TAMPA — Professional wrestling is entertainment, but the referees are not supposed to be entertaining.
“Their job is to make sure the guys in the ring are the focal point,” said Jody Simon, a retired second generation wrestler. “Referees stand out by not standing out.”
Tampa’s Stu Schwartz lived by that creed while a referee from the 1950s through 1980s.
He became a star anyway.
“He was too good looking,” Florida professional wrestling archivist Barry Rose laughed.
Fans lined up for autographs decades after Mr. Schwartz retired from professional wrestling.
“Stu Schwartz was the greatest referee of all time,” Rose said. “That’s why he was never forgotten.”
Mr. Schwartz died on Sept. 18. He was 90.
“He was as great a person as he was a referee,” Rose said.
Before global promotions like the WWE, professional wrestling had regional promotions. Florida had Championship Wrestling from Florida, which was based in Tampa.
The promotion’s stars included Dusty Rhodes, the Brisco brothers, the Funk brothers, Boris Malenko, Buddy Colt and Eddie Graham, who doubled as the real life behind-the-scenes boss.
“Eddie was old school,” Rose said.
Graham — real name Eddie Gossett — promoted professional wrestling under the guise of legitimate competition and expected his performers to do the same.
“That made Stu Schwartz the perfect referee,” Rose said.
Mr. Schwartz, a U.S. Navy veteran and graduate of Hillsborough High School and the University of Tampa, was a muscular and athletic, more so than some of the wrestlers.
“He was a guy who looked like he could enforce the rules,” Rose said. “He looked and carried himself like a guy who would not be intimidated and would stand up for himself, just like a referee would do in any professional sport.”
Frank Reyes has been a professional wrestling referee for 39 years, including a stint in the WWE. When he broke into the business, he was told to study Mr. Schwartz.
“He just always knew where to be,” Reyes said. “He never did anything to draw attention to himself. He knew the attention needed to be on the wrestlers.”
Reyes said that Mr. Schwartz also understood the art form, a skill he passed on to young grapplers.
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“He read the crowd,” Reyes said, and would discretely tell wrestlers during a match “when they needed a spot to get the crowd excited or when it was time to slow down and grab a hold.”
Retired wrestler Ron Fuller echoed that on Twitter.
“Came to Florida in 1970, green as grass. He talked & walked me through matches & literally carried me into main events in the next 3 years,” he tweeted about Mr. Schwartz upon learning of his death. “He was, in my opinion, the best referee I ever shared a ring with.”
Mr. Schwartz refereed most of the promotion’s marquee matches and, as Tampa became a national hub for professional wrestling, he went from an in-ring afterthought to star.
“He was in the midst of that perfect era of CWF when it was so hot, you were hot by association,” said Simon. “His shock of wavy hair and physique didn’t hurt either.”
Added Rose, “He had movie star good looks. Women loved him.”
But friends say Mr. Schwartz only had eyes for his wife, Bonnie Watson Schwartz, who was a professional wrestler when they met in the mid 1950s at the restaurant where he tended bar.
“He’d say the most beautiful blonde walked in and he had to marry her,” said Dotty Curtis, whose late husband Don Curtis was a wrestler and promoter. “They clicked. When you said Bonnie, you said Stu, and when you said Stu, you said Bonnie. They were always together.”
News archives say the late Watson Schwartz helped get Mr. Schwartz into the wrestling industry. He trained as wrestler but chose to be a referee.
“He preferred to be in the shadow,” Curtis said. “And he worked to stay there because that is what a good referee is supposed to do.”
Still, she said with a laugh, Mr. Schwartz was too good looking to not notice. “His hair was never out of place.”
Curtis recalled attending a wrestling fan convention with Mr. Schwartz a decade or so ago.
“We walked into the banquet hall and people start screaming, ‘It’s Stu Schwartz,’” she said. “He couldn’t believe people still remembered him. But of course they did. My husband, Don, would say that Stu was the best at what he did. Fans agreed.”
Born: Nov. 23, 1930
Died: Sept. 18, 2021
His family could not be reached for information on a service.