An attractive woman in her mid-20s walks at a steady clip across the crowded parking lot of Shooter's Sports Bar in Hermitage. Despite her hustle, she trails her date by a good three paces.
Inside, harried waitresses carry trays of cocktails, Red Bull and longneck beer through the crowd, which is situated around something that has become an annual staple at Shooter's — an elevated, smaller-than-you'd-expect wrestling ring.
"This is our biggest draw of the year," says bar owner Barry Shuffitt. "For us, this is bigger than the Super Bowl."
Welcome to a night billed simply as "midget wrestling."
The room is filled with men, most under 40, most wearing silkscreened T-shirts with dressy imprints or team logos. The few women are dressed down, with one exception: the woman from the parking lot, who's stylish in a slumming-debutante way. Think Sgt. Pepper without the tails. She stands a safe distance from the thicket surrounding the ring, but far enough from the bar — where her boyfriend is ordering drinks — to convey that she's frosted.
Shuffitt is no novice to the Extreme Midget Wrestling Federation. He has booked them twice before. He avoids thematic gimmickry — there are no "half pint" beer specials, no "small fry" menu items. That might seem exploitative. He simply charges $15 at the door and lets a fella named "Harley" — the promoter/tour wrangler/bus driver of Extreme Midget Wrestling — and his traveling band of musclebound, high-flying performers handle the rest. "The Federation" books around 180 dates across the country annually, Harley says; tours across Europe and Japan are claimed to be on the horizon.
The wrestling may be scripted (spoiler alert!), but the wrestlers are very real. A middle-aged man in a black unitard pushes his way through the crowd and climbs into the ring. Despite technically being a "little person," he's huge. His back is muscular and disarmingly broad, so much so that his bulging, vein-throbbing arms dangle away from his torso. If he has a neck, it's not visible. He could lay out any man in the place.
His opponent is considerably shorter, but no less impressive. His skin is stretched taut across his bulbous forearms, triceps and biceps. And while his head has a visible neck to perch upon, that's no knock on his deltoids; they are impressive in their own right. A pre-recorded bell announces that it's showtime, and the men get right to business.
In the first 60 seconds, each wrestler takes a turn hoisting the other high above his head. He spins, showing off his trophy for all to see, then slams him to the mat with a loud, sheet-metal clank. Punches are thrown, eyes are gouged; each man executes a frighteningly high jump from the ring's top rope. It seems, however, that the Extreme Midget Wrestling Federation puts its money into wrestlers, not officials. The ref, also part of the midget tour, fails to call a pin "a pin" time and again, when it was, clearly, without a doubt.
"If my parents ever find out you brought me to a midget wrestling match, you'll never set foot in their house again," the dressed-down deb says. It's not clear whether this is an admonishment, a protest, or a warning. Regardless, her flashy 20-something companion, who looks like he stepped out of an Axe Body Spray commercial, appears indifferent. He's now halfway through his vodka and Red Bull. Maybe it's his first of the evening. Maybe it isn't.
His date doesn't carry herself as the type one would expect to find at a wrestling match where midgets beat on one another for a gawking crowd. Then again, she doesn't seem like the type who would date an overly tanned guy sporting a white Dolce & Gabbana knockoff baseball cap cocked sideways, either.
As for the match, it has the hallmarks of any wrestling event: not-so-good acting, not-so-close punches, not-so-tasteful costumes, and metal trash cans that dent a little too easily and always seem to be within reach at just the right moment. Not to mention the ref, who never seems to spot the ham-handed dirty tricks.
After the first match, four women from the audience take turns thrusting their pelvises and gyrating on the ref, who is flat on his back in the middle of the ring. The bit, called "Midget Grinding," is clearly the debutante's breaking point. She visibly cringes as Contestant No. 1 plops herself squarely upon the man and "grinds" a little more explicitly than Nos. 2 and 3. As determined by applause, that midget-twerker goes on to battle No. 4, in an old-fashioned all-American winner-take-all midget grind-off. The beat pumps and pounds as the girls take turns dry-humping the ref in repose.
"I'm leaving!" the debutante snaps, breaking the gaze of Axe Body Spray Man, whose welcome in her parents' home is now in serious jeopardy. She's gone before the content winner is announced — the one with the most tattoos — but by that time the Axe Man is already moving. He follows the deb out the door, three paces behind.
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