The View From the Ring: Tales from a Wrestling Referee

Now a wrestling referee, Bobby Mathews has done everything from wrestling to managing. See behind the scenes as he gets ready for his referee debut.

Wrestling Referee with whistle in his mouth and hands up
This isn’t our writer, Bobby Mathews. It’s just the first image we could find after Googling ‘old wrestling referee.’ This guy has more hair than Bobby.

Tales from a Wrestling Referee

People change. So do circumstances.

There was a time in my life–from 1994 until 2007 or so–that you could find me at any independent show across the southeastern United States that would have me. I don’t talk about it much, because, hey, my life changed. But I wrestled, refereed, or managed wrestlers on cards in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia.

I worked shows where there were more people in the dressing room than in the audience, and shows where literally hundreds of people paid to get in (note that I don’t say they paid to see me).

I’m probably familiar with every National Guard Armory, civic and community center in the deep South (at least the ones big enough to hold a ring).

I worked free shows in parks and parking lots, hoping to drum up business down the line.

I drove nearly four hours for a literal hot dog and handshake with a promoter who couldn’t use me that night but might book me down the road. If I heard about a show, I’d do everything I could to weasel my way onto the card. Because the main thing was: I was a part of the show. I’d get to do something I loved.

I don’t talk about what I did in the wrestling business a whole lot (Because it’d be a short conversation. I was a nobody. And that’s OK. Independent cards are often filled with guys like me: Guys who could work, but who hit their ceiling on the independent circuit for whatever reason. For every Bryan Danielson who “makes it,” there are many Reckless Youths who don’t).

For me? It was simple: My life changed. My priorities shifted. I got married, had kids. I apparently worked the wanderlust out of my system, and have settled down. I find my satisfaction in other things these days. I was done with wrestling. Done with making the next town or the next show.

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How I became a wrestling referee

But life has a funny way of bringing things full circle. Once you’ve been in the ring, the itch to get back in there never really leaves you–even if you want it to.

The itch has been getting stronger lately, especially since I’ve begun writing about wrestling again. So when I found out that “Bomber” Jack Lord was booking shows for Southern Legacy Wrestling in nearby Munford, Alabama, I took a shot and messaged him on Facebook.

Would he be interested in someone refereeing or managing?

(You’ll note that I didn’t ask if he needed another wrestler to work the card. I’m 46 years old. I’m not stupid, thank you.)

It turned out he was looking for another wrestling referee, so I got the spot.

That’s how I ended up in the middle of the ring on Saturday night as a wrestling referee, on August 5, 2017, a full decade after the last time I’d stepped between the ropes.

I thought I’d remembered what the feeling was like, but I was wrong. My butterflies had butterflies.

I got to the arena early, as I always did when I was wrestling. There was a time when I went into a dressing room in the deep South that I could be sure of knowing someone. That time has passed.

I didn’t know anyone in the back. Like, no one. That didn’t matter. I followed the old-school protocols I knew, putting my small bag along a wall, away from anyone else’s stuff, and then I went to shake hands. I never wanted the booker or promoter looking for me.

I couldn’t stop pacing. I was bathed in sweat and blown up within 30 seconds of the first match. There were probably 200 people in the audience (which is more than 10 percent of Munford’s population, to be honest).

Backstage was crowded and hot, with a monitor set up where workers crowded around to watch the action in the ring.

The “Wrestler’s Handshake”

Wrestlers shake hands a lot. You shake everyone in the dressing room’s hand. Don’t like ’em? Don’t get along? Doesn’t matter. You shake hands when you get to the show. It’s an acknowledgment of one another, of the fact that you’re putting your body and well-being into the hands of another person.

The “wrestler’s handshake” — a very gentle grip, almost like it’s not there — is still very much in effect. And a lot of the boys take it as a way to communicate how stiff (or light) you are in the ring. One of the funniest exchanges I’ve ever witnessed over a handshake was between a guy named Drew Golden and Michael “Cougar” Buchanan, who broke me into the business back in the day.

They shook hands very lightly, with just their fingertips, and Drew looked at Cougar and exclaimed: “You lying son of a b***!”

You shake hands when you get there. You shake hands with your opponent before your match. You shake hands afterward, in the locker room, to show your appreciation for being taken care of in the ring. You shake hands before you leave the building. It’s ritual, like not stepping on the foul lines when walking onto a baseball field.

Before the show, I couldn’t stop pacing. Sit down? Hell, no. I had too much energy. I watched students training in the ring, and eventually got inside the ropes and took a couple of bumps. Not bad for an old, fat guy, but not something I plan on doing regularly, either.

It was two-and-a-half hours before the show. A lot of time to kill.

I eventually tried to sit down for a bit but kept getting up and going through the curtain to the ring. Pacing, pacing. That feeling of being one of the boys again was slowly coming back to me. I was on the inside once more. A part of the show.

I even got to share my philosophy (such as it is) on how a referee should treat the action inside the ring with one of the trainees learning at ringside: Everyone in the audience may believe the show isn’t real, but the referee is the one guy who knows it’s all real. I mean, he’s right there where the action is!

By the time the show started, I was bathed in sweat. By the time the two wrestlers got in the ring, I was already blown up and breathing hard. Lord, why’d I get fat?

These guys, Josh Storm and P-Dog, went through a fast-paced opener, with some good chain wrestling and tight strikes. I didn’t see any potatoes, but I didn’t see any light blows, either.

I found myself out of position a good bit. Ring rust. And as the other wrestling referee working the card told me, I leaned on the ropes too much. Great. the mark of a lazy ref. (He was right, though, and I was conscious of that for the rest of the night.) These guys were so fast that they wore me out, and I largely didn’t have to do much except count the pin.

I caught a break for my next match–the third one, right before intermission. Extreme Heat faced off against “Hustler” Rip Rogers. (Because I know OVW trainer and retired wrestler “Hustler” Rip Rogers a little bit, I’m not going to comment on this gimmick.)

Both guys were good but slightly mismatched. Rogers was definitely a grizzled veteran, who was skilled at working the crowd.

The pace was slower, and I got into my groove a little better, too. The nerves were gone, and now all I had to do was referee.

“Hide the Gimmick”

We played “Hide the Gimmick” for the entirety of the match.

“Hide the Gimmick” is when the heel has (and uses) a foreign object behind the gullible referee’s back.

A good heel can play hide-the-gimmick without even using a gimmick. It played into the finish, too, as Extreme Heat was the one finally caught with the object, and I took great pleasure in disqualifying him.

The match got over to the point that fans got into my face, telling me that Rogers had the gimmick first. A woman even offered to show me a video of it. I had to tell her that I was the one in the ring with the wrestlers, and who was she gonna believe, me or her lying video? (I was a pretty good heel back in the day.)

This is a fun type of match for the wrestling referee to work because he gets to be directly involved in the finish.

Highlight of the Night

The highlight of the night, for me, was working a singles match between Luke Lord and Logan Creed. Lord is 6’4″, and Creed is billed at 7 feet tall. So much for indy guys being small. These were BIG guys.

I’ll be honest: I’m usually not a fan of big-guy matchups, but both of these workers changed my mind. Creed could rely on his size if he wanted to. Instead, he’s marvelously quick and athletic. His offense looked terrific, and he also sold well. If he’s not on the watch list for ROH or WWE’s NXT brand, I’d be shocked. I was surprised that he gave as much in the match as he did.

And Luke Lord did more than just hold up his end of the match, too. He sells great–facial expressions, especially–and he was large enough to impose some believable offense on the monster-sized Creed.

The spot of the night was a superplex from Lord onto Creed … it was a big enough spot that I felt like I should do something to make it memorable, too.

People forget that a wrestling referee has to sell the action inside the ring just as much as the boys working the match. It adds to the believability, in my opinion, and can help create that ‘suspension of disbelief’ moment for the fans. So when Lord drove Creed to the mat, I acted like it knocked me flat on my a**, too.

I think it went over with the fans, and I know it went over with the boys in the match. After I counted the pin (Creed by full-nelson face slam), my night was done.

I can’t say enough good things about the SLW card or the workers who made the event. There was truly something for everyone on the show.

The wrestling was credible. There were different styles presented, from high-flying to mat-work to brawls. The presentation was professional, and there are big things on the horizon for this small promotion that’s keeping Southern-style wrestling alive. I’m proud to have been a part of it, and now that itch that I’ve had for a long time–the one that says to me “Get back in the ring. You know you want to. You know you can contribute.”–has been scratched. That’s enough, right?

Right. Except … well … my wrestling referee gear is already washed and packed. SLW had another show soon later, and they asked me back. It looks like I’m taking bookings again.

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Bobby Mathews is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories as well as a veteran journalist whose byline has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Birmingham News, The Denver Post, as well as other newspapers around the country. He's won multiple awards for reporting and opinion writing, and his sports journalism has garnered several Associated Press Managing Editors Awards. He has covered Division I college athletics and professional sports including MLB and NFL games. He has won awards from press associations in several states, including a General Excellence award from the Georgia Press Association while sports editor at The Statesboro Herald. He currently lives in suburban Birmingham, Alabama and can be reached on Twitter @bamawriter.