single combat



They made the history

Circus strongwomen and wrestlers

Maria Loorberg (Marina Lurs) and Anette Busch

Marina Lurs
Marina Lurs (right). Postcard

Русская версия

The late nineteenth and the early twelfth centuries was a golden age of circus powerlifting and wrestling.

Wrestlers At the edge of the XIX and XX centuries circus wrestling became an exceptionally popular spectacle. Popularity of circus wrestlers would be compared just to the popularity of contemporary rock singers. Although many wrestling matches were staged, some of them were still real and ran in full strength. Big circus troupes sure had wrestler teams, which often included women as well. Wrestlers demonstrated techniques on each other and challenged daredevils from the audience. Wrestling championships and tournaments were often held those times. Women performances caused some piquancy to the rough male actions although some wrestling specialists were quite skeptical about female wrestling considering it as unskillful and even indecent. At those times brilliant assemblage of strong women had appeared. Many of them trained in wrestling as well. Challenging opponents of either sex from the audience for a competition with a female wrestler was extremely popular.

Katie Brumbach (Sandwina) from Austria probably was the most powerful 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 Eugen 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."

Another famous strongwoman, Irish Kate Roberts (Miss Vulcana) who lived in England appeared on stage with acrobatic and power exercises and sometimes participated in circus wrestling. At the age of 30 she had the following anthropometrical data: height – 5’7"; weight – 161Lbs; the following circumferences: chest – 3’6", waist - 2’3", biceps – 1’3", thighs – 2’1", forearm - 1’, neck – 1’3". She was able to lift a weight 181Lbs by one arm. She performed power acts very easily and gracefully. There are many legends about Vulkana’s exploits. A legendary incident happened on a circus show in Bristol when volunteers were called to wrestle a local male wrestler. Being incognito among spectators Miss Vulcana dressed as an ordinary woman volunteered for the wrestling. The wrestler was embarrassed and attempted to refuse but the audience demanded the match so zealously that the circus owner ordered him to go and to pretend wrestling. However, unexpectedly the femininely looking woman grabbed the luckless wrestler by waist, threw him over her head and dropped to the mat remaining on foot…

Other famous strongwomen: Athleta, Minerva (Josephine Blatt nee Wohlford), Charmion (Laverie Vallee nee Cooper), Ivy Russel, Joan Rhodes, Mama Lou (Linsey Lindberg), Betty Brawn (Charmaine Childs).

Marina Lurs
Maria Loorberg
Photo from the article "Athletic women on the arenas" (in Russian). "Science and Life" magazine, #5, 1990
Reprint from the resource Femtime

While Europe and America were famous for strongwomen, Russian Empire was famous for female wrestlers. Perhaps, one wrestler should be mentioned first – Masha (Maria) Poddubnaya (her married name was Matlos or Matlash), the sister of the great wrestler Ivan Poddubny (she are mistakenly considered as his wife). Six times between 1889 and 1910, Masha Poddubnaya was proclaimed as the "lady world wrestling champion". Circus bills said: "Inviting everyone to get his piece of luck in wrestling against Masha Poddubnaya, after she finishes off all wrestlers in her troupe." Unfortunately, very little is known about Maria Poddubnaya who always was under the shade of great Ivan Poddubny (too little is known about him either).

At the edge of centuries these female wrestler names were famous: Anna Znamenskaya, Frida Damberg, Allice Williams, Laura Bennett, Hazel Parker, Mary Harris.

There is no doubt that Maria Loorberg (scenic name Marina Lurs) was one of the brightest stars among strongwomen and wrestlers.

Maria Loorberg was born on April 10, 1881, in Revel (now Tallinn, Estonia, at that time Russian Empire province), and passed away on March 30, 1922. Maria had a solid build – weighed 176lbs/80kg having the height of 5'6"/168 cm. In 1903 she became a student of Adolph Andrushkevich, a Russian coach of powerlifting (the first trainer of famous Gakkensmidt) and two years later, in 1905, Maria already appeared in carnivals and circuses of Estonia and other provinces of Russia as a wrestler and powerlifter.

Marina Lurs easily joggled with two 70lbs/32kg dumbbells, pushed up 176lbs/90kg with two arms, and snatched 106lbs/48kg by one hand. She carried three people on her back; lying on back she 32 times lifted by legs a bar with two people on its tips (with total weight 406lbs/184kg); she held 9 people on erect legs. On August, 1913 Lurs established the record: she planted her arms firmly on the knees and maintained 13 people on her legs. The total weight – 1940lbs/880kg – almost a ton! The audience was dazzled by the act in which Marina was spinning a yoke with "human loads" on its – the stunt was called "Live Carousel" - things were flashing before spectators' eyes when Lurs rotated a yoke with live load.

In her epoch she enjoyed an enormous popularity, and went known as a female Kalev (Kalev is a national hero of Estonia). And she is still honored in Estonia as a strongwoman and a great wrestler. Russian newspapers at that time wrote that performing in circuses, "Marina Lurs challenged for wrestling both men and women".

In the early XX century, a galaxy of strongmen and wrestlers of both genders appeared in tiny quiet Estonia. Among men – the three celebrated names: Georg Hackenschmidt, Georg Lurich and Alex Aberg. Besides Maria Loorberg, Estonia gave such great strongwomen and wrestlers as Anette Busch, Linda Belling and Augusta Jost.

Estonian female wrestler Anette Busch (1882-1969) was Maria Loorberg's close friend and companion. Since 1907, Maria and Anette had the glorious joint competition tour which lasted many months – the women visited many towns and villages in Tsarist Russia, including Siberia and Russian Far East (and even Japan and China). They demonstrated powerlifting stunts and challenged local wrestlers and volunteers for wrestling. The Estonian athletes demonstrated exceptional strength, courage and excellent wrestling skills pinning lot of men. Estonian writer Andres Ehin wrote a novel about these uncommon women with the self explanatory title "She Floored A Hundred Men".

Anette Busch was born in the 1882 in Rapla County, in a rural Estonian village. Being a teenager, she moved to Tallinn and began training in a local athletic club where she learned fundamentals of sports. Then she moved to Russia, where joined a circus troupe.

Anette Busch
Anette Busch (1882-1969)
Strongwoman and wrestler
defeated a hundred men

Anette became the troupe's strongest woman, who performed the most difficult stunts and tricks: she tore iron chains, bent iron bars around the arm and torso and broke copper coins it two – everything with her bare hands. And she performed all of those with ease, without applying any noticeable effort.

Anette possessed unprecedented capabilities for a woman. Her crowning trick was so-called bull-fighting, in which she held a bull by its horns and turned back the strong animal.

Since 1907, Maria Loorberg and Anette Busch had the glorious joint competition tour which lasted many months – the women visited many towns and villages in Tsarist Russia, including Siberia, Central Asia, Russian Far East, Japan and China. They demonstrated powerlifting stunts and challenged local wrestlers and volunteers for wrestling. People everywhere enjoyed women wandering around and challenging men to wrestling. A great scandal erupted in Georgian city of Poti where Anette pinned the strongest local man. The hot-blooded son of the Caucasus Mountains became a laughingstock for his fellows. He was out for blood and chased her. Her friends managed to save her though.

The Estonian athletes demonstrated outstanding strength, courage and excellent wrestling skills pinning a lot of men. Estonian writer Andres Ehin wrote a novel about these uncommon women with the self explanatory title "She Floored A Hundred Men".

The fame of two exceptionally strong girls reached the Japanese emperor and the Emir of Bukhara. Both sovereigns desired to see them with their own eyes to make sure the girls are as strong as they had heard. Unlike other places where usually commoners admired Maria and Anette feats, in Bukhara and Japan they performed mostly for the elite. Blue-blooded daughters of noble families were so excited about the power of the two that they showered them with more than expensive gifts.

While the life of Maria Loorberg was bitterly short, Anette Busch lived long life far away from her motherhood. When the Revolution and the Civil War (1917-1920) broke out, Anette Busch found herself in Siberia. Having realized the situation, she decided to leave Russia and crossed the border river and moved to China where many Russians moved at that time in order to save themselves from the war and the Bolsheviks. On the ferry boat, she met a Czech officer, Jozef Hlinowsky, who escaped the Bolsheviks' captivity. They became friends and then married.

After living in Shanghai for a short while, the couple went to Japan where they were very successful. Josef became her manager and they started to scoop a lot of money. The secret of her success in Japan was understandable - she was the first female wrestler from outside of Japan. Circus directors fiercely competed each other in attempts to recruit Anette.

In addition to her great wresting skills, Anette become famous for her outstanding stunt: she placed herself in the bridge position, a large plank was put on her breasts and ten members of an orchestra made themselves comfortable and played music upon the woman's breasts. Enthused the audience rose to heaven. The couple took several tours to China, Korea, Philippines and Taiwan. Wherever they were, Anette performed with great success.

Long before Sumo became widely known in Europe, the Estonian Sumo wrestler rejoiced Japanese Sumo fans. As early as in 1920-1930s, the Japanese knew female giant, Anette (Anna) Busch. Being in Japan, Anette studied Japanese language and mastered in sumo. Her opponents were only male wrestlers, whom she stroke with awe by her solid build (130kg) and perfect wrestling techniques. She was regarded as a demigod. Sumo girl was able to enjoy the whole of Japan, the land of lust, as he drove to the island several times in the transverse cross-over.

Working for fifteen years in circuses, Anette earned good money which she partially spent for a great collection of pearls.

At the end of 1930 Busch was planning to come back to Estonia to spend her days in retirement, but the intention of the Second World War drew lines. He remained in Japan and spent a peaceful retirement. Busch died in 1969 being 87 years old.

Actually, at that time, many circus shows based on fake tricks and fraud of audience; the most of wrestling matches were staged with predetermined outcome. Not in vain, the wrestling legend appeared about the "Hamburg score" - wrestlers met in a Hamburg tavern, far from public and employers - for their own, fair battle to find out who was the truly strongest, "without fools". As to women's circus wrestling, technical and athletic levels of the most of matches were so low, that sport specialists didn't take them seriously. However, such things don't pertain to Marina Lurs – she was one of few real female athlete of her time (in the contemporary sense) – if she worked with loads, those loads were real, if she wrestled, she wrestled without odds.

Maria Loorberg-Lurs was justly named the best female athlete and the strongest woman of the Russian Empire in the early XX century. Russian sport magazine "Hercules" in 1913 reported: "Marina Lurs attracts a special attention of the audience. Having perfect splendid build with massive but fine outlined muscular forms, Lurs performs unbelievable stunts which are just right for a good male athlete." Enthusiast and propagandist of powerlifting, editor-in-chief of the magazine, Ivan Lebedev, wrote about her: "She works as Hercules of the good old circus. Every her stunt is polished, full of strength, yet Maria Lurs’ figure is not at all rough but amazes with its soft and supple lines… City ladies should see this Eve’s daughter, rightfully proud of her strength and the harmony of her shape harmony."

July 30, 2008

Exclusive of the Female Single Combat Club

Anette Busch
1920s. Japan. Sumotori Anette Busch (left) staggers not only her male opponent but even the men out of the ring
Photo from the resource Ohtuleht Sport


She Floored A Hundred Men by Andres Ehin (Seljatas sada meest)

Sila z minulosti: Maria Lurs (czech.)

Women on the arena by Lev Livshits (in Russian)

Women's Sports: A History by Allen Guttmann

Girevichka's: Lady kettlebellers in Tsarist Russia

Editorial board of the Kehakultuur sports magazine from 1900-1989)

Itching for Eestimaa. Forum

An Estonian woman wrestled Sumo in Japan (in Estonian)

Patriotic culture in Russia during World War by John Hubertus.

Marina Lurs

Marina Lurs holds 9 men on the yoke

Demonstration wrestling match in 1905
Videoclip from "British Pathe"

Wrestling in 1905

Great strongwomen and wrestlers




Maria Poddubnaya (at right)

Marina Lurs and Anette Busch

Marina Lurs

Marie Loorberg, female wrestler (1901-1913), photo by unknown author.
Photo from Kehakultuur sports magazine

Marina Lurs

Marina Lurs' show bill

Anette Busch bill>

Circus bill (in Chinese, French and Russian):
"Invincible Madame Anna challenges volunteers of both sexes every Saturday and Sunday"

Newspaper illustration to a ladies wrestling tournament in 1900s


Female wrestling in old illustrations


>>> Female Combat History
>>> They made the history
>>> Circus wrestling and athleticism at the turn of the century

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Last updated: July 30, 2008

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