TAMPA — As a lawyer and former chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, Michael Steinberg knows about winning and losing.
He learned the difference early, the hard way, as the worst professional wrestling referee the Bahamas had ever seen.
The promoter of a show scripted Steinberg, a University of Florida student at the time, as a referee with thick glasses. During a crucial point in a match, his eyewear “accidentally” was knocked off and the bad guy won.
“The crowd yelled at me that he cheated,” said Steinberg, a Tampa native. “And I pointed to my glasses and said I couldn’t see it so could not disqualify him.”
No one pays to watch the referees at big events like the pay-per-view “WWE Battleground” scheduled July 20 at the Forum. The main attraction is stars like John Cena, Randy Orton or Bray Wyatt.
Still, these scripted shows couldn’t happen without the crucial roles as supporting actors — and traffic cops — played by those who wear the black and white stripes.
“The villain is not a villain unless there is a referee trying to enforce the rules he is breaking,” said Christopher Daniels, a 21-year veteran of the professional wrestling industry performing for Ring of Honor. “Otherwise, he is just a guy performing moves.
“He needs the referee to try to stop him from cheating to get that part of the story over.”
If the referee is scripted to miss the rule infraction, it has to be believable.
For instance, the choreography of Steinberg’s glasses accident had to be timed perfectly. Otherwise, it would have ruined the illusion of professional wrestling as legitimate.
“Referees help suspend belief,” Steinberg said. “That is the experience the fans pay for.”
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The referees can add to the experience in fun ways, said Frank Reyes, who over his 32-year career has refereed for every major promotion, including the WWE. He now works for smaller promotions when they hold shows in Florida and teaches the art of professional wrestling at Independent Pro Wrestling Training Center in Riverview.
A classic gimmick, Reyes said, is for the referee to miss the villain illegally yanking his opponent to the mat by grabbing his hair.
The crowd will let the referee know he failed to catch the evil deed. Reyes will ask the villain if he cheated.
“When that wrestler denies it, the fans erupt,” Reyes said. “It’s one of those fun parts of the show that fans expect to happen. It makes them part of the match, which they enjoy.”
The referees are also the link between the television directors and the wrestlers.
Receiving orders through an earpiece, the referee conveys when commercial breaks are coming up or if a replay is being shown so the performers know the television focus has moved away from them.
Referees sometimes convey how much time is left so wrestlers can wind up their in-ring script. If a villain is on offense but scripted to lose, and only a few minutes remain, the referee will cue the good guy to mount his comeback.
And he needs to do it without anyone seeing.
“The best advice I can give a referee is to strive not to be noticed,” wrestler Daniels said.
“You want to get out of the wrestler’s way and give them the whole ring until your part comes up,” Reyes said.
Sometimes, Reyes said, playing his part perfectly brings violent reactions from the crowd.
In the late 1980s, he was refereeing a match between wrestlers known as Mark Starr and Chris Champion.
As he headed backstage after the match, a female fan slammed him in the head with the heel of her shoe, almost knocking him unconscious.
“She was not happy with the result. I can’t remember who won, but he must have cheated.”
In real life, the two wrestlers are brothers — Mark and Christopher Ashford-Smith. The fan was their mother.
“She didn’t like that her son got away with those tactics,” Reyes said. “They kept her in the dark that it was a show.”
Physicality is part of the ref’s job, too, Reyes said, so when he broke into the business referees got the same training as wrestlers.
“I don’t know how they do it now. But I’m glad I was taught that way. Without the right training, you can get seriously injured.”
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The 5-foot-7 Reyes has been scripted to take a beating from the likes of 6-foot-6, 250-pound Jake “The Snake” Roberts and the 6-foot-10, 300-pound hulk known as The Undertaker.
“It’s all part of the job,” Reyes said. “It’s the best job in the world.”
Referees often end up with the job because they have a passion for it but lack the physical presence to wrestle.
Reyes was a fan before he joined the game, never missing wrestling events held weekly at the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory in Tampa during the 1960s and 1970s when Tampa was the epicenter of professional wrestling in the South.
Then in 1982, Lawrence Simon — known to Tampa wrestling fans as “The Great” Malenko — was promoting a wrestling event to benefit the West Tampa Boys & Girls Club. Reyes’ son was active in the club.
When the referee failed to show, the director of the club asked Reyes to step in.
“He knew I was a huge fan so probably knew the rules,” Reyes said.
It was a time when professional wrestling portrayed itself as legitimate competition.
Reyes was among the believers.
“He told me the rules and said my job was to enforce them,” Reyes said. “If anyone cheated I was to disqualify them.”
He was a little intimidated as the scripted villains teased him.
“One rule was they had to break a chokehold by a five count. The wrestlers would wait right until five.”
Promoter Simon was impressed with Reyes and offered him a steady job. He told Reyes the truth about wrestling and sent him to his Tampa wrestling academy.
Steinberg, the lawyer, used his job as referee to help launch a law career. At the time, he was interested in entertainment law.
And he did end up representing wrestlers — but not as an entertainment lawyer. Rather, he helped them with disability claims.
“I think that means I picked the right career,” he said.