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Circus strongwomen and female wrestlers in the beginning of XX century

Part I


Part II



Circus wrestlers

"Wrestlers". Postcard of 1904 from the collection of Werner Sonntag


Since the turn of the twentieth century wrestling started being very common form of performance on Russian circus rings. Wrestling matches had held before but just since that time Russian, European and world championships in "French wrestling" started taking place (other names for this form are "Greek-Roman" wrestling or "classic" wrestling where holds below the belt are prohibited). Wrestling competitions were organized not only in circuses but also in summer theaters, skating rinks and even on zoo gardens. One of the advertisements in Tbilisi said: "Opening of the international men's wrestling championship". The word "men's" was not accidental there because women wrestlers were regular members of many circus troupes.

Female wrestling in Monmartre
Female wrestling in 1900 in Tingeltangel (the first modern nightclub in Montmartre, Paris). Reprint from Sonntag's collection

Its not surprising that when feminism movement was in the embryonic condition attitude toward female wrestling was skeptical and condescending, sometimes with sarcastic irony. One of the newspaper titles sounded like this: Chicken cackled and pinched each others weathers. Thats what a reporter told about ladies wresting matches (citing from the book The circus in Russia written by the famous Russian circus historian Yuri Dmitriev): Female wrestlers are very poorly trained, they demonstrate very unskilled and non-finished moves. In fact, instead of watching nice wrestling moves we see very ugly petty cares between two disheveled female creatures, who remind witches from Shakespeare's Macbeth. It reached the point when male and female wrestlers participated in one tournament in Yaroslavl where they wrestled each other. Dmitriev concluded: Of course, it was openly obscene. Thats how circus wrestling got more and more vulgarized in order to satisfy bourgeois audiences taste. From the todays day position such an opinion seems to be a male chauvinism manifestation... There are lots of evidences of successful appearances of female wrestlers on circus rings.

Masha Matlos (Maria Poddubnaya)
Maria Matlos-Poddubnaya at right in the wrestling arena, Hamburg

Probably the most famous female circus wrestler was the redoubtable Masha Matlos (born Maria Poddubnaya), the sister of the great wrestling champion Ivan Poddubny. Before 1910, she was a six-time womens "world wrestling champion". (Matlos is the modified married name for circus bills - from Matlash). Circus bills advertised her as inviting all comers into the circus ring to try their luck in wrestling against her after she had disposed of her fellow troupers. Just one occurrence is known when Masha was conquered by a female guest a tiny lady defeated her in all respects and pinned. The lady turned out to be the famous powerlifter Trefilova-Bubnova weighing only 114lb pressed 126lb which was enough to earn her third place in a mens flyweight powerlifting contest.

While in the Russian capitals they poked fun at female wrestling, in province an attitude toward it was completely different.

In 1901 in the city of Blagoveschensk (the far east of Russia) madam Yudina was famous. She had showed heroism during defending the city from Chinese. Eccentric madam Yudina started surprising people by challenging for a "duel" a female power circus performer Gren who was touring over Russia. The circus owner was happy that people overcrowded the circus. The match was arranged as a real duel. At the order of a second the duelists had to run toward each other from the starting positions at the opposite sides of the circus ring. Wearing loose pants the ladies who had no wrestling skills fiercely pounced on each other, tightly embraced and started shoving all over the circus ring shifting from foot to foot. They didnt guess to move down to par terre and just wasted their energy for straight onslaught. After all, the women fell down and got rolled over the circus ring until Yudina managed to climb on top of her opponent and stay there for a while. She was announced a winner to the audiences joy which got literally got crazy. Inspired by the victory Yudina started participating in wrestling matches. Since no women wished to wrestle with her, she wrestled against men, which right hands were bound to their backs in order to equalize their chances. Yudinas husband, artillery officer who had good wrestling skills taught her some wrestling techniques and in a while she toppled almost all her male opponents (who still gave her the hand start). Once Yudina decided to shock public by offering her next one-armed male opponent fist fighting in boxing gloves. At the beginning, he refused but she insisted and for a while the men was defending by one hand from the woman who got all worked up until he was tired of that and delivered a slight body shot. Female psycho is not always predictable. The woman wasnt afraid to stand against bullet and bayonets; she wrestled many times. But after getting a minor punch to her back she just got hysterical and left the circus ring in tears. The outraged audience was ready to torment the embarrassed participant who didnt have too many choices either to be beaten by a lady or got beaten by the audience having beaten her After that incident Yudina stopped participating in combative activities.

Circus wrestling Circus wrestling At the end of 1900 in a circus female powerlifter Larisa Belaya (Stove) from Siberia became famous. Tall and heavy Larisa (she had weight 265lb and height 6'1") was touring all over Russia and abroad showing ploys with weights and also practicing in circus wrestling which was organized very skillfully and evoked indescribable ecstasy of audience. Circus poster of 1900s said: "Undefeatable in wrestling Larisa Belaya. Just three days in Penza. Lifts and throws up weights. Challenges any volunteer of either gender to a wrestling match. She wrestled men very successfully for whom she had special ladies tricks. In the middle of a circus show a master of ceremonies announced that a spectator who managed to defeat Larisa in wrestling would get a good money prize. But a man who wanted to challenge the prize met some obstacles. First of all, the challengers had to wrestle each other in order to determine the best wrestler who would wrestle with Larisa. The problem for the challengers was that after several qualifying matches they got quite tired and didnt get enough time to rest and recover. But this obstacle was not the last one. Before a match, Larisa and her male opponent were requested to stand in a special initial position they had to stand closely right up against each other and to tightly embrace each other interlocked hands on the opponent backs. A person in charge always tarried with setting up the position correcting the participants pose for a while. As a result of the long tight contact with the young and buxom body of Larisa, her opponent got embarrassed, uneasy and aroused, which confused him and physically got in the way of wrestling. As soon as a referee signal was heard, powerful Larisa instantly crouched, sharply tilted back dragging the confused man along with her. During the fall she managed to turn him to the side and to pin him down under her. After that the referee immediately stopped the bout not allowing the man to regain consciousness (although after such a shock he would unlikely actively resist anyway). This move was so impressive that the audience applauded Larisa for half an hour.

Staged wrestling A scandalous event took place when not a man but a subtle woman challenged Larisa. No qualifying tournament was held and no position setting up either. Larisa superciliously looked at the petite babe wore ladies dress who was barely able to touch her shoulders. Circus wrestling As wrestling opponents the two looked weird which caused loud ridicules nobody had doubts about the match outcome. The audience was totally astonished when the tiny lady skillfully and very impressive pinned the giantess down. She moved down to the Larisas legs, sharply overthrew her to the back and firmly pressed her both shoulder blades against the ground holding her in the position for a while until the match was stopped. But the astute Larisa showed resourcefulness though and standing up she just lifted the winners skirts up and lowered her tights slightly, so everyone just saw male particular features. The male wrestler-flyweighter shamefully ran out although, frankly speaking, if you consider Larisas more than double weight advantage, the beautiful instant pin was not a bad achievement, even against a female wrestler.

Lack of experience in wrestling against women and the fact that Larisas special ladies tricks didnt work against them was the reason why Larisa was ignominiously defeated in Siberia by a real woman, the famous Estonian strongwoman and wrestler, Maria Loorberg (Marina Lurs) who were touring through Russia at the end of the 1900s. (Using real biography of Maria Loorberg, the writer Andres Ehin wrote a novel with the self-explanatory title, "She floored a hundred men"). Despite significant weight and height inferior to Larisa, Maria (56/176 Lbs) instantly chopped the stout opponent off and threw her just on her back. The appearance of the helpless fallen giantess made the audience laugh, so that defeat was double distressful for Larisa. Nonetheless, she drew the a lesson from this incident, she adopted Marias firm neck lock which along with Larisas huge weight made her almost unbeatable. In a while, after a few convincing victories over women they got scarred to wrestle her because nobody wanted to get choked and pressed by a freight of 260 pounds.

Due to the huge weight Larisa Belaya was moving over a wrestling ring too slow, so she was unable to resist quickly and sharply conducted moves. Thats why she instantly lost to the male flyweighter and to Maria Loorberg. At the same time, her unique parameters: size, strength and combative heart would ideally match female form of Japanese wrestling sumo. Its a pity that they didnt know sumo in Europe in her times.

Sandwina But the most famous match Larisa had in Vienna where for a period of time womens wrestling tournaments were very popular. Female wrestlers competed for real without any shams and tricks demonstrating strength, boldness, skills and athletic rage. Larisa participated in an international competition and hardly won three matches out of four (having weight advantage though) but lost to the famous suffragist-feminist-athlete Katie Sandwina Brumbach - Woman-Hercules (left photo) who turned out to be a little more brisk and skillful. Katie tried to arrange the tournament and her victory on it as a celebration and a triumph of a liberated woman. The match consisted of three rounds; In the first two rounds Larisa (265lb) dominated by weight over Katie (187lb). Nonetheless, she wasnt able to turn Katie on her back. In the third round she got tired and eventually was unable to resist indefatigable Katies attacks accompanied by powerful locks. After all, Larisa found herself pinned.

Unlike the shameful Larisas defeat from Maria Loorberg, this wrestling match was waged on the equal footing and kept the audience rapt until the very last moment. Larisa was acting persistently with dignity and deserved applause of the audience, albeit she had been defeated. This match was called The match of the century because it was as thrilling and hot as the best famous male wrestling matches were. It is important to note that the both robust participant came out to the ring wearing unusual for that time uniform - loose athletic clothing which looked like contemporary training suits - it was the bold Katie's innovation.

Sandwina Sandwina probably was the most famous strongwoman of the epoch, she had outstanding physical parameters: 184 cm of height; 85 kg of weight; 44 turn cm of biceps; 20 turn cm of wrists and 67 turn cm of thigh (see the photo at right). She managed to surpass the famous Eugene Sandow (enthusiast in bodybuilding and powerlifting) himself in strength test he was her idol and her nickname Sandwina was the female derivative of Sandow. During years, Kate participated in circus spectacles with her family, and the most exciting point was when her father offered 100 marks to any man in the audience who would capable to defeat his daughter Kate in wrestling. According to the legend, nobody earned the 100 marks. Her future husband (they were married for 52 years), Max Heymann, was one of those daredevils who accepted the challenge and according to his own words, the following had happened with him: As I have entered the ring I started thinking that if I earned the 100 marks it would be the most extravagant way to earn money I have ever had. All the sudden, these thoughts were interrupted and the only thing I recall is my sudden rotation in the air with the flashing blue sky in my eyes, and then free falling down. Eventually, I found myself on the floor panting and semi-unconscious, while the girl bent down to me and said, "Have I inflicted any damage to you? Then she grabbed me in her arms as a dummy and carried me to her tent."

By the way, offering contest with the audience was very popular and occurred on many circus performances. Such a contest consisted not only in wrestling match with a strongwoman but more often it was an offer to pick up the weight which she just lifted and manipulated with.

An incident happened with Anna Durova, a daughter of the famous animal trainer and clown V. Durov during touring in Ashchabad - she defied wrestling a local man. When Anna juggled with heavy maces a spectator shouted claimimg that the maces were made of cardboard. Piqued Anna immediately challenged the guy to wrestle against her. He was declining for a while but people pushed him out to the ring. The wrestling turned out to be very persistent and long (20 minutes is long even for professional athletic wrestling). Furious Anna was desperately trying to pin him. Although she didnt manage that she had obvious score advantage.

A club named Lets Wrestle existed In Voronezh at the beginning of the XX century reminding a contemporary athletic gym. It was created by the wrestling enthusiast Aleksandr Veselov. Girls were training in the club side by side with men. The men from the club wrestled on circus rings and beyond them; for the girls Veselov organized demonstrational contests. Veselovs students showed nice wrestling throws when sparring male volunteers. According to spectators, they handled wrestling techniques and moves with great skills. At the same time a son of his time, Veselov stood against real competitive female wrestling considering it to be dangerous for women. He limited them by training and perfecting moves. The advantages for women training in wrestling he saw in improving flexibility and stamina as well as in developing self-defence ability. Later, one of his former female students successfully parried a rapists attack. In this connection the famous Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote the lines: A woman, dont be a fool and do physical training!

The following advertisement was published in a local newspaper in Samara (Volga region, Russia): Dont miss your chance! On August 25, for the first time in the world history, female single combat Pancration will be held in the Tent Circus in Strukovsky garden. The following moves will be allowed in the fight: punching, breaking, throwing and dragging opponents. The best female fighters in the world will participate in this great battle which will last until one of them surrenders or gets helpless. Who are these courageous bold ladies? Our province is represented by the unconquerable peasant woman from Stavropol county Evdokia Konopleva, nee Lopatkina, mother of three. She has been an invariable participant in village wall fist fighting events as well as in amusing fisticuffs and wrestling one-on-one. She repeatedly beat up men and women in local villages and also successfully wrestled in circuses in Volga region and Ural. Her opponent is the powerful maiden Ekaterina Petushkova from Nizhniy Novgorod who lived for a long time in Paris and London where she learned fist fighting and wrestling crafts. In Paris Ekaterina took lessons from the best wrestlers including famous Raoul Buchet. In London she was training in the English sport boxing. Many gentlemen and ladies have been knocked down and pinned by Ekaterina Petushkova. So, who will take over? The trained in regular combat and educated girl or the self-taught peasant woman fighter? Skills of the classic French wrestling and English aristocratic boxing or Russian bravado, strength and easygoing style? It will be a real and merciless combat for a principle and for a prize. Dont miss your chance to see a miracle! Unfortunately, any reports about this unusual match are lacking and we dont know whether it was a staged circus performance or a real battle of real women. We dont know even if the event took place at all. But the advertisement is interesting.

Frida Damberg
Frida Damberg

Tbilisi's newspapers (Georgia) in May 1911 reported about female wrestling championship in the circus Modern. Famous female wrestlers from all over the world participated in the event: English Reoter, Ukrainian Shevchenko, Russian Morozova (nickname Female Epic Hero), Norwegian Rosing, Polish Yankovska, Austrian Offenbacher, Scottish Celt and Spanish Girald. Two world champions wrestled in the tournament: German Frida Damberg and Swedish Pederson. We should notice that almost all matches lasted unusually long. For instance, Russian wrestler Morozova defeated four her opponents: Offenbacher for 18 minutes, Yankovska for 10 minutes, Reoter for 8 minutes and Shevchenko for 5 minutes. After 20 minutes of stubborn struggling in the match Morozova vs. Girald a draw was announced because the both wrestlers were about the same strength and skills. Upset Morozova attacked the referee and "wrestled" him down so actively that he hardly stood up

The world champion Frida Damberg was especially popular among Tbilisi's spectators - she had excellent French wrestling skills and was very graceful at the same time. The two her victories were especially noted between her numerous victories spectacular pinning Reoter and Celt. Local media avidly described the match between Damberg and Girald. Two the tallest and strongest ladies came out to the ring who used wrestling techniques with great skill. Furious bout lasted for 15 minutes and ended with the victory of the German who pressed the robust Spaniard to the mat. The audience got in ecstasy about that. The result was that Frida piled up all wrestlers on the floor.

These are a few other messages from Russian local media:

"Ladies French wrestling championship has been held last week in the circus." (Local newspaper, Ekaterinburg, Ural, 1911)

"In our circus the first-rate ladies wrestling championship has been held where 12 female wrestlers and athletes participated. The trainer is Estonian wrestling and athletics professor Alex Muller (Miller)." (Local newspaper, Chelyabinsk, Ural, 1916)

"September 19. The first international female championship was opened for French and national forms of wreslting. Ten female wrestlers participated in the championship." (Omskiy Vestnik, Omsk, Siberia, 1917).

Caricature of 1912 In 1910s in Yaroslavl the well-known Russian male wrestler Ivan Chufistov had a wrestling match against two tough ladies at once - sisters Teresa and Louisa Carlucci, Italian acrobats and wrestlers. Chufistov chose very successful strategy he just concentrated only on the older and stronger sister Teresa, ignoring all attacks from Louisa (since his enormous strength allowed him to accomplish that). Despite desperate attempts of Louisa not to allow him to defeat the sister, he managed to pin Teresa. After that she was unable to stand up weighed down by double weight of Chufistov and her own sister leaned heavily on his back. Louisa realizing her hopeless situation immediately jumped on feet and ran out. Then he gallantly took the toppled lady (quite heavy) on his arms and carried her out. It was gossips they had some short affaires

Another interesting incident happened in Kharkov. Wrestling matches between male wrestlers were held there. In the meantime between the matches brave volunteers were invited to wrestle circus athletes for money prize. Usually none of spectators was able to withstand trained wrestlers and the prize was not touched for a while attracting more and more spectators and participants. The paradox though was that eventually it was awarded to... a woman. Once a woman wished to challenge the prize. All wrestlers categorically refused, considering that non-appropriate for men. But it was impossible just to turn her down because the organizers hadnt had a good sense to preliminary exclude women from challenging the prize. The tight-fisted circus owner didnt want to lose money and ordered to urgently find the only female wrestler they had in the troupe in order to place her against the challenger. But she wasnt busy in the circus that day and hadnt been found. The owner had no choice but to ask his wife-acrobat who assisted him on the circus ring to go against the volunteer. She had watched wrestlers and their training for a long time and not just knew wrestling secrets and tricks but also participated in their developing. Thats what encouraged the owner to push her to the ring. At the beginning the wife said no but eventually agreed probably because she didnt want to say goodbye to the money either. She just wished to change dress. So did her opponent and while she did, circus assistants carefully double-checked if she was a real woman (perhaps being aware of the incident with the tiny opponent of Larisa Belaya). To the owners annoyance the spectator quite easily disposed of the owners wife throwing her to the mat as a bag. Who was that woman remained unknown.

Like Masha Poddubnaya, some other wrestlers wives also learned wrestling skills, which sometimes happened to be useful on the circus arena. Once in Odessa a local wrestler got cold feet against a visiting wrestler and announced that his opponent allegedly was too weak for him, so he ordered out his wife to wrestle him. Of course, the opponent refused that (thats what the coward counted on) and a local referee was about counting his defeat. But the visitor in turn called his wife who managed to administer a beating to the hostess and even broke her a rib. Thats the story how a wife took the punishment for a husbands cowardliness.

Similar incident took place in Kiev where a furious wife of a loser wrestler demanded satisfaction from a winners wife. Personally involved the two ladies changed from wrestling to a fierce lady-like tussle, which would be classified today as catfighting. With difficulties and to audiences displeasure, the brawling ladies were pulled apart and a draw was announced.

In order to increase fascinating of circus wrestling entrepreneurs sometimes dressed male wrestlers as women and made their contest looking like two strong skillful ladies were wrestling. Such female wrestling abounding in lots of precise techniques and moves incredibly impressed circus wrestling fans. Once such a hoax was shamefully unmasked in the famous fair in Nizhniy Novgorod where a woman came out of audience and asked for a match with one of female wrestlers just for fun. The lady-wrestler had no choice but accept the challenge. As soon as the match starts and the made up wrestler pinned down the opponent at a brick pace, the lady grabbed hold of his breasts and just ripped off the whole superimposed construction. It turned out though that a competitor who owned a city circus arena bribed her.

Spectators of circus wrestling performances deserve to be attended too. Especially its female part. The well-known Russian writer Valentin Kataev in his memoirs book My diamond crown recalls that watching ecstatic female spectators on circus wrestling sometimes was much more fascinating that wrestlers who simulated and yielded to opponents ordering by entrepreneurs. But ladies-spectators being bewitched by mens single combat didnt care about such details. They ecstatically cheered wrestlers and in culminate moment they timidly yelped and threw handkerchiefs (and sometimes, other ladies assessors) on the ring. They daydreamed about wrestlers relief torsos and biceps. They awaited wrestlers at the circus exits as famous tenors and turned fingers toward them for a kiss. At the same time, female spectators reportedly demonstrated hostility toward female wrestlers appearing on the circus ring. They cursed out and hissed female wrestlers calling them ragged pussy-cats.

Leandros All the same, a woman-wrestler on a circus ring or beyond it was a rural exception and was consider by the most of people as circus trick, something like a counting horse. Or even worse, as a disgusting show. For instance, thats how French journalist Max Viterbo describes a womens wrestling match in the Rue Montmartre in 1903 in Paris (where Larisa Belaya might got pinned): "The stale smell of sweat and foul air assaulted your nostrils. In this overheated room the spectators were flushed. Smoke seized us by the throat and obscene swearing gnaws our ears. Female wrestlers flung themselves at each other like modern bacchantes, they fiercely tore each others flesh apart, and you saw just hair flying, breasts bared, indecent, foaming at the mouth. Everyone screamed, applauded, stamped his feet." That time there was no tradition of women sports in general and of women wrestling in particular. There were developed nether female athletic clothing, neither women protectors nor wrestling rules for women. Yet the society of that time considered a woman differently from how we consider her today. Caring about her health and well being they exaggerated her helpless and weakness at that time.

Contemporary development of female wrestling and including this sport in the next Olympics program closed the books on the discussions whether of not women are able to wrestle for real.

Alexander Khromov
September, 30, 2002

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Circus wrestling and powerlifting at the turn of the century

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