SHE WAS WAITING in her Chevy at a dusty intersection in rural Mississippi when the gunman struck. It was September 17, 1973, and Ann Casey was touching up her makeup en route to a wrestling match in nearby Columbus. At 35 years old, she had spent a decade wrestling in risqué outfits as Panther Girl, becoming the sport’s first pinup and a serious contender for the US women’s title. But then, in an instant, everything changed. A man walked up to her passenger window, pointed a German Luger pistol at her head. As he pulled the trigger, Casey screamed, and stamped on the accelerator. The shooter was knocked off balance, and missed his shot from point blank range. But as the car fishtailed away he took aim again. Her rear window exploded.
Deadly hollow-point bullets rained into the car as it raced away. Designed to mushroom on impact, they cut through Casey’s body, and burst through her chest. The fourth bullet destroyed her liver, and the fifth blew a hole through her left lung, which began to fill with warm blood. The gunman emptied his entire magazine into the Chevy.
Ann Casey was no stranger to pain, but her body told her she was dying. Her sport’s extravagant matches had been fixed for years, but deviation from the script and violent double-crossings were common. No one was impervious to such machinations, not even the ring’s golden girl, with her Bettie Page looks and her Babe Didrikson all-around prowess. In a jealous world full of angry wrestling midgets, crooked promoters, and bitter love triangles, who would want Panther Girl dead?
In a newspaper article printed just before the shooting, Casey had spoken of the rivalry with her former mentor and hated rival, Fabulous Moolah, the women’s-wrestling tsarina who held the industry in a stranglehold. “Moolah’s got so many tricks up her sleeve, it isn’t even funny,” Casey said. “I’ve wrestled her before, and golly, she did everything to me short of murder.” Wrestling fans knew that Casey had her eye on Moolah’s championship belt, and that the two had bitterly split over finances. But outside of the ring, Casey harbored a secret: her travels as a wrestler were a cover for something much more clandestine.
With every heartbeat, blood spurted from her chest wound and splattered against the windshield. Her lungs had collapsed, and a pool of blood had formed between her legs. Somehow, she was able to drive the short distance to a service station, where her bullet-riddled car lurched onto the forecourt. “I’ve been shot!” she gasped, and a shocked attendant shakily dialed for help. One of the most famous bodies in wrestling slumped against the steering wheel, her eyes glazed over. Only one word fell from Ann’s lips: “Why?”
BORN ON SEPTEMBER 29, 1938, Lucile ‘Ann’ Casey was five years old when electricity arrived in Saraland, Alabama. It was a lawless, farming town just north of Mobile, where differences were settled with fistfights at the local watering hole. Her daddy, John B. Casey, a violent Irishman, and her beautiful, Creek Indian mother, Viola Lillian Smith, would beat each other nightly, and seemed to revel in finding new and creative ways to thrash their daughter. “Daddy wanted a boy to toil in the fields,” she said, “He didn’t show any love towards me.” One brutally cold winter as a child, she was left outside all night long; another time she was struck with a blunt knife so hard that for the rest of her life, a six-inch scar would appear whenever her face blushed.
The family later moved to Lucedale, just across the state line in Mississippi, where they had bought a 200-acre cotton farm. “I became a white slave,” she said, “a 10-fingered cotton-picking machine.” Ann’s Native American grandfather would tell her stories of the area’s hidden treasure: centuries-old Cherokee loot buried in the ground just below the family’s potatoes. It gave her an incentive to dig.
Field labor made her strong and muscular. She was beautiful too—the talk of the local boys. Desperate to escape the farm and her family, Ann eloped with a boy named Eddie. They faked her age, and at 16, she was married. “You don’t ever have to go back home,” Eddie promised her, as he kissed her in a fleabag motel. “He tried to have sex with me through the side of my panties,” she said. And sure as apples was apples, nine months later she gave birth to a baby boy named George.
Daddy was furious. He had the marriage annulled and threatened to kill Eddie. But Ann vowed to raise her boy—she loved him and cared for him like any mother would. Yet as America edged toward the end of the Eisenhower era, the recession of 1958 was in full swing. “You’ll never own a window or a pot of piss to throw out of it,” her father said, as she loaded his wagon with corn. “No-sir-ee, bobtail,” added her mother.
The only job Ann could find was in the box office for the Fields Brothers wrestling company in Mobile. It was 1960, and Lee, Don, and Bobby Fields dominated the Gulf Coast wrestling scene, hosting events at the old National Guard Armory Building. Casey cared little for “rassling,” as it was pronounced, but left young George with an elderly neighbor to earn some cash every weekend.
One evening, a female wrestling match boasted a tag-team that included the Fabulous Moolah. Moolah, born Mary Lillian Ellison, owned America’s top women’s wrestling school, and managed every female wrestler worth booking in the United States. Her unabashed love for money earned Ellison the glorious nickname, which she embraced, even wearing huge sparkling glasses in the shape of dollar signs as part of her costume. The five-foot-six grappler had a beautiful body—but with a face to protect it. She was also known to hide a roll of quarters in her bra to use as a weapon—literally beating wrestlers with their own earnings.
Ann walked into the dressing room that night and handed Moolah her takings—an envelope stuffed with cash. Around her hips, Moolah wore a giant golden belt that read: WOMEN’S US WRESTLING CHAMPION. When she saw Ann Casey, Moolah froze like a statue.
“Wait a minute, young lady,” Moolah said. “Let me see those legs.”
“Not a chance!” said Ann, outraged.
“With those legs, darlin’, you’d make a lot of money as a wrestler,” she promised. “You could travel to all the wonderful places in the world!” Moolah followed the girl into the darkened hallway, and turned her around by the arm. Ann protested that she had a little boy to pick up. She had to get going.
“Suit yourself,” said Moolah. “But take this in case you ever change your mind.” She handed Ann her details on a piece of paper, which was promptly pocketed and forgotten. Ann had two jobs now—one in the ticket booth and another at a local cocktail bar, where she worked for pitiful tips. There was no time to dream of running away with the circus.
As the summer of 1960 turned into fall, and the pumpkins on the farm turned from green to orange, Casey contemplated another hard winter’s labor for her father. She spent nights crying, fearful that her son would end up just like her, trapped in a penniless existence. Only then did she reach into her coat pocket and find the scrap of paper with Moolah’s details written on it. After much soul searching, she tearfully left six-year-old George with his father, and packed up her battered ’55 Ford Sedan. If Moolah’s promise was true, Ann Casey’s fame and fortune lay in the squared circle.
The Columbia, South Carolina, address was a small, white-framed house with a white picket fence, but behind the suburban façade lay a bizarre new world. When the door opened, Ann saw no one there at all, until she looked down and noticed an angry dwarf with her hands on her hips.
“Is this where the Fabulous Moolah lives?” asked Ann.
“Who wants to know?”
“I’m Ann Casey. I’m here to learn how to rassle.”
Diamond Lil, known to Moolah as “my damned midget,” walked Casey to the small bunkhouse in the back. It had a spit ’n’ sawdust gym and a tired-looking ring made of one-inch plywood, with old padded carpet and a torn canvas tarp. A sign read: GIRL WRESTLING ENTERPRISES, and a poster suggested: IF YOU CAN'T WIN YOU CAN'T LOSE. IF YOU CAN'T LOSE YOU CAN'T WIN. Lil tossed Casey a black, one-piece bathing suit.
“Training starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning,” said Diamond Lil, wagging a chubby finger. “Don’t you dare be late.”
At dawn, Moolah entered the gym flanked by her husband Buddy Lee, an Italian wrestling champion from the Bronx, and Gypsy Joe, a trainer. Moolah looked at Casey and whistled. “Doesn’t she look sexy in that swimsuit?” That morning Moolah taught Casey the basics: how to fall correctly, and the names of the holds: top arm lock, side headlock, the step-over leg hold, and the referees position. Casey’s head was spinning with the flying mare and the half nelson, as Gypsy Joe watched while eating a whole sweet potato, which he provocatively mushed around his lips and mustache.
“This girl’s going to the top in a hurry,” Moolah told Gypsy, as they watched Casey sprint around the ring. Fresh air and farm labor had given Casey a breathtaking body, with strong arms, shapely legs, and a muscular back. Casey had spent her youth running barefoot across the fields—she could ride, punch, and kick. And she could leap fences like a deer. “It’s easier than openin’ and closin’ the gate,” Casey explained, the first time Moolah watched her jump the top rope. It was a feat the manager had never previously witnessed. Moolah liked what she was seeing, be-cause what she was seeing was dollar signs.
“Stick with me, and I’ll make sure you get the best billings and be pushed to the top,” said Moolah, as she led Casey into a bedroom filled with multicolored outfits. Moolah casually flicked through dozens of reinforced swimsuits made from bright colors and patterns, all tailored at great expense.
Casey picked a leopard-print costume, and tried it on. Moolah handed her two rubber breasts. “There ain’t no damn way!” Casey shrieked, but reluctantly gave them a try. Then Moolah teased Casey’s long black hair into curls, and applied thick stage makeup. When Ann Casey emerged from the room in a cloud of hairspray, she had changed from a Mississippi farm hand into Panther Girl, the most glamorous wrestler in the South.
“Holy shit,” gasped Gypsy Joe, and dropped his potato.
THE CROWD WAS RESTLESS in Spartanburg, South Carolina. It was the fall of 1961, and temperatures had risen across the South. Following violent clashes at civil rights demonstrations, martial law was imposed in the town of Montgomery and had only recently been lifted. At the time, black wrestling spectators were segregated, and watched from the buzzard seats, where the air grew thick with tobacco smoke and sizzling onion fumes. It was a relief for all sections of the audience to suspend their disbelief for an evening, to boo and hiss at the bad girls, or “heels,” as they entered the ring. The fans antagonized the referee and booed Brenda Scott and the dark-skinned Rita Cortez—producing what Moolah called “heat.”
Then came Ann Casey and Judy Grable, the all-American baby-faces whom the crowd would root for. Moolah taught Casey the ways of the ring: how to pull punches to prevent hurting her opponent, how to choreograph a good fight, and how a spectacular finish left the crowd on a high point, begging to come back next week. It was known in the trade as “kayfabe,” a closely guarded code word for the wrestlers’ fake version of reality.
The crowd had never seen a woman wrestler jump the top rope and an audible gasp rose from stands as Casey made her ring debut. “...And in the blue corner, from Mobile, Alabama, weighing in at 140 pounds, is Ann Casey—the Panther Girl!” shouted the announcer. The bell clanged. Casey and Cortez ran towards each other, becoming a mess of hair and flying limbs. Casey threw Cortez straight out of the ring where she hit the floor with a sickening thud. When Cortez returned, Casey followed Moolah’s script throw-for-throw..
“Now it’s the end,” Casey whispered in Rita’s ear. She lifted the helpless body across her shoulders and turned her around and around, the crowd growing louder with every revolution. Then she sent Cortez crashing down on the mat and pinned her. The referee slid in with a “One...Two...Three!” and Panther Girl’s trademark airplane spin was born. Ann Casey was the winner, mobbed by adoring fans.
She then saw the families in the crowd with their children, and thought of little George, miles away at home. He was a preschooler now, and Ann missed her little boy very much. She longed for her first check from Moolah to send toys home, but instead of wages she was shocked to be presented with an invoice.
Wrestling training, Bunkhouse rent, Moolah’s meals... The list went on, and totaled nearly $8,000. Moolah explained that all her girls had to pay their way, and that Casey must hit the road with her merry band to earn the money back. It would take “no time” Moolah promised, and handed Casey the keys to an old Chevy.
Ann Casey began to travel all over the South, wrestling local girls, handing Moolah a third of her income, with continued further deductions for “personal expenses.” Through these accounting gymnastics, Moolah amassed diamond rings and fur coats, while her wrestlers slept in their cars, surviving on tinned sardines and crackers. Panther Girl barnstormed small-town America in her leopard swimsuit. “Just look at that figger!” the cigar-chomping ring announcers would gasp, “Goddamn... What a helluva body!” Through the years, Panther Girl defeated many of the sport’s greats of the time—Toni Rose, Brenda Scott, even the much younger Leilani Kai later in her career—winning fans in every town.
During the summers, young George traveled with Ann, and they lived out of suitcases, enjoying the romance of the road. He watched with glee as his mother entered the ring, and would join the local kids in firing spitballs at her when she occasionally played the heel. In a newspaper article from that period, George is listed as the president of the official Panther Girl fan club. An interviewer joked that George was also her press agent, poking his head into her dressing room, and asking, “Hey Mom, you ready for this girl now?”
“Wrestling,” Casey would tell reporters, “has changed my entire personality and outlook on life.” The girl that once lived in fear of her parents’ savage beatings was now a legend in the ring, and turning into one outside of it. Occasionally, overzealous fans would get carried away and jump in. Casey would send them packing with sore heads and red faces. Once, a woman in Texas battered her with a handbag full of metal horseshoes. Another time in Montgomery, three drunks jumped her in the parking lot—when the cops arrived, Casey had two of them pinned.
In the winter, Casey avoided out-of-town bookings to be back home in Mississippi with her son. “I was a mother first, and wrestler second,” she said. George would still accompany her to nearby matches; he earnestly did his homework in the dressing room while she performed drop kicks and gave interviews to the wrestling press. To Moolah’s quiet dismay, they had started to call her the new Queen of the Ring.
“The fans love Ann Casey, and more than one young man has fantasized over Casey’s extraordinary beauty,” gushed Lady Sports magazine. “She has superstar written all over her,” wrote Inside Wrestling, for whom she was a cover girl. Among the brutish women and freaks, Casey’s girl-next-door looks gave the sport a fresh-faced sheen.
Moolah’s husband, Buddy Lee, taught Casey how to strengthen her stomach, keeping her tummy tight to withstand kicks and blows. They threw a medicine ball back and forth for hours in the gym, and Casey learned to dropkick and bounce off the ring ropes to boost her running jump. Eventually, she could fly six feet. When Moolah wrestled Casey one-on-one for practice, she did everything possibleto rough her up, but the more they wrestled, the more Casey learned from the master.
Moolah wanted Casey to become a “shooter,” a straight wrestler for matches that did not follow a script. With no pulled punches or fake arm locks, a shooter could really damage an opponent. As Moolah’s enforcer, Casey could deliberately hurt other girls, especially those not under Moolah’s management. But when Casey refused, Moolah booked a match where student and teacher would face off for the very first time.
“This was my first chance to win that belt,” said Casey.
The accompanying headline read: ANN CASEY MIXES GOOD LOOKS WITH TALENT IN DRIVE FOR MOOLAH’S TITLE, and the subsequent match was broadcast on closed circuit television, from a dark, smoky Washington D.C. studio. By 1962, women’s wrestling had a grip on TV, as millions tuned in to watch weekly bouts and the kinds of trash-talking interviews that inspired the antics we see today in the WWE. Legend has it that when Moolah took on Panther Girl for the US Women’s belt, even President Kennedy tuned in.
“Moolah had 15 years on me and many years wrestling experience,” said Casey. “I only weighed 140 pounds, but at five-foot-eight I had very long legs and arms, and big strong hands from milking cows.” In the early matches, it was her strength, rather than her skills, that saved her from being beaten.
As she leapt into the ring, a voice from the crowd yelled: “Okay, Ann, let’s see you take that belt from Moolah!”
It was an endurance match, fought mostly outside of the ring. Moolah used all sorts of objects as weapons, but by the start of round three, the titleholder was grabbing onto the ropes out of exhaustion. Every time Casey ran to grab her, Moolah slipped out of the ring, taking advantage of the 20-count to catch her breath. But it was all a ruse. Moolah reached in and swept both of Casey’s legs. She pulled Panther Girl through the ropes and onto the concrete floor and held her there. The script had been abandoned. Moolah wouldn’t risk Casey turning the tables and stealing her belt. The referee counted 20, disqualified the match, and apple cores rained into the ring as Moolah sneaked away, still the champion.
A few months later, Casey did beat Moolah for the first time, during a tag-team match that wrestling fans would call a classic. Moolah smashed a roll of dimes over Ann’s head, opening up a bloody wound, but somehow the coins exploded and flew into the crowd. Moolah dropped to her knees to gather the money, and was prone to attack. “Finish her!” begged the crowd, and as Casey pushed Moolah’s face into the mat, she whispered, “Next time, this’ll be for the belt.”
“Over my dead body,” hissed Moolah, eating canvas.
ONE NIGHT, before a match card taking place far from the South, there was a knock at Ann Casey’s dressing room door. When she opened it, there stood Elvis Presley.
“I’m looking for that wrestling woman from Mississippi,” said Elvis.
“Well sir, you’re looking at her, I’m Ann Casey.”
The King held out his hand and said, “Well, hullo.”
He walked in and sat down.
“You know, I’m from Tupelo,” he said.
“I knew you were from down home,” said Casey, as the King opened a small brown bag. “I’ve even been to the little house you were born in.”
“Well, if you’re a true Mississippi woman, I’ll bet you’ll eat one of my pickled pig’s feet,” Elvis said. Casey obliged. They sucked back a Coca-Cola together—the American champagne, he called it– and talked about the good ol’ South. When Elvis left, he swapped addresses and a polite kiss with Panther Girl. Besides their Southern roots, Elvis and Casey had another thing in common: Elvis’ manager Colonel Parker had recently upped his percentage to a massive 50% of Presley’s earnings, and the singer was growing increasingly disillusioned with his management.
WHEN MOOLAH put on the first female wrestling event in Hawaii, Ann Casey saw an opportunity to break free from her manager’s grasp. As Rita Cortez, Moolah, and Casey drove back to the airport, Casey told Moolah that she was not boarding the flight back to the mainland. She told Moolah she was going it alone, and the manager couldn’t believe her ears.
“I hate you, you son of a bitch,” were Moolah’s last words, before she stormed onto the plane. For Panther Girl, it was the start of a new era. Casey had grown a huge fan base and was popular with wrestling promoters all over the country. She was confident about finding and managing her own bookings and began working with Vince McMahon, who would later form the Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment. Casey took gigs in each of the states (except Alaska), and wrestled in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and Canada. The end of the 1960s flew past in a blur of drop kicks and half nelsons, as Casey’s old Chevy crisscrossed North America. She recalled finding out that her father had secretly been keeping newspaper clippings of her exploits, and watched all of her televised matches. “During one match versus Natasha the Hatchet Lady, in Alabama, Daddy threw a bedroom slipper at his television, and yelled, ‘Kill that red-headed bitch, Ann!’”
One year after America landed its first men on the moon, Ann Casey became Mississippi state champion in a match held in Water Valley, population 3,000. It was December 12, 1970, and over half the town turned out to see her defeat Sara Lee in just under an hour, culminating with a textbook airplane spin.
Weeks later in Arkansas, Panther Girl wrestled an opponent know as She Devil. The crazy-looking woman spat at the crowd and the referee, then at Casey, and when the bout began, she started punching with closed fists—strictly against the rules. Casey punched back, drawing blood. The referee disqualified the match for safety reasons, and announced: “If these two girls want to punch I’ll have them back here next week...for a boxing match.” Which he did. Though Casey had never worn gloves before, she knocked out She Devil in the first round.
For the first time in her career, Ann Casey was earning real money. Plus, America was changing. The women’s liberation movement and support for equal rights was rising. The term “sexism” was coined, and Ms. magazine was founded. Women were finally allowed to wrestle in the states of New York, California, and Oregon, where it was once considered obscene. Casey wrestled at New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden, and earned $5,000 in eight minutes. She had helped to persuade regulators to allow the sport nationwide, and even toured with Sweet Georgia Brown, one of the world’s first black female wrestlers. “I happily drove her in my car,” Casey said, “And I was disgusted to hear other wrestlers call her the N-word, or not let her use their changing rooms. To me, all wrestlers were equal.”
Yet wrestling in the deep country was still a dangerous pursuit. During a summer of 1972 brawl in Mississippi against the Hatchet Lady, Casey’s knee snapped while standing high on the corner posts. She fell 10 feet to the concrete floor, with her knee joint poking out of the flesh. A doctor in the crowd gave Casey a pain pill, and she passed out in the dressing room. When she came around, it was 2am—no one had waited to make sure she was okay. Instead, she crawled, bleeding, out into the street where she was rescued by police officers.
Her newfound riches had not fixed everything in her life. Ann admits that life on the road may not have made her an ideal role model. Upon returning from one of her wrestling trips, she says she found a cache of drugs hidden inside her son’s wardrobe, and suspected him of being involved in selling them. “There were drugs in there I didn’t even recognize,” she said. “Marijuana of course, but also some powders.”
Scared, Ann Casey took the evidence to the cops, who decided the haul was serious enough to involve a larger agency. By the early 1970s, America’s drug epidemic was in full swing and the federal government established the Drugs Enforcement Administration. The DEA agents suspected George of working with a gang of truck drivers to distribute drugs throughout the South, but they offered Ann a deal: cooperate with them and they would not send George to jail. Casey agreed, and George was furious.
Casey claims that, beginning in 1973, she used her long-distance travel to wrestling matches as a cover for her police work. She infiltrated the community of truck drivers in Mississippi, hanging out with the beavers, lot lizards, and norks that populated truck stops. Truck license plates, names, and details were scribbled into her notebook and passed onto the authorities, and she soon learned that one particular driver was the kingpin of the operation. Casey described his face as ravaged by amphetamine abuse, permanently high.
What Casey didn’t know was that the local sheriff had been taking bribes from the kingpin, and he exposed her undercover operation. On that fateful day in September of 1973, it was the truck driver kingpin who unloaded his gun into her car.
INSIDE WRESTLING MAGAZINE wrote that the ambulance carrying Ann Casey arrived at Lowndes Hospital in Columbus, just as Dr. Gilbert Spencer was strolling to his car. Known as “the bullet whisperer,” he was the best gunshot-wound surgeon in the South. Dr. Spencer saw Casey’s blood-stained body arrive, and instantly ran back inside to fetch his scrubs. Within minutes, the doctors were cutting into the side of her torso to drain the blood. Dark red jets spurted up the white walls of the operating theater. The wrestler was drowning in her own blood.
Running out of time, doctors used 32 stainless steel clamps to hold the liver in place instead of stitching. “I made a large open incision from her pubic bone to her breastbone,” remembers Dr. Spencer. He fought to remove the metal fragments from her skull. But as they worked on the bullet lodged in her bronchial tube, the electrocardiogram fell flat, with a moan. Dr. Spencer would not give up. He pumped at her chest until a heartbeat returned. She had lost too much blood, he told a nurse. They were losing her. And for the second time that night, Ann Casey flatlined.
She floated in and out of consciousness in the hospital, and saw a vision of the afterlife: a beautiful garden, where her feet barely touched the grass. A voice told her, “It is not your time yet. You have to go back.” Somehow, she survived.
When Casey emerged from the hospital, doctors had wrapped her like a mummy, her body covered from her toes to her chin. Medical experts said she would never wrestle again; in fact she would probably never walk without crutches.
When Moolah heard the news, she sobbed.
Casey’s father brought her back to the farm in the cab of his truck. When he first laid eyes on her injuries, Ann watched him cry for the first time in her life. George helped her into a bathtub weeks after her surgery, and they cut off the bandages. She recalled the bathwater quickly turning red, as if in a horror movie. Her once famous torso was a mess of stitches and wounds. But she astonished therapists in the rehab center with her strength and her speed of recovery. “As unbelievable as it might sound,” she says, “I became even stronger than I had been before the shooting.”
Yet without any wrestling work, Casey was once again broke. She became a burden on her mother, who told her, “I’m not the one who shot you, so I don’t know why I have to keep taking care of you.” Wrestling was the only career Ann knew, but with pieces of metal holding her liver together, one blow could kill her. Yet Casey knew the world that would take her back.
“You can have the old bunkhouse,” said Moolah, pointing out back with a diamond-encrusted finger. “But you’ll have to earn your keep training the young girls.” Moolah’s riches had vastly increased, Casey noticed. The gym now had a fancy weight room, and Moolah’s Chevrolets had transformed into Cadillacs. Casey spent her days training the new wrestlers, holding punch bags, and showing girls how to fall.
“One day I couldn’t take any more sitting on the sidelines, so I climbed into the ring,” Casey says. She grabbed a trainee wrestler and threw her over a shoulder. It felt good.
“That Ann Casey sure does have true grit,” Moolah said. And once again, she saw dollar signs.
Moolah wanted Panther Girl to start wrestling again, and knew exactly how to coax her back. One night, Moolah invited Casey into her office, where the title belt was laid on the table. Under the spotlight on Moolah’s desk, the gold seemed to glow with a halo.
“Ann Casey, if you come back to wrestling for me, I’ll fight you for this belt, and I’ll let you win it,” she said. Moolah laid the belt on Casey’s lap. It was heavier than Ann had imagined. In her sweet Southern voice, Moolah explained that she would fix the match in exchange for a contract. Casey was horrified. She had bought that woman enough diamond rings and fancy cars already; she wasn’t going to indenture herself again.
“You think you could pin me for real?” Moolah sneered.
“Any day, any night.”
“Well, let’s shoot for it,” said Moolah.
“IF HOLLYWOOD WAS WRITING THE ANN CASEY, she would whip Moolah,” enthused Inside Wrestling magazine. “Ann Casey has beaten every big-name opponent you can think of—except one,” said a pre-match report. “She has pinned Kathy Starr, Brenda Scott, Judy Glover, and Judy Grable, among others, but thus far she has been unable to add Fabulous Moolah to her list.”
The wrestling press was captivated by the very thought of a rematch between Panther Girl and Fabulous Moolah, less than a year after Ann Casey’s shooting. Yet Moolah, perhaps fearful of the outcome, booked a tiny venue in Liberty Hill, South Carolina. Just a few posters were hung on utility poles, and Moolah did not even mention the match in her own fanciful autobiography.
“That evening she knew I was about to leave her company for good,” says Casey. “She wanted to keep me, and I wanted to beat her in a straight match. But it wasn’t going to be easy. Moolah created me. She knew all my weaknesses—and all of my injuries.”
Moolah’s age had eroded her strength, and Casey knew her mentor could no longer defend her title honestly. Moolah’s championship matches were fixed—if she lost, she’d always win her belt back the next weekend.
That evening began with Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” playing on the loudspeakers, with a capacity crowd of wrestling fans clapping along. Panther Girl marched through the crowd followed by a single spotlight, waving and blowing kisses to her fans, and signing autographs—even throwing her sparkling coat to the eager young men in the front row.
Moolah stood on the ropes and cussed the crowd, scooping handfuls of sweat from under her arms and flinging it into the pretend-shocked audience. She knew how to work a crowd—and the crowd knew its lines too. Moolah argued with the referee and refused to go to her corner, and all the time she gave her opponent the evil eye. Moolah brought out all the dirty tricks: she kept one extra long thumbnail to cut and slice skin, and she hid shoelaces in her bra and salt to blind a girl’s eyes as she lay helpless on the mat.
“Let’s dance,” said Moolah.
It was a dirty match from the opening bell. “Moolah laid some hurt on me and I showed her what a tough old country gal I was that night,” says Casey. A woman’s shooting match was a wrestling rarity, but that’s exactly what was unfolding. Panther Girl closed in fast, giving Moolah closed-fist punches, for all the friends she’d seen her abuse, and for every penny she had stolen from their pockets. Moolah started to feel her age early, and by the end of the second fall, she was exhausted.
As an experienced wrestler, Moolah knew all the “shoot wrestling” moves. She twisted Casey’s arms behind her back, breaking a finger, and in the second round, landed a gasp-inducing punch into Casey’s broken liver. Red-faced, Casey’s childhood battle scar reappeared. Panther Girl staggered to her feet, determined not to let Moolah break her. The third round was one of the most brutal of Casey’s career: Moolah sent punch after punch into her ravaged body, then jumped out the ring to recover—a fool’s trick. When she reentered, Casey pulled her up by the hair, and crashed into a body slam. Moolah wheezed.
Casey thought the airplane spin seemed the appropriate way to end it. This was the move born in Moolah’s training ring—invented by the teacher, and perfected on the road. She lifted Moolah high into the air and whirled her round and round. The crowd was already chanting Panther Girl’s name as she smashed Moolah onto the mat. No pin was necessary, for Moolah was down and out. Ann Casey was announced the US Women’s Champion, andpresented with the golden belt. There would be no rematch.
Casey stormed through the dressing room, started her car and took off. Somewhere on the freeway out of South Carolina, the wrestler put her foot on the accelerator, and with some old Cherokee magic, her bullet-riddled car turned into the latest model Chevy Monte Carlo in racing blue, with a throaty V-8 engine and four-barrel carburetor. The Fabulous Moolah was finally in her rear view mirror, and on the passenger seat was her championship belt, golden and glistening. Beneath it lay an expensive white fur coat. “To Ann,” read the label. “From Elvis.”
I DISCOVERED The Legend Of Ann Casey by accident, in the pages of a vintage wrestling magazine at a thrift sale in Los Angeles. Inside its faded pages was a preview of one of wrestling’s most remarkable comebacks. Frantically, I searched for the next month’s issue for the conclusion, but eventually, I had to track down Ann Casey on Facebook. Online she goes by the name ‘Moonchild,’ and there I found the kind of story that makes you rush to the airport. In September 2014, I met Ann Casey at the Golden Nugget Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, which sits on a strip of hotels known as the Redneck Riviera. Imagine, if you will, Las Vegas, with more trucker hats and numerous farmers with limbs missing from agricultural accidents. People say ”Ma’am,” and “Gosh durn it” un-ironically here. It took me a second to appreciate that Casey is wearing a leopard print blouse, and holds a leopard print purse.
“I died twice on the operating table,” Casey tells me proudly, as we sit down to a $10 king crab buffet. Her eyes have a certain twinkle. She walks a little slow, she says, because there are still bullets in her body that the doctors could not remove. She plays a lot of nickel slots.
Casey reveals that she wrestled well into her fifties, defending her belt for the final time in 1992. She then became a bail bond agent, a bounty hunter, and an 18-wheel truck driver. I watch her feed cash into a frustrating slot machine called Double Diamond. Next to it, we pause at a display featuring the largest gold nugget ever found, weighing 27 kilograms. The sign says it was found just six inches beneath the ground, and we discuss at length whether we are looking at the real thing. Maybe it is just kayfabe.
I ask why she carried on wrestling, defying the orders of her doctors, and risking her life every time she stepped under the spotlight. The ring, she explains, offered her something the real world could not. There, she was Panther Girl, the most feared and revered wrestler in America. The script was written, and the good guy always won—but in real life, bad things happen to good people.
Her real life was more colorful than the often-fictionalized wrestling stories could imagine: Casey married a prisoner on death row in 1978, the notorious armed robber and murderer, Phillip Yates. After he was left paralyzed in a prison rodeo accident, Yates was released—but miraculously recovered to run off with her sister, she says. In 1981, Yates was convicted of cattle rustling, confessing that he conspired with Ann’s beloved son George to steal cows. Ann says she was also accused, but found innocent, and that she has not spoken with her son in decades.
Later, Casey invites me to see her one-room cabin 25 miles outside of Lucedale, where she lives in heartbreaking conditions. There are no windows or a toilet. She says Moolah’s tax-dodging antics left her living on pitifully small Social Security payments. She earned a bachelor’s degree in pre-law and psychology from the University of South Alabama, and today she enjoys Coldplay, casinos, and talking to old wrestling buddies on the Internet. Many of them, including Fabulous Moolah, have passed away. In 2004, Ann Casey was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame, and claims to still hold the US title. The golden belt itself was lost years ago, she says, after it was buried somewhere for safety, just below the potatoes in a field on a farm in rural Mississippi.
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.