This pro-wrestling ref has fans all of his own

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L-R Zack Sabre Jr puts Akira Tozawa in a submission hold, Rick Knox offers Tozawa the tap. Credit

Going to Reseda’s Pro Wrestling Guerilla is a tailgating experience. Fans line up with lawn chairs and coolers in the shade and rave about who got powerbombed at the last show. Often, it’s senior referee Rick Knox that they’re talking about. He’s been doing this for 20 years.

“I like that he gets more messed up than any other ref ever,” says Shayna Baszler. Baszler and her friend Colleen Schneider are MMA fighters who snag front row tickets to every PWG show. They’ve seen Knox get hit with trashcans, “superkicked” in the face and thrown out of the ring. Schneider says Knox is “a total badass about it.”

If Rick Knox is a willing participant in the violence, it’s because he has always been a fan. Growing up in Riverside, CA, Knox says he admired icons Ric Flair and Bret Hart, but also referees Tommy Young and Johnny “Red Shoes” Dugan. In his youth, Knox self-published the punk-n-wrestling fanzine Positive Reaction, and tried to become a wrestler, himself.

L-R Zack Sabre Jr and Akira Tozawa are urged by Rick Knox to take the fight back into the ring. Photo: Mikey Nolan
L-R Zack Sabre Jr and Akira Tozawa are urged by Rick Knox to take the fight back into the ring. Photo: Mikey Nolan

I just kinda fell into a local school: The School of Hard Knocks in San Bernardino. And I realized that I was not cut out to be a wrestler after I saw, up close, what ‘bumping’ was really like. ” admits Knox, referring to the practiced ability to take a slam into the mat. While he wasn’t cut out for Shoulder Breakers and Samoan Drops, he could stay involved as a referee without getting as beat up.

In professional wrestling, a sport where rules are routinely broken, referees are as much performers as they are officiators.

Some companies emphasize technical, athletic matches, while others play up shambolic antics and bloody violence. “Sometimes it is your job to make sure all the rules are being adhered to, and sometimes it’s your job to make sure that they can get away with stuff,” says Knox.

Heels (villians) the Young Bucks put Rick Knox in a piledriver
Heels (villians) the Young Bucks put Rick Knox in a piledriver. Photo: Mikey Nolan

In addition to providing three-counts for pinfalls, and keeping his eyes open for injuries and tap outs, a referee’s job is also to communicate action and storyline to the fan. “He’s the law-and-order that conveys what’s allowed, what’s legal, what’s not,” says PWG co-promoter Excalibur. “It’s just like acting in anything else,” says Knox. “You try to put a spin on it, make faces, turn around, go blind, whatever.”

Fans and wrestlers love Knox so much that they wear t-shirts that say “Rick Knox: Maximum Referee” (the WWE’s Sami Zayn has been seen sporting one on TV).

Several fans said that the ref walks a fine line between “making themselves invisible” so as not to interfere with the match visually, and knowing when to get involved and help illustrate the drama of a fight.

L-R Rick Knox talks Roderick Strong through a submission hold by Zack Sabre Jr. Photo: Mikey Nolan
L-R Rick Knox talks Roderick Strong through a submission hold by Zack Sabre Jr. Photo: Mikey Nolan

Knox’s popularity with the fans as a “face” (good guy), is so established that “heels” (villains) periodically assault him to advance their own reputations. Knox recalls being in the ring with then-champion Kyle O’Reilly, when upstart Roderick Strong burst into the ring with a chair and attacked them both, breaking Knox’s arm. Strong’s popularity grew and he went on to become champion.

Knox knows that wrestling has a stigma that it’s just a show, that it’s all fake. However, as part of the show, Knox has seen the realities of wrestling and says the sport deserves more respect. “These guys are putting their bodies on the line every night,” he says. “What I like to bring is a high impact style of officiating that just brings legitimacy to pro wrestling. “