It’s just shy of 8:00 in the Riviera hotel and casino, one of the last of the original Las Vegas casinos. I’m in the lobby, waiting for the show to start and killing time with some people-watching. An Elvis impersonator passes through, followed shortly by the Beatles. There’s your businessmen, your tourists, your townies out for the evening. A woman in her early fifties, covered in tattoos and carrying a four-foot glass vase of alcohol. Some hipsters in tight jeans taking their picture with the Extreme Midget Wrestling advertisement, some bros in tight Hollister t-shirts boasting about how much vodka they downed. There’s a guy in line to buy tickets with a “Hooked On Jesus” shirt, and a couple female body-builders. All strutting, sauntering, and stumbling past while U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)”- a tribute to the life and work of MLK Jr.- plays in the background.
There’s probably a message in there somewhere.
It’s about 8:20 when I get into the room- they’ve got a miniature fight ring in the center and thirty or so rows of seats fanning outwards from all sides, with little mobile booths on the outer orbit selling bad popcorn and overpriced drinks. Before you get the wrong idea- no, I’m not the kind of guy who’s a regular attendee of midget wrestling. I’m here in my capacity as a self-styled journalist on assignment on the front line of the culture wars.
The barker is hyping the crowd, working up a call-and-respond chant.
“Half the size!”
“Twice the violence!”
“Half the size!”
“Twice the violence!”
And as the cheering dies down, the referee appears on stage waving the American flag, and then everyone rises as the national anthem begins to play and the barker declares “This is for the troops!” The last notes play and the first of the wrestlers bounds up into the ring. Roughly 4’10”, and snarling at the DJ to turn his music down as he breaks into a quip about what a worthless town this is.
Boos and hisses from the audience.
“I don’t know what y’all are booing at- half of you don’t even live here!”
A few seats down from me, a guy in a baseball cap starts howling at the ring.
“Fake midget! You’re a fake midget! FAKE MIDGEEEET!!!”
The wrestler ignores him- tries to get on with his smack talk as the guy keeps yelling.
“You’re not a midget! Freaking Hobbit! Hey Hobbit-boy! Where’s Frodo, bitch?!”
Amidst more hisses and laughter at the guy’s insults, the wrestler finishes his spiel. The barker announces the challenger- a guy by the name of “Little Fabio”. He’s 4’8″, and has long flowing hair as golden and curly as the finest ramen noodles.
The fight begins. Choreographed, of course. Staged punches, slaps, metal trays to the cranium- it’s all there. It’s not staged well enough to be realistic, or over the top enough to be comedic, but then again, no one’s exactly expecting a production of Shakespeare. The crowd does what it can to get involved, and when Little Fabio mimics an elbow slam as he bounces off the top rope, they break out into cheering. And so it goes- long silence as the two wrestlers clumsily bat at each other and raucous whooping when the occasional stunt is performed. It doesn’t help much that the two stumble out of the ring and fight each other on the ground, where no-one who isn’t in the first couple rows can see anything. At long last, it ends, the barker making a joke about Little Fabio “taking out the trash”- which doesn’t really work, since Little Fabio dumps the smack-talker into a laundry cart, not a dumpster. The crowd applauds with general approval, but already they’re getting bored. “Lil’ Rampage,” representing Las Vegas is up next, sashaying down the ramp in a fur coat. His opponent hops into the ring, and the same scene is played out again. Back and forth with the pulled-punches and choke-holds, the audience trying to get worked up as the barker shouts out stuff like “Oooh! Drop-kick to the huevos!” Intermission finally arrives, and more than a few people filter out through the door. A security guard tries to get people to stop their kids (yeah, there are plenty of kids here- even couple who brought their baby) from climbing on the ring- no one listens, of course.
Note to the Riviera: Nothing says “I don’t have any real authority” more than a guy wearing cargo shorts. Invest the cash- get your security guys some pants.
People shuffle backs to their seats, and as the final strains of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” fade, we seize the opportunity to move up into one of the vacated rows. Better view, but you still can’t see a thing when they’re going at it outside the ring beyond the brief flash of trashcan being lifted over someone’s head before it disappears below the front rows and only a hollow crashing noise tells if you it hit someone. At 4’6″ it’s “The Machine” versus “The Athlete” of New York City. “The Athlete” is actually pretty neat to watch- clearing the ropes with a back flip and bounding up the corner posts with a kind of mad dexterity usually reserved for cats. Simple truth of the matter is that once they get at it, you do forget that they’re midgets- or at least, the fact that they are midgets (brought up only in the barkers patronizing and terrible puns) just doesn’t seem at all relevant. For some reason, there’s a cop stalking up and down the aisles, though exactly who or what she’s looking for, I really don’t want to know. The bouts are getting better, in both the acting and the stunts, but that doesn’t stop a small but steady trickle of people out of the room. Some wrestler with a vague dog-persona is vanquished, and most everyone assumes the show is over (yours truly including). A mass exodus occurs before it dawns on the barker what’s happening and he shouts that we’re just about to get to the main event- by the time it starts, half the audience is gone.
Which is a shame, because this is the point where everything picked up fast.
“The Little Show” pops out from behind the curtains, wearing jet-black sunglasses and a shrunken version of the holocaust cloak from The Princess Bride. 4’4″, they say as he sheds his cape and rips off his black wife-beater to reveal- that’s right- a smaller black wife-beater underneath. Obviously we were all hoping he’d rip that one off to reveal yet another, smaller wife-beater under that, but nothing came of it. The kids in the front row are going nuts as the tempo is ratcheted up as Disturbed’s “Get Down With The Sickness” blasts over the speakers, and “The Little Show” waltz around the ring, making sure everyone kicks a good look at the flames at the bottom of his black pleather pants. Dang those were cool pants. Then his challenger appears.
That’s right- “Baby Jesus.”
3’6″. Gold cross emblazoned on his left pant-leg. Break-dancing in the ring. Break-dancing.
The crowd goes crazy and the barker is spewing out every pun he can come up with. These were my favorites:
“Who has more midget muscle!?”
<Baby Jesus gets slammed into the ground> “Oooh! He almost sent him back to heaven!”
“C’mon, Baby Jeezus! C’mon!”
Little Show charges, but Baby Jesus stretches the ring’s ropes open and steps aside, sending Little Show flying through. The front rows are standing up now, and one section has started up the chant of “Ho-ly Shit! Ho-ly Shit! Ho-ly Shit!”. Back in the ring, Baby Jesus takes a chair to the face but comes back with a beautiful crowd hype as he does the worm for no apparent reason. Just as it appears all is lost for BJ, he flips over (yes, flips over) Little Show and wrestles him to the ground, pinning him down as the cheesiest referee imaginable slaps the ground three times. Everyone’s standing and cheering, and Baby Jesus is declared the winner, lugging away a belt easily twice his size.
A battle royale is declared as all eight wrestlers clamber back into the ring. They have at it, but most of the entertainment at this point is coming from the barker’s increasingly ridiculous slogans.
“IT’S MIDGET MAYHEM!!!”
“CLASH OF THE MIDGETS, EVERYBODY! CLASH OF THE MIDGETS!!!”
One by one, they wrestlers are bumped off, until it’s only Baby Jesus left in the ring. Next thing you know, it’s being declared that Polaroids will be sold for 10 bucks a pop, and that you should pick up a t-shirt or get your poster autographed. I wait in the hall as people exit- most of ’em are on their phones, chuckling that it was funny. It’s just past 10:00, and everyone’s exuding that post-show deflation as they head off to their rooms or cars.
This is the part of the post where you might expect some sort of conclusion, but truth be told, for all my notes, I’m not exactly sure what to make of it all. Degrading to the midgets? Like I said, without the barker, chances are it probably wouldn’t even register as you watched the fights. Degrading to the audience? Despite the snickers, most of the people there were clearly more investing in the fact that that they were watching wrestlers rather than short people. What critique exactly do you apply to an event that’s part of a subculture of a subculture anyways? Maybe it was exploitation, pure and simple. Maybe it was an example of people being able to do what they love regardless of their physical stature. I can only really present the facts here- you’re going to have to debate whether what they all add up to is right or wrong for yourselves, or of course, conclude that there’s really no moral to this story.
After all- it’s Vegas.