In four years as a professional wrestling referee, Richard White has learned more than a few secrets of the trade: 1. Never acknowledge the taunts and insults hurled by the fans outside the ring. 2. Be on guard for the fists, kicks and foreign objects (a championship belt, a screwdriver) slung by the wrestlers inside the squared circle. 3. Don’t try to break up a four-woman tag-team melee. 4. Always, always wear black underwear.

That last one was a lesson hard-learned a few months ago when, in the middle of a match, White leapt across the mat to get in position for a potential pin-fall and suddenly felt a cool draft and a couple hundred pairs of eyes on his posterior as his pants split “right up the middle of my ass.” That’s why tonight, White waits in the wings of the Green Ridge High School gymnasium wearing his zebra-striped shirt, Asics wrestling shoes and durable, double-stitched Dickies work pants.

The bell rings, signaling the end of the opening match of this Saturday-night fight card put on by World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Famer Harley Race’s World League Wrestling. Tonight’s event is a fundraiser for the school’s Family, Career and Community Leaders of America group. Green Ridge is a remote farming community in western Missouri. About half of the town’s 476 people are scattered in the bleachers and in rows of folding metal chairs on the hardwood around the ring at center court. And at least half of the crowd is currently heckling Air Raid, a masked heel (wrestling parlance for villain) billed as a Londoner who was just felled by Rex, a chalky, tatted-and-goateed native. It’s not long after Election Day, and this is Trump country.

White lives wrestling, has since he was a kid bouncing around his parents’ living room imitating the great WWE gladiators of the early 2000s. Now he wants more than anything to stand between those TV titans, to share their global stage, count them out and raise their hands in victory. Tonight is just another audition.

From the ring, Rex taunts his vanquished foe, who lingers among the ringside seats on his way back to the locker room. Rex claps his hands and starts to chant, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

This crowd is an easy sell.

U-S-A! U-S-A!

“Shut up!” says Air Raid from beneath his luchador mask in a hard Midwestern twang. While the audience is distracted by their patriotic duty, they hardly notice Marty, White’s rotund understudy who just officiated his first-ever match, shuffling quickly off the floor, black boxer shorts exposed by the torn crotch of his cheap slacks.

White has little time to be proud of his protégé as the ring announcer quickly heralds the next match between “Yoga Monster” Mike Sydal and Superstar Steve.

“First,” booms the emcee over the PA, “introducing your referee to control the chaos, the one, the only Richard. Herman. White.”

White, pale and lean, emerges from backstage and into the bright fluorescent lights. He lives wrestling, has since he was a kid bouncing around his parents’ living room imitating the great WWE gladiators of the early 2000s. Now he wants more than anything to stand between those TV titans, to share their global stage, count them out and raise their hands in victory. Tonight is just another audition. White knows that the WWE-connected Race (see photo below) is watching from a wheelchair by the door. Some of the wrestlers he’ll work with tonight might one day get the call to move up to the big time. And you never know who might be in the audience, even in this tiny gym miles from the middle of nowhere.

There is no entrance music for White. There are no cheers. The 27-year-old referee with a receding blond buzz cut and a patchy beard walks stiffly down the aisle toward the ring in silence.

On his best day, a pro wrestling referee is invisible. His job, ostensibly, is to enforce the rules of the ring, to make sure no one cheats, no one gets (really) hurt, to count to 3 and declare a winner. Peek behind the curtain of kayfabe (industry jargon for wrestling’s scripted characters, plotlines and events), and the ref is just a bit player in this full-contact pageant of greased muscle, garish spandex and hyperbole—never meant to shine alongside the superstars.

That said, the officiator makes for a convenient prop and plot device. He is often distracted by a ringside manager, valet or tag team partner, turning his back while a metal chair or a third-party interferer is introduced and shenanigans ensue. Sometimes he is “accidentally” knocked unconscious by an errant punch or collision, as White was at a show last week, leaving the combatants free to trade blows with a set of brass knuckles. Other times he’s even the target, like the time White disqualified a tag team for outside interference and they responded with a double super kick to White’s fuzz-covered chin.

Even when he makes it through a relatively clean match, unscathed by the wrestlers and the spotlight, the man in the black-and-white stripes is still an easy mark for the fans. If professional wrestling is an elaborate satire of the struggle between good and evil, babyface (hero) and heel, then referees often elicit our basest emotions toward the authority caught in the middle: bumbling, aloof and ultimately incompetent. And if you think baseball umpires, football zebras and the guys with the whistles in basketball get an earful from their sports’ respective fan bases, try watching an official in a game that’s always rigged against them.

Not two minutes have elapsed in White’s first Green Ridge match before he hears it from the heel (Ref! You gonna do your job? Did you not see him pulling my hair?), the babyface (Are you going to count him out?) and the fans:

Ref, that was horrible!

Get him back in the ring!

Why can’t you count faster?!

White appears unfazed. “I try to play dumb as much as possible,” he had joked before the match. “I have been playing dumb about everything my whole life. So I’m well practiced.”

The instructor executed a back body drop, tossing White over his shoulder and onto his tailbone. Leland repeated the move, and White repeated the mistake, this time landing on his head. “It jarred his body and his mind,” says Leland. Later that day White approached his teacher and said “I think I want to try and be a referee.”

White’s hide is thick from a lifetime of being the butt of the joke. Growing up outside of Kansas City, White was always the runt. “I was picked on a lot,” he says. “I was always the small kid in school.”

Even when he spurted up to 5-foot-9 in high school, he didn’t get the chance to prove himself in sports because, he says, his grades were never good enough—another focus of ridicule.

At home, White quietly found his passion in professional wrestling. Even when his parents initially forbade the young teen from witnessing the violence and scantily clad Divas, White would beg to tune in for the TV shows following the weekly WWE broadcasts, so he could catch the last few minutes. He idolized Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho and Daniel Bryan—guys who were not necessarily the biggest and strongest but the hardest workers en route to championship glory.

After high school and two years wandering the halls of community college half-heartedly following his father’s dream of him being a businessman, White decided it was time to chase his own ambitions in the ring. “I figured if I made it work, great,” says White. “And if not, at least I tried.”

In May of 2013, White scraped together $3,000 of saved wages from working at Lowe’s and enrolled in the Harley Race Wrestling Academy in Troy, Missouri, about 30 minutes north of St. Louis. Race had trained a few pros like the WWE’s Trevor Murdoch and wrestling royalty like the sons of “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat.

White’s incoming classmates each outweighed him by almost 100 pounds of muscle. “He walked in 130 pounds soaking wet,” says Leland Race, Harley’s son and the head trainer at the academy. “A guy his size, with his frame, the odds of him making it are slimmer than what most would be.”

White’s size deficit was almost as great as that of his skills. “He did a lot of stuff wrong,” says Leland. “There are certain things you have to do that he was doing backwards. But for the life of me, he did not give up.”

White studied hard, watched YouTube videos and chatted up other wrestlers for tips. In the ring, he took his lumps, including a practice match against a 220-pound classmate who pulverized the wiry youth. But White showed up the next day, just the same.

“Don’t say it’s fake,” says White. “Don’t talk shit if you’ve never done it.”

Finally, after a few months, it came time to face off against Leland himself. The instructor executed a back body drop, tossing White over Leland’s shoulder and onto his tailbone. Leland repeated the move, and White repeated the mistake, this time landing on his head. “It jarred his body and his mind,” says Leland.

Later that day White approached his teacher and said “I think I want to try and be a referee.”

For the past year, due mostly to the promotion’s tight finances, White has been the WLW’s only referee, roasting in the heat of the ring lights for up to seven matches a night. Still, White’s cut is not enough to support himself. He’s taken on a new day job, as a corrections officer at the Northeast Correctional Center.

White says his fellow guards at the minimum-medium-security prison are mostly supportive of his moonlighting in the ring. However, he takes exception when any of them use the dreaded “f-word.”

“Don’t say it’s fake,” says White. “Don’t talk shit if you’ve never done it.”

To White, professional wrestling is very real—including the cuts and bruises he’s sustained, the ass-baring embarrassment he’s suffered and the dream of one day donning the stripes in the WWE.

White hopes that learning from a master like Harley Race, along with a good reference, might one day land him a full-time gig at the big time. Refs in WWE make upwards of six figures. Even the second-tier promotions, like Ring of Honor and TNA, offer a decent living. White would settle for anything that would enable him to quit the prison and ref full-time. Until then, all he can do is keep his head down and do his job “controlling the chaos” in Midwest gymnasiums like Green Ridge.

The Main Event tonight is a tag-team match pitting Leland Race and Superstar Steve (heels) versus the Yoga Monster and Kyle Roberts (faces). White is already on the crowd’s bad side for enforcing the previous match’s 15-minute time limit and calling a draw. Now he allows himself to be distracted multiple times, allowing Leland and Steve to double-team either of their rule-abiding opponents.

C’mon ref!

Leland distracts White yet again just as Roberts executes his finishing move, a modified pile driver, seemingly knocking Superstar Steve out. White slides in late and manages only a two-count before Steve raises his shoulder from the mat.

You gotta be kidding me!

Finally, the fight spills out onto the floor. From the back row, several grade-school girls mock White’s hand gestures as he slowly counts to 10, finally disqualifying both teams. The bell rings, and the crowd erupts with boos, largely directed at White, the only man left in the ring.

But then the ruckus rolls back into the squared circle. Superstar Steve and Leland are eventually laid out in the middle of the canvas as Roberts and the Yoga Monster climb to the top turnbuckles in opposite corners. The audience stands in anticipation, reaching a fever pitch just as the heroes exchange a quick glance at one another and leap simultaneously onto their foes—winning the audience if not the match. The babyfaces raise their hands and work the frenzied crowd.

No one notices that there are only four men in the ring. White has quietly slipped out amid the pandemonium, back to the shadows of the locker room, leaving the spotlight to the gladiators.

For tonight, anyway, his job is done.

Photos by Michael Thomas.

Learn more about author Tony Rehagen here.