Aubrey Edwards’ career path isn’t a common one. The Bellevue resident was a software developer who helped run a dance nonprofit, providing dance lessons to underprivileged kids. She did classical ballet for 20 years, eventually being forced to stop dancing due to the physical toll. Now, Edwards is a professional wrestling referee for All Elite Wrestling (AEW).
On Aug. 31, Edwards became the first woman to ever referee in a men’s title fight when she officiated a match between Chris Jericho and Adam “Hangman” Page in Chicago. After the match, Edwards had people reaching out to her on social media who were inspired by seeing a woman referee a fight while being assertive and not taking any stick from the people in the ring.
“I had someone on Twitter tell me that their daughter was watching the show and said, ‘Look Dad, If I ever get to referee, I can do the big matches too,’” Edwards said.
Being the first woman to referee a championship match meant a lot to Edwards, who hopes that one day it won’t be uncommon to see women refereeing in the ring at big events. Edwards said representation is important because it can inspire others to try something they normally wouldn’t.
“I think media mimics what’s happening in the real world,” Edwards said. “So we’re seeing more focus on women, and persons of color and different sexual orientations in wrestling.”
Edwards said she has had to learn how to be a woman in a field dominated by men. For every match, she wears a referee uniform, black and white striped shirts, black pants and black shoes. Edwards makes sure to add small touches to her uniform.
“I paint my nails to match the color of the poster of the show I’m on,” Edwards said. “I do my makeup and I do my hair in a ponytail and I curl it. I just add little things, that don’t necessarily draw attention away, but that add that little feminine twist to it.”
Coming from software development, Edwards said she has seen women begin to rise to the top in a male-dominated field.
“Seeing women ascend the ranks and run their own companies is really great,” Edwards said. “I’m kind of seeing the same thing happening in wrestling.”
For Edwards, being a professional wrestling referee is a lot like being in a ballet like “The Nutcracker.”
“You typically have one or two dancers who are at the forefront, the Sugar Plum Fairy or Clara or whoever it may be doing solos,” Edwards said. “And then you have the corps de ballet in the back to enhance the talent. Part of my role as a referee is to help enhance the stories the wrestlers are telling. So, it’s ultimately the same exact thing.”
When Edwards stopped dancing, she realized how much she missed performing.
“I didn’t realize until I was done dancing, just how important performing was to me,” Edwards said. “It allowed me to express myself.”
Unlike most people in the professional wrestling business, Edwards didn’t grow up watching it on TV. Edwards’ love of wrestling came about eight years ago when wrestler Daniel Bryan, from Aberdeen, became popular. When she watched a fight, she was drawn to the relationship the performers had with the audience.
“(Bryan) was sort of like the every-man character and everyone resonated with him,” Edwards said. “The audience really attached itself to him.”
Edwards started to go to wrestling matches in Seattle and when she was approached by the senior referee at 3-2-1 BATTLE, a professional wrestling organization in Seattle, about becoming a referee, she auditioned. At first, Edwards had a hard time transitioning from fan to referee.
“It’s sort of like if you don’t know how to swim, but you’re thrown into water,” Edwards said. “But I kept at it and two months later I made my debut. Two years later, I’m here.”
In the ring, Edwards is in a supporting role, working with the wrestlers to move the story along in the desired direction.
“The people on the posters that everyone came to see, they’re the ones who are at the forefront,” Edwards said. “I’m there to help them tell their story.”
Edwards was selected by Jericho to be the referee for the title match. She said knowing that she was picked specifically gave her more confidence.
“I know I’m not being put in this position because I’m a woman,” Edwards said. “I’m being put in this position because somebody believes in me.”
Before the title fight, Edwards met with the wrestlers and agent Dean Malenko, a large figure in wrestling, to go over their plans for the match.
“I’m sitting in a dressing room talking to these guys who are some of the most famous guys in the industry and I’m just like, ‘What is my life? This is insane,’” Edwards said.
Going into the match, Edwards said she was nervous because she was going into the ring with Jericho, one of the biggest stars in wrestling.
“I don’t have a problem with being nervous,” Edwards said. “I just think being nervous means you care. If you’re not nervous, why are you doing it? I still got nervous right up until the end of my dance career. For me, being nervous just goes hand-in-hand with performing.”
Whether it is a ballet or a wrestling match, it’s all just performing for Edwards. Just like ballet, professional wrestling is still physically demanding, even if it is a performance.
“It’s athletic theater,” Edwards said. “It’s 2019, we all know it’s predetermined, but the bumps they’re taking are real. We all feel it the next day.”
Edwards said a scripted ending doesn’t make the match any less entertaining for the audience. Just like when you go to a movie theater, Edwards said people are able to forget that the story isn’t real. Her job is to make the combat seem as real as possible to keep the audience on the edge of their seat.
“You know it’s all predetermined,” Edwards said. “You know the ending is already scripted and acted out, but what you want out of a movie is to pay your money and for those two or three hours you are so enthralled that you are questioning, ‘Hmm, I wonder how this is going to end. Is the main character going to die? Are they going to live? What’s going to happen?’”