The New York State Athletic Commission’s history of records management contains as many twists and turns as anything seen in a wrestling ring. Commission meeting minutes, from 1920 to 1977, went missing from the agency’s office in the late 1970s and eventually appeared in the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s collection about a decade later. Neither the Commission nor the State of New York knew about it until 1998.
These records contain the discussions, debates, and deliberations that regulated and legislated professional and amateur boxing and wrestling in New York from the beginning of the twentieth century until the mid-1970s. It can be argued that a good deal of the history of ringdom itself was printed upon those papers.
And they were gone.
According to reports retrieved by a January 2016 Freedom of Information Law request, the Hall of Fame’s executive director, Edward Brophy, obtained the collection from the family of a former Commission secretary who ‘saved’ it from destruction and stored it in her garage until a relative donated it to the nascent boxing museum in the 1980s (1). The Commission, however, was reportedly unaware of this and only learned of the missing minutes during a 1998 records assessment conducted by New York State Archives and Records Administration personnel (2). The State had rules establishing New York’s ownership of the collection and a records disposal policy for the Commission was created in the 1950s (3), but the papers still managed to slip through the public’s grasp and into private hands.
In 2009, New York State regained physical custody of the surviving Commission minutes. Processing the records revealed an unexplained gap in the collection between December 12, 1969 and March 27, 1973 (4).
What happened in that time period? Which agenda items and discussions might have been found in those minutes? In 1970, a federal court forced the Athletic Commission to reinstate Muhammad Ali’s boxing licence. In 1971, the Fight of the Century between Joe Frazier and Ali took place in Madison Square Garden. In 1972, the Athletic Commission allowed female reporters to sit in press row at boxing events and conduct interviews in locker rooms (so long as a Commission official declared the gentlemen inside properly attired (5)); the federal government passed Title IX, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in federally-funded programs; and women were finally allowed to obtain employment as professional wrestlers in the State of New York.
There is no way of knowing exactly what spurred the Commission to finally allow women grapplers to ply their trade on the State’s squared circles. Without these minutes, we do not know if the commissioners ended the ban due to an evolved point of view or a forced hand and egg on their faces.
It’s not just meeting minutes that were lost. License files generally had a short retention period (five years after the license’s expiration date), but materials on boxing and wrestling champions and other important figures under the Commission’s purview — Ali, Frazier, Jake LaMotta, Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan — were to be retained. The 1998 assessment included the following in a footnote (6):
It is unclear why files for these significant individuals have not been retained. Staff report that it was past Commission practice to retain files for major figures in boxing and wrestling history when it destroyed obsolete license files. However, office rumor has it that a previous Commission chairman subsequently ordered staff to destroy all such retained files for unknown reasons.
Despite the absence of Commission records, the legislative history of women’s wrestling in New York is not completely lost. Holdings of the New York State Library include a March 7, 1972, State Assembly bill to end the ban on women’s wrestling that was submitted by Vander L. Beatty (54th District, Brooklyn) (7). The measure would repeal the Athletic Commission’s existing gender-based regulation and replace it with “No person shall be prohibited from engaging in a wrestling match or exhibition on account of sex.”
An article published May 9, 1972 (8), quoted Beatty as saying “One of my constituents who is a wrestler wrote me and said she can wrestle in Massachusetts, but not in Brooklyn. She is being denied the opportunity for employment.” The bill, approved by a vote of 117-15, died in the Governmental Operations Committee (9,10).
A New York Times article indicates that the ban was overturned “[…] by a recent ruling by the New York State Athletic Commission.” (11) After all, it did have sole authority to regulate the sports in its grasp. A 1974 Milwaukee Journal article (12) set the date for the change as June 5, 1972.
With the ban officially over, the first women answered the bell at Madison Square Garden on July 1, 1972. Fabulous Moolah and her protege, Vicki Williams, stepped through the ropes in front of an audience of “19,512 quiet fans” (13) .
Fabulous Moolah is credited (rather, credits herself (14)) as having broken down the barrier, but it was Ethel Whitehead and Silvia Calzadilla who took the New York State Athletic Commission to court, Betty Niccoli who took on the Commission in the press, and Shari Lee, on behalf of Mildred Burke’s World Wide Women Wrestlers Association, who fired the shots in the battle to end the ban on women’s wrestling in New York. Pedro Martinez, too, gets a nod as having been the only man from the wrestling world in the Commission’s surviving records to have supported licensing women.
News outlets that picked up the story of Niccoli’s application cited the backing of the “Women’s Lib Movement” (15), but no one named Fabulous Moolah or Lillian Ellison, her legal name. Going by surviving Commission records, she does not appear to have had a role in overturning the ban on women’s wrestling in New York; her name is not mentioned in any hearing or petition regarding the matter.
Moolah was interviewed by a New York Times reporter for a piece on the historic first match and, at the time, did not claim any role in the end of the ban; the author gave sole honors to the Athletic Commission (16). Nevertheless, as the owner of the women’s championship and the booking agent for the largest stable of women wrestlers in the country (17), Moolah had the world of women’s wrestling (and its history) in a stranglehold. By controlling the legend she claimed the title of ground-breaker for herself.
One-hundred years apart, “Battling” Hildredth Whitehouse and Jessie “Bone Saw” Brooks had their respective matches stopped because someone did not believe they had the right to engage in their professions as they pleased. One a boxer, the other a wrestler, both comrades of the canvas in a century-long bout for equality in New York’s squared circles. A fight that saw its unfair share of trials, erasure and ignorance regarding the rights, history and legalization of women in the ring.
(1) Backman, P., Culver, M., Lorello, D. (2007). Unpublished site visit report. Received via January 2016 FOIL request.
(2) McConnell, B. (1998). Unpublished State Athletic Commission records assessment. Received via January 2016 FOIL request.
(4) Email correspondence with Tom Ruller, New York State Archives, April 25, 2016.
(5) Dooley digs dolls on duty delays decision on decency. (1972, March 03). The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 11/8/2016 from ProQuest.
(6) McConnell, B. (1998). Unpublished State Athletic Commission records assessment. Received via January 2016 FOIL request.
(7) New York (State). Legislature. Assembly. (1972). An act to amend chapter nine hundred twelve of the laws of nineteen hundred twenty […] in relation to sex of participants (A 11008). *
(8) N.Y. OKs ‘mat’ women, says no ‘coed’ matches. (1972, May 09). Chicago Daily Defender. Retrieved 1/10/2016 from ProQuest.
(10) New York (State). (1972). 11008 BEATTY. New York State Legislative Record and Index, 1972. **
(11) Woman wrestlers headline program at garden tonight (1972, July 1). New York Times. Retrieved November 8, 2015, from ProQuest.
(12) Porterfeld, W.R. (1974, December 5). And, in this corner, the Fabulous Moolah. Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved 1/10/2016 from Google Newspapers.
(13) Pincus, A. (1972, July 2). 19,512 quiet fans see women wrestle for first time in state. New York Times. Retrieved 7/2/2016 from ProQuest.
(14) Ellison, Lillian. (2002). The Fabulous Moolah: First goddess of the squared circle. New York: Reagan Books.
(15) Femme fatale tries mat law. (1970, October 29). Chicago Daily Defender. Retrieved 1/10/2016 from ProQuest.
(16) Pincus, A. (1972, July 2). 19,512 quiet fans see women wrestle for first time in state. New York Times. Retrieved 7/2/2016 from ProQuest.
(17) Leen, J. (2009). The queen of the ring: sex, muscles, diamonds and the making of an American legend. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
*Oh my god how the hell does one cite microfilmed legislative bills?!?!? GAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!
** I swear, I used to know how to cite stuff properly. Honest.