WWE makes rare reversal with women's battle royal name but questions still remain

WWE announced one week ago that, for the first time, a women's battle royal will be held at WrestleMania 34. If that were the extent of the reveal, it would have been lauded as great news. But it was not, and the outrage that followed led to WWE making a rare reversal of plans under pressure from fans, the media and a key sponsor.

In the spirit of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, WWE initially named the women's version the "Fabulous Moolah Memorial Battle Royal." Attaching Moolah's name to the match set off a wave of outrage from fans and members of the professional wrestling media that eventually reached WWE's key sponsor for WrestleMania in Snickers (parent company Mars).

Moolah -- real name Lillian Ellison, who passed away in 2007 -- has been accused numerous times over the years of various misdeeds. Allegations against Moolah have included wage theft, withholding bookings, financial and physical exploitation of her trainees, and most disturbingly, alleged drugging and exposing her students to sexual assault in exchange for compensation.

Moolah's career spanned over 50 years and included a WWE Hall of Fame induction in 1995. While Moolah had her detractors the entire time, public awareness about the extent and nature of the accusations against her grew with the era of shoot interviews and the emergence of social media. The murmurs turned to roars. Moolah's reputation soured quickly.

Still, last week, WWE aired a video package on Raw -- and then again on SmackDown despite immediate rejection of the name choice -- celebrating Moolah as a trailblazer and advocate for women's wrestling. Current and former WWE wrestlers tweeted their admiration of Moolah.

Meanwhile, social media posts from fans and media were overwhelmingly negative, some pointing out that Moolah's living peers and former students were conspicuously absent from WWE's tributes. One former student, Jeannine "Mad Maxine" Mjoseth, released a scathing statement to Pro Wrestling Sheet denouncing Moolah.

Over the past 20 years, it's become more common for former Moolah acquaintances to come forward with allegations. In 2015, Moolah student and WWE Hall of Famer Wendi Richter told CBS Sports that Moolah was a "very angry person, very vulgar," and that "she oppressed women's wrestling."

Last week, CBS Sports heard from five additional people who were either Moolah's students or worked with her in pro wrestling. Of the five, which spoke to CBS Sports on the condition of anonymity, four agreed that Moolah was widely disliked for the way she treated "her girls" and that the public complaints about her WrestleMania honor were valid and warranted. One described Moolah's students disliking her as a "consensus."

A former WWE wrestler claimed a well-known Moolah student endured such trauma under her wing that she legitimately feared Moolah's presence.

Three additional Moolah students did not respond to requests for comment. Another former student declined to speak. One did reach out to CBS Sports to offer support for Moolah, saying she was a "wonderful, lovely woman." That student claimed the complaints about bookings and pay were based on greed and that the women willingly signed on for such a deal when they joined Moolah's wrestling school.

"No one understands that she ran a booking business along with her training camp," the former student told CBS Sports. "They all signed the contracts."

When asked about serious allegations made about Moolah in the 2006 Columbia Free Times story "Baby of Sweet Georgia Brown," the source said she had seen the allegations but that it was "far from the woman I knew."

By Thursday, the outrage became too much to ignore. Snickers eventually got involved, calling the move "unacceptable." A short time later, WWE removed Moolah's name from the match. The company released a statement about the change and WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon tweeted her appreciation for the fans voicing their opinions. But renaming the match the "WrestleMania Women's Battle Royal" doesn't erase the questions raised by WWE's use of Moolah's name in the first place.

Prior to WWE's about-face, the current group of female WWE superstars were put in an awkward position, praising Moolah on social media and in video packages and then feeling the backlash firsthand. Some may have legitimately not known about the controversy they were stepping into, particularly the younger wrestlers.

The women's battle royal itself is a good idea. Naming it after a women's wrestling legend would be a nice touch, too, although it lacks the natural connection of the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. That match is named for Andre because his dominance in battle royals is one of old school wrestling's classic stories. There simply is no particular woman noted for dominance in battle royal matches. For that reason, WWE shouldn't have felt obligated to name the match after anyone in particular -- and certainly not Moolah.

If WWE wanted to honor a women's wresting legend by naming the battle royal after one, there are other solid candidates. Some of them may require WWE to step outside of its traditional comfort zone. For one, most candidates before the 1990s either didn't work for a McMahon promotion or did so under Moolah's control, which means with few exceptions they never ascended higher in the pecking order than Moolah.

Mildred Burke: If WWE is keen to tie its current women's wrestling scene to a legitimate trailblazer, Burke should be option No. 1. She was a bona fide star, she was an idolized champion and a legit draw who routinely topped the marquee as a main eventer. She's already a legacy WWE Hall of Famer. She inspired Moolah's generation to view women's wrestling as a career option. The word "trailblazer" is thrown around a lot in WWE video packages, but if that's truly important criteria for this honor, Burke is your selection. Speaking of blazing trails ...

Rose Roman Hesseltine, Betty Niccoli: Two different women from different eras, but with one thing in common: They each personally fought to legalize women's wrestling in states where it was still illegal. Hesseltine hired a lawyer and took the Illinois Athletic Commission to court in 1955, successfully suing for the right to work as a pro wrestler in the state. Similarly, Niccoli was an established wrestler for years, particularly in Kansas City and in the AWA. In 1970, Niccoli hired lawyers and a public relations firm to pressure the New York State Athletic Commission to consider legalizing women's wrestling. New York finally legalized it in 1972, but Niccoli never did get to wrestle in Madison Square Garden, which became the domain of Moolah and her students. Neither is well-known to today's fans, but again -- if you're going to use phrases like "blazed a trail" or "paved the way" as criteria for an honor -- these two are qualified.

Titi Paris: The Brooklyn-based wrestler (real name Fathia Djaileb) started an aggressive campaign to get the New York State Athletic Commission to lift its ban on women's wrestling in 1971-72. As told in Pat Laprade's 2017 book "Sisterhood of the Squared Circle," Paris wanted the right to wrestle in her home state but specifically dreamed of wrestling in Madison Square Garden. Due in large part to Paris' effort, the ban was lifted in 1972, but Paris never worked the Garden despite actively pursuing the honor with the support of none other than Mildred Burke. Allegedly, Moolah blocked Paris and other women not under her control from getting booked there. There is little realistic chance that WWE would honor Paris, but all the same, she'd deserve it.

Sherri Martel: Another WWE Hall of Famer and former AWA and WWE women's champion, "Sensational Sherri" was an immensely talented all-around performer. She could wrestle. She could talk. She was an incredible manager, having worked the corner for all-time greats like Randy Savage and Shawn Michaels. Martel lived and breathed the wrestling business. As a bonus, the WWE Network is fully stocked with vintage Sherri moments so putting together promotional packages should be effortless.

Trish Stratus: She would make sense in the context of the current generation of WWE women's wrestlers, because Stratus is one of the former WWE stars (along with Lita) to start the process of bridging the gap between the "Diva" era and a more wrestler-centric women's scene. She's got modern-era appeal and plenty of classic moments in the video vault to choose from. She's still available for appearances. Also, she makes a great ambassador for the product, with a pretty spotless rap sheet.

CBS Sports Staff

Denny Burkholder has been a writer, editor and producer for CBS Sports dating back to 1999. He has covered everything from the NFL to the UFC during his tenure, with a specialty in all things WWE and pro... Full Bio

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