The Internet is full of wrestling fans who think they know it all, or desire to know it all. Yet there is little discussion of referees. In fact, I would argue that the role of a professional wrestling referee is both misunderstood and not fully appreciated. Let me explain.
As someone who studied the wrestling business from without and within for a long period of years and has worked in the ring as a referee with any number of the best in the business for many of those years, I have formed some definitive ideas about what a referee is and should be about in regards to professional wrestling.
It was my life and my passion to be the best I could be and to know every minute detail of what that takes. I could never relay all of that without writing a lengthy book, but in this relatively short space I am going to attempt to bring some light to those who might not really understand the role of the referee in pro wrestling.
While I realize my days as referee in the business are representative of an era that has changed and the referee’s role with it, I am speaking from a point of view of how I truly believe things should be and once were, for the most part. Though many fell short of being the complete package, the ideas that are noted here represent what I believe should be and/or should have been the goal of a pro wrestling referee.
First of all, I will tell you what a professional wrestling referee is not.
He is NOT the same thing as a referee or official in any other competitive sport. While his purpose may appear to be similar, ideally, he should have a much more involved role as he is and should be a part of the package that tells the story and gains the goal of what the wrestlers and those who are involved in creative ideas are attempting to accomplish. He is NOT a guy whose presence should be obvious “only” when he is involved in a spot or a finish.
He should NOT be invisible or a non-entity as some seem to think and as often expressed about referees and officials in other sports. While he should not overshadow the wrestlers who are the ones who should mostly be the focal point, he has a role as somewhat of a “supporting actor,” in that his body language, facial expressions and knowledge of positioning, timing and other factors should enhance the wrestlers’ goals — whatever that may be — in relaying to the fans what is happening in the ring. You cannot do this by becoming an invisible participant or having little or no interaction with the wrestlers. That may be fine, and even desirable, for a boxing referee or a football official, but in wrestling, which depends on creating a visual picture that tells a story to the fans who are watching, a professional wrestling referee has to be a part of that picture if it is to be complete and believable.
The unfortunate truth is, in many cases, the guy you see in the ring as referee is someone who will work cheap or for nothing; a guy the promoter knows, a relative or someone willing to do other chores in order to get to be in the ring. Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of capable referees have traditionally handled other jobs in wrestling promotions, but all too often the guy you see in the ring wearing a stripped shirt is anything but a true professional who really knows and is capable of the nuances required to do the job correctly and fully.
Many don’t give the referee a second thought and a surprising number of guys who are and have been in the business for years don’t really understand or appreciate the role. Let it be understood that a true professional wrestling referee is NOT one of these stand-ins who are hardly capable of making a three count properly, much less perform the intricate, complicated and often subtle duties required to do that job as it should be done. Frankly, I refuse to work for someone who does not understand and appreciate what my experience, skills and knowledge can do to make their shows and promotions better. You get what you pay (or don’t pay) for in most cases.
There are many things an ideal and complete pro wrestling referee should be. But there are just as many things that are misunderstood by the general public, and even many who have been in the business that haven’t bothered to really study the role of the referee and understand all it can do to make wrestlers better and matches and angles more believable and logical.
You may be able to have a good match without a great referee, but a great referee can make a good match a great one if he knows what he is doing and how to interact and respond to the wrestlers and the events that happen in the ring. The pros that understand this, know how to utilize the referee and react to him in ways that only enhances their personas and skills. Unfortunately, this is becoming a lost art and most simply have no idea these days how important this element can be.
Most of what a referee does in the ring that helps a match are subtle things, such as the aforementioned facial expressions, positioning and body language. Sometimes it’s similar to a pantomime in which you are trying to relay to the fan that something such as a hold is having an affect. A skilled referee makes the contest feel real and appear to be more competitive. He understands the concept of timing that allows wrestlers to get “real heat” without making a fool of himself and while appearing to be attempting to enforce the rules and keeping things fair.
Sometimes, this means a referee has to make the wrestlers work a bit harder at outfoxing him, but if done properly and with cooperation, it makes the match much more believable and does so without destroying the integrity of the referee’s role. It also keeps the fans involved and interested in what and why something is happening and makes them feel a passion one way or the other for the participants. They feel sorry for the guy being cheated and hate the guy doing the cheating and the fact that he’s finding a way to get away with it behind a referee’s back who is “obviously” diligent in trying to keep things fair.
All this is a fundamental for attaining “Real Heat” and placing it on the person intended and not the referee, who is not the guy you want the heat on. All too often, in some promotions, the guys doing the refereeing are wanting to be either a “heel” or a “babyface.” That is not the role of a referee. He should be, in a fan’s mind, solely an impartial rule enforcer. Only in the case of an angle that has a purpose should a referee be anything other than that.
I have long been known as one to make wrestlers work hard for heat. I’ve endured some friendly ribbing from guys who really know my purpose and want to give me a hard time for “giving them a hard time.” But I did not do that to make their jobs more difficult or to get myself over. I did it with the purpose of making the match as logical and believable as possible and all the while protecting my status as a rule enforcer. I would work with guys and bend over backward to help them get heat, but I wanted them to get “real heat” — and not at my expense.
Getting “real heat” and making sure it is placed upon the right person makes such a big difference in how a professional match is viewed by fans. The lack of “real heat” these days has reduced the typical wrestling performance to nothing more than meaningless skits full of cheap heat and rules that are never really enforced consistently or believably. That’s not even getting into the criticism of most matches being “spot fest” oriented affairs.
Getting heat with logic and believability is what carried the wrestling business through many decades of existence and what most of us who long for a more traditional approach loved about the business. That was what created its aura that has sustained our interest in it over the years.
It all begins with “heat” and the issues and passion that this creates in the eyes of the fan. This is something that is best accomplished with the cooperation between both skilled wrestlers and likewise, skilled referees. One without the other makes for a much less impressive product.
I believe it is important for a referee to understand the business in the same way a wrestler should. This includes the reasons and logic for what happens in the ring or the psychology of how a match is laid out and performed, the holds and how they are applied and their intended effect. Having that knowledge along with the overall instincts that help you know how to react and interact with the others in the ring makes for a more realistic contest. Some of the factors are learned, some come more readily because of natural abilities or understanding. But all are important factors in how a referee enhances a wrestling match and the guys who perform them.
I could never list or mention all the instances that those basic skills and knowledge have helped bail me and the guys I worked with out of. Only experience can give you what you need to handle certain things that might happen in the ring and I don’t believe you ever stop learning or seeing new things or situations to deal with
I started studying professional wrestling from a fan’s point of view, as most of us do, but over a period of time I recognized the craft involved and the skills it took to accomplish the intended goals long before I ever stepped in a ring.
I never fully comprehended until I became a part of the business and my learning and understanding of it never stopped.
I have always looked at the business and my role in it as referee from a creative standpoint. I have always believed the referee’s role should be inclusive and detailed. Without really studying all aspects and understanding it from all points of reference, you cannot be as complete a referee as possible and you cannot best serve your purpose as someone who makes things look and feel better for the sake of the wrestlers and the eye of the fan.
You don’t always accomplish this as well as you would like, but with other skilled and experienced guys in the ring with you, and when you know you have performed a well paced and logically drawn match, it is as much a work of art as any other performance in any field of entertainment or sport. And when this happens, it is a result of a concerted effort by all in the ring, including the referee. It certainly doesn’t get that sort of glory or view from the general public, but wrestling fans, even when they have no idea how it was accomplished, can see it and appreciate it for that.
In some cases, when working with young or green guys, a referee can be a valuable source of stability and knowledge for guys trying hard to create a good match in the ring and on the fly. I have called more matches than I can count from start to finish. I have found, over time, the young guys will gravitate to you, ask your advice and want to work with you because they feel confident you can help them get through any tough spot or mistake; that you will know where to go from any point in the match that makes sense and helps them get through without making themselves look foolish. You become sort of a teacher in the ring in those situations and believe me, being able to do this comes in handy many times over. But, you can’t do this if you don’t have an understanding and feel for what needs to happen in a match — and why.
I have, on many occasions, suggested spots and helped even very experienced wrestlers out of tight spots when things might not have gone as they had planned or when situations changed because of a missed spot, injury or someone simply forgetting what should caome next or maybe even a finish.
At other times, I might even suggest spots or moves when I had a “feel” for something that might work in a certain situation, even during the flow of a match regardless whether things were going right or not. When I would do that, the wrestlers had the option of doing what I suggested or something else. It never bothered me either way when it was experienced guys I was working with, but there have been many times that my suggestions were taken and things turned out even better because I had the ability and knowledge to see or feel something, much like the wrestlers themselves. Things don’t always go as planned in the ring and things happen on occasion that changes everything intended. A good, skilled referee can be a huge asset when those things come about.
Another factor that I believe helps a referee be the complete package is athletic ability. Now, I know a lot of good and very capable referees have not been particularly athletic, but being so is of great benefit when it comes to timing and maneuvering in the ring. It’s very helpful to be athletic when you need to make a quick move to get out of the way or to get to a point to make a count. It also comes in handy if you are required to “take a bump” or any other physical move, even simply chasing the wrestlers around the ring or sometimes around the arena. If a referee isn’t an athlete, then he should, at least, attempt to maintain some degree of condition. It’s amazing how much energy you can use just staying out of the way or trying to keep up with some of those guys.
Being athletic, or at least having the look of being in condition, is also a help in appearing to have a presence in the ring of a guy who is capable of maintaining control to a reasonable point. This doesn’t mean “showing up” the wrestlers, but having a look of being physically capable to be believable in controlling situations that require some physical contact with the wrestlers or standing up to them on occasion is a plus for any referee. In the fan’s eye, if you are capable of handling tough situations, they tend to have more faith in you and trust you are capable of doing your job.
I’m not one of these guys who believes a referee should never “touch” a wrestler. Quite the contrary, in fact. The referee, if he is to do his job believably, has to occasionally be a bit forceful and that sometimes means pulling, pushing, prying and otherwise being in physical contact with the wrestlers. The wrestlers who understand the value of this know how to use it to their benefit and to help them get over and get even more heat. It also makes the referee’s effort to maintain control much more believable and often more palatable to the fans.
As an example, “Killer” Tim Brooks used to love for me to be physical with him in the right situations, even sometimes pulling him off an opponent by his hair if necessary to make the point that he is one minded in his aggressiveness and even a bit out of control. In Killer’s mind, I wasn’t “showing him up,” I was making him look even more difficult to handle than his colleagues. My being required to take those desperate measures to get his attention only enhanced his persona as a badass heel and helped him get even more heat than he could by simply ignoring my pleas to break it up. If he came at me for pulling his hair — which is often what he would do — all I had to do was point at my shirt and remind him who he was threatening. He would most always back off, appearing to fear disqualification or fine. That respect, in itself, whether given begrudgingly or not is an important factor in the way a fan believes what is happening and whether or not the rules and the referee mean anything beyond eye candy. But it takes a cooperative effort to make that happen.
As I said before, the guys who really understood how to use and work with a referee had the advantage of everything a good referee could give him, which is a lot if it’s done properly. These guys who feel a referee should never touch them are typically too full of themselves to realize how much that interaction could help them if they could see beyond their own egos.
Some things are simply necessary, yet so basic, such as a consistent and rhythmic count that remains the same regardless if it’s just a false finish or the real thing. Nothing is more obvious to fans and more irritating to me than seeing a referee stooge off finishes and other points of a match by changing a count or doing something different than he might do when the “real” finish is coming up. Not only the factor of stooging off, but the consistency of a count helps the wrestlers keep better tabs on where the count is and how it is going to come in order to time either a kickout or another move. When a referee is inconsistent it becomes a guessing game for the wrestlers. A strong, vocal and rhythmic count that remains the same throughout the match is an important part of being a believable and complete referee. But any habit a referee might develop that does anything to distract or lessen the effect of a match, no matter at which point it is done, is something that should be corrected and replaced with more believable traits. Simply put, you do anything and everything you would believe a guy who’s trying to be fair and maintain the rules would do — at all times in a match.
I was always pretty vocal in my matches. First of all, it adds to the match’s believability when the referee is vocalizing his commands and admonishments. The fans hear this and it feels right to them. There are times when other vocalized interaction with the wrestlers makes for a more “real” feel and those are dependent on the wrestler’s characteristics or other factors that might make that interaction or statements add something to the match. Sometimes these may be very serious, sometimes even a bit comical, but as long as they sound “real” and have some meaning, they can be a valuable part of getting the match and the wrestler over.
Other times I might be vocal to cover up something or give the wrestlers a chance to interact while I am appearing to be either asking a guy if he wants to “give up” or checking a hold, etc. This is when some bit of pantomime comes in handy. We may be in a hold in which the guys are catching their breath for a few seconds and possibly calling something; I could be moving about, checking the hold, making gestures with my arms and hands or any other thing that keeps things going and interesting while there is really not much going on wrestling wise. At some times, it might be that I am communicating something else to the wrestlers, such as time left (in a TV situation), making a suggestion, or any other thing that might need to be passed along.
Sometimes when I’d appear to be admonishing a wrestler for breaking a rule, I might be doing the same sort of things metnioned above or passing along something from his opponent, all the time my facial expressions are saying one thing and my words another. The fans never know and it always appears I am doing my job.
One of my most proud moments in the business came in a dark, secluded area of the arena on the Fairgrounds in Amarillo, Texas. I was standing there alone, getting my thoughts together for the upcoming matches that I had traveled to work at the request of my old friend, Dick Murdoch, who was promoting the event. As I was standing there, I heard Dick walk up and speak with his unmistakable drawl. He greeted me and said, “I just wanted to thank you for making it out here for me” and then after a couple other comments, he said, “I wanted to tell you that I really think you’re the best in the business and I appreciate the way you work. That’s why I wanted you here for my show.” He went on to explain that he particularly liked the fact that I enforced the rules regardless of whether it was a heel or babyface who might have broken them and did so with equal emotion and effort regardless their stature. Those are things I was very much aware of and tried to do because I knew the importance of appearing to be a guy whose job was to enforce rules and to do it in a way that was unmistakably believable and uniform.
That was about a month before Dick died, and I have always remembered those sentiments as being very special to me for two reasons: One, they came from a guy I respected and knew to be a straight shooter who seldom dealt out compliments and didn’t pull his punches when it came to his opinions. Secondly, because it was the last night I got to work with a guy I consider to be one of the best ever in the business. I got to spend a bit more time with him later that night at his old, worn-out bar, doing our best to rid it of all the Coors Light that might be anywhere around. But, I have always held to that uncharacteristic moment from Dicky as validation of work I had tried hard to make as good as anyone could do it and my beliefs that I had a responsibility in the ring to enhance the believability and carry on the traditions of a business guys like Dick had busted their asses to create and maintain over the years. It is a responsibility and legacy I took very seriously, just as I took my job as referee and all that it meant.
The truth is, being famous or well known was not my goal. Though some notoriety certainly has been nice, knowing the guys I worked with in the ring and dealt with in the dressing rooms and booking rooms trusted my skills and knowledge is really what makes me feel comfortable about my part in the wrestling business and the quality of the body of work I was able to accomplish. I believe it is because I have always had strong convictions about my role as a referee that I have enjoyed so many good relationships and experiences over the years in the professional wrestling business. Of that, I am proud.
I believe that the lack of rules and the lack of consistent enforcement of them by guys who knew how to do that is one of the most important factors in the decline of the way many of us see the business these days. Simply enforcing rules would change everything. It would create the need for guys to learn skills to get real heat and it would result in those guys becoming much more believable and more psychologically sound. That alone would be a tremendous “fix” for what ails the wrestling business, in my opinion. It sounds simple, but of course, it is not. But that factor would certainly make a difference if the powers that be could show the patience and creativity needed to allow this to become the way things worked again.
There may never be a time again when the skills and psychologically sound work that was mostly common in days gone by are the norm in the professional wrestling business. I will never believe that those were not the best times, though, and I will never be able to fully accept a wrestling product in which these traits are not taught, required and carried through with as much believability and logic as possible. I always felt a sense of pride that as a referee, I could stand in the ring with two skilled wrestlers, knowing that together, we had a chance to create something that is based on a craft and art-form that results in a well-paced rollercoaster of passion and leads the fans watching to a logical, if not always satisfying, conclusion that they can really believe in.
In my case, I was lucky to find a few places fit for a guy who believed in the importance of having a really good referee and what that entailed. I have always appreciated those places and the guys who trusted me to be that. In that role, I tried to be someone who helped those guys get to where they were going, even if most folks and fans never understood how I did it or appreciated my role in it all. I know, because I did everything I could to be someone those uniquely skilled athletes could trust to be a part of their matches and count on to do what was needed to reach a common goal.
While I cannot begin, here, to fully explain all a referee does or can do, this is a synopsis of some things I believe to be truly important in being a complete professional wrestling referee:
- Knowledge: Have a grasp of the basic rules, understand psychology and the fundamentals of how a wrestling match should be put together and what the role of a referee is within them. Have a basic knowledge and understanding of how holds work and their intended effect. In my opinion, a good referee, while he might not have the skills and ability to perform all these things, should basically be as knowledgeable of all the nuances involved as the guys who work with him in the ring.
- Develop or enhance your instincts: Understand timing in regards to holds and moves and have a grasp of the proper pacing of a match. Know when and how to do what you do. Just knowing how to do them is not enough — knowing when is just as important.
- Be in shape: If you are naturally athletic, great! If not, at least condition yourself and take some pride in your appearance. You may not be the star, but you have a responsibility to look like you can do the job.
- Be technically correct: Make consistent and rhythmic counts that the wrestlers can depend on. Know the rules and be consistent in applying them and do so regardless whether it is a popular wrestler or heel you are dealing with. Know positioning, be at the right places at the right times. React properly and believably to all circumstances.
- Learn the subtleties: Know how your body language, gestures and facial expressions can help enhance a match and understand when and how to use them. Know how and when to assist the wrestlers in communicating with each other and how to make it appear to be something else you are doing. Overall, understand how the little things help build an image in the eye of the fans and what you can do to enhance that and make things “feel real.”
- Be confident: Appearing to be a meek or weak rule enforcer does not help enhance a match and does not help get the wrestlers over. All this does is make you look foolish. Remember, the wrestlers are the ones who should be getting the heat and mostly being the focal point of the match. If you allow things to go, that makes you look like the fool and the fans get mad at you, not the guy they should be getting mad at. I realize some wrestlers, bookers and guys in charge do not understand this any better than most of you, but the fact is, if they don’t allow you to be a strong and consistent rule enforcer who always appears to be doing his best to keep things fair, then they simply don’t know what they are doing and how to place the heat where it belongs. Sadly, this is all too common in the business these days and even at the upper levels they don’t seem to really grasp this fact.
There are so many other things that could be listed, but most are things learned through experience and over time. I hope those things I’ve touched on give some insight to an overlooked and misunderstood, yet very important factor and role within the professional wrestling business.
There’s an old saying some of the guys who knew the difference used to repeat when talking about working with a good referee — It takes three of us to do it right. So true!
James Beard has worked in pro wrestling for over 20 years, including in World Class, USWA, GWF, WWF/SWS (Japan), NOW (Japan), Big Japan and countless other smaller . He’s been a referee, a promotions man, a creative consultant, booker, TV producer and writer, and a trainer. James has also shared many stories from his career with the Old School Wrestling website and the KayfabeMemories website. He can be emailed at email@example.com.