411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2010: Tommy Young
Professional wrestling referees have a thankless job. They are the link of communication between the wrestlers and the people backstage. Should an injury occur, the referees are responsible for keeping things under control. If booking is changed on the fly, it is the referee’s job to tell this to the wrestlers without being conspicuous. More importantly, they are charged with providing the illusion that what goes on in the ring is legitimate competition. They are the ones enforcing the arbitrary rules, counting how long shoulders are on the mat, and asking if a wrestler wants to give up. Despite being required to be athletic in order to keep up with the constant motion and to be intelligent enough to keep everything running smoothly, they have to act blind, deaf, and fragile so that the wrestlers can cheat and beat them up in order to brawl all over unhindered.
On one hand, you are never supposed to notice the referees; as a fan, you are supposed to be watching the wrestling. In that sense, they are trying to be invisible. On the other hand, if the referee is not doing his job, pretending to enforce the rules and making it seem like he is the law in the ring, the illusion is lost. A bad referee can make a wrestling match look even more hokey than a bad wrestler. It is like sound effects or music in movies; if the sound effects or music is bad, it ruins the movie, and if it isn’t there, it is not nearly as interesting. The same principle applies to refs. They are an essential piece of the puzzle; you would notice if there was not a referee in a wrestling match. But they never get proper credit.
Tommy Young performed the job of referee at such a level that no one could ever say a word of complaint for his performance. But in my opinion, it’s about time somebody acknowledged Tommy Young for being everything a referee should be.
Born July 9, 1947, Young started working for Jim Crockett Promotions (one of the biggest territories in the National Wrestling Alliance and precursor to World Championship Wrestling) in 1973. By the 1980’s, Tommy Young was the senior referee of the promotion. Being the head referee of Jim Crockett Promotions in the 1980’s was no small accomplishment. Starting with the first Starrcade, the company regularly provided supercard after supercard. At the top of the card was perennial world champion “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Whether he was facing Harley Race or Barry Windham, Ronnie Garvin or Terry Funk, Sting or Ricky Steamboat, the man in the blue shirt officiating his matches was usually Tommy Young. Being involved in some the most important title matches of all time and often making the final three count when the most prestigious wrestling belt changed hands was no small issue. Yet Tommy more than lived up the expectations of a ref in his position.
In 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1986, Tommy Young was voted the Referee of the Year. While most people would not notice him since he was usually officiating mat classics, anybody who paid attention knew that he deserved those awards. Young was more animated than most referees, often sliding like a baseball player in order to get into position to count quicker. When wrestlers bent the rules (and with Flair and the Horsemen involved, it was a common occurrence), Young would calmly but sternly give clear instructions to the wrestlers. If a performer took a particular vicious beating, Tommy would sell his shock and compassion, but never in an over the top way. Unlike Earl Hebnar or other famous referees, Young knew that he was not supposed to steal the show from the wrestlers, but to contribute to it. He understood that he was a bit player, not a star in his own right.
That’s not to say he was a doormat for wrestlers. He just didn’t yell out a bunch of desperate complaints or flail around like a madman. If he caught Ric Flair using the ropes, he would kick the hands off or forcibly break up the hold, but he would do it quickly and efficiently. If Flair decided to get in his face, Young would stand his ground. If Flair shoved him, he’d shove him back, point to his badge, and then point to Flair’s opponent. Oftentimes, Young would find himself on the receiving end of a flying opponent; in these cases he was right where he needed to be and took the bump in a believable way.
Tommy acted with authority; he was not going to be pushed around or bullied. He called it as he saw it and never apologized for his actions. He wasn’t a malicious or crooked ref; you couldn’t pay him to guarantee a title defense and whenever he made an unpopular call, it was justified. Even when the most popular challengers were seemingly robbed of their long overdue World Title victories, you could never fault Tommy or his decisions. Perhaps the best example of this aspect of Tommy Young was the famous match in Chicago, Illinois where Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat defeated Ric Flair to become the world champion. Here you can see the classic match, but if you can, pay attention to Tommy to see everything I have been talking about.
The ending to this match might seem like a standard referee bump finish, but there is a bit more significance to the booking. The last several years had seen countless “Dusty Finishes” in World Title matches involving Ric Flair. A referee (usually Tommy) would be knocked out during a match, and then wrestlers would interfere, or one of the competitors would be thrown over the top rope, or a foreign object would be used. A second ref would come down when the babyface got the heel champion into a pinning predicament and would count to three. Except then Young would point out how the rules had been broken, and the final result was that Flair retained the title.
The finish was so common that you could feel the tension as Flair and his cohorts tried to bully Young after the match. The fans knew that Young would reverse the decision and their dreams would be shattered again. Instead, Young held up Steamboat’s hand in victory. After all, The Dragon’s feet hadn’t touched the floor; there was no case to the be made. This is perhaps Tommy’s finest moment. He would referee their two-out-of-three falls match at Clash of the Champions VI as well as the match at Wrestle War ’89 where Flair won the title back. While Flair and Steamboat were giving us wrestling perfection, Young was giving us refereeing perfection. It was not just two artists in the ring; Tommy was right there with them.
Young’s career would hit a major stumbling block later in the year during a match between Tommy Rich and Mike Rotundo. The incident left him unable to move in the ring in a very scary situation. Here is footage of that match.
Despite severe damage to his back, Young would eventually return to refereeing. This would include a brief run in the World Wrestling Federation in the late 1990’s when the WWF entered an inter-promotional relationship with the then struggling NWA. Nowadays, the proud husband, father and grandfather often shows up at legends conventions to interact with fans who show him the respect he deserves. He even occasionally puts the referee’s shirt back on, especially when The Midnight Express and The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express want to renew their rivalry. Young most recently made an appearance at ROH’s second internet PPV “The Big Bang”, which took place in Charlotte, where Tommy now lives.
Tommy Young is the Gold Standard of referees. He was committed to his craft and elevated it to an art form; many other great referees such as Nick Patrick and Charles Robinson were heavily influenced by him. In an era where refs are often nameless, useless and sometimes detrimental to a match’s quality, we could all use Tommy Young. Somebody with his authority, class, and tireless effort to make every single match seem that much more important because of how he refereed it; that’s what makes Young special. Anyone aspiring to become a referee should watch tapes of Tommy Young and learn how to do it properly.
Why Tommy Young was selected…
Tommy Young is the first referee to be inducted into 411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame and that is simply because he was the very best. There will always be great debates about who the biggest draw was, who the best worker was, who the best announcer was, who the best manager was, etc. But Tommy Young is the greatest referee of all time, and frankly, his work was at such a level that it’s not even a close race. Today, Tommy gets his day in the sun, and we are honored to induct him 411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame. For his selfless dedication to performing a thankless job with the utmost excellence, we thank Tommy Young.