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A professional wrestling referee is the official figure that makes sure that wrestling matches move smoothly in an attempt to maintain kayfabe. The referee also has the ultimate power in the ring. It has been known for higher authority figures to reverse a referee's decision, often leading to what's known as a "Dusty Finish".
The kayfabe purpose of a pro wrestling referee is to render decisions (pinfalls, submissions, disqualifications, count outs) 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. Normally referees will be no more than six feet tall, weigh no more than 180lbs 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 weight, height and muscularity of some of the larger wrestlers (The Undertaker or The Great Khali) and to compensate for smaller stars (Rey Mysterio).
The "X" sign
Although professional wrestling is worked, real injuries can be sustained. In such an event, the referee raises his hand 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. On occasion in WWE, the "X" Sign has been used to signify storyline injuries, as well as legitimate ones. An example of this is during the 2006 Money in the Bank ladder match match at WrestleMania 22 when Matt Hardy suplexed Ric Flair from the top of the ladder, and the two referees, Jim Korderas and Mike Chioda, used the "X" sign.
After the X sign is given, the officials backstage will 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
Sometimes during matches, referees will be knocked down by wrestlers. This is usually to allow for a wrestler to use a foreign object or perform an illegal move, or for another wrestler to run in and be able to get away with it.
To emphasize the power and fortitude of the wrestlers, referees are frequently "knocked unconscious" for periods of time by moves that are not considered particularly devastating when applied to wrestlers. For example, a wrestler being Irish whipped by his opponent may clip the referee. While a wrestler would probably only be knocked back in this situation, the referee would most likely be knocked across the ring and kayfabe injured or knocked out.
As a general rule, professional wrestling referees will not make a decision based on anything they do not personally witness happening in a match. This is used to explain the ubiquitous "distract the referee" tactic, used by heel managers to take the referee's attention away from the in-ring action, allowing the heel wrestler to cheat with impunity while the official's back is turned, or vice versa.
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), 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 will often be biased towards or against one of the competitors or will be assigned as the Special Referee to ensure the match is called down the line. In September 1999, in the WWF, 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 doesn't 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 Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XIV, and Chuck Norris who served as Special Guest Enforcer at Survivor Series 1994 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 heels is to have a personal referee, who is on the permanent payroll of the heel. 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.
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 football. In the mid-1980s until 1995, a World Wrestling Federation referee's attire consisted of a blue collared shirt with black trousers, boots, and bow tie, similar to that of a boxing official. Beginning at WrestleMania XI, the uniform was changed back to the black and white striped shirt. With the WWE Brand Extension in 2002, referees appearing on WWE SmackDown began wearing blue striped polo shirts, differentiating themselves from the WWE 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.
In World Championship Wrestling, referees wore collared shirts with bow ties until around 1999, when they switched to striped shirts. In Extreme Championship Wrestling, 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.
In Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, referees switch between the striped shirts and the "boxing referee" attire on occasion.
In most territories of the National Wrestling Alliance, referees wear the traditional black and white striped shirts, many times with an NWA logo "official referee" patch on the left breast.
Special referees will of course wear 'themed' versions of these; for example, if an attractive woman is cast as one, she will 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. In these cases, the emphasis is on the character temporarily assuming the referee's role.