Dave Hebner refereed many of the WWE’s biggest matches, as the flagship referee of the WWE until a surprising dismissal in 2005. There is a more than twinge of bitterness in his voice when he speaks about the incident, and yet room remains for a cautious hope of someday setting the record straight face-to-face with his former employer — an employer, he says, he gave his life to.
In a recent interview, Hebner shared his viewpoints with SLAM! Wrestling as well as some thoughts on a distinguished career that has had notable moments of controversy.
Dave and Earl Hebner, identical twins, were born May 17, 1949 in Richmond, Virginia. Both were wrestling fans as kids and Dave first got his first glimpse of live wrestling checking out the local Fairgrounds, “which was at the NASCAR racetrack every Friday night. I’m talking about George Becker, Johnny Weaver, Ole and Gene Anderson, Antonino Rocca, and that’s where I used to go, work for the concessions down there, selling hot dogs and peanuts and stuff,” he explained with his classic Southern drawl. “Finally, they asked me one day, ‘Do you want to put the ring up?’ I said ‘Sure,’ so I put the ring up and they gave me $20. Then later down the road, when I got big enough to get my driver’s license, they asked me to start taking the ring to Roanoke, and all kinds of different places, me and my brother [Earl]. And the guy who gave me my big break in the business was a guy by the name of George Scott. He’s one of the greatest guys in the business today. He’s the one who gave me my start and push and everything’s been good.”
Dave also loved to wrestle, and didn’t hesitate to fill in when he was needed. “I was working in the NWA for Jim Crockett Promotions,” he elaborated. “After Blackjack Mulligan and Ric Flair and Jimmy Crockett bought Knoxville, Tennessee from the Fullers, I would referee plus put on the mask, the black suit, and guys I would wrestle a lot would be Tim Horner and Kenneth Johns. He was a big, big guy; they used to call him Bigger. I had several matches where we got juiced in it and it was really different. I had a great time, wrestling and refereeing. But nobody knew it was me because, like I say, the name I used was ‘The Golden Eagle.'”
The promotion ran towns such as Roanoke, Richmond, Norfolk, and Hampton. “We went to high school gyms and worked out of the gyms. Greensboro, where they had a big deal every year at Thanksgiving or either the day after Christmas, they would pack that place down there, the Greensboro Coliseum.
“I had a lot of fun down there; I worked for Dusty [Rhodes], he was a booker there at that time. Jim Crockett and Ray Stevens, he was one of the bookers down there, Ray Stevens and Pat Patterson. Pat never came down there, but they used to be tag team partners out in California. I had a good time. It’s like a dream come true that I became a wrestler and referee, because none of my parents or anyone like that were into the business, close to the business or ever knew the business. Just a group of kids loving it.”
Dave worked with pioneers such as the late Fabulous Moolah and not surprisingly had some thoughts for the hall of famer.
“Yeah, Moolah and I and a girl called Victoria,” he acknowledged. “The other guy Kenneth Johns, we had mixed tag teams. Man, I picked that girl up [Victoria], I slammed her, gave her that kneedrop and legdrop and people thought I had killed that girl. Moolah and I were the heels, we just sat back and just strutting, baby, strutting,” he laughed.
“Nobody was a better heel in the world than Moolah. She could do it all.”
At 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, Hebner was relatively diminutive, and so in the early going, respect was earned begrudgingly, even for a veteran of the Vietnam war. “The first [refereeing] match I had was in Covington, West Virginia, with the Mongols [Geto and Bolo]. That was my first match and I said, ‘Well, how will I know what to do?’ They said, ‘Son, when you see the shoulders down, you count.’ That’s why I got a little nervous, and then finally 1-2-3.
“I went to the ring and they never told me inside or outside what the finish was.”
Fortunately, Hebner was a quick study.
“It didn’t take me long at all,” he said. “I think in this business today that you’re either fit for it, or you’re not fit for it. You could be the best looking guy, you could have the best looking body in the business, but if you don’t have common sense, and know how to wrestle and get by, then that’s no good to you; it’s no good to the wrestling.
“You got to know what you’re doing; you either got it or you ain’t got it, that’s the bottom line.”
“I learned from Valentine, not Greg, but his daddy Johnny Valentine. I refereed some of his matches. He could do nothing but just grab a headlock and take the guy over. People said ‘BORING! BORING!’ He said, ‘I’ll give you something boring.’ He would just sit there with that headlock, not even let the guy up. He didn’t care; he would say, ‘You want boring? I’ll give you boring.’ But Johnny Valentine he wouldn’t try and even grab the ropes to release the hold.”
So what does a referee do in that situation?
“Just get down there like you’re saying something to him, give him the motions with the hands and stuff, at the same time, you tell him ‘Ok look, when you get up, body slam, backdrop, and then you’re right back into it,” suggested Hebner. “You kind of pick your way up, but the referee controls the whole match.”
Nonetheless, wrestlers sometimes like to play around and it’s important to be able to back things up as The Dream Team (Ver. 2 – Greg Valentine and Dino Bravo) found out one night in a match against the Fabulous Rougeau Brothers.
“I think the Rougeau Brothers were two of the best wrestlers in the world. They owned that big territory in Canada before they came here [to the WWF],” he said in a nod to Jacques and Raymond. “I had a match one night with Dino Bravo, Greg Valentine [The Dream Team] and the Rougeaus; we were at a high school. At that time, Dino and Greg had the belts. Well you know sometimes, Greg liked to play all the time. 1-2, he wouldn’t pick his shoulder up. I said, ‘Greg, if you don’t pick that shoulder up, I’m going to count you out.’ Greg would say, ‘Oh, you won’t do that.’ The next time, he held it down, 1-2-3, I changed the belts right there at a house show in a school gym because Greg didn’t want to pick his shoulders up.
“Dino and Greg came out of that ring, boy they wanted to kill me. The only guy that was there to back me up was Blackjack Mulligan. He’s the one who got them off of me. He stood there and said, ‘Let me tell you something, you guys were clowning around. Hebner told you, you didn’t listen, if you drop the straps, you lose them.’
“I don’t think anyone has done that in the business. When I picked up the belts and gave them to the Rougeaus, the fans went crazy. The Rougeaus were the babyfaces that night.”
Blackjack eventually forgave the Dream Team, fining and reinstating them as tag champs afterwards. As a result, the Rougeaus’win was erased from the history books and never officially recognized by Stamford.
When discussing his Wrestlemania III memories, Dave documented having to replace a kneecap and having a rib broken by his brother while working a spot. Yet, his perspective on bumps remains the same.
“I broke my left arm; they had to put pins and plates in it. I’ve gotten hit with chairs and busted my head open. I’ve had big long scratches up there. When you’re in a match, and you’re going to take a bump, I never worried about it, because I never thought about it. If you think about it, you can really hurt yourself just thinking when or where it’s coming. Just don’t worry about it, that was always me. I just took it in and went.”
Hebner transitioned into the road agent role around the time of a lengthy shoulder injury.
“[I was out] six months for the shoulder, but as a road agent I would still oversee. I didn’t really like it when I went to do it,” he admitted. “Vince told me, ‘I really need you in this spot Hebner,’ because I was handling all his money and I mean big money. At TVs we would always get probably about $40,000 because of the TV shows, doing this and that. I considered myself the best road agent. They couldn’t touch me with a 10-foot pole. I had the initiative to go to the hospitals and see the kids. A lot of guys in that company would go, but one of the guys that went all the time was Chris Benoit.”
Dave still has a soft spot for the Canadian Crippler: “Steroids didn’t kill him; I think Chris coming off that top rope every night for that head butt every night and they said that Chris had a life like an 85-year-old man and he had little bumps or circles in his head which was I don’t know if it was cancer or a brain tumor or what, but it’s hard for believe that Chris would do that because he had a beautiful wife and kids. He was a great guy. I mean a great guy. I still cannot believe that.”
His dismissal, along with Earl’s from the company was big news in the wrestling world in 2005. Hebner let it fly on his side of the story. “Earl had a friend in St. Louis named Nick. Nick was making the boys WWF shirts because they wanted the shirts,” he began. “So Earl and Nick went in partners on the store. At that time, the rule was you weren’t supposed to do it. Earl told the guy, ‘Don’t make anything; it’s not legal for anybody.’ Well Rich Herring went down there and he saw a hat I guess the guy had made him, and set him up, and then when we went to TVs in Philadelphia they fired Earl. And he told me I was suspended. Then coming back, he told me the reason they fired me, I was taking bids underneath the counter for the concessions where everybody eats their lunch, everybody, people who come in and cook a nice meal for the guys.
“That’s a barefaced lie; I’ve never stole anything from Vince McMahon. As a matter of fact, I’ve saved him money; I’ve caught people stealing his money, Jack Tunney for one. I’ve never stolen anything; they just wanted us out of there. I can’t still believe Vince did that. I just can’t believe it, because when we went to Vince’s house to talk about the Hogan and Andre match, Vince was so good to us. Vince was good to me for 27 years. I’ve never had a bad day at all.
Asked to mention a good deed McMahon had done for him, Hebner was quick off the mark.
“I had a small heart attack. Vince paid me everyday until I came back. I mean my paycheque kept coming in. Vince is a good man. It’s just the people like John Laurinaitis that he hires. He fired his own brother once. I guess Vince has to have some guys dirty for him, but Vince was always good to me. He did everything, and I did everything for him and his family too. I would have taken a bullet for one of them. My heart was in the WWF and in my home. I put WWF before my home and now I wish that I had never have done it. It’s nothing for Vince to call me and say, ‘Hey Hebner; I need this, I need that. You have to leave early because the plane schedule won’t get you there.’ So I’d come home for one day, pack my bags and leave the next day while everybody’s off and go to a book signing with Triple H. I never said ‘No.’ Never ever did I say ‘No.’ I tell you what; I got a book called Nothing but the Truth coming out real soon that tells it all.
“Vince was real good to us. He paid us good money, big money. There was nothing to complain about. He loved us. I know he did. But he didn’t fire us; John Laurinaitis fired us but Vince had to tell him to fire us so John L. went and told Vince, ‘I don’t want the Hebners there. It’s probably me or the Hebners, you know.’ That’s the way it goes sometimes. Look at Timmy White; he was there for 35 years probably and they let Timmy White go. Yet Timmy drove Andre around for how many years.
“That tells you take nothing for granted. I even told them I would take a lie detector test to show them that I never bribed anybody for anything. I always gave the company 200% of everything I did. I never did anything the cheap away. I’d go to town and Chris Benoit when he had the belt, me and Chris would go to the hospital, see those kids, set up the room and take pictures with them, I mean we did it all. I have letters in my house right now that tells you exactly what I did. People writing, ‘Thank you so much Dave Hebner.’ I did everything. I ate, breathed, and slept that company.”
Hebner expanded on his allegations on Jack Tunney, who passed away in 2004. “Jack Tunney was the president in Canada of all the WWF. Back in the States, every night I’d do a settlement. You’re going to come to me and tell me, ‘I’ll have the numbers tomorrow for you.’ Now what does that tell you, ‘I’ll have the numbers tomorrow.’ You can’t go back and settle the house that night and give me the figures, the total paid and the gross? Jack Tunney had his own WWF merchandise warehouse over in Canada for 12 years and no one ever knew about it. Anyways, they ended up firing Jack Tunney and I don’t know what the fallout was on that.”
Hebner remains impressed by the matches of Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat, and Harley Race and Flair, of which he refereed many matches from his NWA days.
“A couple of matches that I’ve done in my life that would be superior; the best ever would be Harley Race and Ric Flair. I referred both guys down there when I was in the NWA. I don’t know of anybody who had more hour time limits than Flair or Harley Race. You never see a match go an hour anymore. You never see a match go 30 minutes anymore.
“Harley Race, Ric Flair, Dusty, those are some of the guys who made the business what it is today. Harley Race is a like a piece of steel. He would go from the ring right through a table and I’m talking about a table, not gimmicked, not cut, nothing but a table. He went through so many, he knew where to go. Harley Race is a great man and he made the business like Ric Flair made it.”
Standing by Dave has been his wife Rebecca, whom Dave married blissfully as a teenager. “We’ve been married for 40 years. We got married, she was 17 and I was 19. I stole her out the cradle,” he chuckled. “My wife has stood behind me 100% ever since I’ve been in the business. There’s no wife that can be any better than my wife.”
Former WWF wrestler and ring announcer Bill Anderson recalled working with Hebner mainly along the west coast in the 1980s. “Dave, along with the late Joey Marella, were the referees on all the monthly shows produced by WWF,” he noted. “I was wrestling on all the house shows in California and Arizona at the time. I always found Dave to be a genuine down to earth guy. At some point a couple of years later, Dave was promoted to road agent for WWF. He always told me how he appreciated when he was just a referee, how nice I treated him. To me, it didn’t matter what job Dave did, he was a great guy to be around.
“I haven’t seen Dave in many years. I do miss hearing him say my name with that great Southern accent.”
Hebner is in a unique position to comment on the women, having wrestled mixed tag matches and seen several generations of female wrestlers come up the pike. For instance, not too many people know that he trained Wendi Richter. Many were pleasant and professional but there were a few girls and boys that made him scratch his head. “Luna Vachon, now that’s a woman that’s crazy. That woman was nuts, she would kill you, I’m telling you but she was a good person,” he said fondly. “She and Sunny got into it one time and Luna picked her up and threw her into a trash can and put the top on. That was at one of the TV shows.
“Alundra Blaze, she is a piece of garbage. Anyone that would take Vince’s belt and throw in the trash can on WCW shows, I mean, I don’t know. She was a terrible person. She was just out to get what she couldn’t get and that was it.
“Lita was good, but then she got the big head. She thought she was wrestling’s gift to the universe. She was getting ready to go and marry Matt Hardy and then there was Edge. So I don’t know what the deal is with her now. I haven’t seen her in quite a while.”
“Sable was a good girl, I like Sable. I think she’s married to Brock Lesnar. But Sable was a good girl.
“Brock’s a good guy, but he got the biggest push in the world and for somebody who doesn’t appreciate it, you know … He bought his own airplane to fly around because he didn’t want to fly around with the boys. Vince put the belt on him, and he broke the contract, so I don’t know.
For the curious, he hasn’t spoken to Bret Hart much since the “Montreal Screwjob” of November 1997. “That was Vince’s idea, not Earl’s.” he reminded.
So where would Dave be if he hadn’t followed his childhood passion?
“I’d probably be doing time in a penitentiary,” he deadpanned. “No, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I don’t really know. I’d always wanted a restaurant later on when I retired or go fishing and have a good time.”
To that end, he is currently writing a book titled Nothing but the Truth to detail this and the significant moments of his career.
Another memory quickly flashes before we go: traveling the road with his buddies.
“Jimmy Hart is the greatest of all times. There’s nobody that works any harder in the business than Jimmy. And he’s a great guy, he’s up front. He’s a great, great friend of mine. He and I used to travel together on the road. Me, him and Honkytonk Man.”
“Honkytonk Man, Wayne Ferris,” he laughed. “Shake rattle and roll, that’s all he could say, shake rattle and roll.”
“He didn’t have to do a whole lot but he was over. See, if you can talk and wrestle, you don’t have to be the best wrestler in the world because your talking will get you over. Honky Tonk had them both.”
He still keeps in touch with the boys, like Undertaker, Ron Simmons, and Teddy Long. When asked hypothetically if he would have attended Wrestlemania 25 if invited, Hebner revealed more of the cautious hope. “Really, I would go, but Earl and I got shafted with John Lauranitis. He fired the Hebners so he could bring in all his little puppies from WCW. I asked him why I was fired; he said it’s not open for discussion. How can you fire somebody and not tell them why you’re firing them? But I had 27 years, — good years — with Vince McMahon and I never missed a day. I went and refereed when I was sick, when I had the flu. There was never a phone call saying, ‘I can’t make it.’ I was in Madison Square Garden one night with Honky Tonk Man, I forget who he was wrestling, and I was supposed to do the match. I had the flu so bad it was unbelievable. I went to that ring, I refereed that match, and it was a good match, and I had the flu, and I was really sick, but no one ever knew it.
“I enjoyed everywhere I went. Canada, overseas, anywhere I went, I had a good time there, I really did. It broke my heart, you think we have depression now, I had depression over the last five years just thinking about what I lost and how they let me go for nothing.”
Dave has since moved on, but believes there is still hope for reconciliation.
It just may take longer than a standing ten count.
- April 3, 2009: Dave Hebner recounts the 1-2-3 on Wrestlemania III
- September 13, 2008: Earl Hebner has earned his stripes