|Blixx attacks Meatball -- from the Micro Wrestling Federation website.|
“”Midget’ has generally considered a pejorative term, according to most subjects, bringing to mind the circus sideshow entertainers of the past.”
Joan Ablon, “Little People in America: The Social Dimensions of Dwarfism”
The show is ready to begin. The wrestlers are attended by two large, beefy men who serve as emcees and bodyguards. Dressed in matching “I Support Midget Violence” T-shirts and black pants, the ringmasters frequently caution the growing crowd back with harsh words and sweeping gestures.
Finally, one of them grabs the mike and calls out, “Are you ready to watch six midgets beat the shit out of each other?”
The crowd roars in response.
My high-school show choir, an elite bunch, performed at a bunch of charitable jaunts. Clad in our uniforms of brown corduroy and wildly patterned polyester, we’d sing Christmas songs for the inhabitants of the old folks’ home, or go to the grade schools to show off our skills.
Once, we visited an institution for the disabled. Down the glum corridors we ambled, peering back at the crippled and feebleminded warehoused there, tucked away from broad daylight. We performed our routine in a low-ceilinged cafeteria, fluorescently lit and crammed with the unfortunate.
Our teacher encouraged us to interact with them as well. In an exercise room, a few of us messed around on the therapeutic equipment.
A chair-bound young man wheeled himself in. One of us was wielding a rubber medicine ball.
“Toss me the ball,” he said. “Throw the ball at my legs. C’mon, I’ll kick it.”
The ball sailed across the room, caromed off his inert legs. He grinned at the thrower.
“Asshole,” he said.
“Some reporter discovers a little person who’s not a circus person and they’ll meet. And then someone will do an article. I’ve seen articles across the country about little people – and it’s from an average-size person’s perspective of ‘Oh, my God! They’re just like us!’ Invariably, they use a catchy title, something to do with short or big, you know, ‘Tall on Success,’ or ‘She Doesn’t Come Up Short.’ They think they’ve discovered something. And it’s sort of like the Indian group that gets ‘discovered’ by the anthropologist and (the Indians think) ‘We knew we were here! You didn’t create us!’”
Unnamed interviewee, “How Dwarfs Experience the World Around Them”
I wanted to see midgets wrestle for a long time.
This baffled my loved ones to no end, and made me concerned for my soul.
“What’s the attraction?” asked my sisters, separately, eerily. Friends made “Wizard of Oz” jokes. My wife said, “Why midget wrestling? Why not midget everything? Midget baseball, midget football?”
What in the hell is wrong with me?
Years ago, pissing in the men’s room trough of a dive bar in northwest Denver, I peered blearily at the ads posted face-high in front of me. Midget wrestling, coming to a junior-high-school gym near us soon!
So, when I finally watched the two tiny men grappling under the harsh ring-light, I thought of Jacob and the angel.
“24And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
25And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
26And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.
27And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.
28And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”
It leaped out at me from the pages of my Children’s Bible Illustrated, alongside the harsh black-and-white dynamic of the accompanying Doré engraving. Throwing down with God!
The only other childhood example of “wrassling” was the quaint, barefoot tussle of hillbillies in the Sunday funny papers, in “Li’l Abner” and “Snuffy Smith.” Throwing down with barefoot, backwards Appalachians!
The Micro Wrestling Federation held its event at the 3 Kings Tavern at 60 S. Broadway. The club has the feel of a basement rec room taken over by teenagers, with all its attendant self-conscious coolness. The color scheme there is red and black; it boasts walls plastered with skateboard decks, save for a corner pasted with set lists from various bands that have played there. Vinyl records are stuck to the ceiling of the restroom.
For entertainment purposes, there is the usual cohort of pool tables and a quartet of pinball machines, three of which work. An art gallery lurks in the basement, chained off from viewers for the present. A small music stage is tucked into the back of the room.
The clientele is -- whoever is cool in the area, or trying to be – is scruffy, hairy and tattooed. The horde makes regular rotations out to the sidewalk to puff cigarettes. The drink of the night is PBR tallboys and Jager shots. I am not drinking. I am by far the oldest person there, to the extent that I was scrutinized worriedly from time to time by passersby, perhaps thinking I was a cop or someone in charge.
So it’s not an event on the level of sleaze I expected. My imaginings of midget wrestling inhabited the same territory in my mind as cockfights, bare-knuckle alley brawling, live sex shows and other prohibited actions attended by the desperate, the burnt-out, the pathological.
A portable ring is set up and ready, next to the stage. On the opposite side of the room, on top of a pool table covered with a sheet of plywood, is an improvised merchandise table, with product from the wrestlers as well as the bands whose performances will frame the night’s mayhem – The Sexy Convicts and Lyin’ Bitch and the Restraining Orders.
The Sexy Convicts are a horrible, masked punk band. I can barely make out what the lead singer is saying – at one point I think I hear lyrics referencing to donkey sperm, and at other times he howls, “You’re a fag, and you’re going to die of AIDS!” and “You will be drenched in feces!” It’s the kind of music that you like if you like it on all fours. Some of the crowd likes it, especially the male contingent; most of the ladies step outside for a smoke.
After about an hour of this, the ensemble takes the stage. Two young men in the crowd have video cameras, and many others snap shots with cameras or cell phones.
The performers are all men with dwarfism, none billed as over five feet tall. They all pose triumphantly, defiantly, hooting back at the hoots from the darkness. There is long-haired Blixx, from Spartanburg, S.C., billed as 3’7”, 75 pounds. There’s Ricky Benjamin, 4’2” (as with any other athletes, we want measurements, statistics). There’s Little E from Philly. Justice, another South Carolinian, is “4’4” and Totally Hardcore.” J-Mazing, 3’11”, is from the Philippines and Meatball is from Chicago, 4’6”.
Blixx, adorned in black eyeliner, black lipstick and pale base makeup, talks to the crowd. His voice is not pinched or high-pitched, just an unassuming, slightly twangy baritone. He gets ready to face Ricky Benjamin, who is adorned in a red, white and blue singlet.
“This guy is tough,” Blixx says of his opponent. “Last time we fought, I wound up with $50 stapled to my nuts!”
“…bouts with midget wrestlers, often engaging in embarrassing comic relief encounters, enjoyed a brief vogue.”
Scott Beekman, “Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America”
|Two stars of the 1950's midget-wrestling scene.|
As kids in Denver in the late 1960s, we were exposed to the AWA – Verne Gagne and Wally Carbo’s American Wrestling Association, which dominated the Midwest from 1960 until Vince McMahon’s WWF, for better or worse, nationalized the sport in the late 1980s. KWGN Channel 2 used to broadcast these syndicated events, under the name of “All Star Wrestling,” from WTCN-TV in St. Paul/Minneapolis to our astonished eyes every Saturday morning.
We sat entranced as the heroes battled such villains as Baron von Raschke, “Mad Dog” Vachon, Nick Bockwinkel and Black Jack Lanza. Evil manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan would scream and scowl at the camera, while the unflappable AWA announcer Marty O’Neill stood by, tendering the microphone towards him gingerly, as though he might snap it off with his teeth and swallow it any minute.
|Bobby "The Brain" Heenan smirks left as Nick Bockwinkel demonstrates a move on a hapless announcer.|
We began to practice moves – the Bell Clap, the Polish Hammer, the Atomic Drop and Flying Clothesline. We added to our arsenal of mayhem moves by sneaking in cartoons and Three Stooges shorts on the side. (You’ll be glad to know that the maneuver of hitting someone in the ring over the head with a guitar is codified in professional wrestling liturgy and is named “El Kabong,” in honor of its originator, the Hanna/Barbera equine sheriff, Quick Draw McGraw).
Sometimes, on Saturdays when we would go into the city for one reason or another, we would drive past the line of enthusiastic wrestling fans trailing out of the old Auditorium Arena entrance at 13th and Champa Streets. When we were told what is was, our cries of “We wanna go!” were greeted with puzzled incredulity by my father.
And so we ended up playing out our wrestling fantasies on the couch, in the backyard, practicing our bombast as well – poking our faces into imaginary cameras and screaming, “THE BELT – THE BELT IS MINE!”
The routine of the midget bout is as choreographed as any in the average-sized wrestling world would be. The combatants whirl each other around, grimace, bounce off the turnbuckles. The confrontations are as choreographed as ballet – each man sets up to prepare for each combined move, and then they execute with ferocious efficiency, feigning blows and kicks. The trick seems to be to give with the attack – the opponents channel the driven energy of the punch, hack, kick or fall through themselves and into the percussive, taut canvas drumhead of the ring.
|J-Mazing leaps out of the ring and onto Justice -- form the Micro Wrestling Federation website.|
These men are skilled – they flip and fly and crash, dropping each other with high kicks, choking and punching as the emcees feverishly narrate the contest. Blixx knees Ricky, who collapses to the canvas. Blixx circles, taunts, banters with the refs, while Ricky drags himself painfully back to vertical.
It’s the acting that makes the show. Taken simply as a set of moves and clutches, it’s not much more than balletic combat. The grimaces, the sneers, grunts, the pauses to take a cock-walk around the ring, gesturing to the crowd for more feedback, higher volume, this is what gives it juice.
The mayhem is not farcical – everyone plays it straight in the ring. The association with a little-person performance is that it will be parodic – that pants will drop, pies will be tossed. But aside from the usual bad-boy moves, and an occasional humorous blow to an interfering referee, it’s as real as the deal is going to get.
There is as much stalking and taunting as anything else. The torment follows the same narrative arc – the heel (bad guy) socks it to the face (good guy) for an extended period of time, dealing out punishment slowly and deliberately. There are few holds, per se – percussive crashes and drops are preferred, like a flesh-formed demolition derby. Then, our designated hero stages a miraculous comeback, eventually dropping his opponent like a sack of flour.
|Wrestling match as mortal, and moral, combat -- Stanislaus Zbyszko (left) bear-hugs Mike Mazurki in Jules Dassin's 1950 film noir, "Night and the City."|
“We are equal, we are serious athletes, and … we have the will and determination to succeed.”
Jack Darrell (Meatball)
Wrestling is a ritual drama that’s not a sport, but it says that it is a sport, it insists that you take it seriously, even if the ones asking you to believe don’t believe themselves. The gospel of kayfabe – the credo of staying in character in your wrestling persona, on and off stage – bloomed in our hearts.
In American pro wrestling, freak show and morality play are molded together into what is lamely referred to as “sports entertainment” – in other words, it’s fake, it’s fixed, it’s mock. Combats are rigorously scripted, or “worked,” both on and off the mat; improvised, inadvertent, spontaneous or sincere action is referred to as a “shoot” and discouraged (unless it, doubling back upon itself, is actually a worked piece of business).
After childhood, I lost the desire to watch pro wrestling – until, through the postmodern ironies of El Borbah, lucha libre brought me back into the sport’s mythic orbit.
Charles Burns’ cartooning in the Spiegleman/Mouly RAW comics anthology of the 1980’s included the surreal adventures of El Borbah, a 400-pound private detective in purple tights and a wrestler’s mask.
El Borbah got his look from El Santo, the heroic Mexican luchador (pro wrestler) who became a comic-book hero and film star, all while wearing his full-face silver mask. For three decades, Rodolfo Guzman Huerta assumed the persona of Santo much as Clayton Moore did that of Lone Ranger.
In the ring he fought other masked men such as the Blue Demon and Rey Mysterioso; on screen he battled mad scientists, vampires, robots, she-wolves, monsters and headhunters. In Mexico’s lucha libre, the wrestlers exemplify a much higher moral standard than America’s unsavory lot of selfish, preening grapplers.
In Mexico, none of this shame is present. Wrestling is second only to soccer in popularity; wrestlers endorse products and serve as role models. The mythic richness of the territory imbues the participants with the respect that is given to those to traffic in quasi-sacred encounters. Even the meanest of the rudos (bad guys) adhere to a luchador “code of honor,” giving what many Americans consider to be a lowest-common-denominator entertainment a dignity lacking in many more high-profile kinds of U.S. contests, e.g. pro sports, “reality” shows, and the like.
Mexico also has more respect for its little people. There is an official professional wrestling division dedicated to “Mini-Estrellas” (Mini-stars), limited to performers less than five feet tall (although competitors up to five and a half feet have snuck in). Mascarita Sagrada is a pint-sized Santo.
The audience loves it. Drinking more and growing louder, they scream profane encouragement. After Ricky finishes off Blixx, Justice goes up against J-Mazing. This time, the two opponents have at each other with a folding chair, cookie sheet and garbage can. The fighters proffer each other their noggins, taking the blows, reacting wildly, and leaping back to snarling form in a trice. (I suspect the props will be hammered back into shape later, for use at the next gig.)
|Court dwarves Maria Barbola (center right) and Nicholas Pertusato (far right) in Velasquez's 1656 painting "Las Meninas."|
“In freak shows, the exhibited body became a text written in boldface to be deciphered according to the needs and desires of the onlookers. . . . Safely domesticated and bounded by the show’s forms and conventions, the freak soothes the onlookers’ self-doubt by appearing as their antithesis.”
Rosemarie Garland Thomson, “Extraordinary Bodies”
In a culture that no longer (officially) sanctions discrimination on the basis of race, sex, creed, color or sexual orientation, the cult of the body still reigns supreme. Betty Adleson’s study “The Lives of Dwarves” outlines the paradigm with clarity:
“Both height and beauty confer enormous social prestige . . . the herd often rejects the odd-looking member. Predators choose the most deviant individuals as quarry . . . “
Sociologist Erving Goffman’s rigorous study of stigma is cited profusely by Adelson. He divides stigma into three categories: abominations of the body, blemishes of individual character, and tribal markers such as race, nation and religion. Adelson postulates that physical difference is the most powerful and unyielding of the causes of aversion.
Adelson writes, of deformity or disability, “These conditions may pose a threat to the normates’ sense of bodily integrity, evoking fear of dysfunction or death.” The same impulse that slows us as we drive past a car wreck or submit ourselves to the shocks and thrills of the horror movie also compels us to pluck out difference in the street, to remark on it, or struggle not to. To layer over our pity or terror with some sanctimonious rationalization about what we’re seeing. In Adelson’s words, “ . . . even a single difference in a stranger may reduce him or her from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one.”
The push/pull is eloquently described: “On the one hand, they may viscerally draw back; on the other, they may register either sympathy or admiration for affected individuals, especially for those who have accomplished much despite obstacles.”
It’s seemingly impossible to separate the condition from the person. Dan Kennedy in his book “Little People” writes, “Rather than seeing dwarfism as one of many attributes of a person, dwarfism is seen as the person: he is a dwarf, not a person. That’s why some people within the dwarf community would rather talk about persons with dwarfism rather than dwarfs.”
More disturbingly, Kennedy refers to Goffman’s concept of the phenomenon of “minstrelization,” of acting in accordance with a stereotyped preconception of how a member of a certain social group should act. Finn Carling, a Norwegian writer with cerebral palsy who focused on those rejected by mainstream society, stated in his autobiography “And Yet We Are Human” according to Kennedy “that ‘the crippled’ are expected to act ‘inferior to themselves,’ to ‘play the part of the cripple,’ lest the able-bodied be somehow disturbed and forced to rethink their sense of identity.”
Rosemarie Garland Thomson, in her study “Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature” goes into more detail:
“(Disabled people) must use charm, intimidation, ardor, deference, humor or entertainment to relieve nondisabled people of their discomfort. Those of us with disabilities are supplicants and minstrels, striving to create valued representations of ourselves in our relationships with the non-disabled majority . . . If such efforts at reparation are successful, disabled people neutralize the initial stigma of disability so that relationships can be sustained and deepened. . . . If, however, disabled people pursue normalization too much, they risk denying limitations and pain for the comfort of others and may edge into the self-betrayal associated with ‘passing.’”
|Harry Earles as the soon-to-be-betrayed Hans in Tod Browning's 1932 "Freaks."|
I dial through the cultural sources of images and information that use dwarfs and midgets – Poe’s story “Hop-Frog,” dozens of paintings of court-ennobled/domesticated little people, particularly Velasquez’s painting “Las Meninas,” Zemlinksky’s opera “Der Zwerg,” Lagerqvist’s “The Dwarf,” de la Mare’s “Memoirs of a Midget,” Tod Browning’s film “Freaks,” Gunter Grass’s “The Tin Drum.” Those indelible Muchkins from “The Wizard of Oz.” Work about them, not of them.
David Hevey, in his work “The Creatures Time Forgot: Photography and Disability Imagery,” calls it, most tellingly, “enfreakment.” This no-bullshit book attacks the neutering of the disabled by the charity industry, how its images and text paints them as pitiful, inarticulate, “tragic but brave,” helpless, only ennobled through the actions of others, the kindness of strangers. They “enflesh the theories of their oppressors.”
So who am I kidding? Why am I in on the spectacle? Is it misplaced “scientific” curiosity? A simpering sort of tenderness? A way to congratulate myself on my depth of understanding? To pat myself on the back for my tolerance? What is it that needs to be tolerated, anyway?
|Meatball surveys the crowd -- from the Micro Wrestling Federation website.|
The fight spills off the ring, out into the crowd, across the floor, over to the bar and back again – an old-style brawl. The crowd follows the pair, maintaining a cautious distance, shifting as they shift. In this sense, the miniature size of the adversaries works well – regular-sized opponents would be too large and clumsy to dive from the top of the bar onto each other. A feigned attack is more skillful and taxing than a real one.
Once the first two bouts are finished, the intermission is announced. As the crowd mills about, talking excitedly, the wrestlers come out and pose for pictures and sign T-shirts, under the watchful eyes of the referee/emcees, who discourage people who have drunk enough to forget about boundaries and want to manhandle the performers – setting them on their laps, for instance, or holding them contemptuously in the air. It’s getting sloppy in here, but there are limits. These little men won’t tolerate being treated as pets or toys.
The second-half action begins, and an emcee cajoles the audience into providing him with four $20 bills. The next two combatants are going to staple them to each others’ bodies. Not with Swingline Tots, either, but with real staple guns that require both their hands to operate.
I’m done. Any residual curiosity has drained away at the prospect of watching this unconventional revenue-sharing plan. I hit the exit. A drunk hits me up for 50 cents on the sidewalk as I leave.
“Let everybody tell you no . . . then prove them wrong.”
Blixx, 2008 interview
My experience was a safe and unpleasant evening’s diversion. Not a pathetic spectacle but a gruesome assault on the senses.
Within the familiar ritual of combat, the tiny warriors exhibited both their skills and their differences. They pandered to the crowd’s most lurid appetites, but they also transcended their supposed limitations. The crowd, myself included, had its curiosity satisfied and its relative normality confirmed.
As a former comic, I remembered what it was like to be in the spotlight, telling crass jokes in this dive and that for years. The halo of attention, which threw me into sharp relief, thrust the onlookers into darkness, turned their individual voices into a dull roar of approval and laughs. I exploited my differences in that arena, made jokes out of my discomfort and my desire to bridge that gap by placating my paying customers.
In the real world, the little person can’t hide his or her difference. It can’t be disguised or eradicated. They are always “on,” always under scrutiny. I can’t blame some of them for wanting to make a buck from it. It turns the tables on the observer, doesn’t it? After all, who’s the bigger freak – the one on display or the one who pays to ogle it?
The men in the ring surely felt some of what I had – the thrill of attention, the satisfaction of mastering a difficult art, and the harnessing of stigma for profit. How pleasant it must be, I thought, to scale down the world from the height of the squared circle, to push ourselves into the faces of disgusting sameness, of horrifying normality.
And what about my complicity? I’m trying to make a buck off of it, too, after all. I ally myself mentally with who I perceive to be the downtrodden – but there I am, paying my way into the freak show, standing ringside, looking on with the same gawping fascination. Perhaps I can elevate their condition, moved out of what Leslie Fiedler terms “terror and sympathy” to call them prodigies, phenoms, curiosities, monsters, mutants, marvels, lusi naturae, mirabilia hominem.
And do I envy them, and finally can label my shame. I envy them because normality coats my own nondescript surface, the freak below undetected. They are mythic and mysterious; their bodies loaded down with associations, and have something to fight against and for, openly. Inescapably and unambiguously branded, martyrs to biology I thought but now not really no, just how we are taught to see them.
We need an Other against which to measure ourselves, one below us to despise, one above us to envy. I catch myself on both sides of the pool of light simultaneously. I’m the Other, too, if need be, if you need me to be. I can’t stop you. And from that helplessness comes the only realization that’s useful to me. If anyone can impose any identity on me, then no one can. There is no Other, and we’re all one. Koom-bai-yah.
And the tiny men in the ring are athletes, are heroes, are the distinctive and indelible characters that their choices and actions declare themselves to be. They are brigands, snatching your sense of ease from you. They spit in the face of those who want them to be cute and helpless; they defy those who wish they’d conform to a sense of decorum, to be well-behaved “people with dwarfism,” to put it with the most excruciating political correctness.
“People with dwarfism.” AKA the unavoidable accompanying condition, the hunch in the back, the missing eyes, the blight proffered for the payment that lets the viewer off the hook of complicity, the money that says I see you, now move on. Pack up your show.
Isn’t it worth it to don the tights and enter the ring if only to uncuff oneself for a moment, in the middle of the heat and bright light of exploitation, from the “with”? To get out from under the qualifier and just be? To fly through the air with the greatest of ease?
I am watching TV with my mom. I must have been seven years old or so. It was the movie “Ship of Fools,” and Michael Dunn, that most excellent actor with dwarfism best known as Dr. Loveless in “The Wild Wild West,” was on the screen.
“I wish I could be his friend,” I said to my mom.
“Why?” my mother said.
“He could stay in my room,” I said. “I could take care of him.”
“What do you think HE would think about that?” she said. “Do you think he would like that?”