How to Be a Wrestling Referee, Easy as 1-2-3?

There’re a lotta resources out there on how to become a pro wrestler. But how to be a wrestling referee? Not as much.

What’s the job of a referee like? It’s kinda like the train operators in Singapore. When they do their job well, no one’s giving them awards. They’re practically invisible. But when they screw things up? Oh man. Don’t expect anyone not to notice.

Now imagine referee cardio. They’re up on their feet. Then flat down on the ground. Now they’re duck walking to check on a submission. Pop back up to a vertical base. Next moment sliding in for a dramatic three count. Up on their feet again, practically a burpee. After that they’re sprinting across the mat. Imagine doing this for a 2 hour long event, several matches in a row.

Not as easy as it looks.

Official duties of a pro wrestling referee

A ref has a big job, with many things to look out for. Here are some of them:

  • Count to 1-2-3 when shoulders are pinned to the mat
  • Call for a submission when a wrestler taps out to a hold
  • Count wrestlers out when they leave the legal match area
  • Track the legal participants in a tag team match
  • Enforce the rules of a match, eg no illegal attacks, removing weapons and foreign objects, stopping interference from external parties
Referee Zan from Malaysia Pro Wrestling
Referee Zan emphasises it was only a 2 count at Enter the Ring

But referees also play these very important practical roles in each match:

  • Relay messages between opponents, so they don’t need to talk directly
  • Keep time and help wrestlers pace matches to fit their booking slot
  • Ensure safety of the fans who are too close to the action
  • Watch out for the health of in ring performers
  • Clear the wrestling area of debris and gear
Referee Sufiyan learnt how to be a wrestling referee on his own
Referee Sufiyan makes sure wrestlers play by the rules

Learning how to be a wrestling referee

I asked 2 of Grapple MAX‘s refs a few questions. Zan and Sufiyan have officiated over 200 matches between them, so I’m pretty sure there’s something we can learn from their experience.

3 things you had to learn on your own about being a ref?

Z: The rules of the pro wrestling universe; sharp hand motions and “official looking” hand gestures; to step in on the 4th count to break things up.

S: Be aware of your positioning (don’t get in the way of the cameras!); authoritative body language; assist the story the wrestlers are telling.

Oh, and assist the story he sure did one time. Let me take you back to this Rock Bottom Match, the main event of Grapple MAX’s Fight Club II. Chris Panzer from the Philippines vs The Ladykiller. The stipulation is that the match can only be won by a pinfall that immediately follows Dwayne Johnson’s signature slam.

Chris Panzer vs The Ladykiller
Grapple MAX’s Fight Club II at Core Collective

This was an edge of your seat clash between 2 of the region’s biggest egos. They each claimed their Rock Bottom was superior. Midway when both men laid each other out with a Stunner and a Tombstone Piledriver, both flopped to the mat exhausted. Ref Sufiyan began the count to 10 as both wrestlers struggled to get their bearings. When he reached 10, instead of calling for a draw, with the stipulation clearly in his mind…

He bellowed, “You still need a ROCK BOTTOM!”

The crowd erupted with cheers with that one impactful line because he had driven home the principle that no winner would emerge till we saw a Rock Bottom.

How can refs contribute to a match?

Z: You’re the timekeeper. Your job is to help the wrestlers stick to their booking timings so that the rest of the programme can run on schedule. You’re also the first person to note the wrestlers’ safety. Watch out for legitimate injuries, especially after high risk moves. You have to be focused and proactive when you’re out there!

S: Let your facial expressions communicate your emotion as an official. For example, annoyed and disapproving looks for the heels. Move with purpose. Feed off what the wrestlers are doing. You’re one of the cues the audience subconsciously detects to influence how they should react. Sometimes you’re attacked by accident and you have to convincingly play up the moment. Referees in pro wrestling tend to get “knocked unconscious” often.

Smart Dave pulling Prabu's nose
Referee Zan deciding if this nose hold is legal
Referee Sufiyan knows getting knocked over is part of the job

Any advice for new refs?

Z: Be humble, accept feedback, and don’t harp on mistakes. Mistakes are gonna happen anyway! As a referee, you’re part of the performance too. You must have fun with it! I always wanted to be a wrestler, but injuries from parkour and other sports led me to choose this role in pro wrestling. No regrets!

S: Be versatile. You need to look assertive, yet you need to make decisions on the fly. Anticipate the movement of the wrestlers so you don’t get caught in their way. Learn how to fall safely. A little basic training as a wrestler yourself helps!

Sufiyan as a wrestler before he became referee
Sufiyan reached Grade 1 at Grapple MAX and has a few matches under his belt

Conclusion

It’s an often overlooked duty. But as a wrestling promoter at Grapple MAX, I constantly need reliable refs. And they’re hard to find. You don’t just throw an official shirt on someone and expect them to play the part right away. Like any other role, mastery comes with practice and experience. Sure, they are supporting cast, but you gotta give these men credit for learning how to be a wrestling referee all on their own.

Wrestling referees Sufiyan and Zan at Grapple MAX's Anniversary Showcase
Thinking of being a ref?

A referee is a character in his own right. Many end up building rapport with the wrestling fan base. Support your SEA indy refs by buying this ZEBRAS shirt.

If you’re a wrestler, read this one about attracting your own fans!

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