New Doc Takes Black ‘Lady Wrestler’ History Beyond the Ropes

By Sameer Rao Mar 23, 2018

Ramona Isbell recalls her heyday as a professional wrestler in simple terms. “I liked the freedom, I liked the money, I liked the travel and I had fun,” she told The Associated Press today (March 23). Her little-known story, alongside those of other Black women in wrestling, receive a belated spotlight in a new documentary, "Lady Wrestler: The Amazing, Untold Story of African-American Women in the Ring."

"Lady Wrestler" focuses on the careers that Isbell, Ethel Johnson, Marva Scott and Babs Wingo built during the ’50s and ’60s. These women and many other wrestlers lived in Columbus, Ohio, where promoter Billy Wolfe organized all-women wrestling matches. The documentary notes that wrestling took the women all around the world, with matches in places as varied as Japan, Nigeria and the Jim Crow South.

Journalist and "Lady Wrestler" director Chris Bournea told Colorlines that the film includes original interviews with Isbell and Johnson, as well as Scott’s children. 

"I felt that a feature-length documentary was the appropriate venue to shine a light on these courageous African-American women who endured racism and sexism to become world champions in a sport that has traditionally been dominated by men," Bournea explained in a press release. "I’m an African-American man who was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where many of the lady wrestlers, as well as famed wrestling promoter Billy Wolfe, were based, and I never heard about these women growing up. Telling their stories is long overdue."

"Lady Wrestler" premieres on March 29 at the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University. Bournea told Colorlines that he plans to screen the movie in other cities and bring it to an online streaming service. Watch a trailer below.