Over 72,000 fans marveled as Undertaker and Shawn Michaels composed a WrestleMania masterpiece in 2009—a story of light versus dark, speed versus power, icon versus icon.
Marty Elias stood on that same stage in Houston. As the match's referee, he was charged with being the bout's invisible driving force. Michaels and Undertaker were the drama's stars; Elias was the supporting player in a striped shirt.
Minutes into the match, Elias leaned into the corner as The Heartbreak Kid chopped Undertaker's chest. The ref discreetly informed Michaels how much time he and his opponent had left.
Michaels shook him off like a pitcher refusing to take a catcher's advice. The wrestler told Elias to cease updating him on time. A match that was supposed to only go for 15 minutes stretched on for half an hour.
Despite what producers told him in his earpiece, Elias obeyed Michaels, moving his lips to pretend he was giving the Hall of Famer a countdown.
"When Mr. WrestleMania tells you to stop giving time cues, you're not giving him time cues," Elias told Bleacher Report.
The opportunity to work a bout of this magnitude at WWE's biggest event of the year is something Elias, now the senior official for Lucha Underground, treasures to this day.
"I was the lucky S.O.B. to be there," Elias said. "I still pinch myself. This is great. I'll always be known in WWE lore."
The Grandest Stage
The spotlight isn't as bright for these men in stripes. Their work often goes unnoticed. The Show of Shows, though, is the highlight and the career pinnacle for referees like Elias.
"That show was the accumulation of everything that I had worked for on the indy scene," Elias said. "It was the Super Bowl of everything everybody strives to get to in our business."
Jimmy Korderas worked a total of 14 WrestleManias over his long WWE tenure. Comparisons to the NFL's Big Game come to his mind as well when reflecting on those massive events.
"It's the biggest show of the year," he said. "It's our Super Bowl, our World Series, our World Cup."
There is a unique electricity in the air for these officials. The massive crowds, the celebrities who are brought in, the megastars and the unique environment all add up to something special.
"It's an amazing feeling," Korderas said. "It's hard to describe. You get out there to do your match, and for a few seconds, you're wowed by the enormity of it."
Jack Doan, a WWE official for over two decades, made his first pay-per-view appearance at WrestleMania IX.
He wasn't a referee that night but a stagehand of sorts. Wearing a toga, he was charged with taking jackets from the wrestlers as they entered the ring. Razor Ramon threw his toothpick in his face at one point.
Deeper in his career, Doan would get to work a variety of matches at WWE's top event, from women's matches to clashes between behemoths.
At WrestleMania XXIV in 2008, he was overcome by The Showcase of the Immortals' grandness.
Set to ref the opening bout—a Belfast Brawl between John "Bradshaw" Layfield and Finlay—Doan took in the rendition of "America the Beautiful" from the ring. He watched the jet fly over and looked out into the enormous crowd. And it all got to him.
"The hair was standing up on my arms," Doan said. "I literally got tears in my eyes. It was just an awesome feeling. Sixty-thousand people going nuts."
The basics of what unfolds at WrestleMania are the same as a standard event. The referees still maintain law and order between the ropes, and they still keep an eye out for wrestler injuries and steer the ship that is the match. But it's clear from the massive crowd surrounding them that a WrestleMania bout is no ordinary one.
Hype and Nerves
WrestleMania 23 was Elias' first time working the pay-per-view.
His assignment: The Great Khali vs. Kane. Before the battle of big men, the sense of how significant this was struck him.
"It was nerve-racking to the say the least, but it was also very exciting," Elias said. "Here I was, finally going to work at WrestleMania. Not too many people can say that."
But his heart filled with mixed emotions that night. His father died just five months prior.
"It was special, and it was bittersweet for me," Elias said. "My mom got to be there. We shed a tear in memory of my dad."
Korderas stepped on to The Grandest Stage of Them All several times over. He has seen the event emanate from smaller venues to colossal stadiums. He has worked the opening bout and the main event.
Even with all that experience, on the eve of WrestleMania XXIV, at which he would officiate the World Heavyweight Championship match between Undertaker and Edge, a bout of insomnia struck Korderas.
"I had such butterflies I really couldn't get to sleep," he said. "I found myself walking around the hotel outside in Orlando at 2:30 in the morning."
Korderas explained that he is both confident and nervous at these massive shows. "It's WrestleMania—you put extra pressure on yourself."
Even the way the referees travel to the arena is different come WrestleMania time. Doan recalled WWE bussing the officials in, flanked by police escorts. The hype was huge. The stakes were higher. But in the end, the work was the same.
"Once you're out there, it's like any other match," Doan said. "Once the bell rings, everything is blocked out."
Bodies begin to fly between the ropes. Wrestlers look to pin their rivals. And it's time for the referees to do their thing.
When Things Get Physical
At times, the referee must step from the background to the foreground to become a more overt part of the story.
Doan had to play a bigger role than usual in 2002 at WrestleMania X8 in a match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Scott Hall. Hall's longtime ally Kevin Nash clobbered the original referee, Tim White, during the bout. Doan charged in as the replacement, sliding under the ropes to get into the ring.
The ref was relieved to have avoided flubbing that moment.
"I didn't clip my head or break my nose on the bottom rope," Doan said.
Then came the harder part. Nash drove his elbow into the much smaller man.
"That slide was a really cool thing to be a part of until Nash dropped that elbow on me," he recalled. "It felt like it broke my back. He put all 300 pounds into it."
At WrestleMania IV, Korderas twice found himself a part of the action.
During Don Muraco vs. Dino Bravo, the latter clocked the referee. "I took a flying forearm from Dino Bravo in the upper chest region," Korderas said. "Yeah, that hurt. There's a big boy."
It's a common misconception that manager Jimmy Hart knocked him out with a megaphone later during that same show.
In actuality, it was the reaction to the blow, not the blow itself, that left the ref out cold. The Mouth of the South did nail Korderas with his trademark megaphone in the match between The Honky Tonk Man and Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake. The official overdid his response, though.
"I did it to myself," Korderas explained. "When I face-planted, I hit my chin on the canvas and blacked out."
Two decades later, Korderas reffed the main event between Edge and Undertaker and needed to take one of The Deadman's boots to the face.
Korderas absorbed the blow, fell on his back and lay motionless. Despite the giant crowd buzzing in the Florida Citrus Bowl, he couldn't hear the fans at all.
"I was lying on the canvas, and the only thing running through my mind was 'I hoped it looked good,'" he said.
Nervousness bubbled in Elias at WrestleMania 23 when he became a key part of the match. The ref was supposed to be distracted while Khali illegally tore the cover off the turnbuckle.
"All I could think about was 'Don't blow the spot. Don't blow the spot!'" Elias said. "It's amplified because it's WrestleMania. You don't want to mess up that spot because you worked so hard to get there."
At WrestleMania 25, Michaels threw him against the barricade around the ring, breaking his earpiece in the process. Elias continued with no producers in his ear.
"I didn't get any more time cues for the rest of the match," he remembered.
Officials have been pushed and bowled over. Doan has been chokeslammed and elbowed.
These kind of moments are fun, but the referees realize what part they play in the theater unfolding in the ring.
"You're invisible until you need to be visible," Korderas explained. "You're a supporting player, helping the talent tell their story."
Doan said: "You can be a part of a match, and people remember that. Of course, you enjoy that. The fans are paying money to see the talent in the ring. They're not paying to see the referees."
Eyes on the Action
One of the referee's most important duties is to be the wrestlers' guardian, monitoring their health, alerting the doctor if injuries occur.
That's especially true in the chaotic environment that is a ladder match.
When WWE assigned Korderas the TLC match at WrestleMania X-Seven, he made sure to listen closely to the pre-match plans. Things were sure to get wild, with Edge and Christian taking on both The Hardy Boyz and The Dudley Boyz in such a dangerous contest.
In one of the clash's most famous moments, Jeff Hardy clung to the championship title suspended from the ring before Edge speared him out of the air.
The ref wanted to make sure those men were as safe as possible during that stunt. "If you look closely, you'll see me trying to drag a ladder out of the way so they don't land on it," Korderas said.
Six years later, at WrestleMania 23 in Detroit, Korderas was at Hardy's side after he crashed into Edge, breaking the ladder below the two men.
Korderas noticed a glassy look in Hardy's eyes. "He gave me the OK, but I looked in his eyes and could tell he didn't look good," he explained.
When Elias oversaw Michaels vs. Undertaker at WrestleMania 25, he watched The Deadman dive over the ropes and collide with a cameraman. The ref had a feeling something had gone wrong.
"We didn't know how hurt he was," he remembered. "We knew something was up, but we didn't know the extent until after the show."
In addition to having his bell rung, Undertaker had suffered a broken pinkie and an injured collarbone. Elias slowed the pace of his count to give the big man time to recover, but The Phenom's vaunted undefeated streak nearly ended by count-out that night.
"Undertaker was knocked loopy," Elias said. "He was out. Me and Undertaker didn't make eye contact until the count of nine. The only instruction I was given for that match was that if Undertaker was out on the floor after the dive and he didn't get back, I needed to count him out."
Thankfully, the man in stripes didn't reach 10. Michaels and Undertaker went on to extend their saga and craft one of the best things we've seen in a WWE ring.
Elias felt like his work reached a higher level during it all: "Guys like Undertaker and Shawn Michaels will elevate you no matter what. And as a referee, I was elevated that night."
He didn't realize how magical the match was while it happened. He was too focused on his duties. After all, this was the biggest opportunity of his career to date.
"I'm a mark just like everyone else, but I had a job to do," he said.
It wasn't until he watched the video of Undertaker vs. Michaels afterward that Elias knew how special it was. He raved about the end result: "That match was just everything that a match should be. The moons and the stars aligned."
The ref played his part too, whether the fans took notice or not.
Marty Elias referees for Lucha Underground, where he is the senior official. Jimmy Korderas is the co-host of Aftermath TV and the author of The Three Count: My Life in Stripes as a WWE Referee. Jack Doan was a WWE referee for 22 years.
Ryan Dilbert is the WWE Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand.