Battling Political Correctness to Re-Ignite Pro Wrestling’s Most Popular Attraction
By Vern May
“I demand silence!” orders Prince Akeem, his face contorted into a disapproving grimace. He surveys the ringsiders with disdain as they fail to heed his instruction, hurling the microphone at the ring announcer as he prepares to demonstrate his superiority. His opponent will pay the price for their disrespect.
The Prince is just one of the featured stars on tour with Midget Wrestling Warriors, a touring troop of little people that have brought a once booming genre of professional sport back to life for a new generation of audiences.
Montreal wrestler and promoter Jack Britton was among the first to recognize the appeal of a new attraction in the world of wrestling. In 1950, he partnered with Detroit promoter Bert Rubi to open a school and recruit a crew of pint-sized grapplers to develop what would grow to become a touring spectacle. The “Mighty Midgets” of professional wrestling would pack in the crowds wherever they appeared on the marquee.
Names like Sky Low Low, Fuzzy Cupid, Little Beaver, Frenchy Lamonte, Lord Littlebrook and Cowboy Lang are familiar to fans around the world as the sport reached its greatest heights from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. However, the division started to slip from the public eye with the death of wrestling’s territory system. The appeal of the midgets required that they were only imported as a special attraction once or twice a year, so they needed to stay on the road to maintain their novelty. When Vince McMahon’s national expansion choked the life out of the regional promoters, the economy dried up for this select group of athletes. What little hope remained for the short-statured battlers dried up with the introduction of political correctness. Suddenly, it became socially derogatory to refer to the athletes as “midgets”. The public was uncomfortable, and it contributed to even less opportunities for the available touring talent.
“The irony is this,” says Short Sleeve Sampson, a Syracuse, New York native who began his ring career in 1998. “You have all these activists out there who are protesting that I’m being exploited and that I can’t be called a midget. They don’t realize that while they are out there supposedly looking out for my best interests, they are taking food off my plate. These people who claimed to be helping me were actually making it harder for me to support my family.”
While not yet a household name, Sampson is one of the busiest wrestlers of his generation, regularly traversing North America for matches, personal appearances and television and movie projects. During his eighteen year career, he has appeared for World Wrestling Entertainment as well as Impact Wrestling and has worked with some of the sport’s biggest stars like Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker. He is featured in the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Texas, is an honoree in the New England Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Cauliflower Alley Club’s circle of friendship, celebrating his achievements in the sport at a ceremony in Las Vegas. That’s not bad for a 4’2” kid that wasn’t expected to have a career in professional sport.
“I was always athletic in school,” says Short Sleeve. “But there aren’t too many opportunities in professional sports for a guy like me. The NBA isn’t callin’, Major League Baseball doesn’t have a spot for me. But in professional wrestling, I have an opportunity to dictate my schedule and demonstrate what I can do. Ultimately, I’d like to be remembered as a good wrestler who happened to be short, rather than a guy who was good ‘for a midget’.”
Sampson, who was born Dan DiLucchio, saw that business was picking up based on the increased calls for his own appearances and sought out a partnership to launch the Midget Wrestling Warriors promotion. Creating opportunities for a segment of the talent pool that were without an outlet, Sampson set the stage to get them in from of the fans who had missed seeing the unique spectacle in their local arenas.
The response has been overwhelming. Though the circuit’s head office is based in New York State, the demand for the all-midget events from Canada have dominated their schedule. Since debuting in November 2014, Midget Wrestling Warriors had made twelve tours in Canada and appeared on more than 60 dates in the western Provinces alone. With sold out shows in arenas for all ages crowds as well as nightclubs and dance halls across the country, Midget Wrestling Warriors is re-igniting the passion for one of wrestling’s most popular attractions – with a new school flair that appeals to today’s discriminating fan.
“Fans have access to so much wrestling on TV and online that they have a very educated view of wrestling now,” says Sampson. “The traditional midget matches with the clichéd comedy antics just don’t cut it anymore. If you don’t deliver action, the fans aren’t going to come back to see you a second time. I think our schedule tells us that we’re headed in the right direction.”
But what about political correctness? Does it have a place in the modern era of professional wrestling?
“As far as we’re concerned, you go ahead and be politically correct all you want. Advertise little people wrestling, vertically challenged wrestling, whatever you think you need to. The fact is … let’s cut the bull … we are midgets!,” says Sampson. “This is midget wrestling! If we thought it was offensive or derogatory, do you think any of us would be here? Would we work under a banner with the word midget in the title? There’s a value to truth in advertising. We’re midgets, and that’s how we sell it.”
Could we see wrestling’s mighty midgets get a fair shake on the national stage in the same manner that we have seen women’s wrestling slide from a peep show attraction to allowing them to prove they can deliver? It’s difficult to predict the appetite of the wrestling fans on that topic. In the meantime, fans can check out Short Sleeve Sampson and his peers wherever the Midget Wrestling Warriors appear.