Sean Patrick O’Brien never worked a WrestleMania. He’s not a face casual fans would recognize, and I doubt if any of them ever even heard his old nickname, Referee ManBun. To those who knew and loved him, he was every bit the icon that an Earl Hebner or a Charles Robinson would be to a WWE fan. He was a fixture in the ring for countless independents. He appeared on numerous live-streamed events. And to hear wrestlers tell the tale, no one was better at calling a deathmatch.
Sean passed away on Friday night, March 17, 2023. He was only 34. To his fans, friends, and loved ones, St. Patrick’s Day will from this day forth be known as Sean Patrick’s Day. It’s a day we lost a friend, a brother, a hero. It’s the day wrestlers lost their favorite hug when they arrived at the arena. It’s the day many lost their favorite guardian inside the ring.
It’s the day fans lost their favorite punching bag, the guy they loved to chide and mock from ringside — all in good fun, of course. Sean was nothing if not self-effacing. He took the kidding in stride, and why wouldn’t he? He signed up to be the guy wearing stripes. He chose to be the man the heels made a fool of night after night. And match after match, he willingly entered the ring to take “abuse” from Mickie Knuckles, who never let him leave the ring without a lick, or a sloppy kiss, or something worse.
Sean was glad to do it He loved what he did, and he damn good at it. Sean had a unique way in the ring. His trademark glasses and the man bun that was his signature for so long prevented him from being the stolid, serious ring official. Sean kept order, but he was more of a diplomat. “Come on, man, get out of the corner. Come on, let’s go.” More pleading than ordering, he had a different vibe. You wondered if he really had control, especially when two war horses were in the ring with him.
Sean definitely had control. More than that, his eyes were wide open. Sure, he’d wince and flinch and hide his eyes when the action got truly violent. That’s how he sold the action, and boy, could he sell. But Sean was no wilting flower. He called hundreds of deathmatches, any any time barbed wire, glass, gusset plates, light tubes, and other implements of terror were put to use, Sean was right in there, squeezing hands and making sure the wrestlers were safe.
“That’s why he got to travel everywhere,” says “2 Tuff” Tony Borcherding. “They knew they were in good hands if he was in the ring. That’s why all the big deathmatch shows brought him in.”
“He was always a ‘Kill it and be safe, you need me I got you,’ kinda guy,” says Shane Mercer, who spent many nights bleeding in the ring next to Sean.
Gary Wilson of Paradigm Pro Wrestling watched Sean develop from a rookie into the guy every deathmatch star wanted in the ring. The company wanted him to travel to New Jersey to ref a main event deathmatch between Ron Mathis and Bobby Beverly for their fifth anniversary show, but at the last minute, Sean’s ride fell through.
“We didn’t have a way to get him to the show from Indiana,” said Wilson. “We even asked on social media, offering to pay transportation for anyone that could get him up to Jersey. At the eleventh hour, we found him a ride. He left his shoot job at 4 a.m., rode 11 hours to the show, and went straight to the ring to call an hour-long deathmatch.
“Just before the match, I was in the ring with Mathis, Bev, and Sean to ring announce. As the intro video package played, he came over to me and said something along the lines of, ‘We made it baby. Five years and we here — doing it.’ My heart is so full that we got to have the moment together.”
Everyone felt safe in the ring with Sean, no matter what the match stipulation. They all knew him as a friend and as a brother. When Sean arrived at the arena, he went beyond the customary handshakes. Everyone got a warm, friendly hug. You got hugs on the way out too. From the moment he walked into the building until the moment he left, the energy was full of positivity and love.
Sean was more than just a wrestling guy. He was also a music guy. He loved music of all genres, he wrote songs, and he was a terrific vocalist. He was also a devoted family man raising a daughter and step-daughter with JaLonna Molet. You’d often see his family with him at wrestling events. You could tell those ladies owned his heart.
When word broke about Sean’s sudden illness on the afternoon of St. Patrick’s Day, social media exploded. My Facebook feed was nothing but positive vibes and prayers for him. In a business with so many unique personalities, where it’s truly hard to get along with everybody, Sean was universally beloved. The tributes have been non-stop, starting Friday afternoon when everyone held out hope he would kick out.
Condolences came from Japan. They came from the sage voice of historian and film producer Evan Ginzburg in New York. They came from promotions Sean worked for and promotions that never had the chance. They came from his fellow refs and hundreds of wrestlers.
“Sean was many things to a lot of different people,” said referee Aaron Grider. “To me he was not just a friend or colleague. He was my brother. I was closer to him than members of my own family. We traveled to many towns and many shows. Not just the wrestling community but the world is a sadder place without Sean in it. I’ll miss him forever.”
Ref AJ Kissinger mentored Sean and became one of his closest friends. “We had our own promotions that we worked at alone, but we had even more promotions where we worked together, often just the two of us. He’s my referee little brother. I was his mentor, and I will hold that forever with honor. I’m so proud of him, and all his success he gained on his own. He was a respected official amongst his peers. He will be dearly missed.”
Ben Shearin worked with Sean not only as a fellow referee but a rival in the ring. “Sean was a great dude. He would get on your nerves every once in awhile, but he would have done anything in the world for his people. That man got me quite a few bookings in my career, not to mention one of my favorite moments in wrestling when I cut off his man bun after our one and only match against each other. Love you, dude.”
Wrestler Charlie Kruel posted a number of videos to her Facebook page, road trip memories of laughing in the car with a man who called many of her matches. “I don’t know what to say right now,” she wrote. “I’m so gutted and hurt. You were my brother, my friend. I love you so much. It’s not hitting me yet that you will never ref another match of mine again or even share a locker room or a car with you. This is unreal right now. You loved this business. You loved wrestling and you are the best ref in the world. Thank you for everything you have done for me and others in this business.”
Forever🤍🕊 #SPO pic.twitter.com/6K8JDwAfXe
— 𝓒𝓱𝓪𝓻𝓵𝓲𝓮 (@hernamescharlie) March 23, 2023
“Sean Patrick O’Brien was not someone that just worked here, he was our family and our friend,” said Joseph Schwartz, wrestler and owner of Indiana’s Flophouse Wrestling. “He was our brother and our uncle. He was so much more than a ref, yet he was the best. We love and honor you completely.”
“Sean always made sure to try to give back as much as possible and never left without saying, ‘I love you, bro,’” said Shane Mercer. “He just absolutely loved and adored everything about what we all do and just wanted to help and be a part.”
“Sean was stubborn as can be yet the most kindest person I knew,” said Maria James, OVW’s head of women’s talent. “He knew how to make everyone feel good no matter what the situation be. He gave the best hugs and everything was ‘good shit’ in his eyes. No matter what happen in a match you could always count on Sean to squeeze your hand to check on you and whisper, ‘That shit was fire.’ He brought so much positivity to any event he was on. Music or wrestling. It’s going to be a much sadder place without him in it. He was my friend but more importantly he was my family.”
Numerous promotions made quick announcements in the hours after his passing, choosing to donate their profits to Sean’s family. The Midwest Territory’s Chad French announced that this year’s Pawcade, an annual fundraiser for the Salem, Indiana Animal Shelter, will now split its proceeds between the shelter and Sean’s family. Paradigm Pro Wrestling not only announced it will be giving proceeds from its next show to the family, the promotion has decided to create its own Hall of Fame with Sean being the first-ever honoree. Outside of wrestling, Louisville Vibe is hosting an open mic singing contest in Sean’s honor, with all proceeds benefiting his family.
Sean’s funeral took place on a clear, windy day in Scottsburg, Indiana on March 23rd. It was standing room only. The night before, standing outside the Adams Funeral Home, Paradigm’s Gary Wilson pointed to all the cars filling the parking lot and lining the street for Sean’s visitation.
“Look at this,” he said with a grin. “Sean drew more people by himself than a lot of the shows he was on.”
How do you measure a man? You measure him by the number of friends he has.
I’m certain Sean felt the love from all these people before he passed, but I truly wish with everyone he could see that love now. Looking on my Facebook Messenger feed, I can see half a dozen friends have switched their profile pics to photos of them with Sean. I love the positivity being spread on my Facebook and Twitter feeds:
“Handshakes and hugs.”
“Take pics with everyone, every time.”
“Tell people you love them.”
“Normalize telling people you love them.”
If Sean had a home arena, it’s the place Southern Indiana fans call The Arena at 1616 Spring Street in Jeffersonville. The concrete bunker located conveniently a block away from Clark Memorial Hospital has paintings of numerous masked wrestlers on the walls along with a giant eagle flying out of an American flag. The building is notoriously cold in the winters and hot in the summers, but it houses the Grindhouse Academy training classes and numerous promotions every month.
Sean trained in The Arena and worked for just about everyone who booked the building, from Grindhouse to IWA Mid-South to Paradigm Pro Wrestling to Girl Fight. Tony Borcherding, who owns The Arena in Jeffersonville, has already commissioned a new mural of Sean inside the building.
I think I speak for everyone who has attended shows at The Arena when I say the place will not be the same without him. I’ll miss his smile, his hugs, and his friendship. I’ll miss seeing him walk to the ring amid cheers and boos. I’ll miss the grimace he always made after a big spot, selling the moment just as hard as the guy or girl screaming on the mat.
I’ll miss my friend. We all will.