This story has been a long, long time coming. I’ve been friends with Charlene McKenzie for several years now. We’ve crossed paths at dozens of shows, and she’s graciously given me interviews for other stories. Now, finally, I’m happy to be sharing her story.
Most fans in the Kentuckiana area have seen Charlene working for one promotion or another over the last twelve years, from IWA Mid-South to Girl Fight to Terry Harper Presents to Ohio Valley Wrestling, where she currently does most of her work. Few fans know her true origin story: she was born overseas, the daughter of a U.S. Army soldier and a German woman.
“I have dual citizenship,” she told me recently. “German and American. I was born in Germany, but when my dad transferred back to the States, he brought me and my mom back with him.”
The family lived on a few Army bases until Charlene’s parents split. At the age of seven, she moved to Florida with her mom, but by the time she was fifteen, she had moved to Kentucky to be with her dad.
“I was always a daddy’s girl,” she says.
Charlene was a lapsed fan when she came across wrestling on television in 2006. Her father introduced her to pro wrestling early in life, and it became her escape when she moved to a neighborhood in Florida with few kids. She hadn’t watched in several years, but a familiar face made her set down the remote control.
“I saw Edge, and I thought, hey, this guy looks familiar,” she said. “I kept watching that night and every week, and that’s when I fell in love with it again.”
Wrestling took hold of her for good this second time around, so much so that she started looking for a place to train. After moving back to Kentucky, she heard about a school across the river in Indiana where she could give wrestling a try.
“The promotion was called Classic Championship Wrestling,” she says. “It was run by Marcus Snyder, who used to be at Ohio Valley Wrestling. Crybaby Chris Alexander was with them as well. I was only sixteen at the time.”
When CCW went on hiatus, Charlene went back to being, in her words, a normal high school kid. A friend of her started training at OVW, so she started attending their weekly shows. Through her friend, she got to know a number of wrestlers at the school, but it frustrated her that they treated her like a fan.
One day her dad came home from work at University of Louisville Hospital with the name and number of a trainer in Madison, Indiana, about 45 minutes from Louisville. Charlene contacted the guy, and she started training again. She was glad to be back in the ring, but this time around, she realized that being a wrestler was not for her. “I was not athletic enough, and I didn’t want my body to be all beat up.”
Charlene had done enough to impress Biff Wellington, who was booking the Madison promotion at the time. He approached her and asked if she might want to try being a referee. Charlene said yes, and Biff immediately started to use her. Soon she was working for other promoters, starting with Bobo Brazil, Jr., who ran shows in nearby Austin, Indiana.
“I was still in high school. I think I was still seventeen,” she said. “Then after high school, I met Mickie and Pondo. That’s when things really started to take off.”
Fans of Mickie Knuckles and Mad Man Pondo know both deathmatch legends have a reputation for identifying and helping young talent. That goes for referees as well as wrestlers. Mickie and Pondo started calling Charlene any time they went on the road. She shook a lot of hands, set up a lot of chairs, and she learned to always to bring her striped shirt along for the ride.
“Pondo has always been like a wrestling dad to me,” she says. “He’s always looking to be entertained. I got to meet Jesco White from the reality show The Wonderful Whites of West Virginia when Pondo insisted we stop by his place unannounced and uninvited. I sat in his living room.”
Charlene was a regular face at most of the promotions in Southern Indiana when I started writing about pro wrestling back in 2014, but she wanted to work in her hometown. She wanted to get in with OVW. Her initial overtures to the promotion were ignored, in part because of some of the other promotions she had worked, but a match she called for Casey Reeves gave her a foot in the door.
“Something happened in the match, and Casey kind of got lost,” says Charlene. “I knew something was wrong, so I called a new finish on the fly. He was a little pissed at first, but then he thought about what I had done and how I had helped. He knew I was a team player, and he appreciated my quick thinking.”
Casey pointed Charlene in the right direction, and soon she was in contact with Adam Revolver. Adam put Charlene in some dark matches, and when she proved she was ready, she started refereeing on OVW television.
Charlene has seen a lot of changes at OVW since her arrival. Two years into her tenure, Danny Davis sold the company to Al Snow. “Al has been incredible. He’s always available when I have a question, and he’s very hands on and involved with all of us. We’ve all learned so much from him.”
Charlene was the second person in the ring on the night of OVW’s 1000th television episode, broadcast live from Fourth Street Live in Louisville. “That was a special night. It was one of the last live shows my dad saw before he passed away. I remember sitting with him in the crowd for episode 500.”
Even though her wrestling ambitions ended years ago, Charlene is thrilled to see how Al Snow’s arrival brought change to the OVW women’s division. “It’s a 180 degree change. There are more women and more women’s matches. He brought Amazing Maria in to oversee the women’s division, and it’s been incredible.”
Charlene’s day job keeps her extremely busy these days, but she works OVW as often as she can and even trains in the advanced class with Doug Basham. “With the refs, they focus a lot on out positioning in the ring, knowing where the camera is. Also, we work on making sure the wrestlers stay safe. Doug’s a great teacher, and Al’s classes are amazing too.”
It’s a far cry from the typical baptism by fire independent referees usually get. “They’re like, ‘Can you count to three? Cool. Put this shirt on and tuck it in.’” she jokes.
Charlene continues to work with other promotions when she has the time and opportunity, including Mad Man Pondo’s Girl Fight Wrestling and the upcoming XCF show in Jeffersonville promoted by Terry Harper. “I worked my first Pride show last weekend. It was an amazing experience, working with my old friend Jimmy Feltcher and so many others from the LGBTQ community. They had a drag show in between the matches.”
Working at OVW has also given Charlene a chance to work with Impact Wrestling, and she’s appeared on streaming and pay-per-view events for numerous promotions. Yet even if her hard work never leads to a signing with a major company, she’s incredibly grateful for the opportunities she’s had.
“I’ve done way more than I ever expected I could accomplish,” she says. “Learning from Al. Working Jerry Lynn’s second to last match. Working with so many heroes and amazing people. I’m very proud of what I’ve done.”
A big part of that pride comes from being a trailblazer as a woman wearing the stripes. “There weren’t that many female referees when I started, and there were none on TV. Now you see them all over. I’m definitely very proud of that.”
Charlene McKenzie is a true professional, a proven leader in the locker room and in the ring. She’s seen it all and done it all, from playing the blind referee who doesn’t see the misdeeds of the heels to taking the hard bump out to ring side.
“That looked pretty real, when you hit the apron tonight,” I told her one evening.
Nursing her elbow, she shook her head. “Yeah, that wasn’t planned.”
All things considered, she would have been a lot more beat up as a wrestler than she is as a ref.