by Shiai Mata
For anyone familiar with women's professional wrestling in the 1970s, the name of Debbie Johnson is immediately recognizable. She wrestled many of the biggest stars of the era, appeared in the classic 'drama-mentary,' WRESTLING QUEEN, and made history in 1972 by helping to break down the barrier against women's matches in New York City, with her memorable world title match against the Fabulous Moolah before nearly 25,000 fans at Shea Stadium.
At the height of her career, Debbie left wrestling, and hasn't looked back... until now.
In an exclusive conversation with LadySports Online, Debbie now shares her unvarnished, cut-to-the bone recollections about her years in the sport. She doesn't hesitate to assert the truth as she saw it, and to reveal her honest feelings. This is an interview that will be talked about for years to come!
LadySports: Debbie, why don't you get us going by telling us about how you got into wrestling?
LadySports: What led you from Kentucky to Moolah's camp?
Little did I know what I was really getting myself into. I was so young and dumb about life in general, but I grew up very fast, and I was really good at keeping my mouth shut at first, and I listened very well, too.
I learned very fast that I had gotten into a world I knew nothing about, and was a little intimidated by it all. But I learned that if I was going to survive, I had to toughen up... fast!
LEARNING THE ROPES
LadySports: When you first began, were there any other wrestlers whom you patterned yourself after?
But if I had to say that I looked up to anyone else in the wrestling world, it would have to be Penny Banner.
LadySports: So you didn't follow anyone else's ring style?
THE FABULOUS ONE
LadySports: Let's talk about your relationship with the Fabulous Moolah, and what it was like to work for her.
I feel it's way past time for the real truth to come out. I am not saying that everyone was treated the way I was. In fact, some were treated very well. I think part of it was because I was so young, and they thought I would always do what I was told to do. And I did for a long time, but when I saw others being treated differently from the way I was treated, it really pissed me off.
I guess that's when I started to fight back. I felt like a slave and I was treated as one. I wasn't allowed to leave the compound unless someone was with me. I was not allowed to have company on the compound, but no one else was, either. It was like a small fortress, an iron gate at the entrance, and they watched me like hawks.
I wasn't allowed to have any friends except for the other girls who were there, and I couldn't trust any of them. If I told someone something in confidence, it always got back to Moolah, and I would be dealt with for it. If I pissed her off too much, she wouldn't let me work, and that meant starving, so I had to walk on egg shells for a long time.
There is no way I can explain how awful my life was for a very long time. When it was all going on, it seemed like an eternity. But in a way, I owe Moolah and my mother a lot, because they were both very controlling and made my life a living hell... and that in turn made me the person I am today. I have worked very hard to not be like either of them.
I could never do to anyone the things that they did to me, and still today I wonder why they did it! Why did my mother seem to hate me so much? I know now why Moolah did what she did: I was one of her meal tickets, and she had to control me as long as she could.
She took 30% of everything we all made before anything else came out of our money. Then she took out our travel expenses, then food, then rent because we all... or most of us... lived on her property, and so we had to pay her rent. And she added the utilities, so I always ended up owing her more money than I made. I worked my ass off for her for almost two years before I ever had money coming to me, and the first time she paid me, I got $125.00 and I thought I was rich!
The women who worked for her made her a very wealthy person. It wasn't her talent that earned her what she had, but the talents of all of the women that worked for her. I wasn't the only one treated badly, but I think I am the only one that is willing to tell the complete truth.
The fact is that she was a user of anyone who worked for her. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but the truth is the truth. She was a bitch, plain and simple. She was one of the worst people I have ever known.
IN NAME ONLY
LadySports: One really can't talk about Debbie Johnson without mentioning another wrestler from that
era, Dottie Downs. She, of course, is your mother... but things were a bit more complex than that, weren't they?
She was never supportive of me in anything I did. She was very much a 'ME' type of person. It was always about her. My mother had four children and gave us all away, so you can see why I don't have a lot of love for her.
She had no influence on my decision to become a wrestler. I wanted to do it, although she went to Moolah's just before I did. But she trained for nearly a year before having her first match, much longer than I did. She was older, of course, and had high blood pressure that she never took care of... that's why she is in a nursing home now, and has been since she was 49 years of age.
LadySports: With the both of you working for Moolah, did you ever have to wrestle one another?
In the match where we wrestled against each other, I busted her mouth open and she bled very well. It was NOT on purpose, but to this day she doesn't believe that.
I haven't talked to her in several years, for many reasons. My so-called mother and Moolah did some very cruel and hurtful things to me. I guess it was because I was so young, and they thought they could control me totally. But as I got older, they soon learned that I was not going to take their shit any more.
ON THE ROAD
LadySports: Where were some of the places you had wrestled?
I was scheduled to go to Japan in the mid-70s; I got all of the shots and all that, and a week before I was supposed to go, the trip was cancelled. I was very upset, to say the least.
LadySports: And who were some of the women you worked with?
I did tag some, and if I had to pick the women that I seemed to be partnered up with the most, it would probably be Vicki Williams and Susan Green.
I usually worked as a face, but did get to heel a couple of times. But I was so used to being the 'good guy', it was a little harder for me to be the heel.
LadySports: Who would you say was your toughest opponent ever?
LadySports: Did any of your rivalries ever get down to a personal level?
LadySports: Were you ever seriously injured in the ring?
LadySports: What were some of the other wrestlers you worked with the most like?
LadySports: And did you ever have a bad fan encounter?
THE MAIN EVENTER
LadySports: September the 30th of 1972 was the date of one of the most epic events in wrestling in t
hat era, when the WWWF hosted its 'Super Card' at Shea Stadium in New York. You challenged the Fabulous Moolah for
her title in the co-main event. Does that night still remain memorable for you?
I was only the third woman in New York to wrestle after they finally opened it up to women, and that match was one of the best, even though I didn't win it. It took a lot to go out there in the cold and face the one woman in the world I wanted to beat the most.
I always believed that in a one-on-one, I could take Moolah's belt. If I could have had a match with her, no holds barred and anything goes, I know I could have beaten her.
LadySports: Did you ever get another shot at Moolah's belt after that?
FROM ROOKIE TO VETERAN
LadySports: What were some of your favorite territories?
LadySports: At any point, did Moolah have you help train any of her students?
LadySports: You're one of the people featured in what is undoubtedly one of the most frequently published
wrestling photos of the era. There's you, Christianello, Rose and Williams, all being held aloft in the arms of Andre the Giant!
LadySports: You had become one of the better known women in the sport, but then you suddenly retired
and disappeared from wrestling.
A lot of bad things were done to me at the hands of Moolah and my mother, and I wanted out so that I could have a real life. When I first started, I wasn't old enough to sign a contract myself, so my mother signed one for me. And at 18 when the time came to renew it, I did sign for another three years. But I didn't make it. Something very... bad... happened. I had to make some serious changes in my life in order to just have a life, and I thought the only way out was to get married. I told them I would 'marry the first swinging dick that asked'... and that's just what I did.
I married the first man that asked me. I had only known him for two weeks and been out with him once, and we were married! In my eyes, that was my only way out, so I took it. There were repercussions... Moolah tried to chase him off, but it didn't work. I know it was a very stupid thing to do, but I was so desperate to get away from them. I can't really say I'm sorry I did it, because I had two beautiful children from that marriage, and for that reason I am glad I did what I did.
I feel very blessed... I ended up with two great sons. My youngest, Kevin, died in 2000 at the age of 24 from an experimental cancer treatment. My oldest son Brian is now 32 and has grown into a wonderful man, with two great children of his own, and I am so very proud of him. Kevin left us a beautiful little girl, Grace, who is now 7 years old. He said that it was only by the grace of God that he was allowed to live long enough to see her born, but he was so worried that she would never remember him, and never know how much he loved and wanted her. I promised him she would always know he was her father, and that I would give her memories of him. So, every Christmas, she gets a gift from her daddy from Heaven.
Last year I lost my husband of 27 years, Randy. He was a step-father to my sons, but if you ask Brian today about his dad, he would tell you about Randy. He was never a step-dad, he was just a great dad.
LadySports: You left the sport with what would have to be assumed would be many successful years in the
business ahead of you. Over time, have you ever been tempted to step back into the ring?
LadySports: After all of these years, so you have any regrets?
LadySports: And what is life like for you these days?
LadySports: What's the one thing you'd like fans to most recall when they think about Debbie Johnson's career?
LadySports: Debbie, before we finish, I simply have to tell you how fun and enlightening it has been to
speak with you. Thank you so much for speaking so openly and honestly with the LadySports Online fans. Is there anything
else you would like to add?
pics courtesy of Ms Johnson