In professional wrestling, a referee is an authority figure present in or near the ring during matches. The referee's on-stage (kayfabe) purpose is similar to that of referees in combat sports such as boxing or mixed martial arts, that is, as an arbiter of the rules and the person charged with rendering decisions. In reality, the referee is, like the wrestlers, a participant in executing a match in accordance with its script including its pre-determined outcome, and is responsible for controlling the flow of the match and for relaying information or instructions from backstage officials to the wrestlers. Like wrestlers, referees are also responsible for maintaining kayfabe, and must render decisions in accordance with the promotion's kayfabe rules.
The kayfabe purpose of a professional wrestling referee is to render decisions (pinfalls, submissions, disqualifications, countouts) during a match but the legit purpose they serve is to transmit messages to wrestlers about the progress of matches, communicate with them about the amount of time left (plus the beginning and end of commercial breaks on live broadcasts), and, if necessary, help them gauge the crowd reaction as well as reminding them of match script. They also have a key role in ensuring that the wrestlers are physically capable to continue, and to stop the match/inform the opponent if there is a risk of injury present. Presently, referees wear wireless earpieces, to allow backstage officials to communicate with them during matches. Referees are also selected by their employers subject to their height and weight, and normally referees would be no more than six feet tall, weigh no more than 180 lb and may generally display a non-athletic physique; examples of this are World Wrestling Entertainment referees Mike Chioda and Charles Robinson. The purpose of this size discrepancy is purely to emphasize the height, weight and musculature of some of the larger wrestlers and to compensate for smaller stars.
The "X" sign
Although professional wrestling is worked, real injuries can be sustained. In such an event, the referee raises his hands above his head into an "X" shape to alert backstage officials and paramedics, as well as any other wrestlers that what is going on is really happening. An "X" sign across the chest is a warning, it signifies that a wrestler may be injured, but is still able to compete. In recent times, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA) and WWE have used the "X" Sign to signify storyline as well as legitimate injuries. An example of this is when A.J. Styles was kayfabe injured after being hit with a powerbomb off the stage through a table by Bully Ray. Another example is during the 2006 Money in the Bank ladder match at WrestleMania 22 when Matt Hardy performed a suplex on Ric Flair from the top of the ladder, and the two referees, Jim Korderas and Mike Chioda, used the "X" sign. Flair re-entered the match minutes afterwards, showing he was not legitimately injured.
After the X sign is given, the officials backstage would communicate to the referee, if necessary, revised plans to end the match quickly. There is also a "blow off" sign, raising both arms straight up, if a wrestler seemed injured but feels he can continue.
Distractions and bumps
Most professional wrestling promotions have a kayfabe rule that referees do not make decisions based on anything they do not personally witness. Because of this, distracting or incapacitating the referee is often an element of a match, especially in standard matches where a wrestler is liable to lose a match by disqualification for performing an illegal move. Distraction or incapacitation of the referee is usually a precursor to the villain wrestler either performing a normally illegal move without any consequence, or outside interference in the match (a run in). Less commonly, the heroic wrestler might appear to win the match by pinfall or submission if not for the referee being distracted or incapacitated. These pre-planned temporary injuries to the referee are known as "bumps".
Distracting the referee is usually a deliberate tactic done by the villain, his manager, or someone else in his corner. It can also take the form of the referee taking an inordinate amount of time to talk to the heroic wrestler for violating the rules. Incapacitating the referee is usually done by a purportedly accidental collision with a wrestler, or a wrestler missing an attack on an opponent and hitting the referee instead, though sometimes a referee may be incapacitated by a deliberate attack by the villain or his manager. When any of these happen, the referee usually appears to be knocked unconscious for a period of time by a move that is not considered particularly devastating when applied to a wrestler.
Also known as special guest referee is any match in which the usual referee is replaced with a "guest" filling in as the official. Celebrities (such as Muhammad Ali in the main event of WrestleMania I), managers and other wrestlers can "guest" as the special referee. In some cases, a special referee is put into a match which is already a different match type or stipulation (for example: Hell in a Cell with a special referee). The special referee would often be biased towards or against one of the competitors or could be assigned as the special referee to ensure the match is called down the line. In the WWF in September 1999, after all the referees got sick of continuously being attacked by wrestlers, they went on strike (kayfabe), leading to other WWF workers (most notably Harvey Whippleman and Tom Prichard, along with a non-striking Jim Korderas) becoming "scab" referees until the night after Unforgiven, where Vince McMahon gave the regular referees more authority in matches (along with fining Triple H for striking one that same night).
Special outside referee
Also known as special enforcer or special guest enforcer is same as the special referee, but the guest referee stays on the outside of the ring enforcing what the normal referee does not see. These guests are sometimes known as "enforcers", the most famous of which was Mike Tyson, who served as the special guest enforcer for the WWF Championship match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XIV, and Chuck Norris who served as special guest enforcer at the 1994 Survivor Series in a match between The Undertaker and Yokozuna.
Special enforcers can become regular referees if the original inside referee becomes (kayfabe) permanently incapacitated. Otherwise though, the enforcer generally has no decision-making power, and is really put in the match to physically force wrestlers to obey the rules or physically remove interfering wrestlers from ringside.
An effective gimmick for the villain wrestlers is to have a personal referee, who is on the permanent payroll of the villain. The referee can be simply a lackey, or a loyal ally with a senior position. This is a broader extension of the "corrupt referee" gimmick, in that the referee's allegiance is openly made public, and is blatantly flaunted to incense the audience – the referee himself is exempt from punishment due to his official position.
Examples include when the New World Order recruited WCW's senior referee Nick Patrick, and he became the sole official of nWo matches. He officiated every single match of the nWo Souled Out event in 1997. Ric Flair and The Four Horsemen had their own personal referee in WCW, Charles Robinson, who eventually adopted the look and mannerisms of Flair, and earned the nickname "Little Naitch", from Flair's nickname "Nature Boy". For a time in WCW, referees would not work Scott Steiner's matches, so he employed Mark "Slick" Johnson as his personal referee. Johnson had black and white paint on top of his head, wore an nWo logo on his shirt and had a whistle around his neck, just like ECW's Bill Alfonso. Another example of this is when Kurt Angle had Daivari as his personal referee during late 2005, with Daivari starting as the referee of Angle's match against John Cena for the WWE Championship at the 2005 Survivor Series. After Eric Bischoff was fired weeks after this, Daivari was relegated to being Angle's manager.
Wrestling referees wear different attire in each promotion.
WWE referees have had a series of different uniforms throughout the years. From the 1970s until 1983, still operating under the World Wide Wrestling Federation banner, referees wore black and white striped shirts, comparable to referees in other sports, such as hockey, basketball, and American football. In the mid-1980s until 1995, a World Wrestling Federation (WWF) referee's attire consisted of a blue collared shirt with black trousers, boots, and bow tie, similar to that of a boxing official. Beginning with the March 13, 1995 episode of Monday Night Raw, the uniform was changed back to the black and white striped shirt with a WWF logo patch on the left breast as well as the shoulders. With the WWE brand extension in 2002, referees appearing on SmackDown! began wearing blue striped polo shirts, differentiating themselves from the Raw referees, who continued to wear black and white shirts. When ECW was revived in 2006 their referees were given black shirts. As of 2007, they have grey and black polo shirts. As of November 2008, however, all referees wear black and white striped shirts and are no longer brand exclusive. On the November 15, 2010 episode of Raw, the referees wore the "boxing referee" attire as part of the Old School Raw special episode. During breast cancer awareness month, the referee shirts feature special WWE patches that incorporate the Susan G. Komen logo and pink ribbon next to a smaller version of the WWE corporate logo.
In WCW, referees wore collared shirts with bow ties until around 1999, when they switched to striped shirts. During The Invasion storyline in WWE (known at the time as WWF), the WCW referees wore white polo shirts, switching near the end of the storyline to baseball-jersey style grey shirts with a small black WCW logo on the left breast and one on the right sleeve. In ECW, referees first wore striped shirts (as they split off from the NWA), and later wore an all-black uniform akin to those of mixed martial arts officials, later with a half-black, half-red shirt. The all black uniform would return for the first two WWE One Night Stand events, before giving way to the brand extension ECW referee shirts.
In TNA, referees switch between the striped shirts and the "boxing referee" attire on occasion. TNA referee shirts consist of a small Impact Wrestling patch on the left breast and a giant one on the back.
In most territories of the NWA, referees wear the traditional black and white striped shirts, many times with an NWA logo "official referee" patch on the left breast.
When Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW) debuted in 1999, the two primary referees had different attire. Senior referee Ron Hartog wore a black polo shirt with the In 2003, CZW logo, while referee Brian Logan opted for a short sleeve or long sleeve black and yellow stripe referee shirt with matching shoes. In 2004, Nick Papagiorgio would take over as Senior Official. He would make a standard CZW referee attire. It consisted of new referee shirts with black and yellow stripes on the back and torso with solid yellow or black, in the case of referee Derek Sabato, on the sleeves and shoulders, and standard black slacks and shoes. In 2013, they switched once more to wearing yellow polo shirts with the updated CZW logo on the left chest. The shirt color would change from yellow to black in mid-2015. In 2015, CZW would purchase, but still brand events under, Women Superstars Uncensored (WSU). For events where both promotions have iPPVs, referees begin the night working the matches for WSU, wearing black polos with a WSU patch on the left breast, and then switch to the black CZW polos for the next half of the night. As of January 2016, CZW has gone back to using yellow polo shirts for CZW events. The only noticeable difference being the logo is now filled in with black (as opposed to the yellow of the shirt acting as the logos background.
Special referees wear themed versions of these; for example, if an attractive woman is cast as one, she would typically wear a skimpier version of a normal referee's shirt (as in the above photograph). Others may just add a referee-style shirt to their normal costume such as the case of Mick Foley, who wore a rumpled white dress shirt with black stripes painted on while arbitrating matches. In these cases, the emphasis is on the character temporarily assuming the referee's role.