In A Nutshell
Growing up on an Alabama cotton farm, Ann Casey could never have guessed she would become a professional wrestler one day. Fighting under the stage name “Panther Girl,” Casey took on some of the best wrestlers in the nation. She even battled her old mentor in a real-life slugfest. But her greatest match was against a gang of drug-dealing truck drivers who wanted to pin her for good.
The Whole Bushel
We all know professional wrestling isn’t technically a sport. It’s more like sports entertainment. But even though the fights are fixed, the men and women who step into that ring are truly incredible athletes. They perform all sorts of death-defying stunts and often experience real injuries.
Plus, there’s always the chance that a scripted bout might turn into a
“shooting” match—in layman’s terms, a real-life brawl. So when Ann Casey found herself in a bone-snapping, blood-and-guts shoot with the championship on the line, she knew things were going to get nasty.
Born in 1930s Alabama, Ann Casey grew up in an abusive household. When her parents weren’t locking her outside during cold winter nights or slashing her face with blunt knives, they were forcing her to slave away in the cotton fields.
As she grew older, Casey quit picking cotton and began working a number of jobs to support her young son, George. And that’s how she wound up as a ticket taker, working for the Fields Brother wrestling company.
After a night of collecting money and punching tickets, Casey ran into a woman named Mary Lillian Ellison, better known by her stage name, the Fabulous Moolah. One of the most successful female wrestlers in the US, Moolah was known for her love of money and her sparkly, dollar sign sunglasses.
After spotting Casey, Moolah was quite impressed with the woman’s physique. All that hard work in the cotton fields had sculpted Ann into a real-life Amazonian. Moolah offered to train Ann as a wrestler, and while she was initially reluctant, Casey eventually agreed, hoping to provide a better life for her son.
Soon, Casey was training in Moolah’s gym, but she quickly discovered the life of a wrestler isn’t all glitz and glamour. As it turned out, Moolah was something of a scam artist who regularly took sizable chunks out of Casey’s paychecks, supposedly to cover all sorts of “personal expenses.”
This was standard operating procedure for Moolah. While her fighters slept in their cars, she was living the high life.
Nevertheless, Casey quickly became one of the most popular wrestlers in the US. She won over fans with her good looks and superhuman ability of leaping straight over the top rope directly into the ring. The so-called “Panther Girl” also amazed audiences with her trademark move, the airplane spin. Casey would grab an opponent, put the wrestler across her shoulders, and then spin in circles before slamming her to the mat.
Eventually, Moolah and Casey squared off in the ring. Supposedly, this was such a big deal that even John F. Kennedy watched the match on TV. But instead of losing as originally planned, Moolah forced the ref into disqualifying the match, allowing her to retain the belt.
Frustrated with Moolah’s backstabbing habits, the Panther Girl decided it was time to go her own way. Working as a free agent, Casey wrestled across the world, fighting in almost every state and countries like Canada and Puerto Rico. Along the way, she met Elvis Presley, won an actual boxing match with an over-zealous opponent, and fought in Madison Square Garden.
But just because Casey had success in the ring, that didn’t mean everything in her family life was smooth sailing. In the early ‘70s, she discovered that her son was selling drugs on behalf of a gang of truckers. Hoping to spare her son from prison, she volunteered to go undercover for the DEA.
As she wrestled her away across the country, Casey spent her spare time gathering evidence against the truck drivers involved in this underworld operation.
Evidently, she was a pretty good detective. In 1973, the leader of the drug syndicate approached Casey’s car and shot her multiple times, piercing her lung and liver.
Casey died twice on the operating table, and when she awoke, doctors said she’d never wrestle again. However, the Panther Girl was an incredibly determined woman, and she wanted back in the game.
That’s when the Fabulous Moolah returned, offering Casey the championship belt if she’d sign a new contract. Casey refused, unwilling to work for her old boss. For whatever reason, Moolah offered to fight Casey for real. No script, no pulled punches.
The two agreed, and the battle took place in Liberty Hill, South Carolina. Moolah came equipped with salt to blind Casey’s eyes and an extra long thumbnail to slice through skin. During the brawl, Moolah actually broke one of Casey’s fingers and punched her repeatedly in the body, hoping to injure Casey’s already damaged liver.
But despite her dirty tactics, Casey was able to pick Moolah up, give her the old airplane spin, and drop her to the mat, knocking her mentor out cold.
The new champion, Casey would continue fighting until the ‘90s. She then went on to work a number of colorful jobs like truck driving and bounty hunting. She was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2004, but fate hasn’t been all that kind to the Panther Girl.
Her son was eventually arrested for cattle rustling, her ex-convict husband abandoned her, and today she lives in a cabin without windows or a toilet. She’s virtually broke thanks to Moolah’s shady financial practices, but despite those setbacks, she’s still the woman who took on drug dealers and dirty wrestlers. At the end of the day, the Panther Girl is still the all-time champion.
Show Me The Proof
WBUR: Panther Girl: The Wrestler Who Escaped Murder
“The Legend of Panther Girl,” by Jeff Maysh