Biography explores female pioneer
Review: Queen of the Ring by Jeff Leen
From 1937 to 1951, Mildred Burke was the undisputed women’s professional wrestling champion of the world. Emerging alongside the likes of Babe Ruth and Seabiscuit as a depression-era cultural icon, she was a star capable of winning legitimate matches in the days when the lines between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ were blurred. Alongside her husband and promoter Billy Wolfe, Burke toured the US, fighting to get recognition alongside her male peers. Wolfe, however, was lecherous, taking advantage of his meal ticket and ultimately discarding her.
Centered around Burke’s infamous shoot match against June Buyers, Jeff Leen’s book Queen of the Ring is a detailed look at Burke and her place in history. At one point in her career, Burke made $50,000 a year, as much as baseball star Joe DiMaggio, though wrestlers often lied about how much they were earning.
The book introduces readers to a cast of characters as colourful outside the ring as they are on camera.
Burke’s career is the subject of misinformation. Like many famous people from her era, some details are simply lost to time. Other details are twisted in the wrestler’s own self promotion efforts, with stories that are exaggerated or shifted to make her seem better. Leen sifts through these details to get closer to the truth, and the book fares well in these sections devoted to demystifying Burke.
Jeff Leen is a multiple time Pulitzer Prize winner and Queen of the Ring demonstrates why, balancing a high level of detail with the need to advance the narrative. A good biography can feel like a conversation with the subject, as Leen’s quotes from Burke’s unpublished autobiography does. Burke, who passed away in 1989, emerges as a woman who had to fight every step of the way to make space in what was (and remains) a man’s world. After her divorce from Wolfe left her financially destitute, Burke nonetheless gave back to the wrestling business, training women and helping to establish joshi (women’s) wrestling in Japan after a successful tour. While not a religious person, Burke was deeply spiritual, and the book explores how she often considered her career in the context of a broader destiny.
Queen of the Ring has been adapted into a feature film starring Marie Avgeropoulos, Walton Goggins, Josh Lucas, Emily Bett Rickards, Deborah Ann Woll, Gavin Casalegno, Kelli Berglund, and Ash Avildsen (who also wrote the script). The film is expected to release later this year.
The Queen of the Ring is available to buy on Amazon. The film adaptation will be released later in 2024.