Long before Earl Hebner heard his first “You screwed Bret” chant, another referee’s name was synonymous with corruption and bias. In the mid ’80s, shady referee-turned-wrestler “Dangerous” Danny Davis was one of the most controversial names in the WWE (then, WWF). SLAM! Wrestling caught up with Davis to document his career in black and white.
The first step in doing so is to clear up some misinformation that has been published elsewhere on the web, including on the Wikipedia entry of Davis. That information says that Davis is a Canadian named Dan Marsh who was born in Toronto and trained under Phil Watson.
“I’m not from Canada at all,” said Davis, refuting the online claims. “I was born and raised in New Hampshire. I don’t know why those profiles say what they do. If there’s somebody up there using the name ‘Dangerous’ Danny Davis, I don’t know who he is.”
Nor was Davis trained by Watson. Indeed, Davis never attended a formal wrestling training camp, but rather his path to the ring started while he was hanging out on the streets outside of an arena.
“I was at an arena, and this gentleman came along and asked me to help put up the ring. I said, ‘Yeah, okay, how much?’ It wasn’t very much, so he said that he’d let me in the show for free, that’s the way it worked back then.” Setting up the ring for shows in the area became a regular thing, and eventually, at a show for the World Wide Wrestling Federation, as it was known back then, he was approached by a young Vince McMahon Jr., who offered him a job as part of the traveling ring crew. Eventually, that led to his role that gained him his most notoriety.
“I’d started a family, and I wasn’t making enough money just driving around and putting the ring up. So I went to Mr. McMahon and asked if I could become part of the event. He asked if I would be interested in being a referee, and it took off from there. I started in New Haven, Connecticut, that was the first place I refereed an official match.”
Over the next few years, Davis supplemented his refereeing duties by learning how to wrestle under the tutelage of the veterans on the company’s roster.
“You start hanging around with (the wrestlers), and soon they start taking you to the gym with them. I started working out every day. The older guys would take me in the ring before the event and show me how to wrestle — Chief Jay Strongbow really took me under his wing. Eventually, I started putting the mask on and working here and there when people didn’t show up or whatever.”
The anonymity provided by wrestling in a mask allowed him to soak up the experience of wrestling a variety of matches, against various opponents, and at the same time perform double-duty of also refereeing.
“I had an array of masks — Mr. X, the Red Demon, the Black Demon,” he laughed, “anything that could go in a mask. So I was able to go out there and work and wrestle anyone.”
Though used primarily as enhancement talent, Davis was glad for the opportunity to wrestle many of the sport’s all-time greats, including Strongbow (“I must have had hundreds of matches with him”) and Bruno Sammartino.
In 1986, Davis was given the storyline with which his name will be forever linked. His heelish leanings started off in subtle ways, such as him disqualifying babyfaces for dubious reasons, or letting heels get away with double-teaming longer than the standard five count. Soon, though, his favouritism became blatant, such as making fast pinfall counts for the villains. On TV, commentators speculated on whether he was accepting bribes from wrestlers, and in one memorable moment, he was ordered by the on-screen President Jack Tunney to apologize to fans for his questionable calls — he further angered viewers by saying he was sorry, but immediately recanted the apology.
Likely his most famous appearance was on the January 1987 episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event, where Davis inserted himself into the steel cage match between Hulk Hogan and Paul Orndorff. When both men’s feet hit the ground at the same time, Davis ran out and got into a physical altercation with the assigned referee Joey Marella who had declared Hogan the victor.
Actions like these earned Davis tremendous heat from the fans, so much so that his name was even being used in house show advertising. Because he had clearly been allying himself with The Hart Foundation (Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart), who were engaged in a feud with the tag team champions British Bulldogs (The Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith), where those two teams were scheduled for a match, he was often billed as being the assigned referee. It may have been the first time that the fifth man in the ring received as much prominence as the headliners.
Though he modestly downplays his role in the overall infamy of the character, Davis is proud that it was as successful as it turned out to be.
“I was just lucky, you know. (I was in the) right place at the right time. When you’re in this business, you learn that it’s very much about being in the right place at the right time, and you learn how to make money at it. I really enjoyed what we did with it.”
And as for playing such a dastardly character?
“Well, that part of it was pretty natural for me,” he joked. “People generally hated me, so it was nice to be able to at least make some money with it.”
In January of 1987, Davis assisted the Hart Foundation in stealing the titles away from the Bulldogs, and the storyline concluded with him being suspended for life as a referee. In an unexpected twist, Davis quickly joined Jimmy Hart’s stable and became an active wrestler, now using the moniker “Dangerous” Danny Davis. In this incarnation, he feuded with many of the wrestlers that he had screwed over during his previous stint as referee.
His career highlight took place only two months later at Wrestlemania III, where he teamed with the Hart Foundation to beat the Bulldogs and their partner Tito Santana. Davis considers that night as the highlight of his wrestling career.
“Being part of one of the biggest cards ever — in a semi-main event match — that is probably one of my favourite things.”
Davis wrestled for another couple of years after that, appearing at many of the company’s big pay-per-views, but eventually his character was phased out. In 1989, he was brought back as a referee, this time playing it straight, and his wrestling days were rarely if ever mentioned.
“I was the only person to ever go from being a referee, to a wrestler — and a successful one, mind you — and back to a referee again,” he said proudly. “I don’t know if you’ll ever see that again.”
In 1995, Davis left the WWE, though he has continued his involvement in the sport, wrestling on the independent circuit, primarily in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. In addition, he occasionally appears at wrestling conventions, such as the Legends of the Ring, where he was happily meeting fans and signing his new WWE Classics action figure.
“The figure that is out now, it’s me as a referee. I’m hoping to get one as a wrestler, wearing the black and white,” he said, adding with wry humour, “I don’t think that people would want that Canadian gentleman using my name to sign their figure.”
Evident in that comment is that Davis still enjoys being part of the business, both on a historical and current level. Indeed, he credits wrestling with being a positive influence on his life, and hopes that, if nothing else, it has helped him be a positive influence on others.
“My whole life has changed from wrestling,” he said, in a serious tone. “When I was a young kid, I was a pretty rough street kid. If I hadn’t found wrestling, I would probably be … somewhere else I wouldn’t want to be,” the words catching in his throat at the thought. “People who knew me as a trouble-make now come up to me and they know me as Danny Davis the referee and the wrestler. Wrestling really turned my life around, and made me a better person.”
It’s no wonder, then, that he wants to continue with the business for as long as he can.
“I’d love to go as long as I can,” he said about his in-ring life. “As long as people accept me. At some point in anyone’s life, there’s a point where they have to recognize that no matter how much they enjoy it, it’s over. And I’m sure that time’s approaching for me — I’ve got a lot of aches and pains from years ago — but I’ll have to deal with that when that time comes. In the meantime, I still enjoy it to this day. There’s no place else on earth like being in an arena on a Friday or Saturday night, watching people under those lights in that ring. It’s a great feeling.”
Bob Kapur was such a fan of Danny Davis growing up that he once patterned one of his Dungeons and Dragons characters after the ref. Boy, a wrestling fan and a D&D gamer — better get in line, ladies. E-mail him your shameful geek secrets at [email protected].
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