Reporting Jason Iannone
Everyone has an opinion on pro wrestling: it’s awesome, it’s stupid, it’s scripted-but-real, it’s totally fake, it used to be good but conveniently started to suck as soon as the wrestlers you liked retired, and so on and so forth.
One aspect most do not think about, however, is the referee, the closest thing wrestling has to reality. Since they’re usually in the corner of the ring, content not to get involved until they absolutely have to, the average fan knows squat about them, or about what they do. Luckily, I exist, and am here to educate.
See, since 2006, I have been a pro wrestling referee off and on. While I’ve never worked in front of 80,000 people at WrestleMania, I have a pretty good idea of what the job entails. And it’s way more than just slapping a bouncy mat three times while wearing a Foot Locker uniform.
Oh bullcrap, you guys don’t do anything; the wrestlers are the REAL stars.
Hi, Random Dissenting Opinion, so glad you could join me! Feel free to keep firing all your preconceived refereeing notions at me, so I can keep setting you straight.
To be fair though, you’re not totally wrong here. The wrestlers are clearly the stars; nobody buys a ticket to go see the awesome referee in action, except maybe his Mom.
But we’re pretty much the glue that holds the matches together. Having a referee there to oversee the action makes it look like a legitimate contest. Two people in tights rolling on top of each other, sans referee, works if you’re producing one of those creepy apartment wrestling videos that are little more than BDSM without the B, S, or M. But if you’re actually putting on a pro wrestling show, with winners and losers and rules? Then we’re kinda necessary.
So what DO you do, besides count the pin?
At our best, we act like the action is real, and officiate accordingly. Yes, we know who’s winning. And yes, we know about certain things planned beforehand, so we know they’re coming and can move the hell out of the way when need be. But, for the most part, we just call what we see, and treat it as realistically as possible, in the hopes that the audience feels the same way.
What happens if there’s a screw-up? Like, if a wrestler doesn’t kick out of a pin, or doesn’t let go of an illegal hold?
Ideally, we want to keep it as close to the planned story as possible. But if we have to disqualify somebody who was scheduled to win, because they wouldn’t stop choking their opponent, then so be it. I give them plenty warning, making my count as loud as possible, quickly tapping their shoulder at the 3 or 4 count as a final notice, and usually they get the hint. But if I reach the count of five, and they’ve forgotten how wrestling works, then they lose. It sucks, but they should’ve been better at taking direction.
Few things bug me more than seeing a ref bury himself by not doing this. If the wrestler is breaking the rules, and your reaction is “Hey, hey, break it up! 1, 2, 3, 4, hey c’mon, 5, c’mon, break it up! 1, 2, 3 … ,” then why bother even being there? Clearly, the rules do not matter.
So then, if it’s all about enforcing the rules, keeping the wrestlers in line and making it look real, then why are all of you so freakin’ tunnel-visioned? Like, if it’s not directly in front of your face, you guys don’t see it.
Well, we make it look real, but that doesn’t mean it is real. Remember, it’s still a show, and we have to advance the storylines somehow. In a lot of cases, this involves pretending to not see the bad guy do something naughty, even though a bat flying 500 yards away could see it. Nope, we’re so zoned in on getting in the manager’s face, yelling at them to get off the apron, that we couldn’t possibly see him reach to the side and hand his charge a steel chair. Remember, we only have two eyes.
In cases like this, it’s OK to “suck” at being a referee. Honestly, the worse we are at our job, the better we are at our job. If that makes any sense at all.
If I smoke enough peyote, it might. But hey, what if you DO see something illegal that you’re not supposed to? Like, you turn your head instinctually and see the chair, or catch a glimpse of some tights being pulled?
Then it’s my stupid fault, and it likely won’t turn out good for me. I either have to ignore it and admit everything’s fake, issue a meaningless warning and let the match continue, looking like a powerless jerk in the process, or continue to act like it’s real, end the match on a DQ, and then get set on fire by the promoter.
When I was in wrestling school, training to do this, they made damn sure I perfected my tunnel vision before they started putting me on shows. If they caught my eyes darting around, like I was officiating football or basketball all of a sudden, I got shit for it. It was only after I showed that I could effectively not look at everything, that I was allowed to be a part of the show.
Wait, so you’re a trained wrestler?
Yep…kind of…a little bit…OK, fine, I suck eggs. Yes, I actually started with the hopes of being a wrestler. I was decent at bumping (falling down correctly), selling (acting like I was in pain), and cutting promos (flapping my gums about my character and the show I was on).
But anything athletic? Forget it; too clumsy. Lifting weights, running, and building a toned, muscular body? The gym couldn’t be more boring to me if the overhead music was Ben Stein reading hydraulics manuals all day long. In other words: no.
So you’re fat.
Skinny-fat, to be exact. But it means I get to eat cake whenever I want, instead of substituting it for, say, plain grilled chicken. Shockingly, I can live with that.
So yes, I sucked athletically, but I proved passable at referee stuff, so I focused on that.
Worked with any big names?
A few. Tony Atlas, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, and Kofi Kingston (before the fame) are the ones that come to mind. My biggest regret is working with Brutus before I had grown my hair out, so I never got the chance to receive an unceremonious head clipping from the Guru Of Garden Shears himself.
Too bad about your training though, it all going to waste like that. I mean, it’s not like you’re using it or anything, right? You’re just reffing.
Yeah, no. Refereeing still requires me to know how to fall and take a hit, since I occasionally get beat up, as refs do. And the energy with which I count the pin, or ask if a wrestler is ready to tap out, is as much a part of the sell as anything else. If I look like I don’t care, and am barely putting forth any effort, then what incentive does the fan have to care? Clearly, it’s a boring match if even the ref doesn’t give a crap, so it’d be far better to just poop, leave, and never come back.
So, could I be a ref?
Maybe. Are you willing to listen to both promoter and wrestler alike? Can you remember any and all parts of the match that need to be remembered? Can you effectively portray a guy with worse peripheral vision than the soldiers in Metal Gear Solid 1?
Also, if you get into this, are you going to take it seriously? For the love of Mick Foley, please do. The first step is to look the part: zebra-striped shirt (unless the company provides otherwise), black slacks, a belt, and black sneakers. You find the right sale, and you can get all that for about $50.
Pretty easy, right? So whenever I see a referee in the ring with an untucked shirt and jeans (or even worse, sweatpants), I hope that ref knows I’m burning a hole through my monitor, in the hopes that it travels back in time to whenever that video was filmed, and burns his ass to a crisp.
Independent wrestlers suiting up in an old T-shirt and jeans, with sneakers instead of boots, I can somewhat understand. Proper gear costs money, and a lot of people can’t afford it. But a ref doing that? No excuse. Buy some real pants, junior.
Anything else I should know not to do?
Sure, one more thing; being a ref involves checking your ego at the door, and realizing the importance of having nobody pay attention to you. Yes, you’re match glue and all but, unless a storyline calls for you to act like a star, you are not the star.
The best refs, besides being properly stupid and half-blind, are experts at not getting involved, and letting the crowd concentrate on the wrestlers. As I heard so often when training, “the best referees are the ones you never notice.” When something happens – pin attempt, submission hold, or something illegal that the ref has to break up – they come in, take care of business, and then slink back into the shadows.
Granted, this anonymity can be jarring – you’re lucky to even get your name announced on a lot of shows – but it’s pretty much part of the job description. If it’s something you love to do, then you’ll be fine with not getting Hulk Hogan-levels of attention for it.
And yes, this lack of attention leads to a dearth of understanding among the public about the job, but that simply means I get to make money writing an article teaching you all about it. Your ignorance has covered my electric bill, and for that I can’t thank you enough.