There are six gigantic televisions and thirty wall monitors at Sluggers. The air is dense with smoke, and you have to shout over classic rock to be heard. Gary Arnold wouldn't find this Wrigleyville sports bar a hospitable environment even on an unremarkable Saturday, but tonight he finds it particularly hostile. Tonight, people have come to gawk at midgets.
Arnold prefers to be called a "little person" or a "person of short stature." And he prefers not to be gawked at. But he figures if you're gearing up to protest something, you'd better get good and familiar with it. He attended Midget Boxing Night once before but found the experience so surreal that he needed to come back and let it "sink in more." He's brought his friends Todd Voigt, who has smuggled in a video camera, and Francisca Winston, who's visiting from Minnesota. He and Winston met through a group called Little People of America (LPA). He apologized to her in advance for the evening's plan, saying, "Sorry, it's going to be horrible, but we have to do this."
Arnold, 31, is the public relations coordinator for the disability rights organization Access Living. He first heard about Midget Boxing Night from someone at work.
Midget boxing, as practiced by a riotous band of dwarfs who call themselves the Bloody Midgets, is a cross between a hardcore wrestling match and a circus sideshow. On their Web site they promise to "beat the hell out of each other" and to "bleed for your enjoyment." For three years, they've been traveling from city to city on the "Rok'Um Sok'Um" tour, under the slogan "No Silence--All Violence!!!" Staple guns, thumbtacks, and cheese graters are among the weapons they use to abuse one another. Every other month or so, they stop at Sluggers.
Around 10 PM, Arnold leads us toward the back room, where the boxing ring is set up. We pass through rooms filled with sports memorabilia, neon beer signs, and photos of men in team uniforms. Arnold and Winston, by their very presence, become part of a peculiar spectacle. Their average-size torsos and disproportionately short limbs seem to be a source of great amusement to the mostly white, well-groomed twentysomethings in attendance. People grin at the sight of them. One woman reaches down and lightly touches Winston's shoulder. Arnold hears "Photo op!" and two people snap pictures. "Right there! This way! Look down!" a woman implores her friends.
In the back room, a man in a ribbed mock-turtleneck sweater shoves a thumbs-up at Arnold. Arnold hardly looks prepared to step into the ring--he's wearing oval glasses and has a satchel slung over his shoulder--but the man heartily encourages him to "Kick some ass." Someone else makes the same mistake, shouting, "Go get 'em, buddy."
The crowd grows impatient. They've each paid ten bucks to see midgets and they want to see them now. They start to chant: "Mid-jits! Mid-jits! We want mid-jits!"
A man with a wispy mustache who's celebrating his 22nd birthday is chanting louder than anyone around. He's about five-four.
Finally a man enters the ring clad in a wrestling singlet with "Bloody Midgets" airbrushed across the front. It's the group's swaggering leader, Puppet the Psycho Dwarf, and he knows how to pump up the audience even more.
"Who wants to see a midget bleeeed tonight?" he roars. People throw fists in the air and shout, "Woooooo."
Arnold and Winston stick together, near a wall, occasionally rolling their eyes at each other. At one point Winston leans over to Arnold and says, "This is much worse than I thought it would be." Later, she says she was disquieted by the feeling that if she were to stray too far from the wall, someone would scoop her up and toss her into the ring.
Voigt trains his video camera on one of the many wall monitors accommodating those without a good view. Eventually he disappears into the crowd to get closer to the action.
Puppet used to work on Mancow's Morning Madhouse and has retained his shock jock persona. He singles out a woman in the audience and says, "I'm gonna use and abuse you later on tonight, you fucking whore."
Several times he yells "Suck my dick" into the mike, and he leads the crowd in a "Fuck you" call and response. Then the sideshows begin.
Puppet holds a beer bong contest between a "gimp" who travels with the show and a "normal" he's plucked from the audience. The gimp has cerebral palsy. "He's got no muscle control!" Puppet crows. The gimp's beer runs through a funnel and races through a long tube, which sprays him, to the audience's delight, like an out of control garden hose.
Next up is a midriff-flaunting dwarf named MJ Lo. "J Lo's booty ain't nothin' compared to mine," she boasts on the Bloody Midgets' Web site. With her back to the crowd, she makes slow suggestive circles with her ass. Puppet helps himself to a few spanks before a tall, bald bodyguard in a muscle T lifts her out of the ring and carries her away. She rides above the crowd on his shoulders, blithely sucking on a Blow Pop. She has long blondish hair with bangs and is wearing a blue halter top that knots in front. A rhinestone cross dangles from her neck. The bodyguard sets her down on the counter of a back bar. Men line up to lick salt off her body before taking shots.
"The better the tip, the better the lick," the bodyguard explains. There's a one-dollar minimum.
Meanwhile, in the ring, three women from the audience are competing for a T-shirt. They take turns making out with a four-foot-seven man. The one deemed the best kisser wins.
On the back bar, MJ Lo stuffs tips into her halter and accommodates strange men's tongues, pulling her hair out of the way to expose her neck, leaning back to offer up her navel, baring part of a breast. "Get a handful of hip!" a guy in line coaches his buddy.
The men seem to have an insatiable appetite for midget licking, but, according to MJ Lo's bodyguard, this is business as usual. He says she typically rakes in between three and four hundred dollars per show. "I guess it's that little girl thing," he says.
Fresh spots are increasingly hard to come by, though--soon the men are licking flesh that just moments before glistened with another man's saliva. One man, watching from afar, grimaces, saying, "I'm not gonna lick a midget after everyone else licks the midget."
Still, he's having a great time. "Body shots for chrissakes! On a midget! What more do you need?" Just seeing dwarfs is a thrill for him. He tries to explain. "They're people, but they're just smaller." He sounds as though he's had an epiphany.
Little People of America estimates that there are only 30,000 dwarfs in the United States. "Because there aren't that many of us, rarely will people meet or get to know one of us," Arnold said before the show. "So they're stuck relying on stereotypes generated by the entertainment industry." Roles offered to dwarfs usually lack human complexity, and often aren't even human, he pointed out. They play elves or Munchkins or Oompa Loompas. "The purpose they serve is to draw out the physical difference and not to be represented in any other way as a full character," Arnold said. "They exist solely for comic relief or freak-show value." Midget boxing, according to Arnold, continues in that tradition.
"It's based on the idea of coming to see a midget, not coming to see boxing or wrestling. Marketing this as midget boxing is no different than marketing an event as Jewish boxing. Come see a bunch of Jews beat the hell out of each other. Who wants to see a Jew bleed?" It would never happen, he said. "There are a few groups it's still OK to openly discriminate against and to openly mock and ridicule, and I think little people are one of those groups."
Arnold has sent two letters to Zach Strauss, the manager of Sluggers, laying out his objections. He believes midget boxing fosters "attitudinal barriers" that affect the entire population of little people, and that, by inviting ridicule, the event reinforces a common perception that the life of a little person isn't as valuable as the life of a big one. "The consequences of these attitudes go beyond stereotypes," he wrote, citing a recent survey in which 56 percent of geneticists questioned said they'd abort a fetus if it carried the gene for the most common form of dwarfism.
Arnold realizes that midget boxing wouldn't exist without eager participants, and that outside attempts to limit a group's activities and choices can smack of paternalism. "It is their livelihood," he conceded. "And in entertainment if you're a little person there aren't that many choices. But I think if we give into it, it's just going to continue that way."
Though a Florida law prohibiting dwarf tossing withstood legal challenges from a dwarf who made a living as a human projectile, Arnold has no plans to lobby state legislators. If Sluggers doesn't discontinue the event sometime soon, he says, he will begin a massive leafleting and picketing campaign outside the bar. He's also reached out to Puppet. Puppet has not returned his calls.
I caught Puppet the day before he was headed to Australia on the Bloody Midgets first international tour.
Trained as a Shakespearean actor, 33-year-old Puppet spent several years in Hollywood before founding the Bloody Midgets. He said he got sick of taking commands from directors to "run across the screen and be a midget." It was utterly degrading, he said, unlike boxing, which he finds empowering.
Puppet wholly rejects the idea that the show demeans little people. The audience does not gawk at or ridicule the boxers, he said. He claims to have groupies and fans, and considers the fact that people clamor to take pictures with him a sign of their adoration. In the boxing ring, "We have personalities and craft," he said. "You're being yourself, being entertaining, and having people almost idolize you. That's powerful." He feels like a star. He's having a good time--and making good money.
Puppet has no intention of meeting with Arnold. "I'm a busy man," he said, adding, "I don't mean to sound cocky." Then he scoffed, "Does he feel connected to me because we're midgets?" Puppet said he doesn't have to explain himself to anyone.
"I hear it all the time--'I'm offended.' From other midgets, from the LPA. All it is is 'Blah, blah, blah.' They're just wanting to get into other people's business."
Puppet wouldn't tell me his real name. But he said he was secure with himself, and made a point of letting me know that his "ding-a-ling-schling" was attached to his torso, which is "normal size." If someone is offended by the Bloody Midgets, he said, "That's their problem--maybe they're not secure being a midget."
In the ring, the main event has begun. Puppet is pitted against a dwarf named TEO (Total "E" Outstanding), who at three-eight claims to be the "world's smallest professional athlete." It doesn't take long for the match to get bloody. Puppet plunges a thumbtack into TEO's scalp, fastening on a dollar bill, and TEO cracks a beer bottle over Puppet's head.
The show is choreographed, of course, but according to Puppet, the blood is real. The audience, which has paid nearly $10,000 for tonight's event, loves every minute of it. "I think it's fucking awesome," says a woman from Missouri. "I almost feel bad, but it's funny." She's relieved she has permission to laugh. "If they're OK with it, then it's awesome!" A friend of hers is slightly more conflicted. "It's kind of weird," he tells me. "It's like they're exploiting themselves, but you're partaking in it, and it seems like it's OK." He pauses, then says, "It's not really OK." This thought, however, doesn't stop him from having a good time. He smiles. "It's a guilty pleasure," he says.
Arnold has had enough. We head toward the front door, passing Puppet and TEO, who are now brawling on the floor, encircled by a boisterous crowd.
Outside, Arnold catches a few men exiting the bar and gets them to talk on camera. As Voigt shoots them, they say they are visiting from Iowa and that Midget Boxing Night "was the highlight of the weekend." And then one tells Arnold, "Initially when I saw you down there, I thought you were gonna get in on the action."
"Why?" Arnold asks.
"You looked like you were a little upset. I was like, 'He's gonna kick some
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia, Todd Voight.