The term kayfabe earned its way into the Merriam-Webster dictionary earlier this year.
Its meaning: The tacit agreement between professional wrestlers and their fans to pretend that overtly staged wrestling events, stories, characters, etc., are genuine.
In other words, wink-wink, nudge, nudge.
That a word that was entirely made up by people behind the scenes in the pro wrestling world somehow made it into the general lexicon is impressive, to say the least.
At least some of the credit for that should be thrown the way of Kitchener resident and former journalist Colin Hunter, the man behind the satirical website Kayfabe News, an Onion-inspired website that for more than a decade has poked gentle, tongue-in-cheek fun at the colourful, over-the-top world of professional wrestling.
Kayfabe News, with more than 100,000 followers on social media, has become something of a favourite among those inside the industry and those on the outside looking in. With its clever content and creative name, it certainly helped educate the general public about the term kayfabe.
And while that passion project will certainly live on, Hunter, a lifelong pro wrestling fan, has embarked on another unique project that explores the world of wrestling: A documentary about referees.
“This is just sort of an extension, this is more me than Kayfabe News making this movie,” Hunter said in an interview.
The aptly titled documentary, The Ref Didn’t See It!, is the real story of how zebras earn their stripes in the unreal world of professional wrestling. It was born out of the experience, trust and knowledge Hunter said he’s gained in his time running Kayfabe News and the long love affair he’s had with pro wrestling.
“Before (Kayfabe News), I wrote for the after (Bill) Apter mags, Pro Wrestling Illustrated and The Wrestler and those magazines,” he said, adding that he started his writing career as a journalist, then moved into corporate communications. “All of the skills that you develop in journalism and communications, it’s not just sitting down and writing stories, it’s setting up interviews, it’s chasing people, it’s finding footage, it’s finding photography. Using a movie as a method of storytelling is sort of new to me, but the skills involved are very transferrable from previous lives.”
As a reporter, he said, he found himself more interested in the obscure than the obvious.
“I always found myself gravitating toward the unsung hero, underdog-type story,” he said. “The story that other reporters weren’t telling because it fell outside of the normal sort of beat.”
As the creator of Kayfabe News, he found himself having similar tendencies, which spawned the idea for his documentary, for which he’s now crowdfunding to help pay for.
“I got thinking about wrestling and how the referee, despite being a participant in practically every single wrestling match we’ve ever seen, never, ever gets the spotlight,” Hunter said. “That’s largely by design. They’re not supposed to get the spotlight. But I thought the greatest referees are so good at not getting the spotlight, they deserve the spotlight just this once.”
Once he realized this topic is almost entirely uncharted territory, he knew he’d found his next calling.
“There are so many documentaries about wrestlers, both good and bad,” he said. “We’re in a golden age of wrestling documentaries with Wrestlers and Dark Side of the Ring and Tales From the Territories, but they never tell the story of the hidden third dance partner in the spectacle, so I thought just this once, it was a story worth telling.”
The Ref Didn’t See It! is a light-hearted look at how wrestling’s unsung heroes in zebra shirts earn their stripes. The documentary follows Hunter as he learns to maintain order in the uncontrolled chaos of professional wrestling. He immerses himself in the world of independent wrestling, where he learns from veteran zebras of the squared circle.
It’s not lost on Hunter that this project wouldn’t have been available to him even a decade ago, as pro wrestling has evolved from an industry that was once practically a secret society to a more modern world of sports entertainment.
“I feel like the Internet has sort of destroyed any illusions of kayfabe, mostly,” Hunter said. “This movie couldn’t have been made even like 10 years ago because the amount of access that I have to locker rooms and the amount of inside information (wasn’t there). This isn’t a tell-all movie. I’m not about to expose the business, that’s not the point.”
Still, even as pro wrestling is accepted as scripted sports entertainment now, there remains unexplored areas for the inquisitive mind — a mind like Hunter’s.
“The things that I am telling about the role of the referee in the dance, they just wouldn’t have shared with me (a decade ago),” he said. “This would have been a closed society in the age of kayfabe. And nobody would have talked to me and I certainly wouldn’t have had people telling the sort of secrets of the good storytelling that a referee can do.
“I feel like now is almost the first time it’s been possible to make a documentary about referees. I’m not saying this year, but this era of wrestling is the only time we could have done this: the post-Internet kayfabe reveal era.”
Of course, one does not simply create a documentary about wrestling referees. That’s not how wrestling works. One must become one with the subject, Hunter said.
In order to tell the story about referees, Hunter himself has become one during the making of the film.
“That’s sort of a holdover from my days as a newspaper reporter when I found the best way to get to know somebody and write an article about them was to actually do the thing that they do with them,” he said. “If you’re writing about a skydiver, go jump out of a plane with them. You can tell a story better if you understand it back to front and I thought this movie focuses on a number of different characters.”
The film explores the facets of the referee, but also the people who do it themselves. Hunter chose to work with the likes of Harry Demerjian, known as Harry D, one of the veteran referees of the Ontario independent wrestling scene.
“I call him the alpha zebra around Ontario and Canada,” Hunter said. “He’s just so good, so respected, so liked by his peers that I wanted to feature someone like him, a real expert. And then I’ve got Emily Parker who is a young second-generation ref following in her father’s footsteps. I’ve got Ken Kensington, who is just the most energetic, enthusiastic referee in the world.”
Slapping on the stripes and doing the work was a natural part of the process, Hunter said.
“I think a part of the story that people would be interested in is ‘Well, how do you do this? How does one become a referee?’ I thought ‘Well, I’ll give it a shot.’ I think I’m too old to start wrestling training in any serious way, but I wanted to tell the story through experience. I think I’ve refereed eight or nine matches in front of crowds at indy shows and I’ve got three or four more booked.
“The motivation was really to tell the part of the story of the beginner, the rookie ref, the clumsy middle-age man who doesn’t really know what he’s doing in there and ultimately, this movie is partly a childhood dream comes true for Colin story. Actually getting to participate, it’s really fun.”
Not only is it fun, but it’s an honour, Hunter said.
“When you’ve been a fan your whole life, to actually be granted permission to get in the ring and be part of this show, even if it’s in front of a hundred people, it’s a huge thrill,” he said. “I don’t take it for granted. I don’t take for granted that I’ve been invited into the ring and I have a responsibility as a referee to help the performers look as good as possible. A lot times that means me being as invisible as possible, never getting in the way and only being seen or heard when the story calls for it.
“But to be part of the show like that, I’ve got the best seat in the house and I get to sort of live out this dream of being in the ring and part of the action without taking the bumps. Although I can tell you I’ve taken a few bumps,” he said with a laugh.
Looking back, Hunter said all the work he put into Kayfabe News not only helped it grow into one of the most popular social media platforms in pro wrestling, but it ushered in this opportunity.
“It took (time) to build equity for Kayfabe News in the wrestling world,” he said. “I was writing an article every single day, year after year, pretty much, and I think over that time, I built a level of sort of trust and respect in the wrestling world from a good number of people who, when I started knocking on doors and saying I’m make a documentary about the wrestling referees, could you help me out, the doors keep swinging open.
“Because I did Kayfabe News, people understand my perspective on wrestling and know that even though I’m sort of making fun of wrestling, it’s never malicious or overtly negative. It’s meant to be sort of a joyful, fun look at wrestling. And that’s what this movie is meant to be as well. I think had I not been the Kayfabe News guy, I might have just gotten one dead end after another, but it has opened doors for me.”
Crowdfunding continues until Nov. 22, with more than $8,000 of its $46,000 raised so far. The funding, Hunter said, is crucial to continue on with the project.
“Up until this point, it’s been entirely out of my own pocket,” he said. “I literally quit my job to do this. A fairly well-paying corporate communications job. I now have this documentary as my full-time job. The crowdfunding stage is kind of crucial just to recoup some of the costs that we’ve already put into it.
“And also, it’s like wrestling itself, the more the crowd gets behind it, the better the show gets. Ultimately, if the crowdfunding works out, we can do things like some animations and graphics to illustrate some very cool aspects of the film I have in mind.”
If the fundraising is successful, the goal is to edit and finish the film over the winter and to later host a premiere next summer.
“We’ll have a whole bunch of people and it’ll be a movie premiere where a wrestling match breaks out,” he half-joked.
Hunter hopes to have hall of fame referee Earl Hebner — yes, THE Earl Hebner who was a central figure in the so-called Montreal Screwjob with Bret (The Hitman) Hart back in the 1990s) — at the premiere, as Hebner figures prominently into the documentary.
“It’s thanks to Chinlock for Charity that we got what I’m calling the GOAT zebra, Earl Hebner,” Hunter said. “I can’t overstate if you’re going to make a movie about fast food mascots, you need Ronald McDonald. If you’re going to make a movie about boxing, you need Muhammad Ali, and if you’re going to make a movie about wrestling referees, you need Earl Hebner.
“His presence in the movie, I think brings a lot of credibility to it, not just for viewers, but for people like Tommy Dreamer, who speaks so highly of Earl Hebner and the role of referees.”
Dreamer, who was also present at the Chinlock show in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in September, gave Hunter an education on referees.
“The whole time I was talking to Tommy, he was just talking about how vital the referees are to a good wrestling show,” Hunter said. “He was going through different referees, historical and present, and explaining their virtues and merits.”
So invested into this project has Hunter become, he now finds himself watching the referees more than the wrestlers.
“When you start paying attention to the role of the ref, it’s kind of hard to stop paying attention,” he said. “I find myself now almost exclusively watching the referees in the match, to see where they are, what are they communicating? What’s coming through their earpiece? I’m trying to decipher what kind of cues they’re getting and when are they passing it to the wrestlers. You see it on TV, timed to commercial breaks and very precise timing, but even on the indy shows, those roles still trickle down.”
What he’s learned, Hunter said, is that the referee’s job may be to be invisible, but they are anything but.
“We’re trying to keep a schedule and keep things on time, the referee has this role of secret communicator and if necessary, the first-aid response person if something goes wrong,” he said. “And often, if the wrestlers lose their way in a match, the referee is the one who may communicate back and forth surreptitiously, so that the audience doesn’t see that the wrestlers can get back on track.”
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Much as he did when he launched Kayfabe News back in 2012, Hunter has found an untapped resource and he’s focused on shining a unique, original light on it.
“It’s never been done before and I think it’s a really cool story,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s a story about people doing something that they love for the joy of it. We know there is no money to be made in indy wrestling, but there’s really no money to be made in indy reffing.
“It’s a story about people who just have found joy and community in this. It’s a lot more joyful than I expected it to be honestly. From the outside, wrestling looks violent and gritty and mean, but when you’re backstage at a wrestling show, it’s one of the nicest, most respectful environments you can imagine.”
And while he’s done all the refereeing he needs to for the documentary, Hunter said he still finds himself donning the stripes, simply for the love of it.
“The next shows that I’m reffing on, we may film them, but we may not,” he said. “I’m now just doing this for fun. This is now my weekend hobby.”