Officially speaking: How wrestling referees earn their stripes
It was a surreal moment for a 19-year-old who had grown up a huge mark for Memphis rasslin’. I was nervously waiting to enter the dressing room of Jerry Lawler at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1990 for a quick lesson in Refereeing 1-2-3. Lawler’s former best friend, longtime area ref Jerry Calhoun, had quit/was fired (depending upon whom you believe) weeks earlier after Mrs. Calhoun had uncovered some of the boys’ escapades on the road and shared this information with Mrs. Lawler. Like many a time during a crucial part of a match, Calhoun took the fall. With his back against the turnbuckle, Lawler pulled the marriage equivalent of a foreign object, denying the accusations made against the King by Mrs. Calhoun…but confirming his friend’s transgressions. In what might have been one of his best babyface promos ever, Lawler convinced his wife, Paula, of his innocence. Lawler saved his marriage (for the time being) but his friendship with Calhoun was over (for the time being).
I suppose in an effort to maintain the classic formula the Memphis promotion had used for years (one old bald ref and one younger, skinnier official), I was Lawler’s handpicked replacement for Calhoun. Because of my friendship with Lawler’s sons, Kevin and Brian, I had been allowed to hang around the dressing rooms and even visit the King’s castle, his Coca-Cola-memorabilia-filled home in Memphis. And it seemed like every time I did, Paula was cooking fried chicken, the food of heavyweight wrestling champions everywhere. (I suppose the inspiration for Kentucky Fried Rasslin’ was hatched right there in the King’s kitchen.)
My first real interaction—after years of bugging him for autographs at various car shows and hardware-store openings—with Lawler had come in the backstage area weeks before my referee appointment, while watching Eric Embry cut a promo on the King. With a scowl, Embry declared, “Lawler, I have not never liked you.” Lawler laughed backstage at the double-negative, repeating the line. (Lawler has his faults, but he’s articulate.) I replied, “Yeah, pretty strong words. Butchering the English language always gets heat.” Jerry laughed again, and we talked for a bit. Not long after, he asked Kevin if that “tall, skinny kid” would like to referee. Believe it or not, this tall, skinny kid didn’t jump at the chance. Not only was I concerned about the hazing I’d receive from my friends but also the teasing my parents would endure from their friends and co-workers. At that time, my father was still with the fire department, and the Memphis wrestling show was a staple of Saturday-morning entertainment at the fire station. My father’s response after I told him I’d made the decision to go ahead and do it: “Well, son, that’s fine. But, uh, you’re not gonna use your real name, are you?” Yes, the old man was certainly bursting with pride.
So Scott Bowden, using his real name, felt sick to his stomach in the waning moments before he was to ref his first match. Bell time was minutes away, and I’d been waiting since I’d arrived at the Coliseum two hours earlier to speak with Lawler, who was supposed to give me a crash course in the finer points of working as a ref. Finally, I was allowed to enter his dressing room. Lawler stood there naked as he began the tutorial (yet another weird moment), instructing me, as he put on his tights and trunks, to appear confident calling the matches because the fans had to believe in me as the official in charge. I nearly laughed at that suggestion because I’d seen guys like Calhoun be abused by the boys and marks alike for years. His next point, however, I always remembered: “Always act like you’re officiating a real sporting event—like football or basketball. If you see an infraction like pulling hair, you get in there and break it up and yell, ‘Watch that hair-pulling!’”
Of course, Lawler was acting this scenario out in front of me, with a stern look on his face, an expression usually reserved for a heel opponent…or his son Kevin. “And when a guy goes for a pin, slide down there really quick…like it’s the most important thing in your life at that moment.” I asked him jokingly, “Kinda like Bronco Lubich?” (Lubich was a longtime ref in Texas who was the slowest-moving official in history—worse than Frank Morrell.) Lawler laughed and said, “Yeah, just like Bronco Lubich. OK, you got it.” And with that, I nervously turn toward the door. But then Lawler said: “Oh, yeah. And the boys will use you to communicate with each other. They’ll call spots during the match through you. You just act like you’re talking about the rules or something when relaying the communication. Oh, and another thing, if something’s not looking good out there, tell the boys, ‘Hey, lay it in there, c’mon!’ OK, now you’re ready.” Right. Now I was really nervous.
Dressed in a starched Polo button down—my Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity pledge pin fastened right next to the horseman (how appropriate)—pressed black Dickies and shiny black Doc Martens, I made my way down the aisle. (I was pretty stylish for a referee.) In my mind, with the GQ ref look, I was planting the seeds for my eventual heel turn should the opportunity arise. Longtime promoter Jerry Jarrett told me in 2008 that when he first saw me referee in ‘91, he mentioned to Lawler the possibility of turning me heel a la Jim Cornette, who was one of the youngest managers in the business when he started in 1982. (It was a big thrill for me when Cornette insulted me in my first TV appearance: “Who is this kid refereeing? He looks like Beaver Cleaver!”)
Jarrett informed me that if he hadn’t been working in New York so much to assist Vince McMahon, who at that time had his hands full with the government’s steroid investigation and trial, that my heel turn probably would have come sooner. One of the biggest regrets that I have about my time in the business is that I never had the opportunity to work more closely with Jarrett.
My first match as a ref involves Jeff Gaylord, who does a double-take when he notices my quality shirt: “No wayyy! A Polo?!” Not surprising that he reacted like that—my shirt probably cost more than two nights worth of payoffs.
Minutes later, I’m in the ring threatening a DQ for not only hair-pulling but also for using the fists and choking, all of which Memphis heels were apt to do with much regularity. It was a tired, simple formula really: The heels pull hair without me seeing it. But I have my suspicions. The babyface explains what happened, leaving me to ask the fans if the infraction did in fact occur as the heel shakes his head to plead his innocence. (Yes, I’m certainly in charge here.)
But I am doing my best Tommy Young impersonation the moment I see a shoulder hit the mat. Although I’d grown up with referees Paul Morton (Ricky’s dad) and Calhoun, former Mid-Atlantic and WCW ref Young was my favorite. He was always sliding all over the place to get in position to make a count, and his facial expressions were priceless. Trying to think like Young would, I try to mimic a couple of his expressions as I break in between the boys while communicating spots back and forth…although it looks as if I’m admonishing them.
After the bout, I walk to the back, and Lawler gives me an approving nod. Later, when I’m introduced before Lawler’s bout, the King is surprised when a section of fans from ringside cheer for me vociferously. He whispers, “Who’s that? Your family?” I answer, “No. Those are my fraternity pledge brothers.” He then notices my pledge pin and says, “Good grief.” Still, at the end of the night, he asks to stay on as USWA referee. The Jerry Calhoun era is over. Officially.
Poor Calhoun. Lawler’s old softball buddy had worked as a ref for as long as I could remember; I believe he started around 1976. Although not quite at the level of Young, Calhoun could move very well around the ring, and he was in better shape than probably most of the boys of that era. One of the biggest compliments I can give him is that he didn’t crack up and laugh on camera too often, which is amazing considering that he was working with Lawler, Jimmy Hart, Austin Idol and “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant. Hart in particular was rough on Calhoun, frequently labeling him “a dropout of the Jerry Lawler School of Rasslin.’” Calhoun was also portrayed as the incompetent ref most often. I seem to recall that he made most of the calls when a heel got the win, but that may have been because he was able to take more bumps than Paul Morton. Years later, whenever a match called for a ref-being-knocked-senseless-so-the-heel-can-cheat bump, I was the guy, leaving Morrell (my own bald colleague) in the back. Most nights, I’d work five out of the eight matches, more of a testament to the amount of ref bumps Randy Hales and Lawler booked than anything.
I always thought Morton looked the part of the rasslin’ ref. He was probably in his late ‘50s when I started watching, but he was a scrappy old man. And although he officiated many a shady win for the heels, he came off to me as the babyface ref who would really speed up his count on occasion for a babyface. If Lawler had a big match, I’d always hope that Morton would be the ref. Unfortunately, to make the World title matches seem like a major deal, the Memphis promotion often brought in an “outside” official, Thomas Marlin, who would ref only the title match that evening. Brother of wrestler/promoter Eddie Marlin, Thomas counted so slowly that he made Lubich look like Young, but it was used to great effect in the always-suspenseful World title bouts.
Calhoun was involved in a few angles over the years, most notably with Hart and later with rookie manager Cornette. The only angle involving Morton that I can remember saw the Bruise Brothers attack him after the old man had delivered his trademark quick count for his son Ricky, enabling the newly formed Rock ‘n’ Roll Express to win the AWA Southern tag belts. I’d never seen Paul abused this way, as the Dream Machine and Porkchop Cash dropped elbows and legdrops on the prone ref. After the Express made the save, Paul sold it perfectly by not moving a muscle. Really, I thought they’d killed him.
Looking back at it, Calhoun and Morton were so effective in that most of the time you weren’t even aware of them; they would just blend in with the action. It’s interesting to watch the Memphis matches of old and see how integral the refs could be to the success of a bout, especially matches from the WMC-TV studio.
As I can attest, the TV bouts were a little more stressful because you had to try to face the camera at all the times, keeping your ass out of the TV-viewing audience’s way. And you had to keep looking for longtime employee Mr. Guy Coffee or promoter Eddie Marlin to come from behind the curtain, a signal for me to instruct the boys that their time was up and that they needed to “take it home” (i.e., go to the finish). But … the boys will be boys. Young guys at the time like Jerry Lynn and Cody Michaels would decide they’d hadn’t worked in all their spots before being told to go home, so they’d keep working. Which always freaked out their greenhorn referee: “I said take it home! Now! Please?!”
Once, Adam Bomb from the WWF was in to work a two-week program with Lawler. A spot leading to the DQ finish (setting up the return bout next week) was supposed to see Bomb put his foot on the rope to stop the pin. Like most of Bomb’s limited repertoire, he mistimed it. I counted three before he could place his size 13 on the bottom rope. (Thus, recalling Lawler’s royal words of wisdom from Refereeing 1-2-3.) Bomb was pissed initially, but Lawler stuck up for me backstage for not stopping my count, telling the so-called WWF Superstar “Hey, it’s up to you to get that foot on the rope in time. Scott did his job.” Bomb would go on to live up to his name in the WWF.
Yes, like kindergarten, the lessons I learned in rasslin’ carried over to my personal life. After Eddie Gilbert bled buckets all over my cherished starched Polo button-down, he advised me to “wash it cold, wash it cold.” I did. Twice. (I think that’s what he meant.) Sure enough, the stains were gone after the second try. Since then, whenever I’ve spilled something on my clothes, I’ve always relied on this piece of domestic advice: “Wash it cold, wash it cold.” Thanks, Eddie.
During the aforementioned angle, Eddie slipped into my hand the blood-stained blade he’d used to gig himself (cut his forehead). OK, that was a first. I scrubbed my hands for a while afterward…but kept that blade for years. (I have no idea why.) I was a hero when I showed it around the Pike house.
I am only a few weeks in the business when I first suggest a finish—and to a room that includes Lawler, Gilbert, Eric Embry and Tom Prichard. Yep, they all erupt into laughter at my booking brilliance. Though amused by my moxie, Lawler is not so kind this time: “Scott, keep your mouth shut.” Embry and Prichard would have their revenge the following week. They’re attacking Lawler, and Eric grabs my hair to throw me over the top rope. I whisper to him: “Not over the top! Not over the top!” I’d never taken that bump and didn’t want to start on live TV. At the last second, Embry awkwardly repositions me and tosses me slightly under the top rope. I grab the middle one for support, but my left arm somehow twists under the top rope. I’m left dangling between the top and middle ropes, with my left arm caught in between. And then Prichard climbs the top rope, which really tightens the grip—I’m thinking my arm is going to snap in two. (Backstage, Brian Christopher Lawler and Tony Williams pop big time over my agonizing predicament.)
Eventually, however, I slowly developed a reputation as a finish guy. A lot of the boys would come to me for a finish, especially if they didn’t like what booker Randy Hales had given them—which was often. I also slowly learned the art of giving a finish, i.e., communicating what I had in mind like the boys did. Here’s how Lawler usually delivered a finish backstage to his opponent and me: “OK, so here’s the fuckin’ deal. So I’m making the comeback—Boom! Boom! (Sound effects to illlustrate punching.) And then the fuckin’ ref here takes a fuckin’ bump—boom! Then here comes Downtown fuckin’ Bruno into the fuckin’ ring. I fuckin’ grab him, but he tosses you a fuckin’ chain. I drop Bruno—boom! I turn around and— boom— you nail me with the fuckin’ chain. Fuckin’ ref comes to … 1,2,3. Got it?” Yeah, yeah, I fuckin’ got it.
On one of these rare weekend road trips as a ref, however, my girlfriend accompanies me to a show for the first time. A pier-six brawl breaks out, while I busily try to restore order. After I’m hit with a chair, I glance into the crowd and notice her oblivious to it all—her face is buried in a newspaper. I joke with Lawler about this backstage, but he fails to see the humor: “What the fuck? Her boyfriend is in the middle of all these chao—guys hitting each with chairs and bleeding—and she’s reading the fuckin’ newspaper?! Send word to her that she’d better act concerned when you’re out there.” Never mind the fact that Mrs. Lawler was often seen near ringside on Monday nights often joking with her friends while her husband was being battered. Sigh.
My initial referee stint lasted only about three months—I lost my spot to Paul Neighbors, who was willing to make all the towns and not just Memphis on Mondays and Saturdays. My college schedule prevented me from making the other towns, with the exception of the occasional visit to a place like Rooster Poot, Arkansas, on Friday or Saturday night. It didn’t hurt Neighbors’ chances that he was related to Jarrett. When Lawler fired me, he pointed that out, saying that “Jarrett was letting you go.” When I lightheartedly confronted Jarrett about this in 2008, he laughed and proclaimed his innocence: “I don’t recall the details (spoken like a true politician…or wrestling promoter), but I do know that whenever Lawler wanted to fire someone, he’d blame me or ask me to do it because he didn’t want the aggravation.”
My dream of being in the business was cut short—but I’d be back in 1993.