Wrestling’s “SECOND” Joyce Grable (9/26/09)

“Joyce’ll do it!”

In the exciting world of professional wrestling, promoters were always looking for something — anything — to draw additional interest and get more butts in the seats.  Put on boxing gloves and duke it out?  Wear a bikini on a promo?  Hide inside a crate as a mystery opponent?  Whatever was needed, the answer always came forth: ‘Joyce’ll do it!’   Joyce Grable saw the odd and unusual in pro wrestling and became its fast friend, loving the life and career it brought her for two decades.

It should be noted that as ring handles go, Joyce Grable was a name making its second tour of duty.  There was a lady grappler with the Joyce Grable name who wound up leaving the squared circle after marrying fellow wrestler George Becker, a few years before the debut of ‘the sequel.’  “When I was ready to start, (Fabulous) Moolah asked me if I’d like to take that name, because I looked so much like her.  So that’s what I did.  If you look at pictures of the two of us, you will see a lot of similarities in our features,”  Grable noted.  The uncanny resemblance continues to confuse fans to this day.  “I still get photos sent to me in the mail, asking them to be autographed…and it’s a picture of the original Joyce Grable.   I will still sign them anyway, but I send a note back telling them it’s the other Joyce.”

Joyce Grable, the second, grew up in LaGrange, Georgia.  She enjoyed the action of the pro ringJoyceGrable from a close ringside vantage point as she attended live bouts alongside her brothers.  But it was a chance trip 65 miles away to Atlanta’s City Auditorium with a lady friend that ultimately launched Joyce’s wrestling career.

“My friend wanted to go to Atlanta because Moolah was wrestling there, and she wanted to talk to her about training to wrestle.  After Moolah’s match, she was walking across the stage, and Moolah stopped to talk to my friend.  She noticed me, this skinny little girl, and told my friend she would agree to train her, only on the condition that I come with her to do it, too,”  Grable recalls.  “She told Moolah I wasn’t interested, but when it was both of us or neither, I was talked into it!  We packed our bags, and it wasn’t two weeks later that I was in the ring doing dropkicks and the flying headscissors.”

Grable’s athleticism was key in those early days, and whereas her friend didn’t make the cut, Joyce thrived and began “something I wouldn’t have pursued otherwise,”  she said.  “I had played softball and baseball, so wrestling was something that came natural to me.”  Fellow CAC member Peggy Patterson was one of the other wrestlers that helped indoctrinate Joyce into the pro ranks.  “We called Peggy ‘Big Job’.  I mean, I was only 5-foot-6, and she’s so tall … but I liked working with her.”

Dubbed “The Golden Goddess of the Mat”, Joyce started on the road in 1971 in Cleveland.  Wrestling against Moolah for the women’s title honed her singles wrestling skills, and in tag teams, she often paired with Vicki Williams.  It was a contrast in styles that made the team effective.  “Vicki was more into the flying and taking big bumps; I was more of the style of ‘grab a hold and hang on to it’, you know?  Together, we were really good,” Joyce laughed.  On October 15, 1973, Grable and Williams became World Tag Team Champions by defeating Toni Rose and Donna Christantello in New York’s Madison Square Garden.  “Joyce was one of the best girl wrestlers in the business,”  Christantello recalls.  “She put her heart and soul into the business; some of my toughest matches were wrestling Joyce and her partner.”

Another territory where Grable found success was in Amarillo working for the Funk Brothers.  “I always thought I’d wind up moving to Texas, since it was one of my favorite places,” Joyce said.  “But instead I wound up coming home.”   A frequent challenger at the time was a young Velvet McIntyre.  “She gave me a real good run for the belt.”

More tag team success followed with a wrestler Joyce had a hand in training, Wendi Richter.  It became a ritual for Grable to take the ladies’ programs around the country, covering the areas where Moolah defending the championship belt had already been, or had yet to reach.  “I eventually became the one who had stayed with Moolah the longest, and she depended on me while she was touring.  I took care of collecting the booking fees, and getting the girls on the road.  The last four or five years, I was taking the new girls out on the tours.”

grablemoolah1973

Moolah in 1973 in Las Vegas on the occasion of Joyce's 21st birthday. A champagne toast to celebrate the event!

Those road trips were usually booked in a cycle around the country that made sense of the geography.  “We tried to avoid criss-crossing the country.  A typical tour would start out in New York, and from there we’d go to Minneapolis… Calgary… California… Texas… into Louisiana for Bill Watts… Alabama, and then home,”  Grable reveals.  Sometimes those trips could last as long as six months.   “It could be tough, because you couldn’t have a dog, or keep any plants, because they’d turn brown!  For everything you got, you had to give up something.”

Part of the sacrifice included that of her marriage. Joyce remembers, “It wasn’t really working out.  I think I was too young to be married.  I was only 25 years old, and once I told Moolah I was getting married, I think she booked me even more!   He’s a good guy; we’re best of friends and still talk today.” 

As part of those road trips, the ladies were occasionally featured on television to build up their house show appearances.  “Generally, we’d be in a territory for only about two weeks at a time,”  Grable said.  “And if we did any of their TV, they showed your matches while you were on your way out.  So we never got to see our matches.”

With the advent of YouTube, Grable is able to see those bouts on the internet, and all the magic of the glory days return; some of the matches she is seeing for the first time.  One bout on the web sparks fond memories.  It is from Thanksgiving Night, 1980 in Atlanta’s Omni.  Grable and Judy Martin tagged together to face a male team of Steve Olsonoski and Jerry Roberts (Jacques Rougeau, Jr.).

“For a few weeks, they had me on TV against Sabrina, Victoria…a few others, just to show that I was a tough wrestler,” Joyce said.  That match was part of the opening round of a tournament to declare the National Tag team Champions.  “Ole Anderson was the booker.  Steve O was a gem of a guy; I had met him when I wrestled up in Minneapolis.  He did anything we wanted to do.  But Jerry Roberts didn’t like working with us.  When he had Judy in a headlock, she was screaming as he really was winding her up.  When I tagged in, he tried the same thing with me.  So I got to the ropes and he broke the hold.  But when I went to lock up with him again, I had those cowboy boots, you know… and I laid it in when I kicked him down there!  He was down on his knees!  That part was edited off television on the clip they showed, though.”

There was some discussion afterwards.  “I just told them, if Jerry wants to work with me, I will work with him!   And a month later, on Christmas night in Columbus, we did it again…and it was such a good match.  Much better than the first one,” Grable recalls.

A battle of the sexes was not your usual bill of fare, but it was just another day at the office for Joyce Grable.   “What I really liked was if they asked me to do something that was new and different.  My thought was ‘let me try it one time’!    The promoters knew they could always depend on me to give it my best,”  Joyce said.

“I wrestled a match where both women wore blindfolds… I did boxing matches… anything different, I liked it.”  When professional wrestling was featured on the Phil Donahue talk show in the early 1980s, Joyce and Judy Martin wrestled a match there, another landmark event for both the women’s division and Joyce’s profile within the wrestling community.  One night while touring for Bill Watts, that familiar refrain sounded loudly.  “They wanted to know if one of the ladies would do a promo on TV wearing a bikini… and they said, ‘Joyce’ll do it.’  Another time, while in the Knoxville area with Kevin Sullivan as the booker, an angle proved to be another first for Grable.  “Kevin put me in this big crate, and he’d bring it to the ring.  Boris Malenko was there and he told Sullivan he’d fight whoever was inside.  Kevin told me I wouldn’t be in there for more than ten minutes. But they kept me in there a lot longer…and I’m claustrophobic!  But eventually, they opened it up, and out I came holding a bunch of roses…and I beat up on Malenko!”

Joyce broke new ground in so many different ways.  Even today’s wrestling divas can look to Grable’s New York tours as a forerunner to their current marketing situation.  “When I was up there (around 1982), I dressed up as one of Buddy Rose’s Playboy Bunnies,”  Joyce remembers.  “I have a photo somewhere of us together with me in costume, and Ernie Roth was there, too.”

A willingness to do anything that built the business and was fun, Grable toured the world with an attitude that made for maximum enjoyment.  “I really liked working for promoters where they went out of their way to be nice to you, even when they didn’t have to.”  Two examples were during her time working for Steve Rickard in New Zealand, and perhaps her favorite territory, the Maritimes for Emile Dupre.  “Emile was so good to me; there were times he let me stay at his house, and I got to meet his family,” Joyce said.  “I worked for him for two years straight in October as a babyface.  Then my last few years, I brought one of the new girls up each October and worked heel.  I liked that so much better!  I could be nasty to the people…and get paid for it!  It really makes a difference when you’re out there.”

As the mid 1980s arrived, Joyce made the decision to stop touring.  She had plans beyond the ring.  “I wanted to have a child,” she said.  “Did you know that I wrestled full time until I was three months pregnant?  One night in Georgia, I did my dropkick off the turnbuckle.  Jake Roberts was the booker, and when he found out I was pregnant, he asked me ‘Why did you DO that?!?’  But the doctor said my body was used to it… and my son turned out just perfect!”  Today, that son, Derek, age 24, is clearly a source of pride.

A few years of taking sporadic matches near home, within driving distance, completed what was left of Joyce Grable’s calendar of ring action.  In 1991, as her son began to attend school, Grable left the ring for the final time.  On special occasions, she will take to working the corner for an up-and-coming female star.  But for the most part, she makes room for as many opportunities that her busy schedule can handle.  “My hobbies today include playing bingo and Texas Hold-Em,”  Joyce said.  “I can play poker on Saturday night, and still make it to church on Sunday morning!”

Joyce Grable makes the reunion rounds, at both Cauliflower Alley’s Vegas excursions, “which I’ve been to about six or seven times now.  And I do go each year to the Gulf Coast Reunion, which is close by.”   She stays in contact with many of her partners and opponents.  “I still talk to Donna Christantello, Paula Kaye and Toni Rose regularly.”

Grable has no regrets from her time in wrestling.  “I had fun doing things I liked, and I was paid for it.  And if you’re not having fun, you’re not going to be a good worker and it’s time to stop.  I would do it the same way if I could do it all over again.”

As the 2010 Cauliflower Alley Club reunion draws closer, the inclusion of Joyce Grable’s name on the list of honorees continues to delight those who followed her career from the stands, and from across the ring.  “She is one of the kindest people I know,” said Donna Christantello.  “And she deserves all the recognition she can get. My best to her and congratulations.”

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