Shane McMahon, Daniel Bryan and a Brief History of Special Guest Referees in WWE

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterDecember 14, 2017


Both Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan know firsthand what impact special guest referees can have on a WWE match.

McMahon has played that role a number of times of late, his decisions as an official leaving SmackDown's Kevin Owens incensed. As for Bryan, he's suffered gut-punches thanks to a string of biased guest referees over the years: AJ Lee, Triple H, Shawn Michaels.

And now each of SmackDown's authority figures is set to pull on a striped shirt and ref Owens and Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura and Randy Orton at Sunday's Clash of Champions pay-per-view.

History says they will affect the bout in a major way as officials. There have been times WWE brought in guest referees simply to add star power to a contest, but more often, these supporting characters have created chaos. They serve as obstacles for babyfaces and looming X-factors.

It's a trope WWE has turned to several times over, but more so now than it did in its earliest years.  

Giants and Stars

Adding a spark to a big match by bringing in a guest referee is no modern invention. WWE used this method when it was still the World Wrestling Federation.

A number of times when the barrel-chested Bruno Sammartino defended his title, the referee counting the pinfalls was a familiar face. In 1975 for example, Gorilla Monsoon was the referee when Sammartino collided with Ivan Koloff for the world championship in Madison Square Garden.

Monsoon also officiated a match between Sammartino and Ken Patera in 1977.

And he wasn't the only Goliath to work as an official. Haystacks Calhoun and Andre the Giant also donned striped shirts in marquee bouts in 1978.

This strategy was an easy means to add flair to a card. It offered a chance to mix things up. Suddenly the latest Sammartino vs. Billy Graham go-round could distinguish itself from the previous one with Monsoon or someone else trying to keep order.

The birth of WrestleMania saw WWE return to this tact but with celebrities in addition to wrestlers.

At the first edition of The Show of Shows, Muhammad Ali oversaw the Mr. T and Hulk Hogan vs. Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff main event. His presence made the clash and the event itself feel bigger. It was one of many ways WWE headman Vince McMahon tried to stuff the show with star power.

That trend continued at the next edition where actor Robert Conrad and NFL linebacker Carl Banks served as guest referees at WrestleMania II. 

SummerSlam 1988 saw one of the more memorable instances of a special guest referee. Jesse Ventura, known in both the wrestling and acting circles, officiated the showdown between The Mega Bucks and The Mega Powers. 

Ventura, hand selected by the heels, ended up costing Ted Dibiase and Andre the Giant the match. 

Jesse Ventura in some unconventional referee attire.
Jesse Ventura in some unconventional referee attire.Credit:

Randy Savage's valet Miss Elizabeth ripped her skirt off in the middle of the action to create a diversion. The salivating, stunned Ventura abandoned his referee duties to gawk at her.

His reaction helped boost the moment. Jacob Trowbridge of WhatCulture wrote that Ventura "sold his dumbfounded excitement perfectly."

Enforcers and Animosity 

Chuck Norris didn't get down and dirty like most referees, but WWE still worked him into a match as a special addition. At the 1994 Survivor Series PPV, the martial artist was the enforcer for Undertaker vs. Yokozuna.

He didn't need to count pinfalls or break up chokeholds. He simply stalked the ringside area in case things got out of hand. That way WWE could add his name power to the event without relying on him to handle all the duties that come with reffing. 

Four years later, Mike Tyson would do much as Norris did.

He was the enforcer for Michaels' WWE title defense against Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIV. He didn't do a lot during the bout; the real ref did all the heavy lifting. Tyson simply slid into the fray at the last minute to craft a moment WWE could carve into the audience's brain, namely his knocking Michaels out with a right hand.

A wrestler better understands the inner workings of a match and the role of a referee than an outsider, so it's not surprising that the company often turned to its own guest official service.

Michaels suited up in short shorts and a striped shirt for Bret Hart vs. Undertaker at SummerSlam 1997. An errant chair shot from The Heartbreak Kid cracked against Undertaker's head and started a feud that would lead both men into the first Hell in a Cell match.  

Michaels didn't stop there. He again took over officiating duties on SmackDown in 1999 when his buddy Triple H took on The Rock for the world title. 

Just when it looked as if The Great One was wrapping up a win, Michaels clocked him with a superkick.

This kind of game-changing intrusion has been commonplace with guest referees. They are the pro wrestling equivalent of a gun that shows up in act one of a play. Eventually, it's going to go off. 

Betrayals and bias are all but assured in these situations. We saw that when The Rock refused to count while The British Bulldog had Triple H beat or when Torrie Wilson ambushed Lita to give Stephanie McMahon an unfair edge.

New Century, Same Drama

When the Attitude Era gave way to the Ruthless Aggression Era in the early '00s, the guest referee shtick didn't fade away.

At WrestleMania X-7, Mick Foley officiated the battle of McMahons. And he added action to the match both by being on the wrong end of a chair shot from Vince and delivering a beatdown to his boss.

Chris Jericho shafted his enemy as a referee for John Cena vs. Carlito ahead of SummerSlam 2005. Michaels essentially slathered honey over Rob Conway and fed him to a bear in 2006 when he put him in a T-shirt with May 19 written all over it. The sight of the date Kane hates the most incensed him.

Guest referees offer a means to complicate a story, to throw in a violent moment to a match or to advance rivalries.

For Stone Cold, the guest referee spot offered him a chance to re-enter the squared circle after injuries forced him out. WWE could still use his name and presence without him taking bumps. Primetime matches got bigger in a hurry when Austin came aboard, even as a ref.

Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XX featured an intriguing wrinkle of Austin running the match. 

The Texas Rattlesnake shared tension with Lesnar ahead of the showdown. One had to wonder how that would play out. 

Austin eventually punctuated the action with a pair of stunners, knocking down both competitors and biding them adieu Stone Cold style.

He showed up again in ref attire at WrestleMania 23 for The Battle of the Billionaires. Bobby Lashley vs. Umaga on its own wouldn't have been a huge match. But Lashley representing Donald Trump and Umaga serving as Mr. McMahon's proxy in a hair-versus-hair bout upped the stakes. Austin's presence as a referee was an added bit of window dressing.

As one might expect, Austin didn't fade into the background. He handed out stunners including one to The Donald.

Essential Elements

In some clashes, the guest referee has proved invaluable.

Triple H vs. Undertaker at WrestleMania 28 would have been a stirring match. But Michaels' presence elevated it to the level of a classic. HBK's facial expressions, his attachment to Triple H, his hesitation to count to three after nailing Undertaker with a superkick all added emotional depth to the action.

In the years to follow, other stories added a key layer via a deft choice for referee.

Lee reffed CM Punk vs. Bryan at Money in the Bank 2012 and her affection for the combatants complicated the proceedings. Triple H tore Bryan's heart out when he reffed the bearded underdog's WWE title match against Cena at SummerSlam 2013. The Game flattened Bryan moments after he claimed victory, making him easy prey for Orton.

That was the incendiary catalyst for The Authority storyline that dominated WWE for months afterward.  On The Oratory, John Canton wrote after Triple H's attack: "Bryan's quest to gain back the WWE title will be the story to watch in WWE this fall and I'm excited to see what happens with it."

It hasn't always created something as memorable as that, but the company turned to the guest referee as a narrative tool a good amount in recent years. 

Michaels superkicked Bryan at Hell in a Cell 2013. Vince McMahon tried to prevent Roman Reigns from dethroning Sheamus in late 2015.

Dean Ambrose irked AJ Styles by being blatantly favorable to James Ellsworth last year.

And the bulk of Owens' issues with Shane-O-Mac today stem from Shane's actions as referee. KO believes McMahon has orchestrated a conspiracy against him. That has involved shoddy officiating in his U.S. title matches against Styles.

Now Owens' career hangs in the balance with McMahon counting pinfalls alongside Bryan.

The audience will go into Clash of Champions unsure how it will all shake out, but certain that McMahon and Bryan will play a big hand in the result. That's been the tradition for years. Be it Michaels or Jericho, Triple H or Tyson, guest referees prove to be more than just bit players.

They are important cogs in the storytelling machine and can be counted out to disrupt and add to the action.

Historical results and information via unless otherwise noted.


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