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Ask 411 Wrestling: When Did Earl Hebner Become WWE’s Top Ref?

December 12, 2021 | Posted by Ryan Byers
Survivor Series Montreal Screwjob Bret Hart Shawn Michaels Dark Side of the Ring, Bret Hart Earl Hebner Image Credit: WWE

Welcome guys, gals, and gender non-binary pals, to Ask 411 Wrestling. I am your party host, Ryan Byers, and I am here to answer some of your burning inquiries about professional wrestling.

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Lee in Liverpool is seeing double:

When did Earl Hebner become established as the main event referee in the WWF?

Earl made his WWF debut on the February 5, 1988 episode of the Main Event as part of the infamous “twin referee” angle that saw the WWF Championship stolen from Hulk Hogan and placed into the hands of Andre the Giant. Previously, he had been a ref for Jim Crockett Promotions.

Once Earl debuted, he took over refereeing duties from his brother Dave, who had been officiating for the Fed for several years prior. Dave remained a WWF employee but took on a backstage role and only rarely appeared in front of the camera for the rest of his time with the promotion. In fact, Earl refereed the main event of Wrestlemania IV in which Randy Savage defeated Ted DiBiase for the vacant WWF Title. However, the fact that the referee was Hebner or that the twins had been involved in the match that necessitated the title being vacated in the first place was never referenced as Savage and DiBiase were wrestling.

During Earl’s first several years of refereeing for the WWF, the company referred to him as Dave, presumably because from a storyline perspective it would not have made much sense for the company to employ a ref who took a bribe to screw up one of the biggest matches in company history. As time went by, they did eventually start to refer to Earl by his real name on commentary, with little explanation as to how he had been rehabilitated.

Lee Van Dam is hoisting us up into a backbreaker:

I recently watched the awesome Bruno Sammartino documentary and it mentioned that Buddy Rogers was led to believe that he would be retaining that night in1963. Not only that Bruno let it be known that he was going to be paid $3500 to lose to the figure four. Is this a case of the WWE rewriting history to fit their own agenda, or if true would this be considered the ‘original, original’ screwjob? (Obviously happening before the Wendi Richter debacle). Or is this just kayfabe? What is the real story here?

In 1997, Bruno did an interview with a now-defunct newsletter called Wrestling Perspective which was actually the first public conversation he had about wrestling in which he broke kayfabe. In that interview, his version of events was not that Roger was “screwed” in the sense that he was told he would be retaining the championship. Instead, Sammartino reported that the Nature Boy was simply not given a finish to the match before he headed to the ring, with Bruno being the one who gave him the message after they stepped between the ropes.

In those days, it was not completely unheard of for finishes to be communicated that way, so it’s difficult for me to call this one a “screwjob,” even though Rogers did not know what was going to happen in advance.

This is corroborated somewhat in the April 30, 2018 Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which contains the second half of a two-part obituary of Sammartino. It states that the notion that Bruno shot on Rogers was “obviously not the case.”

For what it’s worth, some have pointed to the 48-second duration of the match as evidence that it was a shoot, but the reality is that all of Rogers’ matches in the weeks leading up to the bout were either brief or were tag matches in which he would only enter the ring for short bursts. This in part supports a story that Rogers has long told about his suffering a heart attack shortly before the bout, though readily available ring results disprove the part of Rogers’ tale in which he was pulled from his hospital bed to wrestle Sammartino. He was wrestling at the time he was allegedly hospitalized.

So to recap: Yes, entirely possible that Roger didn’t know the finish of the Sammartino match before it started, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a screwjob. The brevity of the mach shouldn’t be taken to mean anything because all of Rogers’ in-ring performances around the time were quickies because of his poor health.

Tyler from Winnipeg has a long-lost brother:

Who is Barry Orton?

Barry Orton was a professional wrestler who was the son of Bob Orton, Sr., the younger brother of Bob Orton, Jr., and the uncle of Randy Orton. He was active in the ring from roughly 1976 through 1991.

His birth name was actually Randal Berry Orton, meaning that he shared his first name with his now more famous nephew. Also of note regarding his name is that the middle name was in fact spelled “Berry” with an “e” instead of “Barry” with an “a” according to his obituary in the in the March 29, 2021 Wrestling Observer Newsletter. The unconventional spelling came from the fact that his father named him after Wild Red Berry, a wrestler who was primarily active in the 1930s and 1940s.

Also noted in the obituary was the fact that he was trained by Bob Roop with assistance from Tully Blanchard, with the other wrestler that they trained at the same time being one Tito Santana. Barry began his career in Central States Wrestling, the territory based in the Ortons’ home state of Missouri. He spent the 1970s bouncing around between many territories of the era, including those in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Georgia, and the Pacific Northwest.

He was mostly a lower card wrestler in the territories, though he occasionally broke through and won a championship, including the NWA Americas Tag Team Titles, the top tag championship in the Los Angeles territory, with Hector Guerrero and the ICW Southeastern Tag Team Titles with his brother Bob in the Memphis-based territory run by the Poffo family.

Ultimately with help from Bob, who was already established as a star there, Barry got a job with the WWF. His debut with the Fed came on February 23, 1985, getting tossed out of a battle royale that was ultimately won by Barry Windham. He was never really acknowledged as being part of the Orton family, and he never rose above the level of being a glorified enhancement talent. Probably his most prominent role in the company – which is not very prominent at all – was standing in the background of the music video for “Land of a Thousand Dances” off of The Wrestling Album.

Barry O’s first run with the WWF came to an end as a result of legal troubles. In 1986, he made the terrible mistake of getting behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated. There was an accident, and one of his passengers died. According to a 2006 interview that Barry gave to Slam Wrestling, the WWF did not want the younger Orton to be associated with them under those circumstances, so he packed his bags and started working for Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, donning a mask and becoming the “Zodiac,” a variation on a gimmick that Bob Orton Sr. had used during his career. As Zodiac, Barry was aligned with wrestler Karl Moffat, who wore a hockey mask and competed as “Jason the Terrible.” The two men did a veiled satanist gimmick and were regular opponents of Stampede’s North American Champion at the time, Owen Hart.

As an aside, I’ve seen some sources (including Barry’s Wikipedia page for some reason) state that, in 1988, Barry teamed with his brother Bob Orton Jr. in New Japan, wearing masks and competing as the Gaspar brothers. However, that is not true. Bob Orton was in NJPW as a Gaspar brother at that time, but his partner was Karl Moffat – yes, the former Jason the Terrible – and not Barry. Barry couldn’t have been in New Japan in 1988 because, in 1988, Barry was in prison. According to the aforementioned Slam Wrestling article, while he was still wrestling in Stampede, Barry took his attorney’s advice and accepted a plea deal in the criminal case that resulted from his fatal DUI accident. He was in prison for just shy of two years, and he would have been in for even longer had he not been granted parole.

Once he paid his debt to society, Barry O went back to the WWF and picked up where he left off, regularly losing to names like Haku and even the Brooklyn Brawler. In one interesting matchup from this run, he did face Tito Santana, the man who trained alongside him to be a professional wrestler, in a match taped for Wrestling Challenge on August 28, 1990. Barry’s time as a WWF regular came to an end in the fall of 1990, though he did work two more days of TV tapings for the Fed in March 1991, when they were set up in Nevada, where Orton had been living. In between, Orton did work on one television taping for Herb Abrams’ UWF in December 1990.

And this is where we get to the somewhat uncomfortable topic that has come to define Barry O’s time in professional wrestling. On February 15, 1992, he went on a radio show called Wrestling Insiders, which was hosted by Mike Tenay in Las Vegas and made the claim that certain WWF executives, particularly Terry Garvin, would give wrestlers better opportunities if the wrestlers would perform sexual favors for the executives. (This is all transcribed in the March 2, 1992 Wrestling Observer.) Orton alleged that Garvin repeatedly attempted to coerce him to perform sex acts on the older wrestler when the two were working together in Texas in 1978, but that was obviously many years before Barry came to the WWF, and to my knowledge he never claimed that he was the target of similar advances in the Fed. This came out at the same time that ring boys employed by the WWF made allegations of sexual impropriety against Garvin, as well as Pat Patterson and Mel Phillips. Orton would go on to tell versions of his story on mainstream television shows like Donahue, Geraldo, and Larry King.

That was, essentially, the end of Barry Orton’s professional wrestling career, as he had only two more matches that I could find record of. One of those was in 1993 against Louie Spicolli, and his last stand came in 2011 when he appeared in a legends battle royale on a Pro Wrestling Guerrilla show which also included his brother Bob.

After he left professional wrestling, Orton did some acting and stunt work, with six credits on IMDB under the fake name “Barrymore Barlow.” The most prominent project he was involved in was the 1992 movie Honeymoon in Vegas, where he had an uncredited bit part as a boxing manager.

Orton ultimately passed away in March of this year at the age of 62, with the cause of death never having been released publicly to my knowledge.

Night Wolf the Wise just can’t take it anymore:

How many times in wrestling history has a match been stopped or almost stopped because it was too violent?

None that I’m aware of, unless you’re counting situations in which a match is stopped due to legitimate injury – which I doubt you are.

APinOZ is ramping it up:

In the mid-1980s, WWF rings were more or less uniform for every house show, with red, white and blue ropes and dark blue turnbuckles. Except for Toronto. The Maple Leaf Gardens shows had a different ring, with black ropes and turnbuckles and the ramp that led to the ring at the same height as the ring itself. It was a far more NWA-style ring set-up. Why was this?

Maple Leaf Gardens had been a pro wrestling venue going back to the early 1930s, with the Tunney family promoting shows in the arena until they sold their territory to the WWF in the 1980s, which was the same deal that resulted in Jack Tunney becoming the figurehead president of the World Wrestling Federation. Because wrestling had been such a staple at the building, there was an existing ring that just stayed at the venue full-time. That’s the one that you saw the Fed using at those house shows, presumably because it saved them money when compared to transporting a different setup to Toronto.

Regarding the ramp, that was another part of Toronto wrestling history. This blog post from a website dedicated to old school Ontario wrestling says that the ramp was first installed in the 1950s as a means of creating separation between heel wrestler Nanjo Singh and fans who wanted to do him great bodily harm. The WWF’s continued use of the ramp into the 1980s appears to be a case of the promotion just giving Toronto fans what they had become used to over the years.

Jeremy knows what’s best for business:

Does Vince McMahon ever become a mark for his own product/wrestlers? Or has he always been able to see the bottom line?

By and large, my impression is that Vinnie Mac’s decisions about what talent to push are legitimately based on what he feels will make his promotion the most money, even when other people have disagreed with his assessment or when he has objectively been proven wrong.

Probably the closest that I would say McMahon has come to “marking out” for one of his wrestlers would be his relationship with Shawn Michaels in the 1990s. Yes, Shawn was an excellent in-ring performer and turned himself into a star among professional wrestling fans. However, he was reportedly a terror backstage, refusing to lose matches that by all rights he ought to have, making sure his friends got pushed, and sabotaging the careers of other talent.

This is the sort of thing that you would not normally expect Vince to tolerate, but, for whatever reason, he pandered to Michaels quite a bit or at the very least did not bring the hammer down on him as hard as he may have with other talent at other times. He also did this despite the fact that, even though Michaels was one of the biggest stars on the roster, it’s not as thought he biggest stars on the roster meant all that much to the company’s business. Revenue was in the toilet around this period, and yet Michaels’ antics were tolerated as though the sky was going to fall without him on the card.

Jon enjoys a good ranking:

Feel free to address these at your leisure and not all at one time…

Mt. Rushmore of:

I’ve got enough questions in the old backlog that I’m going to knock these all out in a rapid fire fashion because, frankly, any one of these could be a full column unto itself.

That said, here are the things Jon wanted to see me Rushmore. All of these are listed in no particular order.

Wrestling venues

Madison Square Garden, Arena Mexico, Korakuen Hall, Mid-South Coliseum

Set designs

WWF Smackdown “Fist” Set (introduced August 2001), Wrestlemania XX, All Japan Women Big Egg Wrestling Universe, WCW Halloween Havoc 1998

Wrestlers succeeding outside of wrestling

The Rock, Jesse Ventura, El Santo, Antonio Inoki

Light heavyweight/cruiser weights

Danny Hodge, Tiger Mask, Jushin Liger, Rey Misterio Jr.

Wrestling journalists

Bill Apter, Dave Meltzer, Wade Keller, Bryan Alvarez

Wrestlers turned managers

Bobby Heenan, Freddie Blassie, Lou Albano, JJ Dillon

Wrestlers turned announcers

Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura, Gorilla Monsoon, Jerry Lawler

Real life executives

Toots Mondt, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, Salvador Lutteroth, Antonio Inoki

On screen GMs

Vince McMahon, Jack Tunney, Eric Bischoff, Paul Heyman

Stiffest workers

Aja Kong, Stan Hansen, Vader, Katsuyori Shibata

Backstage leaders

Vince McMahon, Antonio Inoki, Giant Baba, Rikidozan

Most hated backstage

Ultimate Warrior, Vince Russo, Sid, Lex Luger

Most shocking moments on screen

Twin Hebners angle on the Main Event, Vince McMahon on WCW Nitro, Jerry Lawler slaps Andy Kaufman on Letterman, Mick Foley’s Hell in a Cell bumps

Most shocking real life moments

Owen Hart dies, Chris Benoit kills his wife and child, Jimmy Snuka allegedly kills a woman, Arn Anderson/Sid scissor fight

That will do it for this week’s installment of the column. We’ll return in seven-ish days, and, as always, you can contribute your questions by emailing [email protected]. You can also leave questions in the comments below, but please note that I do not monitor the comments as closely as I do the email account, so emailing is the better way to get things answered.