Closing the circle, in the ring

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Courier’s sports editor shares his love of refereeing pro wrestling with his son

By Michael Hicks

The thought actually hit me earlier in the week that 19 years before, as a mere 21-year-old in Craigsville, Va., of all places, I stepped into a professional wrestling ring for the first time as a referee. But that's not where my love affair with what is now more prominently called sports entertainment began.

No, that would've been in 1978 as a 6-year-old when I stumbled across my older brother, Tim, watching an episode of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling on WTVR-6 out of Richmond, Va. I was fascinated by what these brutes were — or at least allegedly were — doing to each other. I was, as we like to say in the pro wrestling industry, hooked.

The cast of characters — Ric Flair, Greg Valentine and Johnny Weaver, to name a few — stepped through the ring ropes that day and through my eyes looked as if they were trying to destroy each other. And we all know that looks can be somewhat deceiving. But I didn't care. I wanted to see more. I wanted to be a part of the show.

I watched pro wrestling religiously every Saturday morning, sometimes from sunrise to sunset. Yes, it was on all the time, or so it seemed. I couldn't get enough of it. Back when the business was more territorial than it is today, I watched every organization that I could, every wrestler that graced my television screen.

Then in 1986, as a 14-year-old, I got my first taste of the business from the inside as my brother began promoting matches for an outfit called Atlantic Coast Wrestling, based in Columbia, S.C. On a mild September night in Warrenton, Va., local wrestlers such as the Red Demon, the Grapplers and “Cowboy” Terry Flynn came to town to perform as I helped carry their jackets and title belts back to the locker room area. It was an eye-opening experience that only fueled my desire to be in the ring even more.

Fast-forward to last Friday — July 20, to be exact — when I stepped back into the ring at a New Revolution Wrestling event at Fun City Family Entertainment in Littleton. Just three months earlier I had returned to the ring after a four-year hiatus. Part of it was at the request of wrestler/owner Matt Yaden, part of it due to my own desire to return to the ring. After all, it's a common saying in the pro wrestling business that once you get the itch to be in the ring, you always have it. I had been bitten by the itch again.

On this night I would referee back-to-back matches pitting the evil Wayne DeWayne with his dastardly manager Michael Titus against Aaron “Candy Man” Mann and Hoodlum against “Superstar” Andrew Ryan. In both instances, the crowd jeered as their fan favorites went home defeated.

But, on this night, the exhilaration of being in the ring, which is always exciting, was superseded by the fact that my 16-year-old son, Kodey, would be making his refereeing debut, albeit in a minor role. Never in my wildest dreams did I think all those years ago when I refereed from Virginia to Maryland, West Virginia to the Carolinas what seemed like every other weekend that I would share the in-ring experience with one of my children. If anything, I would be working on the same show with my older brother, Tim, who himself refereed, managed and wrestled in the business for 20 years.

Sure, fans don't normally come to shows to watch the referees. They're there to be entertained by the wrestlers. It's they, after all, who sell the tickets and try to put a fan in every seat 18 inches apart. And I've been asked a time or two why I've never wrestled, but just refereed. The answer is a rather simple one: Without referees, there are no matches. There is nobody to enforce the rules and act as the authoritative figure in what we call the squared circle.

I've always taken that role seriously, even in the not-so-serious world of pro wrestling. The act is to make the paying customers believe what they are seeing. And if the referee doesn't do his job as well as he can, then how are the fans to believe the match itself? So I try to do my part to make sure it's as believable as it can be.

Oh sure, I've heard it from friends, family and fans alike. It's fake. It's choreographed. And I won't deny that it is a staged soap opera, but fake depends on one's definition of the word. I've never been one to use that terminology when explaining my in-ring exploits, probably because it certainly was real when legendary figure Terry Funk clobbered me squarely on my cranium with a previously burning branding iron during a cage match in 1995. The blood that trickled down later on confirmed that, as did the sleep-deprived headache.

Fortunately for me, however, I'm a referee and not a wrestler. My laundry list of injuries in the ring has been relatively minor: a sprained ankle here or there, exhaustion from time to time, and just some random soreness. Most of that comes from my penchant to slide around the ring as if I'm stealing second base as I count a pinfall. It's an idea I practically stole from refereeing idol Tommy Young, who officiated matches for 25-plus years with the National Wrestling Alliance before a freak in-ring accident curtailed his career in 1989.

The soreness was ever-present last Saturday morning, a mere 10 hours after the show had ended at Fun City. My legs were a little weary, and there were minor aches and pains as I got on with my morning, preparing to cover Day 2 of the NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison. But, rest assured, those aches and pains would fade soon enough as I left Bandimere later that afternoon on my way to Fort Collins and another night of entertaining wrestling fans.