The professional wrestling referee is among the great unsung heroes of showbiz.
The noble zebra tries – usually in anonymity, and usually in vain – to maintain law and order amid the chaos in the squared circle. Managers interfere. Heels cheat. Fans jeer that the ref is counting too fast or two slow – and to “open your eyes, ref!”
The referee is an essential participant in practically every wrestling match (in both obvious and hidden ways), but rarely gets credit for their part of the show.
Let’s change that.
I am one of the makers of The Ref Didn’t See It!, the first documentary celebrating pro wrestling’s unsung heroes in zebra stripes. And to make this movie, I’ve trained to become a wrestling referee myself, and now I’m reffing regularly at indy shows around Ontario. Our film crew, which includes the creators of wrestling podcast An Unscripted Spectacle, in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign, with all sorts of ref-related rewards (trading cards, games, posters) for support.
A bit of backstory: I am the creator and writer of Kayfabe News, the satirical wrestling news site inspired by The Onion. I was also a longtime writer for Pro Wrestling Illustrated and the other “Apter mags,” as well as SLAM! Wrestling and other news sites.
During the past 10 years of writing Kayfabe News (3,600+ articles and counting, plus a YouTube show performed by British YouTuber and wrestler Simon Miller), I’ve befriended many talented, creative people in the world of wrestling who are now participating in The Ref Didn’t See It!
Earl Hebner, arguably the most (in)famous wrestling referee alive, describes in the documentary how he avoided visiting Canada for decades after the notorious Montreal Screwjob; veteran referee Bill Alfonso shares tales from his years reffing in practically every major wrestling promotion on Earth; and Canadian ref Harry D, respected by peers and fans alike, explaining the fundamentals of positioning and timing in the ring.
Viewers of the movie will also meet Emily Parker, a second-generation referee following in the footsteps of her late father, longtime Maritime referee Frank Parker. And they’ll meet the amazing Cameron Adamson, a referee who, despite being born without legs, is a towering figure of authority in the ring, including recently in Impact Wrestling.
Along the way, we’ve filmed interviews for the movie with wrestling personalities including Colt Cabana, Kevin Sullivan, RJ City, Gregory Iron, Space Monkey, Mad Man Pondo, Cody Deaner, Tommy Dreamer, and many more, each offering a unique take on the importance of wrestling’s unsung zebras.
And then there’s me, the middle-aged Kayfabe News writer who is trying to earn his stripes as a rookie referee on the independent circuit.
That journey began at Kitchener’s Off the Ropes Studio, where I trained under the tutelage of Ontario indy wrestling mainstays Sabrina Kyle and Jeff Black. I’ve interviewed refs and wrestlers backstage at indy shows around North America, including WrestleMania week in Los Angeles. I refereed my first match last summer, and have since officiated high-flying matches, comedy matches, a deathmatch, a strap match, a battle royal, a “Good Housekeeping” match – and the bookings keep coming.
What have I learned about refereeing in pro wrestling? For starters, it’s a lot harder than it looks (just like most wrestling rings). Good referees need strong lungs and legs, excellent spatial awareness, quick reflexes and a thick skin. Whereas a given wrestler typically performs one match per show, a referee will typically officiate three, four, or all the matches on a card, sometimes getting bumped along the way.
I’ve also learned how vital the referee is to the storytelling in the ring. The ref is the sheriff in town, the embodiment of the rules to which the babyface is honor-bound, and which the heel will stop at nothing to break. The referee has to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere – sometimes invisible, sometimes in exactly the right (or wrong) place. Like the magician’s assistant, the referee is not the main attraction, but is complicit in the illusion and necessary for its success.
The movie’s title, The Ref Didn’t See It!, evokes the old wrestling trope that the hapless referee is always looking the wrong direction when rulebreaking occurs, even when every fan in the arena sees it. What I’ve learned in making this documentary is that wrestling’s best refs actually see everything in a match, even when it may not seem that way.
Wrestling’s unsung zebras deserve to be sung; I hope you’ll help us sing their praises by contributing on Kickstarter to The Ref Didn’t See It!
TOP PHOTO: Colin Hunter and Earl Hebner. All photos courtesy TheRefMovie.com