In the modern wrestling match, referees serve little to no purpose. Their only real job is to slap the mat three times. A common sentiment is that the ref should be as invisible as possible as not to detract from the story that is happening between the two wrestlers. It’s a solid guideline but should not be treated as a commandment etched into stone. But instead of limiting refs to nothing more than someone in the background, why not bring them to the forefront, as an active member of the match?
Of course, I am in no way saying that refs should actually get in on the fight, but I do think they should play a more active role in the storytelling. Watch any episode of your favorite wrestling show and more than once during that time span I guarantee a ref will yell at someone to get off the turnbuckle. They will yell at people to get back in the ring. They will motion broadly with no real agency. They hardly ever engage with the story being told — they’re just there to add some flair to it by gesturing wildly, much like the two or three leaves of greens you get with a meal. They’re not there to actually be eaten.
So how to interject personality into refs? The first step is to make them actually participate in the match. By having a ref not making completely disregarded calls, it makes the calls they do make more important, impactful, and meaningful. Refs have almost absolutely zero power as to what is going to happen, but they’re playing someone with a lot of authority in the ring. So they need to make sure that when they say something or do something it appears that they have that authority. In order for refs to have any personality, they need to first and foremost be able to prove that they are refs.
But that’s all wrestling 101. The true crux of what I want to explore here is giving characters to the refs. This is something I believe would help immensely with making matches more interesting, exploring different plots, and just fleshing out the world that is wrestling. I also think it would help AEW’s problem of “ref’s discretion” and the lack of rules currently in AEW matches being enforced.
I wrote about this issue with regards to AEW’s tag matches, but it applies to the product as a whole, especially as people have noted recently, with DQs and interference. So how could referees having characters fix this? Well, if the call is up to the ref’s discretion, then a ref’s personality will surely be a factor in how they decide how to call things. A stickler for the rules is going to be tough and refuse to let anything slide. Meanwhile, a ref who may be a bit bloodthirsty may enjoy a run in and decide not to call the match. A whole iteration of characters is possible. A ref who wants to call correctly but is intimidated easily. One who plays favorites to one or two wrestlers. AAA tends to have some of the refs play stereotypical heels and faces. Yes, they are just cookie cutter face/heels, but it is something more personality than ‘man who has trouble counting to three’.
This completely opens the door to what is possible during a match without frustrating the audience. A match officiated by a strict ref is going to mean the crowd can rest assured that they can settle in for a solid match with no gimmicks or angles. A match that has a ref who is extremely lenient lets everyone know that there may be something fishy and the audience can adjust their expectations accordingly. This could have fixed the disappointing Statlander vs. Riho match, which we all wanted to actually see, but it turned out to be just trying to push an angle.
This would also create some interesting plot points with wrestlers wanting to get certain refs for some of their matches or matches determining who gets their pic of referee for a title shot later that month. It allows for some interesting backstage style politics if people chose to go that route. Or it can kept entirely in the ring.
With AEW being brand new, I think they could really capitalize on this. Currently, their referee Aubrey Edwards is a huge fan favorite and is known for getting in wrestler’s faces when they don’t follow the rules. She seemed to have a brief feud with Jericho, getting into his face two or three times at the start of the series. I would love to see that kind of thing come to fruition with Jericho insisting in promos he doesn’t want her officiating his matches because she’s biased against him.
I won’t bother you all with all the fantasy bookings and millions of plots I’ve written up in my head for all the different referee characters I’ve come up with. But giving referees a little more agency and a little more of a role narratively would give creative so much more space to play in. One would have to make sure not to over use it, as at the end of the day wrestling is still about the wrestlers. But with just the right amount of use it could make wrestling even more compelling.