Columbus native Ramona Isbell will speak tonight at premiere of film about black women wrestlers

Tonight, Ramona Isbell will be celebrated for the barriers she crossed in her two decades competing as a black woman wrestler. But to her, it was all in a day’s work.

“I just looked at it as it being a job, myself,” says Isbell, 78, from her East Side home. “It was a job, and that was what it was.”

Isbell is one of the women featured in a documentary film “Lady Wrestlers: The Amazing, Untold Story of African-American Women in the Ring,” to be screened tonight at the Wexner Center. Isbell will answer questions following the screening along with the film’s producer, Chris Bournea, who is also a Columbus native and resident (as well as a journalist with Columbus Monthly’s sister ThisWeek News publications).

Bournea says he was inspired to make the documentary after interviewing Isbell and fellow wrestler Ethel Johnson, for the Columbus Dispatch in 2006. Johnson and her two sisters, Babs Wingo and Marva Scott, as well as Isbell, all gained international renown during their careers in the ring. “We have some black folk heroes in Columbus,” says Bournea. “But here I am, a black person who grew up here, and I never heard of these women.” He wanted to correct that. The self-funded film took 10 years to produce, he says.

Isbell says it didn’t seem like a big deal to step into the ring when she started in 1961. She’d been watching other men and women wrestle on television. Her promoter, Billy Wolfe, had been recruiting black women to the sport since the 1950s.

“The biggest thing,” says Isbell, “was you got to travel.” Isbell, who was married at the time, traveled for matches in Japan, Australia and Africa. She also traveled through the segregated South, and says that was a revelation. “You couldn’t go into the restaurants and eat, somebody white had to go in and get the food and bring it out to you,” she says. “All over the South you had to go in through the back doors, which I never did do.”

Instead, she would find her own way to get by. In Savannah, she remembers, “I had to go like a mile outside of the city to go to the bathroom.”

Asked whether the matches were choreographed, Isbell bristles. “They were wrestling matches,” she says. “You get in there, you get hurt, you get bruised, you get swollen ankles, you get a cracked ankle, you get scratches here, you get scratches there. You go out of the ring the wrong way, you bump your head or you mess up your back. I don’t call that no choreographed.”

Isbell says her marriage was short-lived and she raised her four children alone. When her promoter Wolfe died, she began booking her own matches—even overseas. She liked the freedom. “By me having children, I would stay home when I needed to stay home,” she says. “But if the business was bad or the crowds were down, I would stay home. I took off whenever I wanted to.”

When her son started playing basketball in the second grade, Isbell quit wrestling to stay home with her children. She became a secretary and later a purchasing manager, working for the state of Ohio.

Isbell has kept a low profile since she hung up her wrestling shoes. “I’ve been out of the ring for over 30 years. I didn’t broadcast it,” she says. “People challenge wrestlers, and you can get in trouble. I just don’t say anything about anything. If you know who I am, fine, if you don’t know who I am, fine.”

Now, though, at 78 and with eight grandchildren and a three-month-old great-grandson, Isbell doesn’t mind getting a little recognition for her accomplishments. You can see her tonight at 7 p.m. at the Wex.

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