Tommy Young knew what his role was, and he did it better than perhaps anyone ever has in the business.
“Our job was to make the wrestler’s job easier. And I prided myself on that. I tried to do that as much as I could.”
When one talks about professional wrestling referees, the name Tommy Young is always near the top of the list.
Young, now 73, is widely regarded as one of the greatest striped shirts to ever step inside a squared circle.
It was in the Mid-Atlantic area working for Jim Crockett Promotions that Young made his biggest impact. From 1975 to his retirement in 1989, Young was the most recognized and sought-after referee in the territory, serving for most of that time as the organization’s senior official.
Young, though, wasn’t just your average referee.
He added his own unique wrinkles to a match. Sliding across the ring to make a count, the animated interaction with combatants, sprinkled with a little acting, were all vintage Tommy Young.
But he emphasizes he never tried to deflect the fans’ attention away from the match.
“I really never meant to bring all the (extra) stuff into it. It just evolved,” Young explains. “It was just one of those things. The name of the game in my case was hustle — diving over the guys and sometimes sliding completely out of the ring, and then doing some other things.”
One of his greatest attributes, he says, is that he knew how “to work with people.”
“I do think I made the matches easier for the vast majority of the wrestlers. There were a few guys that always gave me trouble, but there weren’t too many of them. If they didn’t like working with me, who were they going to like working with?”
Young worked thousands of bouts during his career, but perhaps is best known for officiating many of 16-time world champion Ric Flair’s greatest matches in the Mid-Atlantic territory during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
A fixture during the NWA heyday, Young served as the third man in scores of matches involving Flair and Ricky Steamboat, many of which were considered among the best of that era.
“They just complemented each other so well. Either guy could work with anybody," Young says. "They both had great matches with others besides each other. But it was magic when they worked with one another.”
Young, who has lived in Charlotte since 1976, is still in demand at various fan conventions and occasional guest refereeing gigs. “I really enjoy talking to the people. These folks are the ones that made us," he says. "They’re the ones that bought the tickets so we’d get our paychecks. I think too many of the guys forget that. I never will.”
And, he adds, he has no problem at all taking about the good old days.
“I’ll talk to anybody, sit down with them, have a beer with them, give them an autograph. I really do enjoy that.”
Young, whose real name is Thomas Machlay, has stepped back into the ring occasionally over the past two decades, but his appearances have been few and far between. A career-ending injury in 1989 put him on the sideline indefinitely.
He says he’ll never forget the days when pro wrestling was king in Charlotte.
“I miss it. But I loved it. It was my life for 15 years, and I’m very grateful for what I had.”
Like many of his fellow officials during that era, Young didn’t start out as a ref. He began his career as a grappler, although his time as a competitor was short-lived.
Young had faithfully followed wrestling as a youngster, but never had even an inkling that one day he would end up in the business.
The grappler who got him interested in wrestling was legendary heel Dick The Bruiser.
“Bruiser was the top heel in the Detroit area back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s," Young says. "He drew a lot of big houses in the old Olympia Auditorium. I was mesmerized by him, and never got a chance to referee him. I only got to meet him one time.”
Unhappy with his job at the time, Young saw an advertisement looking for prospective wrestlers.
“I never thought I’d be in wrestling. I liked it. I just wasn’t happy with my job. I saw an advertisement, and I went to Lou Klein’s gym. I had the money and went down there to give it a try.”
Training was a quick process — a much faster pace than Young had anticipated.
Young began training in 1973 at the veteran wrestler’s gym in Detroit. His first match was six months later.
“He smartened me up right away, which he probably shouldn’t have done,” says Young, quickly adding, “but then again if he hadn’t and they had beat the hell out of me, I would have run out of there with my tail between my legs. Tommy Young’s greatness would never have evolved.”
It didn’t take Young very long to realize that his talents could be much better utilized as an official.
“I was good at reffing, but I stunk at wrestling,” he readily admits.
Young began wrestling part-time at small spot shows in high school gyms and other small venues in the Midwest.
“I was never wrestling in the main buildings in Detroit or anything like that. I knew I wasn’t going to have much of a career there,” says Young.
One night in Canton, Ohio, he says, he was asked to fill in for a referee who didn’t show.
Young admits he had reservations about putting on the referee’s shirt. He had trained to be a wrestler, but knew very little about officiating.
“I had never tried it before and had never wanted to do it, but I did it. It was like slipping into the perfect shoe.”
Young, who started out working for Eddie Farhat (aka the Original Sheik) in the Detroit area, began working more and more as a referee.
He got his first big break when the newly formed IWA invited him to a TV taping in Savannah, Ga., in 1975.
“I was only supposed to go down there and do jobs for their opening TV in Savannah. The same thing happened. They didn’t have a ref, but they knew me from before because I had reffed in Ohio. They knew I could do it, I ran out and got a shirt, and the rest was history.”
Young got positive TV exposure in the IWA promotion.
The promotion, however, was short-lived. It was a blessing in disguise for Young, who had caught the eye of Mid-Atlantic booker George Scott, who enlisted his services for Crockett Promotions.
“The guys were all glad to see me. The other refs, of course, weren’t wild about me,” says Young.
It would be the beginning of a long and successful run that would last until 1989 when, while reffing a televised match between Tommy Rich and Mike Rotundo at Center Stage in Atlanta, Young suffered career-ending back and neck injuries.
He maintains that Rich was careless, and the accident could have been avoided.
“It’s right on the tape. He was supposed to shove me, he wasn’t supposed to trip me. He shoved me in the back and he’s stepping on my foot at the same time. It just screwed me all up. But it’s water under the bridge. It’s history.
“I had 15 great years. It’s not like it happened overnight. But I’m the only referee that ever got hurt like that.”
Choosing a favorite match out of the thousands Young has officiated is a tough task.
“There have been so many. But the one I really enjoyed, almost as much for its history and nostalgia, is when I refereed the two-out-of-three-fall match between Flair and Steamboat at the Superdome (in New Orleans in 1989).”
The reason that match stands out, says Young, is because a number of former NWA world champions were on hand for the event.
“I was star-struck. Everybody you can think of was there. The only guy that we really didn’t have that should have been there was Dick Hutton (world champion between Lou Thesz and Pat O’Connor’s reigns). Thesz and O’Connor were there, along with Buddy Rogers, Gene Kiniski, Dory Funk Jr. and Terry Funk, Jack Brisco, Harley Race. Now that was something.”
“And I was always honored to do any match between Steamboat and Flair,” says Young.
His one regret, he adds, was that he never got the opportunity to referee a Dory Funk Jr.-Jack Brisco match.
“I heard they had some of the greatest matches of all time. I never had the opportunity to ref one of their matches against each other. I always wanted to.”
Young also officiated the famous “I Quit” match between Flair and Terry Funk in 1989 in Troy, N.Y.
“That was a lot of fun. I loved working with Terry Funk and Flair. They had some of the funnest matches. Terry is one of my favorite people. I love that man to death.”
Flair, of course, is in a class of his own.
“He’s amazing ... the bumps that man has taken. He really is an amazing individual.”
“You can’t leave out Dusty Rhodes,” adds Young. “For what he did, and looking the way he did, and get over the way he did, was amazing. He got over like a son-of-a-gun.”
Each referee has his own style, says Young, but it takes experience to cultivate your own brand and make it mesh with a variety of wrestlers.
“You do it by feel. As you go along, you get to learn the different styles of the wrestlers. Every wrestler has a different style. You don’t ref any two matches the same way as a rule. Some things you do with some guys you can’t do with others. As you go along, it gets easier.
“I knew what Flair was going to do before he did. I’m sure it was the same with me as far as he was concerned. He’d grab a guy in an armlock and get near the ropes, and I knew I had to slide in underneath and ask the guy if he gave up. And Ric is already reaching right over top of me and grabbing that top rope. Other stuff you’d play by feel.”
Young also was quick to “sell” the wrestlers’ moves when the occasion warranted.
Whenever Big Swede Hanson would take a thunderous thud into the turnbuckle, forcing the entire ring to move off its foundation, Young always sold the move.
“It was a natural bump,” Young explains. “Nobody could hit that turnbuckle like Swede. Everybody loved it. I’d just go flying and take a bump across the ring. When I went to Florida, I started doing that with Dory Funk Jr. I just played it by feel. If the ring moved, I’d take the bump. But Swede hit it super hard. And the wrestlers loved it.”
Performers like Flair and Steamboat were a piece of cake. Others, like Abdullah The Butcher, were a whole different story.
“Any referee hated working with Abdullah. He doesn’t work with you. He’ll come in the ring with a gimmick the size of a sledgehammer, and you’ve got to act like you don’t see it. And then he doesn’t even try to hide it. A couple of times I just stood in the corner and watched him.”
Meanwhile, he says, the fans were screaming for Young “to do something.”
“I don’t know what to do. You want me to DQ him?” Young would ask the angry throng.
Young recalls a match in Greenwood, S.C., when Abdullah was on the ropes working over an opponent.
“I’m a physical referee. I was struggling with Abby. But even if I struggle full-strength, the guy weighed over 400 pounds. He bit me on the biceps and drew blood. I looked at my arm and couldn’t believe it.”
Young uttered a few unmentionable words to Abdullah before the match ended. Later backstage, Young told booker Dusty Rhodes what had happened.
“He did what?” an exasperated Rhodes asked Young, who showed him his bloody arm.
Rhodes then scribbled a note on a piece of paper, and told Young to relay the message to Abdullah.
“I give the note to Abby, and he says (reading from the note), “Abby: Do not bite my referee again!”
Both got a laugh out of it, and Abdullah never bit Young again.
Another time, recalls Young, IWA promoter Johnny Powers asked Young to wrestle a bear.
“They didn’t have anybody to wrestle the bear. It was 1973, and I was just breaking in.”
Young, whose job that night included driving veteran headliner Wild Bull Curry to the show, always brought his ring gear with him just in case his services were needed. And when the scheduled opponent for the bear didn’t make the show, Young got the nod.
The bear’s owner assured Young that the bear had a muzzle, and all Young had to do was roll around with the beast. He took Young to the basement to get an up-close look at his “opponent.”
“The bear was on a chain. He stood up, and I’m looking up kind of the way Stallone looked at Hogan in the Rocky 3 movie. This bear had to be seven-foot-tall. I’m thinking, ‘Jumping catfish!’ It must have weighed six or seven hundred pounds. This was a big bear.”
Young says he was getting dressed in his ring gear when Curry intervened.
“Johnny Powers asked me if I could wrestle the bear, and I told him OK,” Young told Curry.
Curry left the dressing room, came back a few minutes later and told Young: “You’re not wrestling that bear.”
“Apparently nobody wanted to wrestle the bear, so they ended up getting volunteers from the audience to get in the ring with that bear. I was going to wrestle the bear, but I guess Bull saved me.”
Young is quick to praise the many capable referees he has worked with over the years. Among those include Earl and David Hebner, Teddy Long, Nick Patrick, Scrappy McGowan, Zack Murray and the late Ron West.
“There were a lot of good referees,” he says. “I’m also a big fan of Mike Chioda.”
One of his favorites is veteran WWE referee Charles Robinson.
“That thing that Charles did with The Champ (Flair) was something. That was impressive,” he laughs, alluding to Robinson’s “Little Naitch” gimmick in WCW in 1999.
“I told him, ‘You and I have got something on each other. You never got to work with The Champ in his prime, and I never got a chance to do anything like you did with him!’”
“The very best,” Robinson says of his mentor. “He taught me everything I know but unfortunately not everything he knows!”
“Tommy’s the guy that I watched, told me what to do, taught me how to do the slide and how to react,” Robinson adds.
Robinson also got his early cue from Young that everything a referee does inside the ring should mean something.
“I learned so much from him. Just his in-ring mannerisms and his treating it as a real sport. Sometimes we forget to do that. And sometimes we’re asked to do stuff that makes no sense. Tommy made it all believable.”
“Definitely on the Mount Rushmore of refs if not front and center. And a great guy to learn from. Love Tommy!” chimed in veteran referee Jimmy Korderas.
“Most guys do not want to stay refs,” says Young. “You can’t make any real big money. That’s for sure. But I knew as a referee that I stood out and I was going to have work. I stood out and I had enough brains to realize that God had given me a gift, and I was going to take advantage of it.”
Young says he especially liked refereeing tag-team matches, and bouts with managers added even more flavor to the proceedings.
“For fluidity, the best team I ever saw was the Anderson Brothers. Their work ethic and the way they got their heat made them great. They never buried the referee. Everything they did made sense. They were the best team I ever reffed, and that’s saying a lot.
“The best series of matches I ever reffed, without a doubt, was The Midnighters and The Rock ‘N Rollers. And it drew so much money. The little girls loved Ricky and Robert. Ricky was one helluva performer.”
And, of course, manager Jim Cornette made those matches even better, he says.
“Tommy Young is one of my favorite people. At one point he was the fourth member of The Midnight Express,” joked Cornette. “Bobby Eaton, Dennis Condrey and I, and later Bobby, Stan Lane and I, didn’t travel with a lot of people. We always traveled with ourselves. But Tommy was always, more often than not, in the car. He was the fourth Midnight Express member because we loved him to death. We loved him as a referee. We had our squabbles. We were both persnickety in our own way, but I wouldn’t have traded our time together for anything.”
“You made so many of our great matches classics,” Cornette told Young on his podcast. “You made so much of our road time entertaining. And you still remain to me the gold standard of what a professional wrestling referee should be. You were the greatest in your genre of all time.”
Young says being a good ref — not just a competent one — was part of the job description. In his case, he wanted to be the best possible ref he could be. The fact that the job isn’t the most glamorous one in the profession didn’t bother him.
And injuries, even the one that ended his career, were risks that everyone who stepped inside the squared circle took.
“How much credit can I get? It’s part of your job to try and the make the matches as good as you can. I feel I got the credit because I was paid. Even in Tommy’s (Rich) case, it was an accident, but it was a careless accident. It shouldn’t have happened. But this is not heaven. Things aren’t always going to be the way you want them to be. I feel I got enough recognition. How far can a referee go? I feel I made refereeing about as popular as you can make it.”
Young says he always appreciated the respect shown to him by his colleagues and even, in many instances, the fans.
“A referee can do so much to help the match. I used to love coming out from behind the curtain or behind the door, and when they’d see me, they’d say, ‘Oh, we got the good referee tonight.’ You might love me, you might hate me, but you’re not going to be bored. There’s going to be action.”
‘The best ever’
Young was particularly a favorite among the Mid-Atlantic wrestling audience who loved his unique style, including what became known as the “Tommy Young” slide, along with the many great Ric Flair matches he officiated.
He says he particularly enjoyed doing shows in Charleston.
“I had tons of fun in Charleston. Charleston was one of the easiest places to work. I remember before they remodeled it, (promoter) Henry (Marcus) had so many doggone buckets out there, you’d think it was raining harder inside that out. One time I remember he actually made an announcement asking folks not to run around so much, that he didn’t want anyone falling and getting sued,” Young laughs.
A number of fans recently expressed on social media just how much they appreciated the affable referee.
“No referee has ever done it better than Tommy,” said Brandon Spec Lyles of Spartanburg.
“He is the GOAT for way too many reasons to count … The cadence of his pinfall count was flawless as a southpaw. His timing was impeccable, and he had the unique ability to accentuate the positives of the wrestlers in the ring while not making it about himself. Tommy is the best to ever do it, and there really isn't anyone even close to him.”
“For my money he was the best there ever was,” agreed Rick Rourke of Charleston. “I remember him being as entertaining as some of the wrestlers with his mannerisms. He wasn’t afraid to take a bump and would slide across the ring to make a three count. Another thing he did one time I noticed while watching a Nikita (Koloff) match on YouTube; he looked utterly horrified when Nikita hit a sickle on Sam Houston I think one time. He sold the spots almost as good as the wrestlers themselves. Very believable in his craft.”
“I’ve been a fan of Tommy since 1985 when watching NWA World Wide Wrestling via cable TV from the UK,” wrote Halil Nedim of the United Kingdom. “I was copying his trademark baseball slide in school when I was about 11. He set the golden standard of a wrestling referee. The man is a legend and voice of reason when it comes to refereeing. For me he is the GOAT.”
“The best. He knew when to get involved and not to over-do it. He was tough and quick and had a great look for a referee,” wrote Jim Varsallone of Christmas, Fla.
“I hated him when I was a kid,” commented John Fell of Baltimore. “I always felt he cost the hero the match. He would get knocked down or miss something the villain was doing. As an adult and understanding the nature of how things were done, I feel he is without a doubt the best ever.”
“The best ever,” agreed John Hitchcock of Greensboro, N.C.
“No one better in a striped shirt than Tommy Young!” wrote Bill Knight of West Deptford, N.J.
“A fantastic guy in and out of the ring with extraordinary skills,” posted Bruce Owens of Miami.
“Tommy was great. He did a lot to make me believe as a kid at ringside. It was all the little things at all the right times that quelled my disbelief,” said Jeremy Vain of Danielsville, Ga.
"Tommy Young is the best ever! Thank you Tommy for your contributions to some of the greatest most entertaining matches ever,” wrote John Smith of Charleston.
Not one of the best. The best,” posted Steve Adkins of Elloree.
Born to ref
Some folks were meant to be lawyers, some doctors, some athletes.
Tommy Young says he was meant to be a pro wrestling referee.
“Wrestling gave me everything. I am so grateful to this profession because I’m not that smart a guy. I’m not going to tell you I am. I’ve got a computer, and I don’t even know how to use the thing. And I’m getting dumber as I get older.”
Joking aside, Young remains one of the most popular referees in the game, despite the fact that he has not been a full-time referee for nearly 30 years.
“I owe everything I’ve got to wrestling. It gave me a sense of notoriety. I got to be a mini-celebrity,” says Young.
“I do think, to a degree at least, that I revolutionized refereeing. I feel I certainly brought more athleticism into it. And it wasn’t a conscious thing. It was just something that happened. I knew that it was entertainment, and I thought I’d help as much as I could. If you really look at it, I’m a failed wrestler. I’m a guy that just fell into refereeing by accident.”
Would he do it all over again?
“For God’s sake, yeah,” says Young. “I’d never change anything. I’d do it all again. I wouldn’t be anywhere near as good at anything as I could be at this. This was a gift from God. I don’t mean to sound conceited, but I do feel that I was the best referee this business had. Not many people can say that. I don’t know that I would have been good at anything else. But for some reason, refereeing was right up my alley.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His latest book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com
Did you know …
Five years before The Freebirds invaded World Class Wrestling in Texas for a lengthy and successful feud with the Von Erichs during the early mid-1980s, one member of the famed trio was already well known to locals.
Buddy Roberts (Dale Hey) had wrestled for the same Dallas-based promotion as “Dale Valentine,” billed as kin to Johnny and Greg Valentine. Under this ring alias, Roberts periodically squared off against territorial regulars like Gino Hernandez and Bruiser Brody. Roberts employed the same gimmick during prior runs in other territories. For his celebrated tenure as a Freebird, he was inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2016.
— Kenneth Mihalik
Blast from the Past
After a year of learning the ropes, Hawaiian-born Don Muraco, tall and athletic, brought a beach/surfing vibe to the mainland when he was recruited to the American Wrestling Association (AWA) in the early 1970s for what became a two-year stay. As a fan favorite against both established veterans (Larry Hennig, Ivan Koloff, etc.) and soon-to-be icons like Dusty Rhodes and Superstar Billy Graham, he performed admirably during this important career phase.
He then gravitated to warmer territories – California, Georgia, Texas and Florida – where he continued his professional climb. During his stints in Florida, he even had matches versus visiting WWWF champions Graham and Bob Backlund. As he grew in experience and became even more physically imposing, the “Magnificent” Muraco shifted to the heel side of the mat game by the end of the decade.
Arriving in the WWF, Muraco captured the Intercontinental championship, and was positioned as a cocky ring villain in main events against the likes of former Florida tag partner Pedro Morales, and an extremely torrid program against ex-AWA mate Jimmy Snuka. Muraco’s 1983 battle with Snuka in Madison Square Garden gained legendary status for the Magnificent One on the receiving end of an epic “Superfly splash” by his arch-rival, delivered from atop a steel cage. That match left an indelible mark on the memories of all who witnessed the bout. Though Muraco would eventually lose the IC belt to Tito Santana, he continued to challenge for WWF gold during Hulk Hogan's initial run as the company’s titleholder. Along the way, Mr. Fuji became Muraco’s manager. Curiously, the pair acquired its own unique following via a series of vignettes titled “Fuji Vice” – a takeoff on the hit Miami Vice TV series. Meanwhile, commentator Jesse Ventura, a fan of Muraco’s methodical acumen, continued to praise the big man’s in-ring work during the telecasts.
Though seemingly out of the title picture, Muraco stayed in the spotlight. An alliance with Bob Orton Jr. paved the way for rivalries with top WWF tag teams. But a Wrestlemania III defeat to the Can-Am Connection was a precursor for problems. Muraco’s union with Orton rapidly soured, providing a context for him to be cheered by crowds again. He was nicknamed “The Rock” and squared off against a fresh set of opponents. Muraco was seconded by Graham, and this corresponded to a makeover as he appropriated the Superstar’s tie-dyed attire. The newly popular Muraco was even part of Hogan’s 1987 Survivor Series team.
After his WWF departure, Muraco worked for the UWF promotion headed by Herb Abrams as well as Eastern (later Extreme) Championship Wrestling (ECW) based in Philadelphia. He had several turns as the group’s title-holder, rekindling old feuds, before relinquishing the mantle to The Sandman. There was even a brief AWA return versus its then-champion Larry Zbyszko. Today, the retired 71-year-old Muraco, a 2004 WWE Hall of Famer, remains a keen observer of industry happenings.
— Kenneth Mihalik
Photo of the Week
Former pro wrestling star Tiger Conway Jr. takes his turn at the mic during a karaoke show at the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest in Charlotte. Conway regaled the audience with Marvin Gaye’s soul classic “Let’s Get It On.”