single combat



One day in Riverdale

House in Riverdale
Photo in the center: the house in Riverdale; left and right: photographs by Adrienne Nichols from the series "Girl Wrestler 1948".
From the web resource TimeCapsules. Source: "LIFE Archive"

If you are curious, I can tell you a story about a real, not fake women wrestling event happened about 50 years ago.

I remember that day as if it was yesterday - it has been vivid in my memory all my life. It was at the turn of the 1950s to the 1960s. Being in my early twenties; I was a teacher in a private school in Midtown Manhattan. I was very athletic; seriously practiced tennis and was considered as a quite good player. I jogged every morning in the Central park where I met another jogging enthusiast, Betty, a wife of a prominent businessman living in the East Side. She was quite an eccentric lady in her thirties. We felt drawn to each other despite different backgrounds. We jogged, played tennis together and shared values and interests.

I was surprised learning that she was keen on wrestling - she regularly visited her close friend Sarah in Riverdale* for private wrestling sessions, as she called them. I had seen women in so-called pro wrestling out of the corner of my eye a primitive disgusting show but I was totally unable to imagine two women wrestling each other for real. Betty tried hard to involved me into this activity she gave me a few lessons in her place. She defined wrestling as a sport in which two competitors try to force each other off balance and to keep their own balance. Once getting an opponent off balance, you should drop him/her down, which could be accomplished by tripping (pulling an opponents leg by tour arm or leg) or throwing (using a body part, like a hip, as leverage). She emphasized that balance was the critical element of wrestling. She also pointed out that a good wrestler should more rely on a mental element than on a physical one especially it was important for women. She convinced me that since a good tennis player perfectly controls balance, I would be a good wrestler.

Ella Waldeck Somehow or another, the moment has arrived when I was invited to join their session. It was a luxury stone house decorated in the old English tradition, filled with antiques, paintings and hunters trophies long horns and natural fur bear rugs. Sarah turned out a sleek brunette in her thirties. Sarah was a real wrestling fan and enthusiast, having wrestlers in her circle. Her father worked with famous Olympic freestyle wrestling champion and wrestling promoter Ed Don George. Famous wrestler-killer Ella Waldek** was an old acquaintance of her. Her husband had actively practiced freestyle wrestling in his student days and it was him who inspired her to wrestle herself and taught her wrestling basics. Everything I saw and learned was so impressive that I remember that day all my life.

Sarah briefly acquainted me with the principals, rules and terms of the wrestling sessions which she had thoroughly drawn up. The rules came to three main statements:

- Wrestlers compete until three scores (falls) or to the pin;
- A fall is counted if a wrestler touches the ground with any part of her body other than feet while the second one remains standing;
- If wrestlers fell together, they can continue fighting on the ground not longer than a half a minute. If during that period, nobody manages to pin the opponent, no score is counted the opponents stand up and continue wrestling.

Sarah insistently asked me not to trumpet what I witnessed all over the world. She claimed that even her husband didnt know exactly what they were doing in his absence. I guess, after 50 years, its time to break the oath.

Lingerie We moved to a roomy hall decorated with artworks depicting wrestlers both male and female - and their contests. This room was made as a gym, equipped with barbells, dumbbells and other implementsz. As was their habit, Betty and Sarah stripped down to lingerie, took their shoes off and met on a spacious fur rug. The ladies were strikingly different in every aspect from the physical appearance to way of behaving - they seemed to have nothing in common. Indeed unity and conflict of opposites: extremes meet on the wrestling mat.

At first, seeing two mature women in lingerie engaging in a fight was quite odd and a little scary. However, it turned out a really fascinating spectacle worth seeing. Barefooted, wearing stylish dense tight-fitting bras, the ladies looked quite elegant and feminine, even though they were engaged in a traditional male activity.

After a couple of light ritual pushes to shoulders, the ladies clasped their hands and started the act which seemed to be quite familiar to both of them. In attempts to get the opponent to lose her balance, they remained cautious and wary of each others moves. They carefully kept track on every single move, glance, shift of weight, and even moment of motionlessness of each other. It was a delicate psychological and physical contest of two female rivals. It was obvious that they knew each other very well, they knew what to expect each moment. I felt that each one sensed the others intention hidden from spectators view, trying to sense the opponents move even sooner than she did it. Sometimes, it looked like a chess game. It was not just a physical but also an imperceptible psychological contest between two female characters. It seemed to be the form of contest precisely designed for women matching their psychology and physical nature.

Suddenly, Betty made a practically unnoticeable move to turn aside, threw Sarah off balance, and tripped her at right foot. Sarah fell down on all fours, leaving Betty standing. As I learned later, it was their tradition, warming-up wrestling in an easy way until the first fall. After this fall, passions flared up and the fight got out of control. Energetic Betty looked like a compressed spring which could expand any moment while solid Sarah still remained self-confident and prevailing. Sarah applied herself to clutching and pressing the opponents body while Betty concentrated on getting Sarah off balance, pulling and hooking her arms and legs. It was a strange style combination which made the contest an enthralling sight. As wrestlers, they happened to be equal despite striking size mismatch Sarah set hopes upon her strength whereas smaller Betty took advantage of being nimble and sharp.

After an unsuccessful trip attempt from Betty, Sarah threw her off balance and wrestled her to the ground. Since Sarahs rules didnt allow grappling on the ground longer than for 30 seconds, it was not enough for Sarah to pin furiously defending Betty, even though the pin looked real. They let each other stand back up and rushed to the attack again. Sarah intensified the fight trying to bring the score level by any means. Sarah firmly grasped Bettys upper arm and back of her neck by both arms and took her down. Once again, the wrestlers fell coupled and Sarah desperately but unsuccessfully tried to pin Betty. Sarah got carried away and forgot about the time limit, so I had to remind her own rule. I noticed that the ladies puffed and blew - Sarah looked especially exhausted and I anticipated that the affair was coming to a head. Being tired, the fighters became slower returning to the original tactics of delicate psychological contest.

I was bewitched by the spectacle of two hot elegant ladies striving to get each other off-balance from the standpoint of physics and psychology. Their catlike moves and grips on each other were mostly light but precisely checked. It was a contest of two cunning and calculating subtle personalities, strikingly different from a sweaty fierce mens fight. Men fight following the primitive male destructive instinct (which nonetheless, I love watching), whereas a womens competition usually is much more veiled and delicate. fro I plunged in thought so deep that didnt notice how Betty happened to literally fold big Sarahs body in half like a horseshoe. I noticed Betty tightening Sarahs body as a staple bringing her head and left knee together in a powerful grip, effectively pressing her back against the mat. It was incredible! I missed the move and had no idea how Betty implemented this magic trick. Later, Betty explained it. Locking Sarahs neck by the right arm, she managed to hook Sarahs elevated left leg by the left arm tightening Sarahs head and knee together strained to the limit and at the same time slamming Sarah down back onto her shoulders. Betty said this well-known wrestling move was named after a baby cradle.

Sarah looked upset and even a little hurt but kept herself in check she warmly embraced Betty and kissed her. Now it was my turn to wrestle the winner. In ten minutes Betty called me to start our contest. Being not completely recovered her breath; she deliberately gave me a head start. But it didnt help me. While I was making time, I found myself pinned before I knew it. Betty instantly locked my neck, blocked my body by her hip and then pops me over her hip onto the mat, landing on top of me.

Ladies wrestling I was upset and scared but while Sarah was out, busy with changing her combative lingerie in preparation to stand against me, Betty gave me a good advice how to withstand heavier Sarah. She said she saved my energy for the fight with Sarah by quick finishing me. She emphasized two principles I had to follow: quickness plus unpredictability and endurance; the first was critical for competing a heavier opponent, the latter was especially important as Sarah was an inveterate smoker. Betty said, if I withstood for first several minutes, I would have a good chance. Being encouraged by Betty, I calmed down and got determined to give her battle - the more so because I was a good tennis player and hoped my skills and endurance would help.

Sarah appeared in a dense gold yellow bodice with a hard cone brassiere. Seeing that, I was fully resolved to punish the fashion-conscious wrestler. I desperately wanted to prove myself and to become a runner-up.

We came together and Sarah quickly folded me in her arms. I felt unpleasant sensations of contact with the female body I was pressed against Sarah turned out to be flabbier than compact athletic Betty. Besides, her hard cones put me to inconvenience. At the same time, her strength turned out to be not overpowering, which encouraged me to rush into attack. I locked her neck and started fiercely fighting experiencing an excitement I had never felt before. Suddenly, everything vanished from sight except my adversary - I was determined to thrash her at any cost the fury I had never had before. My reactions turned out to be faster than my mind. However, as soon as the fight heated, I realized she was tough, quite skillful and knew what she was doing. I dont recall all the details. I resisted as long as I could not allowing her to take me down. Then two or three times we fell together and rose to our feet again, passionately craving for the victory.

I remember in detail the final part of the match. Impassioned Sarah placed my head under her chest, pressed it against her belly, leaned all her weight upon my back, grabbed my torso locking her hands under my breasts she probably didnt intend to take me down at once but to pick me up first and then to topple down. Being awkwardly trapped, I desperately took frantic effort to escape her grips. I grabbed hold of her upper thighs and pushed my weight forward and sharply pulled on her thighs taking her down on her back. Then I furiously pressed down against her chest she virtually didnt resist. I realized what happened just after it had happened. I felt a great excitement which only a fighter can understand. But instead of congratulating me with the victory, Sarah accused me in unfair behavior which she said resulted in a trauma. Actually, she just broke her nail. I was displeased but quite understood her disappointment a big strong girl had been slammed and pinned by an inexperienced in wrestling novice. However, Sarah quickly pulled herself together and congratulated me. In the aftermath of the event, Betty gave praise to me, especially appreciating the double-leg tackle as she called my final spontaneous move led to the upright victory.

Since then, I have never been invited to such wrestling events but later, we had a few good matches with Betty during our vacationing in the Caribbean just on the empty beach It was unforgettable! Then I got married, moved to another city Since then I have not met anyone like Betty who I would offer a wrestling match. In fact, Betty was a great athlete and I am positive that if she was young now, she would have been a good Olympic wrestler.

The house in Riverdale and the events of that day have left an indelible impression on my mind.

Amanda Bryant
October 2010

*) The neighborhood of Riverdale is located at the northwest of New York City. In 1950s, it was the wealthiest neighborhood in the five boroughs of New York.

**) Ella Waldek (real name: Elsie Schevchenko) - professional wrestler in 1950s. During a tag team match, Waldek accomplished a routine pro-wrestling trick body slam against Janet Boyer Wolfe. Although Wolfe was not injured by the move, she rolled out of the ring, collapsed at ringside and died in minutes.

Photographs by Adrienne Nichols from the series "Girl Wrestler 1948".
Web resource TimeCapsules. Source: "LIFE Archive".


- Amanda, your story is very impressive and we are happy to publish this great story. We dont want to miss the opportunity to ask you some questions.

- How would you qualify the event you participated 50 years ago? Wasnt it a classic apartment wrestling?

No, it was amateur fun wrestling with a strong competitive component even though the women competed in fashion lingerie radiating eroticism with no men around to appreciate. What was invented by Stan Weston as apartment wrestling in 1970s and the erotic gallery made by photographer Theo Ehret was 100% fake even much more fake than pro-wrestling - glamour models just posed for wrestling magazines. Sarah and Betty wrestled for real with the passion and skills.

- We are wondering how being a novice in such a sophisticated tough sport, you managed to pin an experienced wrestler.

Frankly speaking, I dont have a clear answer. My friend Betty gave me a couple of lessons and very useful tips. She explained very understandably what wrestling was about, how to behave with bigger Sarah. She convinced me that as an skillful tennis player, I had some advantages over her, such as quickness, reaction and ability to make abrupt movements.

- What emboldened women to wrestle each other at the time it was improper for women?

I guess, such an exotic pastime was caused by boring atmosphere surrounding wealthy housewives and by their aspiration for physical activities. Not to mention competitiveness, inherent to any woman.

- Were these wrestling sessions exceptions at that time?

Perhaps, yes but Betty made me believe that not just she and Sarah practiced wrestling that time but other women did that. It was not publicized just because of the private underground nature of this activity.

- Why Sarah didnt want to wrestle on the ground limiting it by a short period?

Unlike the prevailing contemporary opinion, Sarah made a difference between mens and womens activities, especially in athletics. She considered fierce ground fighting in tight body contact (what contemporary female grapplers do endlessly hugging each other in grips) to be improper for women.

- What do you know about Sarah and her sessions since that day?

Not much. As I said, Sarah tried to draw more women into private wrestling sessions. Betty told me that after the defeat from me, she hired a male trainer and had special training. As a wrestling enthusiast she tried to inspire wealthy ladies to practice private wrestling. I don't know though how successful she was because such events were not publicized. Later, male entrepreneurs used women private wrestling as an erotic show. It is very little to do with Sarahs sessions.

- In your opinion, what is the main incentive for women to practicing traditionally mens combat sports? What are your feelings about contemporary womens combat sports?

Ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, women are tired of being considered as ridiculous catfighters pleasant to the eye of fetishists. Women have proved their capability to compete in physical contact, to inflict damage and to endure violence. On the other hand, I dont understand why women want to be everywhere men are. This is a lose-lose way we are different - why dont we prove ourselves in activities (including combat) which better match femininity. I see here a kind of inferiority complex. By the way, I enjoy a tough mens single combat because I see it as an embodiment of masculinity. An imitation of men is a stalemate for women. Instead of dooming themselves to being always behind, women should have invented and practiced their own sports fitting their nature. I guess a physical contest is good for women unless it suppresses femininity. I dont apprehend female boxing and MMA. Fierce body squeezing, choking, joint breaking, punching to face all these elements represent an incongruous substitute for a male inherent fight.

- How the feminine fighting would look like?

It should be essentially standing contest, delicate struggling for keeping balance, with a substantial psychological component this is just for us. Something close to contemporary Sumo wrestling for girls of any sizes, not just for customers Big and tall ?. As a tennis player, I know what balance is and what instant reaction to the opponent moves is. This element of combative sports is very natural for women.

- How long did Betty attend the wrestling sessions after that day?

Just for a while. She was very creative person and approached any activity resourcefully. She invented an effective technique called time trouble pinning. If she fell together with her opponent lying face downwards, she quickly wrapped her arms around the opponent's upper thigh turning her over for a pin using the thigh as a good leverage. This technique allowed her to win almost every match which made Sarah unhappy. As a result, Sarah banned this move under the pretence that it was unseemly to touch hips. After that Betty stopped attending the wrestling sessions

- Tell us more about your friend Betty.

Betty was very different from anyone I have ever met. She was fervent and at the same time sober-minded. This combination made her peculiar in any activity she participated. Unfortunately, Betty passed away in 1979, in full vigor.

- Sorry to hear this.

I would appreciate it if you manage to find some video clips with real competitive women's wrestling as old as possible (at least from 1980s), particularly those in which the technique "cradle" is used.

We will do our best to find old video clips with women's wrestling and the "cradle". A lot of thanks, we have enjoyed this conversation!

P.S. Sandra: I looked at the clips you placed with my interview. Thanks, it is just exactly what I was looking for. In fact, Olga Lugar from Venezuela somehow reminds me Betty, yet Betty didnt have so luxuriant hair. The episodes with trading in the standing position remind me the match between Sarah and Betty. The Olgas cradle is exactly the move Betty pinned Sarah with. I guess, the leg trip is also similar to what I unintentionally used against Sarah. Thank you for your perfect selection it exceeds my expectations! Now you can have an approximate notion about Betty - probably this is how Betty would act on the mat if she was seriously involved in the sport of wrestling (which didnt exist in our times).

Two wrestling matches in the late 1980s

Olga Lugo from Venezuela (in blue) pins her opponent

Olga Lugo pins her opponent using the "cradle"

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