THROWBACK TUESDAY: The Saturday Lunchtime Wrestlers

THROWBACK TUESDAY: The Saturday Lunchtime Wrestlers
Bruno Sammartino (L) is declared the winner by referee Dave Dwinell (R). Photo courtesy Dave Dwinell

This column was originally written for the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle in March 2021. With Dave Dwinell appearing at Asa Waters Mansion on Saturday, October 22, 2022, at noon to discuss his book, Ringman, I thought it was worth sharing again.

When I was nine years old, I saw my first professional wrestling match. It was a Saturday morning, it was WWF Superstars, and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan did a number on some “local talent.” I distinctly remember Hacksaw giving this guy a truly brutal-looking clothesline, and I rushed outside to tell my father all about it.

A new wrestling fan was born that summer morning. I’m close to 40 years old now, and I still enjoy it. For years, though, I heard the stories: Millbury was home to a former professional wrestling referee, Dave Dwinell, who worked with the WWF. I tried to track him down, but never got far until I received an email late last year from him.

I talked to Dave a few weeks back. He lives in New York these days, and told me about his book, Ringman, a memoir of his years traveling the globe as a licensed wrestling referee. During our chat, he told me about his childhood in Millbury. He and his brother, Gary, were “transfixed” by wrestling on television, convinced that it was real. His friends weren’t so into it (“We were probably cult followers”), but it didn’t stop him. He was hooked, and would buy wrestling magazines from Dolan’s, who kept them “with the sleazy magazines,” which should tell you the stature of the sport at the time.

After college, he moved to New York, but never lost interest in wrestling. In the book, he tells the story of how he became a referee and the winding path to obtain the necessary licenses to practice/perform in New York state. It was never his full-time job: by day, Dave was a tax collector, but by night, he managed matches with some of the biggest names to ever enter the squared circle. Some of his career highlights included early matches from the Ultimate Warrior, Triple H’s first match at Madison Square Garden, multiple bouts featuring the legendary Bruno Sammartino, and countless others. For many wrestlers, Dave “had them in the beginning and the end of their careers.”

A wrestler stands to the left, a second wrestler on the mat. Referee Dwinell standing to the right.
Kurt Angle (L) versus Samoa Joe (bottom), with Dave Dwinell, referee (R), April 2008. Photo courtesy NEW Wrestling.

As a wrestling fan, it was hard not to ask him about a laundry list of wrestlers. He had glowing things to say about “Classy” Freddie Blassie, “Spaceman” Frank Hickey, and Sgt. Slaughter, but his best stories are his personal ones. In one, he brought his wife and kids to a show he was working, and his kids escaped to track down Hulk Hogan and get a photo. In another, he got the chance to referee a match with Sammartino, his childhood hero, and paid a photographer to take the picture (seen with this article).

To this day, he gets questions about his refereeing days. “If there’s that much interest,” he explained, “I should write the book.” Still, Dave had some reservations about writing it, concerned about whether to “expose the business.”  Thankfully, he chose to share his stories.

Ringman is written more from the perspective of an observer rather than an insider. It reads like a great conversation about the periphery of wrestling history, and it’s great not only for Millbury folks who want to hear about what one of our own was up to, but for fans who grew up with wrestling like Dave and I did. He sees his book as a book about hope. “If a kid from Millbury who grew up wrestling on the lawn can get to work with his heroes,” he said, “anyone can.”

Dave shared a lot of great stories about growing up in Millbury, both in the book and during our conversation. He talked about backyard wrestling with his brother in the center of Millbury, about his time in school with locals Paul Routhier and Jim Soloperto, about his collection of Cat’s Meow Millbury locations, and about watching wrestling as a kid in the 1950s. But Dave, in many ways, never really left Millbury. While he never lived here again after college, he still comes back for holidays and is surprised at how Millbury grew and changed.

“What strikes me the most is downtown,” he says. “When I was growing up, we had two hardware stores, the A & P, Dolan’s… Helen’s Bakery, you could smell it two blocks away!” Today, with the Shoppes and with a modern workforce heading to Worcester and Boston, it’s not the same town he grew up in.

“Everyone supported the smaller local stores,” he explained. “Everyone worked at the mill and everybody knew everybody… [I’m] not saying it’s bad, just different.”

Dave is humble about his role in the wrestling world. “My job was to make them look good,” he explained, “and I stuck around for 32 years.” He thinks the job of a wrestling referee was more difficult in the past, when fans weren’t as knowledgeable, and believes wrestling was “a lot more fun when people thought it was real.” He still watches WWE and the new upstart, All Elite Wrestling, but, to Dave, wrestling is “a whole different concept today… [the wrestlers] are bigger, they’re stronger, they’re quicker, but that’s true of all sports.”

Dave mentioned a few times that no one came to a wrestling show to watch a referee, but for me, talking to him was like talking to a celebrity. For years, I heard about the legend of Dave Dwinell, and I finally got to talk to him, to find videos of him refereeing online, and learn how great a guy he is.

He is retired now, and lives with his wife Valerie in the Catskill Mountains. He has six grandchildren that he adores, and now manages the Big Time Dixieland Band. His book, Ringman, is available for purchase, and it’s truly a joy to read. Not only for the wrestling stories, and not only for his time in Millbury, but because he’s a local boy done good.