Mildred Burke v. Nell 'the Southern Belle' Stewart! Bronko Nagurski v. Abe 'the Syrian Assassin' Kashay!

In 1950, pro wrestling drew big names—and a big crowd—to the Mayo Civic Auditorium.

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Mildred Burke, on the back of an opponent, was a women’s wrestling champion for nearly 20 years.
Photos courtesy Olmsted County Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons

Undefeated professional wrestler Mildred Burke was one of the most successful athletes of her time.

So when she made her way to Rochester in 1950 to wrestle in a championship bout at Mayo Civic Auditorium, fans were all a-buzz.

Adding to the excitement was Burke’s opponent on this night of May 18: Nell “the Southern Belle” Stewart, who besides being Burke’s rival in the ring, was also rumored to be having an affair with Burke’s husband and manager, Billy Wolfe.

Described in the Post-Bulletin as “curvaceous,” Stewart was everything Burke wasn’t—blonde (albeit out of a bottle), glamorous, and the young protege of Wolfe. She was a top draw wherever she wrestled.

The pugnacious Burke, though, was into her second decade as undisputed world women’s champion. For the past 13 years, she had met and defeated all challengers—including Stewart.


Needless to say, there would be fireworks in Mayo Civic Auditorium that night.

However, the Burke-Stewart match wasn’t alone at the top of the card. It shared that honor with a bout featuring former football star and wrestling champ Bronko Nagurski, who would face Abe “the Syrian Assassin” Kashay.

Nagurski was attempting to work his way back into contention for another run at the title. Kashay, who played his role as one of pro wrestling’s villains to the hilt, would be a worthy opponent. In a match in Rochester just a few months previous, Kashay was disqualified when he refused to quit pummeling an obviously beaten opponent. He then got into a fight on the way to the locker room. Fans alternately swooned and swore at his antics.

Also scheduled to wrestle was 260-pound Leo Nomellini, a University of Minnesota football star (and future NFLer), who would clash with Stan Myslajek.

Above: University of Minnesota football star Leo Nomellini throws an opponent. Photos courtesy Olmsted County Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons.

No wonder 1,600 fans turned out on a pleasant spring evening to witness the spectacle. In coming years, pro wrestling, with its larger-than-life characters, would prove to be a hit on television. But in 1950, the best way for local fans to see the likes of Nagurski and Burke was in-person and ringside.

The Nagurski-Kashay match was full of the usual mayhem, as Nagurski “made use time and again of his famed flying block” to knock Kashay off his feet, and on one occasion entirely out of the ring. Kashay, though, gave as good as he got, according to the Post-Bulletin report on the match.

“Bronko Nagurski absorbed all sorts of indignities at the hands of Kashay,” the newspaper reported. Finally, the former champ had enough, and “took things into his own hands and pinned the Syrian in 25 minutes and 53 seconds.”

Nomellini, meanwhile, “showed considerable improvement over his last showing here,” the Post-Bulletin reported. He sealed the win in his match by catapulting himself off the ropes to flatten and then pin his opponent.


As for the Burke-Stewart grudge match, “many believe it stole the show,” according to the Post-Bulletin. The women went at it with a vengeance, “with a bit of hair-pulling and gouging tossed in for good measure.”

Several times, it looked like Stewart had Burke down for the count. But the champ rallied each time, and at one point had Stewart tied up in the ring ropes. “Mildred, never one to worry about ethics and plenty burned up by this time anyway,” reared back and gave Stewart a “good swift kick in the pants,” despite a warning from the referee, according to the newspaper.

Mildred Burke and Nell “the Southern Belle” Stewart were regular fixtures—and covers—of the wrestling magazines of the 1940s and 50s. Photos courtesy Olmsted County Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons.

It was back-and-forth all the way, until Burke “became sick and tired of the foul antics” of Stewart. A few body slams later, Burke pinned the helpless challenger to win the match after only 13 minutes and 29 seconds.

“Thus,” the Post-Bulletin said, “Burke retained the championship belt she won back in 1937.”

That’s a long time to be on top in any sport, and in the next few years Burke would divorce Wolfe, retire from the ring, and start the World Women’s Wrestling Association. Stewart went on to win regional titles, but never the world championship belt Burke had worn. She retired from the ring in the 1960s, after being married to, and divorced from, Wolfe.

Mildred Burke and Nell “the Southern Belle” Stewart were regular fixtures—and covers—of the wrestling magazines of the 1940s and 50s. Photos courtesy Olmsted County Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons.
University of Minnesota football star and NFLer Bronko Nagurski. Photos courtesy Olmsted County Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.
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