NOTE: Originally published on Jan. 21, 2012 in The Kingston Whig-Standard. All rights reserved.
When it comes to spinning yarns, longtime World Wrestling Entertainment referee Jimmy Korderas has what you might call a photographic memory.
Ironically, it was a brief stint taking photographs that would lead him to the career that would see him travel the world, working with the biggest names in the most famous wrestling promotion on Earth.
Yes, before the Canadian-born Korderas was raising the arms of the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Bret (The Hitman) Hart and others, he was selling — illegally, it turns out — photographs of some of Maple Leaf Wrestling’s most famous talents.
“(Photography) was … a hobby of mine, not only (while) attending wrestling events,” Korderas said over the phone this week, adding “I was a die-hard wrestling fan. I attended all the events at Maple Leaf Gardens every three weeks when they had it.”
While there, the budding photographer would snap images of the action and the superstars.
“I would develop those pictures and I would come back to the next show and I would sell them to the fans outside,” said the co-host of The Score’s Aftermath program, a post-game WWE analysis show. “It kind of helped pay for the tickets and the parking and that sort of stuff. It kind of paid my way into wrestling, so to speak.”
That was, until he got the attention of organizers.
“I got discovered by (legendary Canadian wrestling promoter) Elio Zarlenga, who was Jack Tunney’s right-hand man, and who kind of told me what I was doing was a little bit on the illegal side,” said Korderas, who has a sister who lives in Napanee. “I didn’t get it at the time. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, what’s the big deal? I’m just trying to pay for my wrestling habit.’ ”
Today, such a move would surely bring legal action or, at the very least, a lifetime ban. But not so back then. Those Korderas snapshots, which might even fetch a few bucks nowadays, captured more than wrestling action. They captured the attention of some wrestling heavyweights — and not in the 300-plus-pounder kind of way.
You could say things turned out picture perfect for the then aspiring photographer.
“(Zarlenga) was pretty cool about it and we got to be friends,” Korderas said.
It got better.
“Eventually, he introduced me to Jack Tunney and when I met Jack, he said, ‘You know what, I don’t need another photographer or anything right now, but we’ll find something for the kid to do,’ and I ended up being put on the ring crew.”
The ring crew gig lasted roughly a year, according to Korderas, before another legendary Canadian wrestling icon forever altered Korderas’s future.
“(Refereeing) was actually suggested by Pat Patterson,” Korderas said. “He was speaking to Jack Tunney one day and he just mentioned that the WWE at the time was looking to bring aboard more referees, their own referees as opposed to using commissioned referees wherever they went. He suggested that maybe I try refereeing and one thing led to another.”
He was told to buy the referee gear — black pants, sneakers a shirt and bow tie, and be ready.
“That’s what I did,” Korderas said.
There was only one problem.
“I was waiting for someone to instruct me or train me or teach me the ins and outs of refereeing, (but) nobody really did,” he said. “I asked questions to the other refs, they answered as best they could, but nobody actually took the time to train me until one day Chief Jay Strongbow said, ‘Do you have your ref gear with you?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do’ and he said, ‘Well, put it on, you’re reffing tonight.’ ”
That night was in February 1987 in Newmarket.
“I was a little bit in shock,” Korderas said, when told he would be making his debut. “Thank god for the late, great Billy Red Lyons, who I went to and said, ‘Here’s the situation.’ He sat me down and he went over a bunch of stuff with me, which was really good. My first match — S.D. Special Delivery Jones was one of the guys in the match. Him and I had become friends at the time and he was very helpful getting me through that match.”
The trick to solid professional wrestling refereeing is to be visible when the situation calls for it. That was something, Korderas says, he worked on from the outset.
“Right from the get-go, I always thought to myself, the biggest job of refereeing is to stay invisible until the time comes where you need to be seen,” Korderas said.
A ref’s other job is “to help enhance the match. A referee who’s not so good won’t bring the quality of the match down, but a good referee could help make the match better, if that makes sense.”
For Korderas, being in the business he loved from childhood was more important than anything else.
“I learned fairly early on that I’m not going to be the guy who people are going to pay money to see. The people are going to pay money to see the superstars in the ring and not the guy in the black bow tie or the guy in the striped shirt. I’m fine with that. I never got into it to be a superstar, so to speak. I got into it because I love the wrestling business and I just wanted to be a part of it.”
While on most nights during his 20-plus-year career with the WWE you’d have been hard-pressed to even notice Korderas, evidence that he was very good at his craft — his career wasn’t without some fanfare or attention.
For instance, he took this opportunity to clear up an incident that took place at WrestleMania IV, some 14 years ago, when legend has it that legendary manager Jimmy (Mouth of the South) Hart KO’d Korderas with his trademark megaphone. Not so, says Korderas.
“It’s a bit of an urban legend that Jimmy Hart had knocked me out with the megaphone at WrestleMania IV,” Korderas said. “I just want to say that Jimmy Hart is one of the safest guys you can be in the ring with. He did not knock me out at WrestleMania IV,” he reiterated, before telling the full story.
“What happened was when he hit me with the megaphone and I went down to the mat, I landed face-first on the canvas and pretty much knocked myself out. I did it to myself. He didn’t do it to me.
That’s not to say that Korderas freely offered up that information from the outset.
“I let it run for a while, but I can’t do that to Jimmy Hart. He’s a friend and I don’t want him to be saddled with this.”
Another, this time forgettable and tragic, moment saw Korderas standing inside the ring awaiting the start of a match at Kemper Arena on May 23, 1999, where he was to officiate a match featuring the late Owen Hart, then wrestling under the guise of the Blue Blazer. During a failed stunt entrance, Hart plummeted from the ceiling inside the arena to his death inside the ring, at Korderas’s feet.
It’s an image etched in Korderas’s mind forever.
“That’s unfortunately something that’s … I don’t want to say haunt, because that’s not the right word … It’s just something that’s going to live with me forever,” he said in a very sombre, almost painful tone. “It’s the most tragic part of not only the business …” he said, trailing off.
“It was just a very tragic moment, he said, clearly struggling for words. “Being so close to it … it was something that I had to deal with and it took me a long time to come to grips with it, but at the same time, it’s still there. I still think about it to this day.
In fact, Korderas admitted, he can close his eyes to this day and remember it.
Korderas was asked if rumours that Hart yelled in his direction during his fatal fall night, for fear of landing on the unsuspecting referee below, are true.
“I heard the screaming, I didn’t hear exactly what the screaming was,” Korderas said. “I was told later that that’s what it was. I will say I’m not 100% sure, but I did hear someone screaming,” he said, adding that it would not have been out of character at all for Owen to be fearing for others’ safety ahead of his own.
Korderas’s lengthy career with WWE ended in 2009. It was as much by choice, he says, as it was anything else.
“I had taken some time away, I had an illness in the family — my father was sick,” he said. “We were dealing with a lot of stuff at home and you know, my heart wasn’t really in it at the time. At the same time, around January of ’09, I guess the company was looking to scale back. I talked to (Executive Vice President of Talent Relations for WWE) John Laurinaitis on the phone, we had a good conversation and we just thought the time was right … If your heart’s not there, and your mind isn’t there, there is no point in doing it. It was pretty much a mutual thing.”
After returning to his native country, a call came that would send his life down a new path.
“I got contacted by Arda (Ocal),” Korderas said.
Ocal is the mind behind The Score’s Aftermath program, North America’s only post-game WWE analysis show.
“He just wanted to interview me for the … show,” Korderas said. “I did the interview and then we stayed in contact.”
From there, Korderas would become a regular guest, eventually unveiling a segment entitled Ask The Ref.
“It was just a quick little 30- second to one-minute bit (during which) there would be a question,” Korderas said. “For the most part, I would answer the question. Sometimes it would be kind of tongue-in-cheek, sometimes it would be serious.”
When Ocal’s co-host at the time, Corey Erdman, moved into another position with The Score, a door opened.
“There was a suggestion that maybe I step in,” Korderas said. “At the time, (WWE) Raw was doing a guest host (segment) every week. The suggestion was that maybe I could come in on the radio show and be the guest host for that week. I came in, I did it and I had a blast. Arda asked me if I’d come back the next week and do it again. I said ‘Sure, no problem,’ and one thing led to another — it snowballed — and they can’t get rid of me now.”
These days, Korderas breaks down WWE happenings along with Ocal and Renee Paquette, both of whom he credits for helping him launch the latest chapter in his career.
“I can’t say enough (about them),” Korderas said. “Arda has been a great help to me, and Renee also. It’s hard to describe. When you get a group of people together — especially to talk about any subject, not just the WWE and not just wrestling or sports entertainment but to talk about any subject — and to have a camaraderie and a chemistry together … I found that first with Arda — it’s almost like we were two big wrestling nerds who just clicked. We’re on the same wavelength.
“Then when I finally filled in a few times on television, that sort of same rapport came with Renee because she made me feel at ease being there as part of the trio. It just worked out into a great dynamic, the three of us working together.”
Not unlike the relationship between a wrestler and a great referee.
The opportunity to work on such a unique program is not lost on Korderas.
“It’s a great opportunity,” he said. “I like the fact that The Score recognizes that there is an audience out there for it. When you look at mainstream media, for example — I’m not talking about sports stations, I’m talking about mainstream media. They have this perception of the WWE and sports entertainment as … to me it feels like they kind of look at it tongue-in-cheek, it’s kind of like they don’t view it on the same level as other forms of entertainment and it absolutely is.
“It’s just like any other television show out there. It’s just like any other movie or form of entertainment out there. It’s the same vehicle and I think The Score recognizes that and that’s why they’re so proactive in putting programming like this on their television station.
After spending the better part of his life working inside the WWE, it’s difficult for Korderas to guage whether that door is permanently closed. For now, though, he’s looking forward to explore his new medium.
Does Korderas ever see himself working in WWE again?
“Maybe, maybe not,” he said. “Never say never. The door is not closed, but I am really enjoying what I am doing now. I think I’ve moved on from wrestling. It doesn’t mean that I don’t still love it (or that) I don’t still have that passion for it. I really enjoy it.”
He’s also using his career to help others.
“There’s a local independent here, Squared Circle Wrestling, that I kind of donate my time to and give advice to and that sort of stuff.
For now, though, broadcasting is where Korderas sees his future.
“I’ve moved on from the wrestling and I think this is my career path now. This is something I want to continue and pursue … maybe expand my presence in the broadcasting field.
In terms of where his place among Canadian influences in pro wrestling, Korderas won’t speculate, but he does know how he approached his career.
“For me, it was important to know that whenever I was assigned a match, and whoever the participants were, they were comfortable with me being in the match with them and were happy with me being that third man or fifth man in the ring or whatever the case may be,” he said. “The accolades and recognition from wrestling fans is cool, but for me, it was more from my peers in the business. If I had their respect and their confidence, that’s what meant more to me than anything.”
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