Keepin' it Real

Behind the scenes with actual pro wrestling referees

8Image: Tabercil

The professional wrestling referee is as much a product of his outlandish environment as bacne and bloodshed. Like pro wrestling itself, they are perpetually torn between striving for legitimacy and twisting towards theatrical entertainment. The result is some illogical combination between a baseball umpire and a rodeo clown. After all, pro wrestling is about as conflicted as a tag team grappler debating whether or not to double-cross his partner.

Wrestlers are incredibly athletic and their craft is challenging and dangerous, but the outcomes are predetermined. The storylines are ludicrously over-the-top, but grudges are settled in officiated matches that aspire to resemble the regulated, rule-based world of traditional sports.

It’s fake, but it’s real. Or it’s real, but it’s fake. And the referee is the crux of that wonderful confusion. The refs I spoke with described surreal, alternately grim and hilarious occasions on which show business awkwardly collided with a less glamorous reality: choreographed moves resulting in very serious injuries, off-script in-ring brawls, and wrestlers performing under a spotlight in front of thousands somehow concealing full-length conversations about post-match drinks.

It’s fake, but it’s real. Or it’s real, but it’s fake.

The latter happened to Brian Hebner, who recalled working his first match with Hulk Hogan. Brian, a successful referee who’s worked for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA), is also the son of the most famous ref in pro wrestling history, Earl Hebner.

“I’m in the ring with [Hogan] and just the conversation that he had with me was like mind-boggling because I never had anyone just like sit there and have a conversation while we were working,” said Brian. “And you have to remember at the same time I was scared as shit because I was working with Hogan for my first time — last thing you want to do is screw up. But I couldn’t even focus on my job because he was talking to me.”

What topic of conversation was urgent enough for Hogan to pursue mid-match — proper tanning techniques? Fu Manchu maintenance tips? It turned out Hulk was just asking Brian if he was as good of a ref or drinker as his father Earl. Brian answered, “Yes, sir.”

“[Hogan] said, ‘Well, after this match,’ — he was in a hold when I was doing this, he was in an actual, physical hold — and he says, ‘Well right after I drop the boot, right after I hit him with the boot and the leg, son, we’re out of here. We’ll go drink some cold beers.’”

It’s difficult to imagine a similar interaction between, say, Tom Brady and famed NFL official Ed Hochuli. But to the casual observer, wrestling referees are to sports officiating what Judge Judy is to the Supreme Court. I asked Thomas Kearins, an official for Insane Championship Wrestling (ICW, a Scotland-based organization and one of a multitude of regional, independent wrestling groups), about the biggest misconception regarding pro wrestling officials. Kearins replied, “Probably that we’re all idiots.”

Wrestling referees are usually depicted as fools — commonly tricked by cheating wrestlers, they are chronically incapable of preserving order. Yet, referees are integral to both the drama and mechanics that go into crafting a (relatively) safe, exciting product. When wrestling wants to be on ESPN, the refs lend an air of authenticity. When wrestling wants to be on E!, the refs add to the staged melodrama.

Even the most passionate wrestling fans are often unaware of the actual responsibilities of referees, taking their bumbling on-screen roles for granted. In major organizations like the WWE and TNA, referees wear earpieces so they can subtly relay information from backstage to the wrestlers, like stagehands hidden in plain sight. Brian Hebner described the frenzied communication system through which he received constant input from the production truck, backstage agents, and writers, as “very annoying” and “pretty hectic.” Understandable, when you consider he must simultaneously perform a completely separate on-screen role.

referees wear earpieces so they can subtly relay information from backstage to the wrestlers

Hebner explained that referees get feedback from backstage if the match isn’t going as planned or if the crowd isn’t reacting as hoped. During TV broadcasts the referee also needs to discreetly help the wrestlers build a match perfectly suited to commercial breaks.

“I count them down to the commercial break and if they’re not where they need to be, I’ll tell them what they need to do to get to somewhere to where we can go on the break,” said Hebner, who needs to accomplish this without the audience noticing. In the tradition of any good TV drama, the key is leaving for commercial at an exciting high point and returning with something unexpected, using the commentary team and replays to fill viewers in on what they missed. The final product is intended to appear spontaneous and unrehearsed, but, of course, that’s only partially the case.

Perhaps the efforts of these men (and they are almost always men) are widely misunderstood because their role is so contradictory. Traditional sports fans have a hard time wrapping their minds around officials who are scripted into the competition. Though wrestling refs attempt to uphold the rules and dress like Foot Locker employees, they also get involved in the action itself.

Pro wrestling takes the myopic ref cliché to new heights — these guys don’t just miss calls, they get distracted by a scantily clad starlet’s cleavage or accidentally get knocked unconscious. It’s a clever satire of sports with a strategic twist: their incompetence is intended to make villains more dastardly and heroic comebacks more valorous.

“You got to think of it like your days in high school,” explained independent referee Dan Tanaka. “The rebellious kids, when the teacher’s back is turned, that’s when they start doing stuff they’re not supposed to be doing, but when the teacher turns back around they stop doing it, they’re back to where they’re supposed to be.” It’s a simple trick that has been consistently riling up crowds for decades. But if overdone, it can ruin the credibility of the referees and actually damage the match.

“It just has to be done in a way that’s not going be burying myself to make myself look stupid,” said Brian Hebner. Essentially, if the crowd’s reaction (called “heat”) transitions from the cheating wrestlers to the incompetent referee, the match suffers. “[The wrestlers are] the ones that want the heat from the fans, not me,” said Hebner. “So if they make me look stupid, then all the fans are going to be pissed at me because they’re going to be like, ‘You dumbass, turn around.’”

if the crowd’s reaction (called “heat”) transitions from the cheating wrestlers to the incompetent referee, the match suffers.

Of course, safety is paramount. “You’ll often see me have a wrestler stand across the ring while I check on their opponent after a particularly hard-hitting move that I’ve noticed might’ve rocked them a little bit,” Kearins explained. “What I do is gauge whether or not to call the match off and let the medical professionals handle it or continue to the finish.”

Policing injuries in a never-say-die culture of tattooed warriors isn’t an easy task and can be a shoot-the-messenger situation. Consider: Dodgers ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw is likely to understand the long-term logic of exiting a game early when his troublesome back acts up. But, you try explaining that to notorious hardcore wrestler Abdullah the Butcher.

A few levels removed from sleek TV programming and glossy professionalism, independent wrestling brings an entirely different set of challenges. If the WWE is wrestling’s Coca-Cola, there are plenty of RC Colas and Faygos dotting the national landscape. These obscure, regional organizations run shows for smaller crowds in high school gymnasiums and other smaller venues.

Referees in independent organizations often have to take on additional duties, like helping set up the ring before the show and pack it up afterwards. And, like a DIY punk show, both the crowds and performers tend to be rougher around the edges. Tanaka described an independent show in which the wrestlers veered off-script and got into an actual brawl, and Kearins said, “I once had to try and make it to a particular guy in the crowd that had thrown a drink in the ring before five well-known heavyweights got to him first at a show I did in London. I’m afraid I didn’t make it in time but at least he now knows not to throw things, I guess.”

Like the difference between a Disney World roller coaster and the rickety Zipper at the local fair, the separation between theatrical conflict and real danger is even thinner at independent shows. Once, Tanaka officiated a main event for an independent organization featuring former WWE sideshow spectacle The Boogeyman, a notoriously bizarre character who once met Donald Trump.

the separation between theatrical conflict and real danger is even thinner at independent shows

Tanaka awarded the match, a championship bout, to The Boogeyman via disqualification. But it was a hollow victory — a challenger can only win a title by pinning his opponent or forcing him to submit.

“The Boogeyman — he’s upset, he’s upset — turns to me as I’m still dazed and picks me up for his BoogeyBomb, which is a double-handle chokeslam,” the five-foot-six, 150-pound Tanaka told me. “I wasn’t ready and I ended up getting a minor concussion.” It gets worse, and weirder.

“But then of course he was going for The Worms,” continued Tanaka, “and the fans were like, ‘No, no, don’t give him The Worms, he’s innocent, he didn’t know what was going on.’”

“The Worms?” I asked Tanaka, naively hoping it was the name of some sort of slithering-based submission hold.

“After [The Boogeyman] defeated his opponents, he gets this bag out that was full of earthworms and he’d put it in his mouth and drop it in his opponent’s mouth or all over their face,” Tanaka matter-of-factly explained. “He had me sitting up, ready for The Worms, and the fans were like, ‘No, no, don’t do it, don’t do it’…I was like ‘Oh, thank God.’”

Yes, the worms — just another on-the-job hazard for your local pro wrestling referee. “The worms get rinsed off under a sink to get all of the dirt off of them,” said Tanaka. “The promoter had to go buy them out from a bait shop and get them rinsed off and ready for him.”

Ted Pillow writes.