(CBS Miami/CBS Local Sports) — In the world of professional wrestling, it is the referee’s job to go largely unseen. The focus of the match is between the competitors in the ring, meaning it’s up to the person in charge to control the action while still being as unobtrusive as possible. It’s a delicate act and one that has been passed down through generations. Count to three, call for the bell, raise the victor’s hand, but never become the story of the match. That’s the role of the ref.
Aubrey Edwards doesn’t subscribe to that philosophy. All Elite Wrestling’s first full-time female referee doesn’t put up with any nonsense from any competitor in the ring. She’s in charge, and she wants you to know it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a six-foot six-inch man with muscles the size of Texas, if you bend the rules or get in her face, she will back you down and put you in your place.
Her fearless by-the-book attitude has earned her a loyal legion of fans and transformed her into a role model for the young women watching her in action. Thanks to Edwards, the door has been opened for other women to become officiants, a role once exclusively reserved for men.
It wasn’t long before rival World Wrestling Entertainment took notice of her popularity and used the path she just laid to continue the Women’s Evolution. In December, Jessika Carr was promoted to the SmackDown brand and hired to become the company’s first full-time female referee.
But Edwards is still standing out on her own. Somehow she’s able to be that dominant force in the ring without becoming the focus of the match she’s overseeing. The story is and always will be on the wrestlers, which makes the balancing act she’s able to accomplish that much more impressive.
It’s not just fans who are taking notice either. Edwards has caught the eye of Earl Hebner, a longtime WWE official widely thought of as one of the best referees in history. She considers that to be an enormous feather in her cap. Some now even refer to her as Gearl Hebner.
Until recently Edwards was on a very different career path. She spent decades as a classically trained ballet dancer and later worked in the video game and non-profit industries. Neither job is exactly what you’d expect to find on a referee’s resume, but she’s an anomaly and will humbly tell you as much.
Edwards added another job to her resume in December when AEW tapped her to become the promotion’s project coordinator.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Edwards to talk about her long and winding road to the wrestling business, earning respect in a male-dominated industry, training the next generation of female referees, and the heartfelt messages she’s received from parents of young girls who now view her as a role model.
Your stock is on the rise, Aubrey. How has this journey been for you?
It’s been pretty wild, especially given the fact that every other ref on our team has over like 15 years of experience and I’ve literally been doing this for two-and-a-half. So if you had told me three years ago that I would’ve completely changed careers and be on TV every week, I would have told you that you were an idiot and there’s no possible way. So that’s kind of where I’m at.
You have Earl Hebner among the refs in AEW, and yet I would argue to say you are the highest-profile at the moment.
So after the match at All Out with Jericho and Page, I walked to the back, and I’m just kind of like, “Oh my God, that happened.”
And I see Earl, and I’m like, “Do you have any feedback?” He goes, my feedback is, “I’m going to put my resume together, because you might’ve put me out of a job.”
He’s a sweetheart. Super supportive guy. I’m thrilled and blessed, whatever word you like. Grateful. I could come up with the adjectives all day, but to have him on our team and be able to learn from him and get feedback from him, it’s like he’s Earl frigging Hebner. Right? It’s insane. But everyone’s got their favorite refs. I have my favorite reference is Bryce Remsburg. He’s the GOAT. I love him. I’ve taken so many things from him when we were on the indies and then now we’re working together every day. It’s great.
Did you always want to be a referee or did you want to wrestle at one point?
I have kind of a weird backstory. I was a classical ballet dancer for 20 years and for the last 10 years professionally I’d made video games.
Who are you?
I’m an anomaly. I do everything. I was doing my full-time games job Monday through Friday, and then I started reffing about two-and-a-half years ago after I had retired from dance, because I was running a dance company. I was doing some nonprofit work, all that kind of stuff. But I’m in my early 30s, that’s kind of when they send dancers out to pasture anyway, because we start getting old. Everything hurts. My feet look terrible. It’s bad. But I start reffing, so I’m literally working two jobs. I’m doing Monday through Friday, I’m in an office making games and then Friday night through Sunday night I’m driving all over the place, I’m reffing. I’m flying places, all this stuff.
It was funny because with AEW becoming a thing, I basically got to switch careers, which is terrifying, but it’s a pretty fun switch. It’s a pretty damn good switch.
Talk to me about the nonprofit work you were doing.
I worked for a dance nonprofit based in Seattle, Washington where we were working with groups in the community. We work with the boys and girls club a lot, to provide dance classes to underprivileged members in the community. Biggest reason why is that dance is very expensive and dance is very inaccessible to a lot of people, especially kids who come from families that may be like both parents are working all the time just to make ends meet. So we wanted kids to experience culture and art forms, while not having to deal with the financial blocking factors of dance.
Right now, I’m not dancing anymore, but now I’m training the next generation of refs up in Seattle. And seeing things like what I’ve done with making women referees a thing. Jessika Carr’s done a lot for NXT, and then I’m kind of doing the same thing for AEW. But my entire ref team of students, I’ve got one guy, and I’ve got four girls. I literally in my last independent show we had four women referees on the roster. Completely organically, it’s not like we planned it, but it’s literally that’s what you have because representation matters. And being able to see people that look like you in media is really important.
Was there a surge of female referees before you came in the business?
There was a bit. There’s always been a handful here and there, you just had to really find them. I know there was a couple over in the UK, there’s a couple on the West coast. Becky, who’s one of my favorites actually, came from this area, like MCW. I think she’s doing some work with Ring Of Honor right now, or she was. But I know for a fact, one of my students actually saw me at Double or Nothing. There was this incident where the bell rang early in a match and I was firm, I held my two. I’m like, “Nope, it is not over. This match is still going.” And it was chaos. It was insane. Most of the girls didn’t speak English, so trying to tell them like, “No, the match is not over. We are still going.” It was just pure, pure chaos.
So she reached out to us shortly after and says, “I did not realize until that moment that referees could be characters. So I looked up who Aubrey Edwards was. Found out she was in Seattle.” She’s in Portland. She drives three and a half hours once a week. So seven hours total to come train with me for two hours a week. It’s insane to know that like, “Oh my God, I really can’t mess up.” Right?
Because now it’s like I have someone who’s investing all, and she got to debut recently. So it was fantastic to watch her, and she’s just so great. She’s killing it. I love it.
You have a strong character. I would imagine that being that strong character who does hold firm, puts her foot down, that’s somebody that you know, little girls can look up to. You’re not being intimidated by these big hulking wrestlers that are in the ring.
I literally have messages from parents every day. A lot of times it’s dads who say that they’re trying to get their daughters into wrestling, and it’s a lot easier when you have a strong authoritative woman who’s not taking any crap from men. And it kind of goes back to what I said before, representation matters. People want to raise strong women, and that starts when we’re all young. And part of that is seeing people that look like you do things that you want to do. And now we have all of this interest. One of the shows I worked up in near Seattle, there’s this little girl. She wants to be a veterinarian and a ref, and she knows she can do both because Britt Baker is also a dentist. It’s fantastic.
The people that weren’t even thinking about this before are now like, “This is a possibility.” And that’s probably the thing that I didn’t know I was going to get out of this, but probably my favorite part. …All of the little girls that know that this is something they could do, and they’re not afraid to do it because big tall dudes are intimidating. But if I’m not taking anybody’s crap, neither should they.
So you’re doing the school. Are you also still working the indies or are you doing AEW exclusively?
I’m not working too many Indies. I just worked my home promotion, 3-2-1 Battle up in Seattle. They’re the guys that trained me. They’re who I work with to train the next generation of refs up there. It’s a really fantastic place. The organization in its current form, it’s been running like five or six years. We’re kind of this underground punk rock, weird wrestling vibe. It’s great.
So I’m working there because they did a lot for me to get me where I’m at. I’m kind of doing my thing, paying it forward. I’m giving back to what they did, but I’m also helping them grow more. I’m working their shows every other Friday. I’m working at AEW. So that’s like fly out Tuesday, work Wednesday, fly back Thursday. I’ve been working a long time. Doing games is hard because there’s a lot of crunch,, we’ve all heard the stories who work in the two jobs of games and reffing. I’m excited to enjoy my time off right now. I get to hit the gym a lot, which is great.
NEWS & NOTES
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Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.