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Dave Hebner and Tim White Brought Order and Chaos to the Wrestling Ring

The lives of two of the sport’s most famous referees remind us of the enduring importance of the “third man in the ring”

WWE/Ringer illustration

Last week, two of the best-known referees in WWE’s storied history went down for the count. Dave Hebner, 73, died on June 17. Tim White, 68, passed away two days later.

Their two careers intersected for more than three decades, and between them, they refereed many of the greatest moments in the WWE’s “Hulkamania” era of the 1980s and the Attitude Era of the 1990s. Hebner refereed the Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat match for the (then) WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania III, participated in a legendary “switcheroo” angle with twin brother Earl that enabled Andre the Giant to defeat Hulk Hogan for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship, and was the third man in the ring for Hogan’s grudge match with Savage at WrestleMania V, as well as the Ultimate Warrior’s defeat of Hogan for the title at WrestleMania VI.

Tim White split his time in the 1980s between refereeing and transporting Andre the Giant to and from the shows, then refereed the bloody 1998 Hell in a Cell match between Mankind and the Undertaker before suffering injuries in a 2002 Hell in a Cell match that would eventually force him out of the ring three years later. Factor in identical twin Earl Hebner’s presence in the Montreal Screwjob during the 1997 Survivor Series, during which Earl signaled for the timekeeper to ring the bell while Shawn Michaels held Bret Hart in the latter’s signature Sharpshooter finisher, and you might have an argument that the Hebner siblings and White covered all of the most significant, era-defining WWF events from the mid-1980s until the early 2000s.

Throughout their careers, Dave Hebner and Tim White faced a challenge unique to wrestling referees: Given the sport’s predetermined outcomes, they had to find ways to communicate crucial information to the wrestlers while appearing to uphold the rules of the match. (Vince McMahon is a stickler for wrestlers kicking out before the count of three.) “As a referee, you are never the focus of a match,” AEW referee Aubrey Edwards explained in a 2020 interview. “It’s always the wrestlers. You’re there to help them tell a story. ... I’m never ever in the center of attention.”

Of course, like Edwards—who can be quite theatrical in the ring—Hebner and White also found themselves thrust into significant on-camera roles. In Hebner’s case, that role came early in his career. In early 1988, he found himself playing the good-guy referee who was locked in a closet by Ted DiBiase so his “evil” brother Earl could bend the rules on Andre the Giant’s behalf.

For White, his biggest moments came at the tail end of his career. In the 2002 Hell in a Cell match at Judgment Day between Chris Jericho and Triple H, White took a hard bump outside the ring from Jericho, who later hurled him into the wall of the cell, busting him open and injuring his shoulder. Two years later, White reinjured that shoulder while performing the three-count in a WrestleMania XX match between Jericho and Christian, bringing his career in the ring to an end. That injury then became the impetus for an appearance on the 2005 Armageddon pay-per-view, during which interviewer Josh Mathews spoke to a depressed White at his bar in Rhode Island, only for White to pull out a shotgun and appear to kill himself. Hot on the heels of Eddie Guerrero’s drug overdose a month earlier and representing perhaps the height of Attitude Era shlock, this performance was repeated, with varying takes on White’s suicide, across a dozen or so sketches uploaded to the WWE’s official website.

In these situations and all others, Hebner and White performed as instructed—which would be expected from two men inaugurated to the business in the old style. For Hebner, that long apprenticeship meant working towns for Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) in the early 1970s alongside Earl, transporting the ring in a bus he owned and assembling it when he reached that night’s venue.

When Hebner left Jim Crockett Promotions for the WWF in 1986, longtime manager Jim Cornette remarked that his presence on WWF television always amused the JCP wrestlers, since Earl and Dave looked so much alike: “You would turn on the other company’s television and it would look like your own referee there for a second, then you’d realize, ‘Oh, wait a minute.’”

Dave was in the right spot at the right time, getting to officiate the classic 1987 WrestleMania III match between Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat. Preparations for the bout—which in its execution would prove a testament to Savage’s obsessive planning and Steamboat’s extraordinary in-ring skills—also saw Hebner on the receiving end of many late-night calls from Savage. “We had about 22 false finishes in that match,” Hebner recalled in an interview with SLAM! Wrestling. “We went over it, over and over. Randy and Ricky, I have to tell you, they gave it all they got. They are professionals. They know what they’re doing and are both great athletes and just give you everything, so you have to know your spot and timing.”

In Cornette’s opinion, the 1988 bait-and-switch angle for which Earl Hebner was brought to WWF from Crockett Promotions represented the peak of the Brothers Hebner’s run in wrestling, both in terms of helping Earl make more money—Tommy Young was the senior referee for JCP at the time, and Earl wasn’t going to supplant him—and because the physical resemblance between the Hebners was nearly perfect at the time. “Dave gained more weight and got chunky and you could tell them apart later in their careers, but at that point in time they were almost identical,” Cornette noted on his podcast.

When Earl appeared on NBC’s The Main Event late-night special, for story line purposes at the behest of “the Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, he administered a fast three-count while Hogan’s shoulders were off the mat. This earned Earl a post-match gorilla press from Hogan all the way to the outside of the ring, a bump that impressed Cornette, who understood that Earl and Dave were now getting a national-television rating of the sort that JCP could only dream of. Although the angle was red-hot—even receiving a detailed fictional build in the pages of WWF Magazine that addressed the long rivalry between “good” Dave and “bad” Earl—it had to be shelved due to Dave suffering an injury from when Earl kicked him on The Main Event after the former had rushed to the ring to break up the latter’s celebration with DiBiase and Andre (who had just “sold” the WWF World Heavyweight Championship to DiBiase). “[Earl] got so excited that when he laid it into me, he really laid into me,” Dave remembered in an interview. “That’s when you see me take that bump over by the rope where I could just roll out of the ring and hit the floor.”

White, by contrast, broke into the business on its periphery, then gradually entered its inner circle. In Bertrand Hébert and Pat Laprade’s The Eighth Wonder of the World: The True Story of Andre the Giant, White describes getting to work with Andre after befriending his then-handler Arnold “the Golden Boy” Skaaland, a legendary former WWF wrestler and manager, while working as a vendor at the company’s live events. Skaaland was looking to get out of the field, and he was able to secure White a position with the company. However, according to Hébert and Laprade, White upset Andre almost immediately, as the young referee entered the locker room to give the wrestlers copies of the matches for that night—a major no-no in those days—and Andre pushed away the card table where he was playing with Tito Santana and ordered White to get out.

White skedaddled when Andre bellowed, having learned an early lesson in the business, but he eventually settled into a routine of traveling with the Giant. The WWF travel office code-named the pair “Big Bear” and “Little Bear” to avoid drawing undue attention to Andre’s movements. On the East Coast, White drove Andre around in a customized van from which all of the seats had been removed save for the driver’s and a huge captain’s chair, while a refrigerator for beverages, a television, a car phone, and a customized pop-top that provided extra headroom had been installed. On the West Coast, White would rent RVs to ensure Andre had adequate space. Along the way, backstage agent and former wrestler Chief Jay Strongbow was teaching White the basics of refereeing, which he did on a part-time basis until Andre retired.

White’s most important turn in the ring came at the 1998 King of the Ring pay-per-view in Pittsburgh, where he was assigned to referee the Hell in a Cell match between Mankind and the Undertaker. In a revealing interview with former WWE backstage reporter Sean Mooney, White—already a seasoned veteran by this point—confessed his unease with the proposed spots in the match. “I spoke to Mark and Mick and they told me some of the spots I need to know, but I didn’t know they were going to do some of that stuff.” And when the match began to break down, with Mankind badly injured after a final painful fall, White said he found himself going, “Oh my god, oh my god, is it going to make it to the finish?” For his trouble, White ended up with dozens of thumbtacks in his own arm after making the three-count, but said he was glad that “everyone lived through that and it was over.”

Tim White’s own moment in the spotlight came a few years later, when he became the subject of Chris Jericho’s ire in a 2002 Hell in a Cell match. There, Jericho—who would ultimately lose the match to Triple H—lost his temper with White after the referee took a nasty bump off the ring apron. From there, Jericho exits the ring and hurls the referee into the side of the cage like he’s nothing more than a featherweight. The impact is sickening, White comes off the wall bleeding badly, and Jericho rains down more blows upon him while cursing him.

Great and tragic television, to be sure—capturing in celluloid amber the betrayal of the body that happens to wrestlers and referees alike. Much like Dave Hebner, whose active officiating career concluded with knee replacement surgery that led him first into a road agent role with WWE and eventually to other wrestling promotions after butting heads with John Laurinaitis backstage, Tim White’s shoulder injury marked the beginning of the end. He returned to officiate a solid Jericho-Christian bout at WrestleMania XX in 2004, but the three-count he administered would serve as a curtain call for his own career.

White’s last moment of notoriety came in a series of Attitude Era vignettes with interviewer Jake Mathews in which White, increasingly distraught about his Hell in a Cell injuries and the end of his career as a referee, would attempt suicide, with the final series concluding with him gunning down Matthews. These segments—most of which aired on the company’s website, as it was trying to beef up its online content—feature surprisingly strong performances from the despondent White and the anxious young Mathews. White’s thick New England accent lends real pathos to his performances, which were initially scripted by Dave Lagana and bear a strong resemblance to The Simpsons bartender Moe Szyslak’s own ongoing attempts at self-harm.

Although none of this Attitude Era nonsense—chopping off penises, the infamous Katie Vick angle, the Dr. Heinie and Jim Ross proctology segment, Mark Henry puking into a toilet after learning that the woman who performed oral sex on him was transgender—would pass muster today, Tim White did his part when called upon to act out one of the most lurid and half-baked ideas to come out of creative. From his time alongside Andre until he formally left the company in 2009, Tim White was one of the boys, and he remained one of the boys even after that, turning up to discuss Andre’s legacy in the 2018 HBO documentary Andre the Giant. “He was a man’s man, and I have all the respect in the world for Timmy,” longtime commentator Jim Ross said on his podcast.

Recently, former WWE referee Mike Chioda made waves when he claimed that today’s referees, unlike their predecessors who partied and traveled with the wrestlers, “kind of do their own thing, and no, they are not considered the boys and shouldn’t be considered the boys.” To that, Chioda added, “I really don’t feel the WWE had even considered us as talent, being a referee in the business.” By contrast, the tributes to both Dave Hebner and Tim White from former and current wrestlers, as well as the WWE itself, show that both men were in position right up until the end. They knew their supporting roles on the big stage, they had their moments in the spotlight, and at the end of it all, each man proved to be one of the boys.

Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.