In a typical wrestling match, two men enter the ring. One leaves the victor, one leaves vanquished. Simple math, right? Except there’s one important variable most fans never factor in when looking at the sum of a match’s parts.
That would be the man who counts the “one, two, three” – the referee. Because, while we rarely view those men and women in the black-and-white striped shirts as performers, they take their fair share of bumps, too.
“A few months ago, I was doing a show in Bloomsburg for (Allentown-based promotion World Xtreme Wrestling). This ring we were working with, one of the boards under the mat came up. First thing I did when I got in the ring and I felt the board sticking up was tell the wrestlers, because if you land on that wrong, that could paralyze you,” Jeff Carden, a referee with 14 years of experience, recalls.
“Anyway, at the end of the match, I was supposed to take a back-body suplex from this 250-pound guy, and I guess the wrestler forgot about the board because he slammed me right onto it. I had so much damage to my left side, my left kidney, I could barely walk for a week. It’s not something the fans realize. Sometimes, things go wrong and you have to play it off as part of the show.”
Admittedly, for refs, experiences such as this are more the exception than the rule. Nevertheless, the fact remains: whether you’re willing to call it a “sport” or not, in the so-called “fake” world of professional wrestling, a referee’s responsibilities are not merely limited to counting predetermined pin-falls.
“It’s very complex, much more so than people realize,” Matt Deuerlein says.
Deuerlein, himself a nine-year indie wrestling veteran, referees for Grand Slam Wrestling, which runs monthly shows out of the Moosic Youth Center.
“One of your most important jobs in there is safety, communicating with the wrestlers you’re in the ring with and ensuring everyone’s alright, letting the other wrestler know if there is a problem, “ he says.
“Also, you have to keep track of how long the wrestlers have before the match is supposed to be over – five minutes, three minutes, one minute – and there will be signals for that. … You need to know where you need to be and when. There will be times when certain things have to happen and you have to ‘see’ certain things or ‘not see’ certain things for the story to progress.”
Of all the various roles a referee must play in any given match, however, for Deuerlein, the most important one is, in fact, concealing the extent of those roles.
“A good referee is invisible,” he says.
With that in mind, what makes being a ref worth all that responsibility and anonymity, not to mention the occasional bruised kidney? The answer may surprise you.
“It’s the fans,” Carden says simply, though he doesn’t expect to look out into the crowd and see anyone holding a sign or wearing a shirt with his name on it anytime soon.
“I remember the second I took the suplex onto that board, I could hear the fans cheering. That’s what got me through it. The adrenaline was pumping through my body so much I didn’t even feel the pain at the time. Just knowing the fans are enjoying the show and you’re a part of it, that keeps you going. Once that gets in your blood, it’s always in your blood.”
Until next time, remember: when fact is stranger than fiction, wrestling is as real as anything else.