Officially speaking: How referees earn their stripes (Part II of II)
Part II of II
In 1993, my junior year at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), Lawler again recruited me for a referee spot with the USWA after I’d been hanging around the dressing conducting interviews for an article I was writing about Brian Christopher Lawler, the heir apparent to the Memphis rasslin’ throne. Like many a match at the Mid-South Coliseum, my all-access pass to research my article came with a stipulation: I could submit the piece for my Magazine Writing class … but it could never be published. (It wasn’t that I was hard up for material—the subject of the piece had to be a current MSU student, which Brian was, part time, when he wasn’t on the road wrestling.)
For a month or so, I conducted a series of interviews with the Lawlers and wrestling personalities like Jeff Jarrett and announcer Dave Brown. Jarrett and Brown weren’t much help, speaking to me in kayfabe (i.e., as if wrestling were real) and denying knowledge that Brian was Lawler’s son.
Jerry, on the other hand, was forthright and again seemed to take a liking to me, perhaps as Jackie Fargo had done with a certain young artist from MSU years back.
Weeks later, we read our work aloud to the class. The class sat there speechless when I was done. Finally, one guy asked, “OK. How the heck did you get them to talk about all this?” My coy reply: “I finagled my way backstage and just asked the right questions. And I was persistent.” Yep, I kayfabed that I had been involved with the business previously as a referee.
Turned out that my professor was married to a sportswriter at The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis daily newspaper. She pulled me aside after class, and told me not only that I’d received an A for my work, but also that her husband wanted to publish it in next Sunday’s paper. I told her I’d think about it.
That afternoon, I stopped by Lawler’s house to show him the article. He mostly sat there silently as he read the nine-page, 10-point-Helvetica-font-account of his oldest son’s life, which, like the review I wrote of his book years later, wasn’t always flattering. (The only time he voiced an opinion on the piece was when he read that “The combination of travel schedule and class schedule proved tougher than any opponent ever could be. Brian was forced to submit and quit college midway through this semester.” (My professor had put a question mark after “submit,” not recognizing rasslin’ terminology. Lawler found that amusing.) Once he was done, he quietly said, “Nice work. And you got an A.” On my way out, I muttered, “Yeah. Funny thing. She’s married to a guy at the CA. He wants to publish it.” As he closed the door on me, Lawler said, “Ha. That is funny. But then I’d have to fire you and then sue you. And her. And her husband.” (Memphis was still making an effort to kayfabe, although WWF and WCW had abandoned the practice years ago.) “Ha. Right. I was just kidding,” I lied.
When I gave the article to Brian, he disappeared for a while at the Mid-South Coliseum to read it. He never mentioned it again. But his future wife, Dava, later told me that she loved it. I think Jerry and Brian both were taken aback by how spot-on I had been. To be thorough, I’d interviewed Lawler’s first wife, Kay, who told me that Brian only got into the business to hopefully earn his dad’s attention, despite the fact that for years he vowed to never follow in Jerry’s footsteps. But then, Brian never was the type to put anyone over. Even if he really wanted to.
Jump to one hot Memphis night in May of 1994: the main event is Jerry Lawler and Jeff Jarrett vs. the Dream Machine and Gilbert. At the time, Jarrett is in his first WWF run as “Double J,” so the crowd is up to nearly 2,000. Because my girlfriend and some of my buddies are in the audience, I ask Gilbert to involve me in the finish in some controversial way. What he comes up with exceeds my expectations. Frank Morrell, the assigned ref for the bout, is bumped (knocked senseless), which is my cue to get ready. After Lawler piledrives Gilbert, I make my move down to ringside. I begin to count three as Lawler covers a prone Gilbert.
Instead, I rise up and deliver a stiff shot to Lawler’s neck with my Doc Marten boot. I place Gilbert on top and register a quick three count. Lawler and I butt heads afterward, which ends with me shoving Lawler on his ass and running for my life. Stunned and suddenly fearing for her safety, my girlfriend makes a beeline for my car and ducks down in the backseat. I tell my friends to make a run for it and meet me at Huey’s Midtown, a burger/beer joint nearby. Fans pelt my car with debris as we leave the parking lot. I love every minute of it—my childhood dream has become a reality–and I’m not about to let go of it.
Finally, safe within the confines of a booth, we celebrate my newfound heeldom over burgers, French fries and pitches of Killian’s Red. And, as is custom at Huey’s, we torpedo a few toothpicks through our straws into the ceiling after a few drinks. I am the new heel manager in Memphis.
Little did I realize at the time, this was probably the happiest I’d ever be in the business.
When I arrive at the WMC-TV studios for my first heel promo, Lawler and Gilbert instruct me to play an apologetic babyface until Lance gives me the mandate from promoter Eddie Marlin that I’m suspended. I’m then supposed to protest, and Gilbert will come out and argue with Lance as I’m pushed to the background. I’m told that the plan is for me to be a heel for a week or two before Gilbert and the heels double-cross me, and I’ll return later as a babyface ref. Realizing that this might be my only chance to cut the heel promo of my dreams, one that I had practiced in front of a mirror several times as a kid growing up, I decide to play a heel from the start of my interview with Lance. Figuring it’s live TV, what can they do?
Instead of apologizing—as I was told to do backstage by Lawler just moments ago—I begin a diatribe about how the so-called King has shoved me around for too long and that during the match, I merely stomped him like “the cockroach that he is.” Lawler was watching on the monitor during my promo and leered at Kevin Lawler, asking, “What in the hell is he doing?” I go on to accuse Lance of leaving years back not to go to WCW, but to run Lawler’s fan club full time. I end the interview by proclaiming Gilbert “my new best friend.”
After the show goes to a break, I nervously walk through the backstage curtain. Lawler waves me over and says, “That was good. Real good. But next time, do what we tell you to do.” My live-TV gamble works: The plans to turn me back to a ref are dropped, and I become the top heel manager in Memphis for the next couple of years.
In closing, I’d like to mention Brian Hildebrand. Years ago, Gilbert introduced me to Brian, who was in town for a wrestling fans convention. Like Eddie, Brian had been a huge fan for years and had a real passion for the business. According to Eddie, Brian had done some work on the indie circuit but “had never caught a break.” (After hearing that, I remember feeling embarrassed that I had lucked into my spot — but maybe that was Eddie’s point.) That same week after he introduced us, Eddie even used Brian in an angle on Memphis TV, seemingly embarrassing the “fan from the audience” by slapping him around. Due to his persistence, Brian eventually did some work as a heel manager in Memphis under his moniker “Dr. Mark Curtis” and later became a respected (at least backstage among the boys) ref for WCW. Brian died of stomach cancer nearly four years after Eddie died of heart failure in Puerto Rico.
Perhaps Chris Jericho said it best, using the boys’ vernacular when speaking of Brian: “He was also the toughest man I’ve ever met. He never complained about his disease, never put it over, never sold it.”
To this day, even though I probably don’t even voice it to my friends as we’re watching the latest WWE offering on PPV, I’m noticing the refs and what they do, or more specifically, what they don’t do.
Like most longtime refs, Brian earned his stripes. And respect from the boys. In what can be a thankless business, I think most of us are thankful we knew him at all.