Suzie Tanner has spent most of her years living in anonymity after leaving professional wrestling. Who is she, you ask? While AEW’s Aubrey Edwards and WWE’s Jessika Carr and Aja Smith make headlines, it was Suzie blazing a trail for them thirty years prior.
Breaking New Ground, or Ignoring the Past?
Suppose you do a Google search and type "first female wrestling referee," more than likely, you’ll get the name Jessika Carr (real name Jessika Heiser) in big, bold letters. At 28 years old, she is officially WWE’s first full-time female referee. Going by the name Kennadi Bank, she debuted in 2009, working several years as an indie wrestler in Maryland Championship Wrestling. After winning the Reid Flair Memorial Scholarship, she used the $500 to move to Florida and start training at Team 3D Academy in 2014. In a 2017 tryout with WWE, William Regal asked her if she would be interested in becoming a referee. Carr answered unhesitantly with a resounding "Yes." After officiating for two years on NXT, she is now WWE’s first full-time female referee after making her main roster debut on WWE’s blue brand Smackdown in late 2019.
"A lot of people would have second-guessed [the offer] because as a referee, you’re not the center of attention, you’re not the superstar," says Carr in a 2017 interview with WWE, "but I guarantee you that we’re just as important as that third person in the match." Carr doesn’t look at refereeing as a step down from wrestling and approaches it with the same drive and determination, saying, "Without a doubt, the best referees are passionate about what they do, and without a doubt I am."
Aja Perera (real name Aja Smith) followed in her footsteps in February 2020 when she was signed by WWE, becoming the first full-time African American female referee for the company, officiating NXT matches before making her RAW debut on April 27th. She is a former SHINE Nova and Tag Team Champion. In a recent tweet, she posted, "My name is Aja Smith. First full-time African American female referee for the WWE. Put some respect on my name. Don’t let anyone devalue you."
Around 22 referees are working for the WWE at the moment, and with such a wild gulf, it opens up the door for more female referees to enter the fold.
With 20 years as a classical ballet dancer and ten years making video games, Aubrey Edwards became AEW’s top official in September of 2019 after working the main event at All Out between Chris Jericho and Adam Page. Before this, she had been a referee on the indie scene since July 2017.
"It was funny because with AEW becoming a thing, I basically got to switch careers, which is terrifying, but it’s a pretty fun switch. It’s a pretty damn good switch," Edwards admitted in an interview with CBS4 Miami.
Suzie Tanner – The First Female Referee in Professional Wrestling
Suzie Tanner took the time to speak with Pro Wrestling Stories about her fascinating career, which is a privilege for us to share with you.
Now mostly far removed from anything wrestling, Suzie Tanner doesn’t regularly follow the current wrestling product and says that she was unaware of the WWE and AEW full-time female referees. When told about it during our interview, she certainly encourages and applauds them, although it can be argued that Rita Marie in early-’84 was actually the first in WWE.
When commenting on the topic of female referees in general, Tanner hopes for them to hold their own so that all women can be proud.
"I mean, I don’t mind it. Female referees? Good on you! Keep it going, but be professional when you do it. Give us a good name, but don’t tear us down, making people say that we shouldn’t even be there. Make it look like you can work in a man’s world, do your job, and don’t be a pushover. Stand strong, but if you’re just going to go in there and make it into a laughing stock, then don’t bother because we don’t need that."
Did you know?: Rita Marie (Rita Chatterton) is another largely forgotten female referee who broke new ground by becoming a referee for the then-WWF. A few weeks after Suzie Tanner debuted in January 1984, so did Rita Marie, who has essentially been erased from WWE history after being fired from the company in 1986 and subsequently in 1992 appearing on the show Now It Can Be Told hosted by Craig and Geraldo Rivera. On it, she claimed Vince McMahon physically forced sexual intercourse on her while in a limo.
A note for Rita: If you would like to speak about the above incident and/or solely about your career, please contact us. We would love to speak with you.
From a young age, Suzie Tanner remembers watching Dutch Savage, "Playboy" Buddy Rose, Don Leo Jonathan, Roy McClarty, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, and her big brother "No Class" Bobby Bass. She was also close to future wrestler Velvet McIntyre. "I actually grew up with Velvet McIntyre as kids. She and I used to go to the wrestling matches all the time before she got into it, and later so did I."
Velvet McIntyre would go on and have a very successful career, which included becoming the WWF Women’s Tag Team Champion with Princess Victoria in 1983, along with a short six-day run with the WWF Women’s title in Australia against the Fabulous Moolah disguised as The Spider Lady.
Former wrestler and heel referee Bruce "Bob" Steele is who first trained Suzie Tanner. She explained that a mattress in a basement was where it all began for her. "Back in those days, no one was smart to the business. Even when you were coming aboard, you weren’t smart for a good few months after."
She had to learn everything there was to know about wrestling without her trainer actually explaining what wrestling was all about, at least not until she proved that she had what it took to be in the business.
"I wanted to be a ref and not a wrestler because it was something that wasn’t there," Tanner explains. "It was like a new thing and something reserved for the men, so I thought, ‘You know, maybe I can do that too.’ So I trained and trained and got to be just like the guys."
She continues, "Bob Steele was a tough cookie, a tough referee, and expected a lot out of anybody he trained and went out on a limb for." Steele started wrestling in the early ’70s and was known to be a demanding trainer regardless of his student’s gender.
With some training under her belt, Suzie went to promoter Al Tomko and told him that she’d work for him for nothing for a while (which turned out to be six weeks), with the caveat being that if he didn’t like her, he could get rid of her. Fortunately, things worked out, and she ended up staying until the promotion folded in late ’89.
Suzie entered the world of professional wrestling during trying times that saw the WWF running their shows right in the backyard of formerly protected areas and drawing large crowds in the process. Stampede Wrestling (until 1986) and the AWA did the same. Suzie Tanner found herself working for Al Tomko’s independent promotion called Universal Wrestling Alliance, formerly known as All-Star Wrestling and affiliated with the NWA until Gene Kiniski sold his shares. ASW went as far back as 1960 when founded by Rod Fenton. By the end of the ’80s, the NWA territories that were still operating found themselves scrambling to hire talent that was no longer available and was soon, by and large, decimated.
Pro Wrestling’s First Female Referee Makes Her Debut
January 1984 saw Suzie Tanner’s first match as a referee, and although she took to heart Bob Steele’s training, she didn’t adopt a heel character. "I was a babyface, but a tough referee," she affirms. "Anything I saw, I called. They always said I was the first female referee in Canada, but as soon as I got in the ring and started, it was only two weeks later when Vince McMahon threw a female referee in the ring. We saw [Rita Marie] on TV once, and then it seemed like she just wasn’t around anymore."
Suzie quickly gained the respect of her peers, and although she was the law in the ring in the often lawless world of wrestling, it wasn’t always to the liking of some of the heels. Take Bruiser Costa, for instance. In a match against Fred Birch, Bruiser took the liberty of body-slamming her after claiming he had "gotten mixed up." He is also seen choking and pushing Suzie Tanner into a corner in another match, but this time versus Todd "Oly" Olsen.
Watch: Suzie Tanner gets slammed by Bruiser Costa!
"Bruiser was supposedly out of a mental hospital," Suzie explains. "He and his manager Verne Seibert had a problem with me as a referee and thought that women should be at home barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen." She continues, "It went on and on. I think I was the first to disqualify Bruiser in a match; I actually did it twice in a row!"
Bruiser Costa was one of the many unique personalities Suzie Tanner encountered in her career inside and outside of the squared circle. After his matches, Bruiser would be confined behind a cage in a segment that was called "Bruiser In The Box." Suzie chuckles while saying that Bruiser Costa "was a psycho," but readily agrees that characters like his are throwbacks to a time where the heels obtained the crowd’s ire by relishing in being opposite of what today we’d call: politically correct. His wild ranting and frequently insulting promos need to be seen to be believed.
Essential reading: Wildmen of Wrestling | 12 Outrageous Heels Who Pioneered Hardcore
Watch: Suzie Tanner isn’t afraid of Bruiser Costa but still gets roughed up
Later on, Suzie was dauntless when taking over the role as the manager of the wild Bruiser Costa, but now humorously admits that it was difficult staying in character around the unhinged wildman. "It was hard to keep a straight face during his interviews; I just had to turn away." As a manager, Suzie was not flamboyant but instead portrayed more of a serious and calculating businesswoman role, which was appropriate with a character like Bruiser Costa who, no matter who he worked with, would surely be the center of attention. As a manager, Suzie confessed that she enjoyed the role because she got to play a villain.
Watch: Bruiser Costa disqualified for a second time and unleashes a controversial promo
Throughout her career, she didn’t mind comical moments with wrestlers like John Tenta, who later became Earthquake in the WWF. Tenta actually went to her same high school, but just a couple of grades ahead. He would pick her up and sit her on the top turnbuckle. Then, while pointing a finger at her face, he’d admonish her and order her "to stay." Tenta made regular visits to B.C. until working full-time for the then-WWF in 1989. When the Bushwackers came to town in the early ’90s, she remembers how they would chase her around the ring while swinging their arms and hollering, "Lady ref! Lady ref!" These were memorable moments both for her and the fans.
Although Suzie knew that the fans had a sneaking suspicion that what they did was all planned, she still cautioned the wrestlers to respect the fan’s intelligence. It was never so evident when seeing how strict she was with wrestlers using foreign objects.
"The new guys would come in and say that they wanted to use gimmicks (foreign objects), but I told them straight up: ‘If you use a gimmick and I see it, I’m going to call it, I don’t care if it’s your finisher, I’m calling it ’cause you’re not going to make me look like an idiot.’"
Tanner continued, "You’re supposed to be professional. If you’re good at what you’re doing- and if you’re using a gimmick- then you should be able to hide it from me. I’m one person. I don’t care if thousands of other people see it. You can only play with people’s intelligence for so long. We all know it’s a show, and you’re entertaining, but if you do things that make people look silly, the fans walk out of there saying, ‘Well, that was garbage,’ and you never want them to ever do that. Instead, you want them to come back, wanting more."
Watch: Suzie Tanner tries to keep a straight face when managing Bruiser Costa
Painful Mistakes Along The Way
In wrestling, as in life, mistakes happen. But in the heat of the moment of a wrestling match in an era where the curtain wall of kayfabe was to a large extent still untarnished, unruly fans and a hated heel can become a caustic mix, almost guaranteeing a trip to the hospital for one of the showmen involved in this game of physical chess.
Suzie remembers an incident that took place in what she calls ‘upcountry B.C.’ in Mackenzie, a beautifully scenic but sparsely populated community nestled between the Rocky and Omineca Mountains in Canada. On this occasion, she almost got seriously hurt while managing Mike Stone, the promotion’s Heavyweight Champion at the time. Suzie recounts the story for us.
"I used to wear aerobic gear and leg warmers where I hid some brass knuckles. I had taken them out, and I was supposed to let everyone see that I had them. I passed them to Mike Stone, and he used them on his opponent Al Tomko, but Mike made the mistake of handing them back to me. So I’m trying to hide them, trying to get them back in my leg warmers. Then, someone out of the audience comes out, and they’ve got my arm, and they’re breaking it where it doesn’t go back any further! Sir Joseph Cagle in the dressing room was watching through the door, and he came running out and grabbed the guy because, at this point, he had me and wouldn’t let go. That caused a little bit of a commotion (laughs)."
She finds humor in it now, but it was a situation that almost got real ugly for everyone.
"I couldn’t even drive back; I had to let Mike Stone drive. I took something for the pain, and I was out until we got back to the lower mainland."
The local police questioned what had happened, but nothing came of it. Suzie also shared a story of another instance where physical harm felt near-at-hand. "We also had a couple of times where we had to deal with people, like in hockey arenas when you had to go to the dressing rooms, you had to go through a tunnel, so when you finish what you’re doing, and your match is over, people are up top throwing pop cans at you, hitting you on the head with them and stuff. It was sometimes rougher being outside of the ring than inside of it!"
Days Never To Return
There is a touch of sad yearning when she looks back on wrestlers that she managed as a heel who are no longer with us. Todd "Oly" Olson is someone who always willingly lent a hand to up-and-coming wrestlers. Olson worked at a Gold’s Gym, and his work ethic inspired and helped Suzie get into a weightlifting regiment. Olsen was considered a professional in and out of the ring and a talent that peaked in a time when the territories were all but dry. "Humble, soft-hearted, and kind" are words Suzie uses to describe him.
Buddy Wayne, who debuted in 1985 and later worked in the then-WWF and WCW as an "enhancement talent" with the likes of Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Bam Bam Bigelow, and Edge. Suzie also fondly remembers working with "Madman" Sonny Myers (Robert Clinton Weathers), The Destroyer (ET Stanton), and Moose Morowski. "It was a fun time on the road with the guys. They were all like big brothers, more brothers than I knew what to do with. I never had to worry or felt threatened. I was always well looked after and treated with the utmost respect."
When Al Tomko thought about having a women’s division, Suzie Tanner was called upon to help guide the newcomers and to be their manager. Although the experiment only lasted a couple of months because, according to her, "they didn’t have what it took," it did produce a standout star in Delta Dawn (Dawn Murphy), who carved herself a nice career while working in Japan came to idolize Madusa Miceli.
As a former worker in the business who has seen a lot, she expresses disappointment in the lack of professionalism she sees at some local shows when it comes to the referee position and feels that a referee and anybody in the business should convey professionalism by dressing sharp and never present themselves as sloppy. "We all know that the money isn’t great in this business, but when we traveled, we looked like we had money and dressed professionally. Nowadays, they show up in ripped sweats- it’s a big difference."
She also sees a talent gap in many of today’s wrestlers, where she believes that some of it may be attributed to them working only a couple of times a month compared to when she broke in and would travel most days of the year working in different territories. The high-risk spots being done today without the proper training worries her as well. "You look at them, and you say, ‘Someone’s gonna seriously get hurt!’" She adds, "I see a lot of carelessness and moves, trying to be done by people that are not qualified to do them, and that goes back to proper training."
Suzie understood the importance of not smartening anyone up to the business when she was in it and loved reminiscing about the days of wrestling that are behind us. "When you had guys like Don Leo Jonathan, Dutch Savage, and all those guys, they were so believable with what they did. They really got you worked up, and you’d think, ‘Oh, don’t do that!’ And when they would bleed, they would BLEED! Now you’ve got mats outside of the ring because they seem scared to be thrown out. Are you kidding me? I used to get tossed out of the ring all the time, and I landed quite fine."
Three years ago, at one of the local alumni reunions, Suzie had a brief but memorable encounter with her former trainer Bob Steele. He casually walked up to her and asked, "Do you remember me?" To that, an incredulous Suzie answered, "Are you joking? Are you kidding?" After Steele made sure that his former student remembered him, the single sentence he ended the conversation with was, "You did me, proud kid."
When Diamond Timothy Flowers started running shows, Suzie briefly came back to wrestling as a referee, and later on, with the local B.C. promotion, was asked to be commissioner of the new women’s division. Unfortunately, she learned quickly that, more often than not, the old school mentality does not mesh well with new school talent, akin to oil and vinegar.
Nowadays, if she, by chance, goes and checks out a local show, consider yourself fortunate for the opportunity to tip your hat to a woman that paved the way for the female referees we see in WWE and AEW.
Suzie Tanner, Canada’s and pro wrestling’s first female referee, is in the Canadian Wrestling Hall of Fame, which she considers a great honor.
Her older brother, "No Class" Bobby Bass (also known as Texas Outlaw Bobby Bass and Bobby Kincaid), is also a Canadian Hall of Famer, and you can learn more about him here.
If you enjoyed our interview with Suzie Tanner, be sure not to miss the following articles on our site:
- Velvet McIntyre | WWE’s Original "Irish Lass Kicker"
- The Original Screwjob – How Vince and Moolah Screwed Wendi Richter
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