for Judy. There looks to be no way out for her. But her legs are bent high in the air and moving, making Jerry sway a little unsteadily as he tries to balance her shifting weight, and at that precise moment Joyce enters the ring and pushes Jerry, unbalancing the stacked bodies and sending them over. Jerry lands hard on his keister with Judy pinned on top of him, chest to chest. It is a total reversal of circumstances, with now Jerry imperiled. But he kicks out to avoid the pin by a split-second.
It is a remarkable sequence. As you watch you forget that Martin is a woman and Roberts is a man and simply see two superbly conditioned athletes going at it full bore in a wrestling match, a match that looks to be about dead-even with the outcome still in doubt. Judy appears to be big enough and strong enough to handle Jerry, and he appears to be fighting for survival and holding nothing back. Anything could happen.
Then the most remarkable thing happens.
After the two-count, both wrestlers bounce to their feet and Jerry bobs his head, as if to clear out the cobwebs, like a boxer beginning to take a stand eight-count. He appears still stunned by his fall to the mat and near fall to Judy. Before anybody can catch a breath, Judy Martin, calm and determined, in a motion that paradoxically looks both quick and unhurried, closes on the seemingly dazed Jerry Roberts and takes him. Before he can react her arms and legs engulf him like the fingers of a giant hand, like a Venus flytrap, and in a single motion she smoothly and swiftly brings him to the mat and rolls him up onto his back. Voila! Her limbs pretzel his, and her body presses down on his in an expert pinning combination. It is textbook, a thing of beauty, like something out of NCAA collegiate wrestling. It is also an utter surprise. It is so deft and devastating that it seems like sleight of hand, a magic trick, as if Judy had just pulled a rabbit out of Joyce’s cowboy hat and its name was Jerry. It is the knockout punch, the long bomb, the home run, the checkmate in chess, the three-point shot at the buzzer, the slap shot into the net from center ice. It is epic. It is so sudden and simple and elegant that the eyes register it before the brain can decipher it. Jerry Roberts and ten thousand fans must have shared the same instantaneous thought: What the heck just happened?
“I rolled him up into a small package,” Martin recalled. “I think he was surprised. I think he didn’t realize, as girls, how strong we were in there. I think he thought we were going to be really flimsy.”
But for Judy, fighting for survival against an overwhelming foe, training and instinct have kicked in to her advantage.
“It was really something that just happened,” she said. “We were trained that when you get lifted up in a slam and come back down to the mat, if you get up quickly before they’re ready for you, when they’re just standing there, then the small package could be one of the ways of hooking them and getting them down. You can go for that leg and hook them. It wasn’t planned on my part.”
Somehow her instinct is spot on. The more you know about the small package the more it seems the ideal hold, both for this point in the match and for a female grappler going up against a man in a pro wrestling battle of the sexes. Go onto the Web and here is what you’ll learn, from one women’s wrestling site: “The small package is a ‘reversal’ move, often used as a surprise finisher in women’s wrestling… On the one hand it’s extremely humiliating, on the other it’s quite uncomfortable… In order to slip a small package on, the attacker has to be very swift… extremely difficult to escape… Certainly spectacular enough to be used as a finisher, the small package pin is a weapon often used by the underdog to steal a win from the mouth of defeat. It is a highly efficient pinning move.”
It was also the favorite finishing move of the Fabulous Moolah, the long-time women’s world champion and Martin’s trainer. Moolah preferred it because she felt the traditional three-count cover pin lacked style and didn’t play up her bad-assed image. “So what I’d do is pin the girl by folding her body into a small package,” Moolah wrote in her autobiography, The Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle. “I’d pin her shoulders under her own body weight, with her butt high in the air and her boots touching the canvass right on either side of her head.”
In the heat of battle, with no time to think and just when she needed it most, Judy has managed to pull out of her sleeve her mentor’s signature coup de grace, a “very swift” move that is not only “extremely humiliating” and “quite uncomfortable” for Jerry, it’s also “highly efficient” and a “surprise finisher” that gives the underdog the best chance to prevail. On instinct, she’s going for the win and employing the method that makes that most possible.
They say a mother under stress can lift a car off a baby; Judy has just lifted a man the size of a car as if he were the baby, rolling him up like a pair of old wrestling trunks. In doing so, she has put a feminine twist on a masculine sport, relying on the great equalizers for female wrestlers: speed, flexibility, technique, leg strength, stamina, will, and, last but not least, mat wrestling. By skillfully bringing Jerry to the canvas and using her powerful legs to lock him in place, Judy has neutralized his size and upper-body strength and made the impossible possible. She has felled the giant, cut him down to her level, becoming David to Jerry’s Goliath, with her wrestling skill as the slingshot. On the mat, employing her lower-body strength and flexibility, Judy has a chance against him. “Sometimes, if you get them on the mat, the men can’t get up off the mat as good as we women can,” Grable recalled. “We had the advantage of them on the mat. We’re more flexible, and just as good if not better with the holds, and we can use that to get them right where we want them. If we can get them down, we can pin them down.”
And now Judy, utterly transformed from a nervous novice to a female dynamo, is putting those advantages to good use.
It is the climax of the evening. Judy’s red-suited body lies atop Jerry’s like a trump card, the ace of hearts or diamonds. He is ass over teakettle, his body folded like a matchbox beneath her, his blue-suited rump pointed at the sky. She is grinding him down into the canvas as he stares up uncomfortably into the ring lights.
The referee smacks the canvas. One. Wow.
On tape, you can see Joyce and Steve, the wrestlers behind the ropes and out of the action, suddenly crowd in for a better look, moved by what has to be another unexpected turn in the match. Steve O. rushes along the ropes and bends into the ring above the spot where Judy has Jerry pinned down. Joyce leans in toward the two prone wrestlers to get a better look. She looks into Jerry’s face and sees the wrestling equivalent of shock and awe.
“I could tell from his face that he could not believe she did it to him,” Joyce recalled. “That hold was the peak of the match because of who it was on. She realized she had to do something to him for him to respect her. It ain’t just Joyce doing it to him now, it’s Judy. A girl had put him in that position.”
On tape, Judy is firmly in control now, on top with all the advantages. Unlike in the earlier two-counts, when Jerry’s massive upper body was pinned down by Judy’s smaller upper body, his upper body is now pitted against her heavier lower body, a more even situation which is very problematic for Jerry. She is pressing down with the full weight of her center mass on him, her thick hips covering his broad chest, her big leg muscles vs. his not-as-big biceps. His powerful legs are helplessly suspended in air and his black boots are waving like white flags.
The referee smacks the canvas again. Two. Could it happen?
Judy is definitely trying to pin him now, too adrenalized and caught up in the moment to realize that would end the match and break the script that calls for the men to come out on top.
If ever a pin seemed locked in, this is it. She has the leverage. There should be no escape. Galloping girl power is about to subdue the most alpha of males. It is the world turned upside down, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs all over again. Can you smell what the Judy is cooking? It’s a mixture of adrenalin, sweat, burned bra and scorched male ego. It smells like victory. Forget about being the first male wrestler to be body slammed by one of the girls; how about being the first male wrestler to be pinned by one of the girls in the center of the ring on national television?
But there is no three.
It is pro wrestling’s special gift is to bring the crowd to the bursting peak of breathlessly agonized drama only to deflate the balloon. Jerry kicks out with phenomenal force, like a humpback whale breaching for air. Judy goes flying. Brute strength and an 80-pound weight differential prevail to avert disaster for Jerry and Steve and every man and boy in the arena and all those watching at home.
She came so close. The small package requires that the attacking wrestler plant two hooks on her opponent’s legs: an arm around one leg and a leg around the other. Judy had pulled off only half of the hold. When she brought Jerry to the mat, she hooked his left leg with her right arm but missed his right leg with her right leg.
“I didn’t hook my leg in far enough on his, and if I had I think that would have been an upset for them, for those guys,” Martin said. “At the time, I didn’t kind of realize what that would have really meant if that would have happened. Then afterwards, I thought that would have been something. I think that was why he was so strong kicking out. I think he was shocked at the count of two.”
Wrestling, like football, is a game of inches, a delicate and exacting calibration of mass and force. If Judy had inserted her leg just a little farther, she believes, just three inches, she would have locked in the hook and achieved the final bit of leverage necessary to anchor Jerry to the mat. He would have been trapped like a trussed calf. The match would have been all over but for the shouting. “I do believe it would have,” she said. “I think he would have had a harder time kicking out.”
And what if the unthinkable had happened?
“I think Ole Anderson would have had a heart attack,” Martin said, laughing. “When I got back to the dressing room, I thought, ‘Gosh, that would have been so great!’ Then I thought, ‘Ah, man, I’m quite sure they would have been mad at me’.”
Would the referee have called it if Judy had managed to hold Jerry for another second? “I highly doubt it,” Grable said, laughing as well.
“I think you would have had one of those counts where it goes one, two, two-and-half, two-and-three-quarters…” Martin said.
After that seeming near-death experience, Jerry, as if furious at his mounting humiliations at the hands of these two girls, chases Judy into her corner, his fist cocked, ready to unload a haymaker. Judy and Joyce back up and point at Jerry and complain loudly to the ref.
“Jerry was just able to kick out in time,” Steve O. said in his interview after the match. “But I tell you, when the people start screaming the action gets hot and heavy at that point, and sometimes you want to lose your temper. You try to control yourself. I said, ‘Jerry, don’t hit her.’ ”
Eventually, Jerry goes back to his corner, waves angrily at the women and tags out. He is done for the night, hors de combat. He has had his fill of Judy Martin. She remains in control of the ring, ready for more.
The men, of course, remember things somewhat differently. Olsonoski said the two-counts were nothing more than the men putting the women over to make them look good and sell the match. “The fact that they had us over [on our backs] at times was really us going with what made sense at the time,” Olsonoski said recently. “We just kind of surrendered and went with it. Hoping not to get hurt or hurt one of the girls.”
Rougeau also recalled it as just a well-worked match. “It was a fun match,” he recalled. “I really enjoyed that match. Whatever story you heard in the past isn’t the way things happened.”
“If there would have been heat, like you said there was, I wouldn’t have been working with them like I was there at the end. I wouldn’t have been working like that. I would have said, ‘Fuck it, fuck you,’ and I probably would have kicked their fucking teeth in. Probably the boys would have beat the shit out of me after. But no, the way I saw myself in the ring, I was having fun, I having total fun there.”
The differences in size, strength and gender, Olsonoski said, put limits on what could be done in the ring. “Nobody threw a punch,” he said. “We were told not to hit the girls. There were no drop kicks or suplexes. The small package, it’s one of the basic moves. You have to be able to trust them with some things. With wrestling and leverage they can do some simple things but how much do you give them before you start to look bad? Could they have body slammed us? Could they have suplexed us? Doing the small package and the hip toss and some of the other things, any of the wrestlers can do. There were so many things that you do in a match that we couldn’t do, because of the strength issues. We should have had more time to prepare. I’m just glad it turned out as well as it did.”
There is reality and then there is illusion, and deft illusion is the heart of pro wrestling. The fans don’t see what isn’t there but what is. With no preparation, by hook or by crook, through instinct and accident, these four wrestlers who had never worked together before have managed to construct and sell an exciting match, putting each other over in the process. Matches, in the end, are about chemistry, and these four wrestlers definitely have it. The combination of these four elements has lit a firestorm. They are all winners.
Bobby Simmons, the office manager for Georgia Championship Wrestling who was at ringside that night, recalled seeing his fears about the match quelled by the quality of the action in the ring.
“Everybody was worried if the people would buy it,” Simmons said. “I was worried about catcalls. I was worried about lewd comments. The guys and the girls worked so well together that people bought it. There was no comedy to it. There was no clowning around and no sexual stuff. If there had been any of that then the people wouldn’t have bought it. It was just straightforward wrestling.”
Grable said Simmons later told her, “When everybody started wanting the guys to whoop you all, we thought, ‘Oh, my God, you guys really went over.’ Because that meant it wasn’t a sex thing, it was a real match. It was just two women against two men, wrestling. I really felt good. Like I did my job.”
On the tape, up to now, the match has gone almost entirely in favor of the women. In fact, if you were scoring this like a high school or college match, the women would be way ahead on points, with their four takedowns and near falls against none for the men.Judy’s small package would have pushed the score to something like 16-5, a prohibitive lead that would have given the match to the women on a technical fall.
With Judy commanding the center of the ring, prancing on the canvas like an enraged mare, Steve O. tags in to face her. She immediately kicks him in the stomach, doubling him over and sending him into the ropes. Then she grabs him in a ferocious headlock and attempts to toss him to the mat. She is still goosed up on adrenalin. The women appear ready to rumble all night long. But for the men, the match has gone on long enough. Steve shakes off the hip toss and easily lifts Judy up into the air and onto his shoulder. The match ends when he body slams her and covers her for a three-count.
“It seemed to be an appropriate ending,” Olsonoski said. “That’s the question, how do you end it?”
“I don’t think anybody seriously though that the women could beat the men,” Simmons said. “Eventually, the men just overpowered them.”
But Simmons said one of the keys to the match going over, in addition to the authenticity of the wrestling, was the fact that the men and women made it a close-fought affair. The idea that the women could win was the engine of audience engagement. “There were some false finishes,” he said. “There had to be some moments in there where the women were on top. If the guys had totally dominated, then the crowd wouldn’t have given a fart. When the match was over and people had time to reflect on it, they could see, maybe, under certain circumstances, on a certain day, maybe the women could slip in and get a fall on the guys. We planted that seed.”
After what’s gone on in the ring, the men’s victory is almost an anti-climax. But everyone knows they have a hit on their hands.
“It was very successful for us,” Simmons said. “The crowd was really into it.”
In the ring, the defeated women complain loudly, especially Joyce. But behind the scenes they are elated. They have pulled it off.
“It was like when the chill bumps go all over you and you say, ‘Yes, we nailed it. Thank you,'” Grable recalled. “It was a good match.”
Rougeau said he was pleased after the match, too.
“I remember coming into the dressing room after, and we all hugged each other and we had a great time,” he said. “Everybody was so happy with that match, because it was two girls against two guys, and we had to put a match together where we made them look good. We had to sell for them, and we did it well — everything was done well.”
The men certainly knew they were in a match.
“It was strength that won out in the end,” Steve O. told Solie. “They won the battle and they got into the tournament, and Jerry and I got passed them. That first match was a very difficult one for us. I did prove that I had more strength than her even if they had maybe more fight. I think the girls proved one thing: They got equal rights just like the men.”
Steve O. and Roberts lost in the next round of the tournament, which was won by the Freebirds. Steve O. left the wrestling business after nearly a decade and entered the financial sector as an investment adviser. Roberts started wrestling under his real name, Jacques Rougeou Jr., and went on to a 30-year career that included making the big time with the WCW and the WWF, where he was a three-time World Tag Team champion. Grable’s wrestling career lasted 20 years from 1971 to 1991. She recalled that her strong legs were the secret to her longevity. “I always had really good legs. I never had any leg injuries.” Judy Martin also went on to a stellar career. She teamed with Lelani Kai to win both the NWA and WWF tag team belts, and she also held the U.S. women’s belt as a solo wrestler. Martin left the business in 1993.
She said male wrestlers praised her after the Atlanta match and continued to show respect for her throughout her career.
“That’s a compliment,” she said. “Being able to earn the respect from the male wrestlers that they see you as a worker and they respect you as an equal. Nowadays, I wish the women would get the respect that they deserve in the ring as a worker not just as a sex object or for the clothes that they wear.”
After Atlanta, mixed matches took off for a while. Grable and Martin wrestled Steve O. and Roberts again in Columbus, Ga., on Christmas Day. This match went over even better than the first. That was because respect had finally been established between the two teams. “The referee came to me in the dressing room and said, “Jerry said watch those kicks. You got him right there.’ I said, ‘Tell him, ‘You don’t try to hurt me and I won’t try to hurt you.’ After he knew that we weren’t going to just let him manhandle us, he treated us as an equal. When he treated us as equals, we could really get out there and wrestle. That’s when he saw, well, goodness, they can wrestle.”
The men won again, with Steve O. over Judy Martin again. The women did it again against another male team in Pensacola and Mobile, and the women even won one of the matches. “I think Judy Martin and I just double-teamed the other guy. We double-slammed him and together we got the three-count,” Grable recalled.
The matches eventually faded in interest when the novelty wore off. “It was the best when it was new, the first time we went against the two guys,” Grable said. “I guess it’s like having sex the first time.”
Grable recently bumped into Olsonoski at an autograph signing in Atlanta. They reminisced about the match, and she told him he could see it on YouTube. “It’s really good,” she told him. She encouraged him to check it out. “He did and he really liked it,” she said. “Back then, in the 1970s and 1980s, we really didn’t get to see what we actually did.”
Olsonoski says now the wrestlers and promoters should have made a lot more of the mixed matches than they did, cashing in on the opportunity they had created from nothing.
“We really didn’t know what we had at the time,” he said.
Rougeau also gave the match good reviews after watching it on YouTube.
“This is great,” he said. “It’s too bad I didn’t see this before I wrote my book; I would have put that in my book for sure.”
— with files from Greg Oliver
Jeff Leen is an editor at the Washington Post and the author of The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds and the Making of an American Legend, a biography of Mildred Burke.