7 Surprising Realities of Wrestling You Won't See on TV
In addition to complaining about pro wrestling, I sometimes participate in the sport. I've been an extremely part-time referee on various independent wrestling shows since 2007, making a grand total of one month's rent in the process. But I don't do it for the money, or for any hopes of full-time employment (especially after all the mean things I said about the senile old walkingfart who owns WWE). I do it for the experience -- and goddamn is indie wrestling ever an experience.
Cracked once spoke to former indie wrestler Dustin Nichols about the ins and outs of what makes a match tick. But to further understand the industry, you need a guy who's terrible at actual wrestling, looks fetching in stripes, and isn't above eating cupcakes for dinner. I think I know someone like that.
Indie Refs and TV Refs Have Totally Different Job Descriptions
Dustin's interview mentioned how referees direct the in-ring action, telling wrestlers what to do and relaying instructions from the bosses in the back. But those would be TV referees, with TV money behind them. Zero-budget indie companies don't have agents, earpieces, or teams of well-built security to protect you from the constant swarms of lust-crazed women. All their refs have is the ability to react.
By channeling their inner Fred Astaire during any lull in the action.
Us independent referees hit the ring armed with bare-bones knowledge of what's about to happen. I know who's winning and what pre-planned spots to watch for so that my skeleton remains unshattered for one more day ... and that's it. I literally wing everything else. Sometimes, if I'm working so many consecutive bouts that I forget who's winning half of them, I'm forced to wing some results, too. In that case, I simply pray people kick out when they're supposed to and stay down when they're not. And prepare to sprint if I'm wrong.
And if I feel they're going too long, nail gun.
This doesn't mean an indie ref's job is easier than a TV guy's (though the lack of crazy old men screeching in our ear every ten seconds is certainly a plus). Most indie shows draw anywhere from five to 500 people -- it's way more intimate than your average WrestleMania. So a silent, lethargic referee who's just there to count pinfalls will quickly stick out in an "oh right, this shit's fake" kind of way.
So when not asking for submissions or scolding muscleheads for breaking rules that they'll re-break 30 seconds later, I focus on being an active background character: making hand motions that subtly direct the action for the audience, intensely watching the action so I can quickly jump in and react when necessary, and constantly shifting position so I'm in the proper place should shoulders hit mat. If I'm not going to guide the action, I should at least make sure to not come across as a creepy stalker just hanging out in the corner.
Here I am unleashing my greatest power: making women not listen to me.
I say all this because so few do the same.
You're Invisible (Even When You Probably Shouldn't Be)
Refereeing is a perfect job for the budding ninja in your life, because the less noticeable you are, the better you are at what you do. Despite hitting the ring anywhere from three to five times a night, you're lucky if anybody acknowledges your existence beyond, "Oh, a zebra-man."
"Oh dear, somebody poached him. Pizza, anyone?"
This invisibility happens even when you do something that absolutely deserves attention. Back in 2011, I entered a show with a full head of long hair. During intermission, I had my head completely shaved as part of our company's cancer drive (also, it was scorching hot inside the building and I absolutely welcomed an air-conditioned skull). I then returned to work the second half, and my new look was slightly different:
The guy from Tool shrunk in the wash.
Did the crowd notice? Oh fuck no they did not. They likely just assumed I was a new guy (who had no clue how to tuck in his shirt), and that the redhead went to the hospital, since he looked like he was ready to puke in the center of the ring.
Then there was another show where I had to change out of my referee outfit and into another wrestler's gear so I could interfere in the main event and get my face smashed in. Since the Undertaker was unavailable to turn out the lights so I could rush to the ring in full costume, I needed to get under the ring and change at some point. I did so by crawling under during intermission and never coming back out, changing into my costume down there and then spending the next 90 minutes under a VERY LOUD ring waiting for my cue.
Ringin' in the ears
Stowin' away the time
And not only did nobody notice that I was still under the ring, they also didn't recognize me when I came out, even though my wig flew off and exposed my true identity as someone they'd seen many times before. But because I didn't fight or talk, I garnered about as much attention as the Super Bowl shark who actually knew how to do its job.
Oh, and that wasn't the only time I wasn't myself ...
You're Not Just a Ref -- You're EVERYBODY
If there aren't enough bodies to fill an indie card, those who do show up become the bodies. It's not at all unheard of for wrestlers and non-wrestlers alike to play more than one role per show, simply to keep the damn thing afloat. The promotion's champion might don a cheap mask and lose the opening bout, for example. Good luck convincing John Cena to do that.
Referees and other background players are even more versatile. I cosplayed as another wrestler despite reffing for that promotion, not because I was some creepy fanboy, but because we were roughly the same size and my head fit the wig. So I accepted the role with great gusto. I'm fairly certain I got in zero offense before being force-fed my own teeth and having my helpless, quivering corpse chucked to the outside.
We don't got a badass over here.
Then there was the time I refereed several matches during a Warped Tour show. One of the storylines involved Los Dumbfucks -- crash test dummies who hate rock music because it causes distracted driving -- booing a band until its guitarist challenged us to a match. Low on staff, my company needed stand-ins to be Dumbfucks. I more or less fit the suit, so off I went to stand frontstage and boo my gimpy little heart out.
I never understood the true meaning of "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" until trying to breathe in that damn thing.
The company declined to have me wrestle because I still had matches to referee. Also, I blow at wrestling. But years prior, another company I worked for had no such qualms. One of the wrestlers never showed, so the promoter asked me if I could go out there and get beat up for ten minutes. And if not for him accepting my convenient excuse that I didn't have a mask, I probably would've ended up dying that day. Knowing what I know now though, my maskless existence probably wouldn't have made a lick of difference to the fans. Ref one match, die the next, ref again 20 minutes later? It'd be far from the least realistic thing their favorite sport has asked them to swallow.
Especially since I'm apparently more intimidating and badass than even I know ...
Some Fights Are Real (And You're Breaking Them Up)
Most fights at wrestling shows are pure theater, obviously. Even when wrestlers are actually beating the skin off one another, it's because they're double-tough and get off on the pain. Nobody's starting an actual Springer-style tiff unless they feel like getting fired that day.
Except, of course, for when they do. It's rare, but occasionally tempers flare for real, and if it happens in front of the crowd, the other wrestlers can't exactly run out and break it up, breaking character in the process. In that case, the role of Steve Wilkos gets filled by whatever unlucky bastard is already hanging out near the ring.
The best damn nobody that gas money can buy.
Halfway through one match, the wrestlers took their fight out of the ring and ended up busting a table in the process. That's usually no big deal (wrestling shows boast more broken wood than a bodybuilder gangbang), except this table belonged to members of a rival promotion. One of them took this as an excuse to charge my guys for real and gain some cheap PR in time for his next show. I immediately realized this shouldn't happen and grabbed the offending ragehead, keeping him away from the other (much bigger) wrestlers and yelling at him to sit his scrawny ass down, and stat.
Today, the part of "asshat who doesn't deserve any recognition" will be played by Sia's Wig.
The shit-starting barely-grappler probably could've broken free of me, but he was clearly a coward who didn't actually want to fight two guys twice his size. Plus, what if I was a secret MMA wizard able to triangle choke his pencil neck straight into the Pity Pantheon of ring warriors who got their asses kicked by referees? It made far more sense for him to go away, stew in his failure, and never bother anybody ever again.
I then spent the rest of the match alternating between officiating the action and keeping the wrestlers' focus away from cursing the offending promotion and yelling at them to get in the ring and fight. So for that one night, maybe I really was a director.
There Are Countless Terrible Imitations of a Famous TV Wrestler
Perhaps the strangest phenomenon in indie wrestling is the decades-long insistence that '90s WWF star Doink the Clown is the ultimate independent wrestling journeyman. He, or rather a completely warped, twisted, and butchered facsimile thereof, has worked countless tiny shows all over the world, despite it being the most blatant carny bullshit since old-timey strongmen would wrestle blind, 15-year-old, disease-ridden bears and act like it was an accomplishment.
For those who wasted their youth on Power Rangers instead of post-Hogan WWF, this was Doink:
An agent of PG, Saturday-morning-friendly chaos.
After he screwed the boob tube for good, the indies pounced, slapping a cheap green wig and almost-perfect-but-not-at-all face paint on some otherwise-useless schlub, billing him as "TV's Doink!" and charging people to see him trip his opponents up with banana peels. Hard-hitting athletics, basically. This has been going on forever, despite your typical indie Doink looking less like the WWF model than I do Tori Amos:
Where's a pack of rogue, raging, bloodthirsty circus elephants when you need them?
All these "Doinks" get advertised as the real thing (with WWF's version featured on the ads, naturally). And while they never drafted me to be a Doink, I did work with one several times. This Doink was 6'7", fat, incredibly hairy, chewed tobacco, and talked in a throaty rasp that was way more Krusty than Doink. In hindsight, they totally should've billed him that way.
Sadly, Matt Bourne, the wrestler behind WWF Doink, passed away in 2013. I thought that would spell the end of indie Doinks as well. Turns out I am just so adorably naive. Here's a show you can attend this April (or April 2015, if you're some kind of future monster):
Oh, I see. Now he's just "The Clown." You could move entire continents with all that respect.
Awkward Moments (and Wardrobe Malfunctions) Are Guaranteed to Happen
As anyone who's watched even one of Botchamania's 250-plus compilations knows, the wacky world of pro wrestling is loaded with mistakes and goof-ups. On the TV level, most can be covered up under the guise of 20,000 people only paying half-attention because they're 200 feet away and piss-drunk. But on the indie stage, crowds are small and often very focused. Plus, budgets are strained and not everyone's trained, making the faux pas even sillier and far more embarrassing.
For one such moment, let's go back to the match where I impersonated another wrestler. After I got beaten up and bounced out of the ring, the show's security force (wrestlers-in-training with shirts that said "security" on them) would come to collect me. Except they totally forgot to. But I couldn't just get up and walk away -- I was unconscious, remember. So there I laid at ringside, dead to the world, on a cold-ass floor with no shoes or socks, for over 20 goddamned minutes until somebody finally remembered that I existed. I recall overhearing at least one fan ask if I was truly hurt, so I definitely earned my $0 that night.
Tightly gripping a guy's shoulders, just like all unconscious people do.
Then there was my first-ever show, where I knelt down to make a count and split my tattered old trousers in front of everybody. Remember earlier, when I said nobody notices the ref? Well, they fucking noticed me then, laughing their guts dry and completely forgetting about the match. Unfortunately (fortunately?) for you, nobody took a picture.
When I got to the back, one of the wrestlers noted I didn't look too interested in the match. I told him I was distracted by my pants slicing open, which prompted even harder laughter than the fans gave. The Benny Hill theme still plays in my head to this day. Since then, I've made damn sure to wear black underwear for every show, just in case my black slacks split again. It's the one paranoid superstition I will take to my goddamn grave.
The Longer You Stick Around, the More People Assume You Know What You're Doing
As I hope I made it clear, I'm very awful at wrestling. I'm not even the best ref, judging by all the times I've been reminded to quit counting so goddamn slow.
But if I did, I'd be betraying my gimmick.
But the simple fact that I've technically been doing this for years is enough for young'uns to start asking me for advice, as if I'm some grizzled old cauliflower-eared veteran. It's rarely questions about refereeing, which would at least make sense. No, I've been asked if they're putting matches together right, how to be more dynamic for the crowd, and other skills I never came close to mastering. I more or less parrot what I learned during my training, because that school produced Triple H, Kofi Kingston, Damien Mizdow, and countless other major stars, so I assume it's good.
I assume this pseudo-veteran status will continue the longer I keep reffing, and I also assume it will never not feel weird. It's awkward enough to dole out writing advice, and that's the one job I'm actually good at. But I suppose the simple fact that I've stuck around and repeatedly seen what works and what absolutely doesn't means that at least a few lessons have tattooed themselves onto me, and that's enough for faces far fresher than mine to take my words as seriously as if I had suddenly morphed into Chris Jericho. Which is my goal, by the way ... not to obtain his level of skill, but to physically morph into the actual Chris Jericho.
Blue jeans and an untucked shirt? Damn rookie.
Of course, now that I've written this, some actual veteran who knows me will probably work my next show and tell all the kids to ignore me because, well, I'm a moron. Unless they need to learn how to break up a fight, naturally.
For more from Jason, check out 5 Disturbing Messages That Always Show Up in Love Songs and 5 Kids' TV Shows That Would Have Caused the Apocalypse.
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