One of the glue pieces in pro wrestling when it comes to piecing together a match, making sure things go smoothly and being another line of communication are referees. There is not a set place or training center where officials can learn how to be officials so some have gone the route of training at a wrestling school and testing themselves as a wrestler and later transitioning into referees.
This was a semi-familiar route for Yali Sapphire, who is a pro wrestling referee based out of Kansas City, Missouri. It was around five years ago that Yali enrolled herself in a local wrestling school in Missouri and that was the beginning of her journey as a referee. Yali has refereed all over the Midwest and is hoping to referee more on the East coast and eventually overseas. I had the opportunity to interview Yali and she recounted how she got into the business.
“I started here in Kansas City, Missouri at a wrestling school. They opened up and within months of them opening, I actually started training, but since then, over the past five years, I’ve worked all over Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and more specifically, NXT down in Florida.”
Referees are a crucial piece to making sure matches unfold the way that they are intended to but at times that requires said official to physically get involved in the match. There have been times in Yali’s career that she’s been tossed around in the ring to enhance the match. She was asked to share some of her wildest stories from in the ring and she recalled seeing a wrestler being busted open for the first time, being a part of a Steel Cage match and chairs being thrown into the ring and sometimes, those chairs coming in her direction.
“Yeah, for me it’s just the crazy, unexpected things happen. Like, I’ve been involved in a Steel Cage match and there was a guy who climbed the cage and then flipped off of it and just… it’s incredible seeing what the human body can survive through. But yeah, I’ve seen guys get busted open, I’ve been thrown around a few times and lifted up and sometimes, guys, when they’re throwing steel chairs in the ring from the audience, they’re not really aiming that chair so, there’s been a few times where I’ve had to duck.”
Over the last several years, there has been a spark in various portions of the wrestling business that has seen African-Americans rise to the forefront. With more black male wrestlers arriving to the forefront, there have also been a handful of black women that are solidifying their names in a wrestling company or on the independent scene.
The likes of Trish Adora, Faye Jackson, Bianca Belair, Ember Moon, Naomi and many others that went unmentioned are a part of that rise. To Yali Sapphire, it means a great deal to her to be a part of the growth of black women in wrestling and it excites her to know that she can inspire the next generation to get into the business and chase their respective dream.
“It’s definitely an unexpected challenge. There are some places you go today and you don’t feel that there’s — I guess I want to say racial tension, but we’re still breaking down barriers within the business and trying to get our name out there and also trying to be treated with respect, but it’s definitely exciting though when I realize I’m making a difference when I see young black girls looking up to me and realizing that there’s nothing in this world that they can’t do.”
With that up-rise, there are hurdles that have to be jumped over. Yali is no stranger to those hurdles and she shared that over time, there have been several occasions where she has been denied opportunities because of the color of her skin. She is aware of the idea that people should swallow those types of things and try to move forward. She does not go by that rule and has the mindset of proving that she belongs and has the abilities to be in the same category with some of the best officials around the world.
“Yeah definitely. When I started out, not just being black but being a female, there were times when people wouldn’t even bother looking at my skill and my in-ring ability. They just take one look at me and say, ‘No,’ and so I had to overcome that and you’ll hear a lot of people say that the only way to be successful is to get used to hearing ‘no’, but once you get over that, I mean, it’s about voicing your — not so much your opinion but letting people know, ‘Hey, I’m good at what I do. I have the ability to be the best and I’m not going anywhere.’ You just can’t give up.”
Yali’s five years of experience in the business includes time working with WWE’s NXT brand. Yali had a tryout with the sports-entertainment company that led to her working a few dates for NXT on their Florida house show loop. One of the matches she had the opportunity to referee featured the current NXT North American Champion Keith Lee. Yali stated that her experience with WWE gave her some insight into how the company operated and she appreciates the time she had within it.
“It definitely gave me a perspective on what the WWE is looking for. But, it was a lot of fun and I got the chance to work three NXT live events down in Florida and got to just see how that machine known as the WWE operates.”
One of the more recent topics in wrestling is how the Coronavirus has impacted the industry. Countless independent promotions, conventions and those alike have been forced to either cancel or postpone their upcoming events. There have been promotions/companies such as Game Changer Wrestling and WWE that have decided to run empty arena shows. Specifically on the independent wrestling front, the decision to run empty arena shows are to generate income for the in-ring performers who some of them, rely solely on wrestling for their source of income.
There are wrestlers who are now launching Patreons, starting to stream on platforms such as Twitch and grow their respective YouTube channels in wake of the Coronavirus outbreak. While speaking with Yali about the topic, she agrees with the notion that now is the time for wrestlers to start working on those outside ventures that can generate income for them and she also encourages fans to support independent wrestling by buying merchandise and supporting who they choose to support in any way possible during this time.
“I think right now, I would definitely want to encourage fans to buy merchandise. There are a lot of wrestlers who have stores set up on Pro Wrestling Tees or maybe they have their own personal websites, but if you’re a fan of pro wrestling and there’s an indie wrestler you wanna help support, definitely buy their merch, buy their t-shirts.”
As mentioned during the earlier portion of this article, Yali has a goal to travel overseas and officiate. In years past, Yali didn’t think she was good enough to referee outside of the usual areas she’d officiate in but now is of the mindset that she’s ready to travel the world and hopes to end up in the U.K. and/or Japan.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t, but I would love to . Especially now that I feel like I’m good enough because of course when I started out I didn’t think I was good enough to travel outside of Missouri, let alone outside of the country. But, I would love to work in Japan and England and even Africa too.”
Yali’s next several weeks of bookings are postponed due to the Coronavirus outbreak so to support her, the link to her merchandise store can be found here. Yali can also be found on Twitter and Instagram @thefemaleref and our full conversation can be heard on the Andrew Thompson Interviews YouTube channel or the embedded video below: