Chris Emerson has been a fan of professional wrestling practically his entire life.
"Ever since I was very little my mom was always a wrestling fan and always took me to wrestling shows," the 36-year-old security guard and lifelong Cartersville resident recollected. "She had me meet this guy from Cartersville named 'Nightmare' Ted Allen — his real name was Ted Lipscomb — and he started helping me out."
Figuring he didn't have the build to be a professional wrestler himself, Emerson instead sought to become the next best thing — a pro wrestling referee. After training with family members, a menagerie of local grapplers and some of the biggest names in the officiating game (star referees from World Championship Wrestling like Nick Patrick and Randy "Pee Wee" Anderson among them), Emerson got his official start in the business roughly 20 years ago.
"People think it's easy being a referee, but it's not," he said. "We all know who is going to win and lose and all that, but you've got to know how to work, you've got to learn to stay out of the way of the TV [camera] angles, you've got to make sure you keep the two guys in the ring and you want to make sure they know when the cue is to go home."
In a way, Emerson likened the role of the ref as something of an unofficial match coordinator. And there are certain situations, he said, where he has to deal with a few unscripted complications.
"Some fans might come in the ring," he said, "and you've got to kick them out."
To date, Emerson said he's "officiated" between 5,000-6,000 wrestling bouts. That includes shows in Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida and Ohio — he's even traveled as far away as Michigan for some refereeing gigs.
And he's still doing shows on virtually a weekly basis. He just got back from a show in Barnesville and in a few weeks he'll be refereeing at the Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Coosa Valley Fairgrounds.
"For the next three months, my Saturdays are completely booked," he said. "When I'm in that ring, it's like a second home to me."
There's no denying Emerson's dedication to the business. He recalls getting into a quarrel with a girlfriend, who asked him to choose between her and wrestling. Unsurprisingly, he chose the latter.
On another occasion, Emerson recalled having a diabetes-spurred blackout while he was driving, in which he wound up T-boning another driver.
"I went straight to a wrestling match that night in Rome and did a show," he said. "When I'm sick or hurt, I still go out there. Because I feel if you don't, you're taking away from the paying customers."
That said, Emerson acknowledges being a referee isn't a quick and easy way to get rich.
"You don't get paid that good. Sometimes, you get none at all," he said. "Sometimes you might get, maybe $80-$120 a night ... but if I'm good friends with somebody I tell my buddies 'just throw me some gas money.'"
But Emerson isn't just basking in the limelight of the squared circle. He's also a background actor who has appeared in a number of productions, including the television show "Brockmire," the 2017 Liam Neeson thriller "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House" and even a music video for the rap act 21 Savage.
More recently, he landed a small role as a 1960s era reporter in the soon-to-be released Ryan Gosling film "First Man."
"It's not me going out to find [the roles], it's [my friends] sending the info," Emerson said. "And then the casting company sends me an email saying 'OK, you're booked, and here's the call time you need to show up.'"
Although Emerson has enjoyed his two decades donning the striped uniform — one of his career highlights, he said, was refereeing a 2008 Philips Arena show to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the National Wrestling Alliance — he also said he has some major regrets.
Namely, dropping out of high school to pursue his wrestling fantasies.
That's why one of his top priorities outside of the ring these days — besides landing a job as a security guard for his favorite NFL team, the Cincinnati Bengals — is obtaining a long-deferred GED.
"Life is too short and life is very hard," he said. "And without the education, it's triple hard."
Still, Emerson said he "owes everything" to the wrestling business. Indeed, he said it was one of the things that helped him pull through when his mother died of breast cancer on Christmas morning 2013.
"Every time I'm in there in that ring, I just get a big smile on my face," he said. "Because I know my mom and one of my trainers, Ted Allen, they're looking down on me and saying 'Chris, you're still doing your dreams.'"