As a teenager growing up in Mooresville, N.C., Charles Robinson had a dream.
And for the past 20 years, the lifelong wrestling fan has been living that dream each and every day.
Widely regarded as one of this generation's top referees, Robinson has been involved in many of pro wrestling's greatest matches since joining WCW in 1997. When WCW was purchased by WWE in 2001, Robinson gained an even greater profile by becoming a weekly fixture on that company's top-rated televised show.
While referees are meant to be seen but not heard, the genial Robinson has played a pivotal role in sports entertainment, having presided over some of the greatest matches of the past two decades in both WCW and WWE.
“I've worked with everybody,” notes Robinson, who holds the distinction of officiating the final bouts for some of the biggest names in the business. He was there to make the final count for his wrestling idol, Ric Flair, in the Nature Boy's retirement match against Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania 24 in 2008. Two years later at Wrestlemania 26, Robinson made the final three count in Michaels' retirement match against The Undertaker.
Robinson's animated style and tireless work ethic have made him one of the most popular referees in the profession. Well respected by his peers and with a fan base that rivals some of the company's top stars, Robinson is both humble and unassuming, traits that have taken him far in the sports entertainment industry.
“I'm just blessed to be here,” says the 51-year-old North Carolina native. “I've had a lot of good times. I have no regrets.”
It might come as no surprise, then, that his mentor was legendary NWA referee Tommy Young, and the best advice he ever received came from Four Horseman and WWE Hall of Famer Arn Anderson.
“Tommy's the guy that I watched, told me what to do, taught me how to do the slide and how to react,” Robinson says of Young, who refereed many of Flair's greatest matches in the Mid-Atlantic territory during the '70s and '80s.
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.
I think one of the things referees don't do enough is react to big stuff. If you don't react to something big, it makes it not believable,” says Robinson, who often shows more emotion than some of the performers in the matches he's calling.
Robinson admits, though, that at times he may go a little overboard with his reactions, but it's something that he just can't help.
“I may have taken it too far at times and have reacted too much, but I think it's good when you react a little to things that are big. I've been doing it for so long that sometimes I might react a little too over the top. But I can't stop. I've tried.”
Robinson says Anderson's advice was simple yet straight to the point, and has served him well throughout his time in the business.
“Keep your mouth shut and listen,” Anderson told Robinson early in his WCW career.
“He's done more for me than probably anybody in the business,” says Robinson. “We used to always drive together in WCW. But once I started doing crew work, I couldn't do that anymore. I miss that. For some reason — I don't know why — Arn took me under his wing and always took care of me. I always had a place to stay and a car to ride in. He's the man.”
The driving force, however, behind Robinson's lifelong goal to break into the profession was “The Man” himself — 16-time world heavyweight champion Ric Flair.
From the age of 10 when Robinson attended his first live wrestling show in 1974 at the old Park Center in Charlotte, Robinson was hooked.
Just how big a fan was Robinson? “I guess I wasn't your average Ric Flair fan,” he admits with more than a modicum of understatement.
While it was extremely rare for fans during the '70s to pull for the so-called “bad guys” — at least in public — Robinson did so with aplomb. Especially for one cocky young superstar who went by the name of “Nature Boy.”
Flair would play a big part in Robinson's childhood and teen years. And it was a good time to be a fan, with some of the greatest talent in the business working for the Charlotte-based Jim Crockett Promotions.
Even early in his career, Flair was a charismatic force of nature who brought a new type of swag to an old-school business.
Being the biggest Flair fan on the block just made sense to Robinson.
“Ric Flair was extravagant. So I thought Chuck Robinson would be extravagant too.”
The youngster loved Flair's boastful but articulate interviews and the way his ring antics infuriated the audience. He was unlike any other villains of that era. He was young, brash and bold, and he could back up his talk inside the ring.
Robinson wanted to be like Flair.
“I would go the store and buy poster board, glitter and glue, and cut pictures out of the magazines to show my love for Ric Flair,” says Robinson. “I would make life-sized posters and sew sequins and rhinestones and feathers on warmup jackets. I'd put 'Nature Boy' on the back and wear them to school.”
Robinson, who bleached his hair blond for the first time when he was in the seventh grade, once closed out a talent show with his brother at their junior high school.
“It was a hair vs. hair match, and I lost,” he laughs. “My brother went to cut my hair and I grabbed the scissors and punched him in the head and fled the gym. I retained my hair.”
The two also would stage wrestling matches to entertain neighborhood audiences. “It was so much fun. We used blood capsules because we certainly weren't going to cut our heads with a razor,” he says.
“I even did a book report in the 10th grade on pro wrestling and I made an A+. Everybody knew I was a Ric Flair fan, a wrestling fan and a horror movie fan. That's what I was known for. And you definitely didn't say anything bad about the Nature Boy.”
On Monday nights, when transportation was available and money had been saved, Robinson and his brother would catch rides with their grandmother to the weekly wrestling shows at the Park Center.
“She would get us ringside seats, and she would sit up in the general admission seats. Back then, ringside was only a couple bucks,” notes Robinson.
Robinson would also wear Flair regalia and take his posters to the local shows.
“It would rile the fans up so much,” he laughs. “My grandfather was a police officer in Charlotte, and they (police security) used to walk around with me to keep people from beating me up.”
Little did Robinson know at the time that not only would he team up with his idol years later and be dubbed “Little Naitch,” but he also would be called upon to referee Flair's retirement match on the biggest stage of them all.
It would be a number of years before Robinson would have an opportunity to step inside a professional wrestling ring.
He left home for the Navy at age 18 and served from 1982-88 aboard a Charleston-based submarine. He sold cars for about a year after his service, and when Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989, he got a job selling siding for Sears throughout the Southeastern region.
Recently divorced at the time, Robinson was channel-surfing when he stumbled upon a Christian TV station that was advertising a wrestling show promoted by George South and The Italian Stallion (Gary Sabaugh). To Robinson, it was a sign from above.
He went to the next show in Lincolnton, N.C., and told the promoters that he was a former Navy photographer and would be interested in shooting photos for the outfit. Robinson got the green light, and some of his photos were so good that they were published in The Wrestler and Inside Wrestling magazines.
“They (South and Stallion) started the ball rolling for me to be a referee,” says Robinson, whose clean-cut appearance and strong work ethic made a favorable impression on the matchmakers.
An angle was concocted where Robinson would be taking a photo of the resident bad guy, who would be “blinded” by the flash from the camera and quickly rolled up for the pin.
Robinson, willing to do almost anything to get his foot in the wrestling door, readily agreed.
The next part of the angle, though, required a level of physicality and even some bloodshed. The bad guy, naturally enraged by Robinson's use of his flash camera, would storm out of the ring, pummel the unsuspecting photographer and ram his head into the ringpost, drawing “color” (blood) from Robinson's forehead.
No problem, said Robinson, who was getting a chance to do what he had seen the pros do for years, albeit in front of slightly larger audiences.
Robinson cut a promo and was brought back the following week as a special guest referee.
“That's what started it. I refereed the next week. They said I was pretty good at this stuff. That's because I had been watching Tommy Young my entire life.”
While payoffs were meager (a hotdog and soft drink on a good night, plus gas money), it was just the beginning of something much bigger. Robinson wisely kept his day job.
“I was still doing Sears siding at the same time. I kept that job until 1997 until I got my next job.”
That next job would be the beginning of a new career and new life for Chuck Robinson.
With Robinson getting some buzz about his work with the independent Pro Wrestling Federation in North Carolina, the referee began sending tapes of his work to the WCW office in Atlanta.
“I would bug Terry Taylor weekly ... call his office, send him stuff in the mail.”
Then it happened. WCW was in Charlotte for a show at Independence Arena.
“Terry walked up and asked me if I had my bag. I said of course I do. He said they wanted to take a look at me tonight. That was Sept. 15, 1997.”
Robinson got the job. His dream was coming true, but he knew it was just the first step of many he would have to navigate along the way.
“There was a learning curve, but you learned fast,” says Robinson. Within six months, he was officiating his first Ric Flair match. Less than three years later, Robinson was brought into a new angle, swapping his referee stripes for his Little Naitch character replete with a bejeweled Flair robe. It was his chance to mimic Flair's mannerisms, signature strut and “wooo” catchphrase — but this time, in front of a national television audience on one of the hottest cable shows.
“That was the pinnacle,” says Robinson, quickly adding that it was also the problem.
“You have moments like that in the beginning of your career, and how do you top it?”
The gig moved Robinson into a realm that referees, whose role is usually reserved for background duty, rarely get the chance to experience. In typical WCW fashion, he was learning on the job.
“We'd be in the ring and they'd just give the microphone to me. They wouldn't tell me in the back that I was going to cut a promo. Considering, I guess I did OK.”
Robinson's newfound fame as a Flair sidekick, though, would be short-lived.
While teaming with Flair to face “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Madusa on an episode of Monday Nitro, Robinson was injured when Savage delivered a botched flying elbow drop to the much smaller Robinson, cracking several of his vertebrae and collapsing his lung. He was in the hospital for 10 days.
“I couldn't breathe,” Robinson recalls. “I went to the hospital two hours later with a collapsed lung. I stayed in the hospital overnight, and they told me I could go home the next day.
“I flew home with a collapsed lung. But I landed and went straight back to the hospital. I shouldn't have flown. They ended up sticking a tube in me. (Savage) did call a couple days later to check on me. I give him credit for that.”
The injury spoiled plans for a storyline of Robinson teaming with Flair that was to go throughout the summer.
“Do you know how many more robes I probably would have bought,” he laughs.
Robinson looks back at that period and wonders what might have happened had it been 10 years later.
“That worked out for the best. Had I worked all summer, who knows what it might have meant to me refereeing. I'm not made to be a wrestler. I was there for a little storyline and that was it. My job's to be a referee.”
After undergoing treatment, Robinson returned to WCW television several weeks later and was appointed to figurehead company president Flair's stable. He resumed his refereeing duties when Flair's position was dissolved.
But Robinson still looks back with fond memories on the six months he spent in the spotlight. It's nearly a daily occurrence that he gets called “Little Naitch,” and he loves the nod.
“That's a big honor that people remember something that happened that long ago.”
Robinson's connection to Flair has come full circle. Even now, though, he says he could have never in his wildest dreams imagined how things would turn out.
“No way ... no way. When I was 15, I went to Rocky Mount (N.C.) to a show at a ballfield. It was the first time I met Ric. He gave me a dollar to go get something to drink. He was wearing the pink and silver robe. I'll never forget that.”
Although Robinson by then was a super Flair supporter, he didn't want to come on too strong, fearing the Nature Boy might not be receptive to an overly pushy fan.
“I think he respected the fact that I didn't (make a fuss). You can tell the real fans ... there's something about that look in their eyes, and I think he picked up on that.”
Twenty-eight years later, Robinson would be the third man in the ring for Flair's retirement match with Michaels at Wrestlemania 28 before a record-setting 74,635 fans at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
It would go down as his greatest moment in wrestling.
One of the hardest things he ever had to do was make the three count.
“Everybody's emotions were so high,” Robinson recalls. “Shawn was crying. I was crying. Ric was crying. We were all crying in the ring before the Superkick. That's why my arm was covering my face during the count. And then I rolled out of the ring.”
Robinson also was the third man when Bill Goldberg defeated Hulk Hogan for the WCW world title in front of 40,000 fans at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in 1998.
He says he considered it an honor to be selected as referee for such special and historic matches.
“We had a bunch of great referees, and to be put in a match above them was just a shock because they were certainly more deserving. I was still very green. The way things worked on the independent circuit and the way you did things at WCW or even up here is different because you learn fast.”
Robinson jokes that his most embarrassing moment in the ring was “having to take my shirt off as Little Naitch.”
He points to the time Madusa, Molly Holly and Gorgeous George stripped him down to his boxer shorts.
“I had the same Florida Gator underwear that Ric used to wear when he would strip down. It might have even been in Gainesville. But that was pretty embarrassing. I really don't have a body to be showing off to people anyway.”
Charles Robinson has spent the past two decades as one of the most respected referees in sports entertainment.
But he'll be the first to tell you that he never lost his passion for old school wrestling. He still enjoys looking through his collection of old magazines.
“I've worked since I was 12 years old, raking leaves, mowing grass, selling newspapers, just to have spending change. My mom and dad did what they could, but if I wanted extra stuff, I had to work. I did all that just to get wrestling magazines. This newsstand in Mooresville had all the wrestling magazines. They looked awesome.”
Tommy Young, who has proudly watched Robinson emerge through the ranks, says his humility and his love for the old school is what sets him apart.
“Charles is like me in that respect. He never really took himself too seriously. He's very humble and very well respected. I'm just very happy for him.”
As for comparisons between the two, Young says that Robinson has carved his own niche with his own unique style.
“He's got his own style ... it was nothing like mine. He can do anything. He has made his name in the business on his merits. I learned things as well from other referees. I even learned some things from Sonny Fargo. But you do learn things from other guys. You kind of mix it in and have your own style. Charles has definitely done that. He's obviously made quite a mark on our profession and continues to do so.”
As much as he loves the wrestling business, and the joys and fortunes it has afforded him, Robinson says his walk with Christ and his relationship with 22-year-old daughter Jessica are the most important things in his life.
His Bible is his constant companion, and its words have gotten him through some of the more trying times in his journey.
“It keeps you focused on doing what's right and good. If I didn't have something to believe in and have a strong faith, what would there be?”
He has never forgotten his second wife, Amy, his “soulmate and the love of my life.” She passed away at the age of 30 of melanoma cancer in April 2002.
Married for only four years, Robinson knew he was smitten the first time he laid eyes on the brown-eyed, brown-haired beauty. “That's the type of girl I want to marry,” he said to himself after their first meeting.
“I guess her job here on Earth had something to do with me,” he says. “She helped me to open up and learn to be loved and care. She changed my life. I certainly took life and people for granted before. I placed money high on my tree of priorities, and certainly she showed me that those things mean nothing.”
Robinson, one of the last survivors from the WCW days, has been with WWE since July 2, 2001.
“It's been a good portion of my life. It's provided for me things that I could have never dreamed of. It gave me entertainment as a child as well as now. I see the joy that it puts on other people's faces, and that's very rewarding. I am truly blessed.”
Robinson says he remains thankful for the opportunities that Vince McMahon and WWE have given him, and hints that he has no plans to slow down.
“It is a privilege to work for the greatest sports entertainment company in the world and for the man who created it. There is no other place I would rather spend the next 10-15 years of my career.”
In addition to putting in considerable ring time along with a grueling travel schedule, Robinson finds time to compete in Spartan races, a series of obstacle races of varying distance and difficulty ranging from three miles to the marathon distances that Robinson prefers, “to stay in shape.”
“I'm competing for jobs with officials that are sometimes half my age,” he explains.
There's a reason why some call Robinson the hardest-working man in sports entertainment.
In 2002, shortly after the WCW invasion angle and a year after joining WWE, Robinson began helping the ring crew. Not long after, he secured a full-time position that meant more money and benefits. It's not an easy gig, but he's been doing it ever since.
Robinson is usually one of the first to enter the arena the morning of a show and one of the last to leave it late that evening.
“I fly in the day before. I go into the arena early. I unload the truck, help build the ring, lights go up, put up the barricade and padding around the ring, set up backstage monitors in dressing rooms, do the show, tear it all down, load the truck. If it's a house show, we normally have a bus to take us to the next town. But if it's TV, we have to drive ourselves.”
Obviously, there's little time in Robinson's breakneck schedule for rest and relaxation.
Robinson's youthful appearance belies his age. “I made a deal with Dick Clark,” he laughs, attributing his good fortune to clean living — no smoking, no drinking, healthy diet. He tries to maintain good eating habits on the road, although it can be challenging.
“That's the toughest part. We tear down the ring and finish up at 12:30 or 1 o'clock, and have to drive for hours to the next town. You're starving, so you end up eating a lot of convenient food. But very rarely do I eat fast food.”
“I went from Lent last year all the way to Christmas without any candy or desserts,” he boasts, admitting that he and good friend Brad “Lodi” Cain sometimes sneak in a visit to Golden Corral.
“You can find good, healthy food there too,” he adds.
While the wrestling profession has taken Robinson to all parts of the world, there never seems to be enough time to fully explore all the new environs. Robinson has traveled to such locations as Europe, Australia, China, Japan, Russia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
“I wish we had more time. When we went to Saudi Arabia, we got to go jet-skiing on the Red Sea. Most of the time, it's next city, next city, next city.”
When he's not on the road, Robinson enjoys spending time with daughter Jessica, who is in her final semester as a nursing major at Western Carolina. They enjoy skiing, horseback riding, running endurance races and traveling. The two are planning to hike a 100-mile section of the Appalachian Trail this summer.
“Our last big daddy-daughter thing before she goes off into the real world,” he smiles.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.