Lillian Ellison of Columbia was the longest reigning champion in the history of sport - any sport.
She was a female professional wrestler who plied her trade as the “Fabulous Moolah.” She was the queen of the ring for 28 years, from 1956 until she was dethroned in 1984 by a young competitor managed by pop star Cyndi Lauper.
After her retirement, she ran a wrestling school and promoted matches from her compound near Percival Road, a gaggle of houses and a tiny gym surrounding a pond at the end of Moolah Drive. There she trained and managed some of the top female wrestlers in the country, as well as the occasional male journeymen.
“She epitomized female professional wrestling,” said Del Wilkes, who trained at the compound and went on to wrestle professionally. “The girls trained and lived there. But there were men, women, midgets, tattoos and Mohawks. It was a cast of characters and I loved it.”
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“Moolah,” as she was universally known, died in November 2007 at the age of 84. More than nine years later, her compound has been sold for $400,000 to Sonlight Resources Institute, a community outreach ministry. Officials for Sonlight, now operating at 4949 Two Notch Road, could not be reached for comment.
A recent visit to the compound showed that tenants apparently still occupy the small duplexes and homes that once housed the budding wrestlers. Moolah’s large, two-story square house dominates the shoreline, and the small, garage-like gym sits behind it.
Wilkes, 55, is a former University of South Carolina offensive lineman and a captain of the 1984 “Black Magic” team. He paid $1,500 in 1987 to train to be a wrestler after a career in professional football didn’t pan out.
“It was the only wrestling school in Columbia,” he said. “It was geared toward women. No guy had had any success out of there. I knew I was dealing with someone a little different.”
Raised in Blythewood
Moolah was born Mary Lillian Ellison in 1923, according to her obituary. The youngest and only girl of 13 children, she was raised near Blythewood in the Tookiedoo neighborhood.
Her mother died of cancer when Ellison was 8, and Ellison’s quality time with her father involved attending weekly pro wrestling matches in Columbia.
The matches spawned a love of the sport in Ellison, and she was trained in the ring in the 1940s by then-women's champion Mildred Burke – the sport's biggest star at the time, according to her WWE history.
She acquired her “Moolah” moniker when a wrestling promoter asked her why she wanted to wrestle. Her response: “For the money! I want to wrestle for the moolah!”
Wilkes remembered that capitalistic attitude never left her. After her wrestling career ended, she would not only charge for her training at the Columbia compound, but collect rent from the girls for staying there.
As for the men, she would farm them out to events as “enhancements” – less talented and unknown wrestlers who would enter the ring to be defeated quickly by a name competitor.
Often she would book events around the Midlands, Wilkes said, but not pay the wrestlers, claiming she wasn’t making any money. The wrestlers would do it to gain experience.
But Wilkes said he once found proof during a match at the Orangeburg County Fair that she was being paid rather well for the events.
“She was good at making her money last and taking your money and making it last,” Wilkes said, chuckling. “We went our separate ways after that, but I never held it against her. She came up during a tough time for women wrestlers.”
Inducted into Hall of Fame
Though Moolah lost the world championship in 1984, she won it again the next year and held it for two years. In 1999, at age 76, she reclaimed the title for a final time.
She became the first female inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame. And professional wrestlers universally mourned her death.
At the time, Katie Glass, then 63, of Columbia, a professional wrestler for 25 years, told The State that Ellison took her under her wing when she was 17.
Glass, also known as “Diamond Lil,” saw Ellison wrestle in Richmond, Va. Ellison took Glass to live with her in the Columbia compound and coach her.
"She just taught me the basics, the holds, how to get somebody down, lock them down and everything," said Glass, .
In 2005, Ellison was featured in a documentary film, “Lipstick & Dynamite: The First Ladies of Wrestling.” Moolah also wrote an autobiography, “The Fabulous Moolah: First Goddess of the Squared Circle.”
Moolah’s large monument in Greenlawn Memorial Park bears her picture.
“I love old people and I love babies,” she told The State in 2005. “And if anybody else steps in my way, I'll just kick (their butt). That's the way it is.”