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.
“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.