A Wrestling Referee Finds His Calling
Robert “Odie” Brown comes into his own inside and outside the ring.
Robert "Odie" Brown at the NWA World's Heavyweight Championship.
Photo by Hiban Huerta
Last summer, friends of Robert “Odie” Brown essentially freaked out with joy over social media when they saw that Brown, originally from Martinez, had been featured in a nationally televised World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE, sketch. In the bit, wrestler Kevin Owens’ car had been destroyed by fellow wrestler Braun Strowman, and Brown played a valet caught between the two of them. For Brown, this was the culmination of several dreams coming true for the then-29-year-old actor and diehard wrestling fan.
Brown began acting in middle school as part of a teacher’s effort to channel his excessive energy into something productive. “I was 11 in sixth grade, and I had an English teacher that saw that I was just this kind of wild, rambunctious class clown,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “But she saw that in me and was like ‘Hey, I’m putting this play on, and you should come and do it, because you need something to do with all that energy and creativity.’ And I had never even considered it before. I went and did it and loved the whole thing.”
From there, Brown found himself either in an acting class and/or a play throughout every semester of college. A graduate of Butler Community College in Wichita, Kansas, Brown majored in acting and theater performance and auditioned for an acting scholarship — which he was able to earn during a visit to the campus.
“I had heard about the school and how they had such a good performing arts department,” Brown said. “I went and auditioned, and the theater head took me upstairs to this conference room and sat me down and said, ‘We usually mail these to people, but I kind of want to just give you this contract right now and tell you if you want to come, you can come.’”
It wouldn’t be too long after that Brown would discover being a referee in the world of wrestling.
“A friend of mine, who was a wrestler, was at an autograph signing out in San Jose, held by the Underground Wrestling Alliance, that I took my girlfriend to at the time, to try and get her more interested in wrestling,” Brown said. “I go to the show and come to find that there’s no referee there, and the wrestlers are just trading the referee shirt around after their matches are over.”
Brown approached the show’s promoter and offered to referee.
“So I got in, and they told me that I wasn’t terrible, and if I wanted to, I could keep doing it and see how it goes,” he said.
With his first match under his belt, Brown threw himself into becoming a referee. He picked up wrestling training along the way with the Suburban Commandos in Oakland and legendary referee Sparkey Ballard at the Gold Mine in Pacifia. Brown was also trained for television by veteran wrestling promotor and TV creator Dave Marquez.
“I was 25 at the time, and I was like, ‘OK, I don’t really want to do this as a career, but it’ll be fun to do for a little while. So let’s say if in five years I can make it to the WWE or something, by the time I’m 30, then I’ll keep going,” said Brown. “Now it’s five years later and that’s looking like a possibility at some point. So I’m like, ‘Maybe I should just kind of keep going with this,’ and I’ve really fallen in love with the community and the role I’m playing in it.” The wrestling community, in turn, seems to like him back, with Brown receiving friendly cheers of “Odie!!!” when he steps into the ring to ref his matches.
Brown, who lives near Sacramento, has now thrown himself completely into this choice and referees for Maverick Pro Wrestling, Championship Wrestling from Hollywood, Ring Warriors, Best of the West, and has had opportunities to referee with Pro Wrestling Guerilla, all big names in West Coast wrestling. In addition, Brown has launched a private Facebook group called Zebra Talk, in which referees of any skill level from anywhere in the world can trade notes.
“It started with like 25 people that I added. And then overnight, it became like 250 people that other people had added. And it’s about two and a half years later and we’re at almost 650 members,” Brown said.
“It’s kind of tricky, which is a big reason why I created Zebra Talk, so that not only could I identify with my peers and co-workers throughout the world, but to give us a platform to discuss our craft and try and improve,” Brown said.
Where the future is concerned, Brown, who currently makes a living between refereeing and a bartending position, said his goal has been to referee for the WWE, to travel the world with them, and to be part of their brand.
“As far as acting, I’ve always wanted to be a successful working film actor. A lot of people think that’s it’s a pipe dream, and my experiences over the last two or three years have shown me that it’s a lot more accomplishable than people really think,” he said. “You just have to be willing to jump over the hurdles that are laid out in front of you.”
When asked what advice he’d give to anyone looking to act as a referee, Brown said to find the right school (some wrestling schools offer referee programs), a close-knit group of people you trust to help you make the right decisions, get in shape, and don’t take “no” for an answer.
“Don’t let yourself get brought down by other people’s negativity,” he said. “A lot of people will try and tell you that you can’t do something, and it’s up to you to decide whether or not you believe it.”
That’s pretty good advice from a man in a zebra-striped shirt.