It’s not easy to make it in wrestling—especially when you’re under five feet tall. If athletes like Dylan Postl (aka Swoggle) want to be in the ring, they have to make tough choices.
Dylan Postl would like to go home. This is understandable.
Since leaving his home in Oshkosh, Wis., yesterday morning, Postl has flown from Milwaukee to Cleveland; performed in a professional wrestling show in the gym of a Catholic primary school; had some after-hours fun and early-morning airline issues; caught a substitute flight from Cleveland that got him as far as New York City; rented a Nissan Versa to drive 21⁄2 hours to the outskirts of Albany for an autograph signing at a shopping mall; driven another hour west to wrestle in another school gym; put on the same wide-eyed grin for more photos with fans than he could count; and wrestled at said school, just 30 minutes after first meeting the performer with whom he’d be working.
Somewhere in that 36-hour span he managed to doze off for a little while. Even given the itinerant life of an independent pro wrestler, it has been a bit much.
Still, Postl, scraggly-bearded and soon to be 31 years old, will tell you that he loves this. He loves wrestling first and foremost, and even as it takes its toll, he loves the independent scene’s DIY ethos: stuffing his suitcase with merchandise, hawking it for 20 bucks a pop before the show, controlling his own schedule, munching on free pizza in the locker room.
He also loves where it brings him. In the past year, that has included four trips to the United Kingdom. In July 2016 he went to the Gathering of the Juggalos, the annual Insane Clown Posse fan festival in Thornville, Ohio, where he performed in an outdoor ring in a muddy field and saw attendees do things he’d rather not describe. On a Saturday in February he is at this junior-senior high school in Saint Johnsville, N.Y., a sleepy village of about 2,000, for a show raising funds for a class trip to Boston. As Postl sits exhausted at an octagonal cafeteria table, a few seventh- and eighth-grade students approach, rigid with self-consciousness as they offer thanks and request selfies.
Postl has performed on nearly every type of stage his business offers. Until May of last year he spent a decade performing for the industry’s titan, WWE. There he was known as Hornswoggle, a character who completed the classic character arc of nonverbal-leprechaun-turned-leather-pantsed-rocker. The highlights of his tenure included being slammed off the top of a ladder in front of 80,000 people at WrestleMania 23 and joining in the pyrotechnic crotch-pointing taunts of D-Generation X.
Like many a seasoned entertainer, Postl has distilled his performances to their required elements. “Good ass bite, pretty decent splash at the end,” he had said earlier that afternoon. “That’s all I gotta worry about.” His role on this evening’s show would be to answer an open challenge from a burly villain. The ensuing six-minute match, which Postl won, was the type of comedic performance at which a younger, more idealistic Postl would have balked.
As a Wisconsin teenager paying $100 a month to train, he reveled in the full breadth of wrestling’s physicality: running the ropes, taking back body drops, executing suplexes. “I never wanted to bite an ass or trip a guy or pinch a guy’s nipples,” he says. Yet these days—even with more autonomy than ever to script his own matches—Postl’s tune has changed. “I did all of that tonight,” he says. “I do all of that in just about every match I do now. Because I realized, Hey, I can wrestle, but the fans don’t necessarily want to see that all the time.”
What fans want to see from Postl typically differs from what they want to see from other wrestlers. Postl, after all, stands just 4' 5", the result of achondroplasia, a genetic disorder that is among the most common causes of dwarfism. Professional wrestling has long incorporated elements of comedy, yet for performers like Postl it is practically a prerequisite. When “midget wrestlers”—as they are most often indelicately labeled—appear in mainstream pro wrestling, it is usually as a one-off gag, a sideshow within a sideshow. For the sub-five-foot grappler with serious aspirations, the limitations are frustrating. Many face the choice of performing as living, breathing jokes, or not at all.
Size matters in wrestling. In a principally physical form of storytelling, appearance can stand in for both character and plot, with bigger traditionally seen as better: Hulk Hogan’s 24-inch pythons, Andre the Giant, etc. But spectacle cuts both ways, and since the mid–20th century little people have had a regular place in the squared circle. Rarely have they been as visible as Postl, whose near decadelong run in WWE was unprecedented, and whose indie-circuit status as a standalone attraction is nearly as uncommon. Most often little person wrestlers in 2017 can be seen in specialized touring groups with names like Half-Pint Brawlers and Midget Wrestling Warriors. They make the rounds through America’s bars and armories, wrestling on all-little-person cards. The stature that makes it hard for them to crack most wrestling cards is amplified there into a novel strength.
A quick word about that word. Midget has been on the wrong side of political correctness since the Little People of America condemned it at their inaugural meeting, in 1957, and in recent decades the group has won victories ranging from changes to the AP stylebook to the name of a line of miniature pickles. While pro wrestling often uses its own dated, carnie-inflected vocabulary—faces, heels, kayfabe, shoots—rarely is it more at odds with society at large than on this subject. The m-word has proved a stubborn survivor in the industry. As Postl says, “The word midget makes me money.”
The wrestlers themselves often make an important distinction between the word’s derisive use and its helpfulness in sparking public interest. “You’re not gonna see on a poster little people wrestling,” says 4' 11" independent wrestler Robbie (the Giant) Araujo. “You’re gonna see midget wrestling. More people are gonna want to see midget wrestling. It’s taking what we are and embracing it.”
“You have a product and you have a brand,” adds Daniel DiLucchio, who wrestles as Short Sleeve Sampson. “You have to explain your product in your branding.”
The LPA, in keeping with survey responses from 90% of its roughly 6,000 members (out of an estimated 30,000 little people in the U.S.), formally opposes the use of midget, preferring little person or even the more scientific dwarf. Its members have often protested wrestling events, demanding name changes of outfits like Extreme Midget Wrestling, and branding alternatives have arisen, with terms such as micro and mini becoming common.
Whatever you call it, Postl and his fellow performers are tapping into a wrestling tradition that can be traced back six decades, to a Detroit-based grappler and promoter named Jack Britton. According to the popular account—possibly apocryphal—Britton was performing on a card in Montreal in the 1950s that frequently pitted two or three little wrestlers against a single large opponent. Britton saw green: He set up a Montreal booking office for so-called midget wrestling and leased out crews of performers to work together, often in tag-team bouts.
Over the next two decades performers from Britton’s 40-man stable—Sky Low Low, Little Beaver, Lord Littlebrook, Fuzzy Cupid—toured the U.S. and Canada as special attractions. Money flowed. Britton’s top draws were paid like the stars they were: Geno Brito, Britton’s son, recalls Little Beaver, aka Lionel Giroux, earning six figures and driving a Ford Thunderbird in his prime. On shows heavy with wide-bodied bruisers and methodical grapplers, teams of four-footers chasing one another around the ring offered change-of-pace appeal. Many little wrestlers were talented athletes capable of impressive physical feats and compelling action, but instead a reliable formula formed around a series of crowd-pleasing slapstick spots, like dog piles and running between the referee’s legs—rare bits of unvarnished farce in an era when wrestling still insisted upon a veil of legitimacy. “Their match was completely different from any other match,” says Dave Meltzer, longtime editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
As pro wrestling neared its mid-’80s boom period, midget wrestling waned. The stars of Britton’s era had aged. The novelty of the genre’s comedy-based style did too. Vincent K. McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) expanded from the sport’s traditional Northeastern outpost and became a national conglomerate, swallowing up the territorial circuits where freelancing little people often made their rounds. Wrestling was refashioned as a mainstream TV product.
But McMahon’s company would give midget wrestling its high-water mark, at least in terms of visibility. It came on the under-card of 1987’s Wrestlemania III, in front of an announced (and almost certainly apocryphal) crowd of 93,173 that filled the Pontiac Silverdome to watch Hogan and Andre contend for the world championship. The third of the show’s 12 matches settled a simmering feud between the beloved Hillbilly Jim (6' 7", 350 pounds) and the abhorred King Kong Bundy (6' 4", 458 pounds), each joined by two little people as teammates: Beaver and the Haiti Kid with Jim, Littlebrook and Little Tokyo with Bundy. The match ended when, in violation of its stated size-segregation rules, Bundy lifted Beaver and slammed him to the mat, causing a disqualification. When Bundy moved to continue the beating, Littlebrook and Tokyo dragged a prone Beaver out of the way, saving their opponent from their partner. “Even the other midgets don’t like what he did!” crowed play-by-play announcer Gorilla Monsoon.
There would be no follow-up angle nor chance for revenge. The fall reportedly mangled Beaver’s back, contributing to his retirement soon after. And after their highest-profile performance to date, little people all but disappeared from wrestling.
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Jack Darrell Hillegass had never met a little person before he realized that they could make him money. It was 2006, and Hillegass, a former stripper, was booking male revues and stand-up comics for night clubs in Murfreesboro, Tenn., when he was introduced to a little person wrestler known as P.O.D. (for Pissed-Off Dwarf). P.O.D.—real name Chris Guyre—ran a traveling all-little-person wrestling show known as the Micro Wrestling Federation. I can sell this, Hillegass thought, and for the next three years he did, eventually usurping P.O.D. as the company’s head and owner. At the time, Hillegass was living under an alias in Tennessee to duck an Ohio prison sentence after being convicted for his role in an Ecstasy shipment in 2000. In 2009 authorities arrested him at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, where he was running one of his wrestling shows. He ended up serving 6 1⁄2 years in an Ohio prison. His friends kept the company afloat until Hillegass moved into transitional housing in January 2016 and retook the reins. “I was in a halfway house with a headset and a f------cellphone booking midget wrestling shows while all the other guys are OD’ing and looking for cigarettes,” he says.
Hillegass shares this inside the entryway of a Memphis strip club named The Pony. It’s a dreary Thursday afternoon in May. He wears khaki cargo shorts and a black Micro Wrestling Federation baseball cap above a matching black hoodie that hangs loosely on his still-muscled 48-year-old frame. He has written a book (“a 98% authentic narrative”) about his life that he hopes to market alongside his crew of MWF wrestlers. “I’d be a much more interesting character if I had 10 midgets standing around me,” he says. Behind him, the quartet working tonight’s show help lug lumber in from the 10-foot trailer hitched to Hillegass’s Ford Excursion, to construct a ring alongside The Pony’s catwalk. Each wears a black MWF hoodie with the slogan i support midget violence.
Midget wrestling largely exited the industry’s main stage after the 1980s, but it never truly vanished. It survived on the fringes, in small-town armories and shows like Hillegass’s. Half a dozen troupes currently tour the U.S., performing coast to coast in front of crowds that range from handfuls of fans to hundreds. The four wrestlers with Hillegass in Memphis are well-traveled. All have worked elsewhere; all swear by him as a promoter. Of their other bosses, they relay horror stories of skipped paydays and unsecured travel in the cargo space of a U-Haul. “This is the best I’ve been in,” says Jacob Brooks, a charming 26-year-old from Mississippi who wrestles as Lil’ Show. “And I’ve been in all of ’em.”
Hillegass, in turn, speaks of his wrestlers’ talents with unflinchingly earnest optimism. He bristles when people expect comedy—“It’s a WWE-style show with a crew under five feet tall,” he says—but he acknowledges that the action is only part of the draw. “They’re not coming for the wrestling,” he says. “They’re coming for the little guys.”
To that end, when he was released from prison last year, he expanded his shows to include Wendi Furguson, a 2' 10" comedian. Hillegass says he spent $15,000 on a truck, trailer and ring for a second crew of wrestlers to tour simultaneously—tonight they are in Illinois—and $12,000 on a March trip to Las Vegas, where he rented a booth at the Nightclub & Bar Show. He claims that while he has made enough money in the last year to drive a new Mercedes, he sleeps on an air mattress in a basement apartment in Cincinnati in order to reinvest in his company. Among his goals: a Nashville dinner theater where his wrestlers would be joined by various little people entertainers, like comedians and look-alikes. “The whole Lollipop Guild kind of thing,” he explains. He would call it the Microtorium.
“People sometimes tell me, Oh, you’re exploiting these people,” Hillegass says. “It’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard in my life. How can I be exploiting someone who’s doing something they love?”
Booking MWF costs venues between $3,500 and $10,000, depending on the size of the show. The company’s best gigs—like the one the night before Memphis, in West Lafayette, Ind.—are often country-western bars, where the crowds are usually big and lively. Strip-club shows like tonight’s, the wrestlers say are less than ideal. The reasons are less puritanical than practical: There’s a lengthy break between matches for the dancers to work the stage.
No one in the show’s cast, each of whom earns $200-$350 per show, says they feel exploited. Likewise, none object to the term midget as a marketing hook, though Hillegass has attempted to phase it out of his own promotional materials. Nevertheless, The Pony’s marquee promises midget fights.
The MWF members’ reasons for performing vary. Furguson, who has been doing stand-up comedy for six years, has found the steadiest work of her career. Brooks and his brother Jamie, who wrestles as Baby Jesus, harbor WWE dreams. Jordan (J-Mazing) Rafael wrestles to supplement his income as a performer in Vegas hotel shows, most recently as a jester at the Excalibur. He recruited Eddie (E-Money) Piedra into wrestling after they met on the set of the 2013 film Oz the Great and Powerful, in which they both played Munchkins. Piedra is saving money to move back to L.A. from San Antonio, hoping to break more fully into acting. In the meantime he views wrestling as a chance to disabuse crowds’ preconceptions of little people’s athletic abilities, winning respect one powerbomb at a time. “If they come away with a different attitude, then I’ve done my job,” he says. “We’re not just a sideshow.”
Around 10 p.m., after the national anthem and a blue opening set from Furguson, Rafael and Piedra work the first of the night’s four matches. It sets the tone for the evening: 15 to 20 minutes of escalating action that draws the 75 or so onlookers into hoots and hollers and climaxes with a pin, before a half-hour intermission during which the club’s dancers do their thing. Most of the clubgoers appear rapt during the matches. Dancers take seats and cheer; at one point, while the Brooks brothers brawl onto the catwalk with clipboards and cookie sheets, one of the women runs over to shower them with dollar bills. In the second match E-Money helps Lil’ Show cheat to beat Baby Jesus for the championship; J-Mazing teams up with the latter for tag-team revenge in the third; and the resulting clash devolves into double-cross chaos to set up a four-way main event in which Baby Jesus reclaims his title. The crowd applauds and whoops.
It’s now past 1 a.m. The wrestlers mingle about an elevated seating area along a nearby wall, asking a reporter for his thoughts. It was an impressive show, packed with flips and flying head-scissors and back handsprings, the kind of action that could win over nearly any audience. Told this much, they glow. But there is little time for reflection. Soon they will be on the road again for a five-hour overnight ride to a show at a pool hall in Ripley, Miss. First they must disassemble the ring, so they get to work wrenching loose the turnbuckles while the DJ calls Ginger to the main stage.
Even while watching a show as entertaining as this one, there can be a nagging unease. It is often difficult to separate the performance from its marketing. Says Leah Smith, public relations director of Little People of America, “They’re still saying, ‘Come watch us because of our height, not our skill.’ ”
Is there a place for little people in pro wrestling that isn’t exploitative? DiLucchio says his mere appearance on a show has drawn protests, mainly from well-meaning college groups trying to tackle exploitation, which has led to promoters changing venues or dropping him from the gig altogether. “Them trying to speak on my behalf is actually doing more damage,” he says. “This is my job. This is me pursuing and living a dream.”
But at the highest levels the execution of that dream has been largely one-dimensional. In the mid-1990s the then WWF featured Dink, a four-foot doppelgänger sidekick to a clown wrestler named Doink. (He was at one point joined by the similarly sized Wink and Pink to counter the nefarious Sleazy, Queasy and Cheesy.) Later that decade the WWF imported several “minis” from Mexico, where little wrestlers have enjoyed more mainstream success, but the undertaking proved short-lived. Ditto for WWE’s attempt at establishing a “juniors division” of smaller wrestlers in 2005, which flopped while vacillating between slapstick and seriousness. In recent decades little people have appeared in WWE as miniaturized impersonators of stars, trotted out by a rival to be belittled.
So the choice, to the extent one exists, seems to be between working as a high-profile joke or toiling out of the limelight while pursuing the craft more seriously. It would be disingenuous to contend that the performances of little people wrestlers are simply scaled-down translations of larger wrestlers’; many have physical limitations—shorter limbs, joint issues—that alter their movements. Still, there are plenty who can hip toss and hurricanrana like anybody else.
In 2014, Postl had the best opportunity of his WWE career: a pay-per-view preshow match in East Rutherford, N.J., with El Torito, an acrobatic 4' 5" Mexican who, dressed as a bull, worked as the sidekick to a matador-themed tag team. The pair crashed through tables and hit each other with chairs, inspiring the crowd of 16,000 to chant, “This is awesome!” After years of rarely getting to put on full matches, Postl felt vindicated. “When I got through the curtain, everyone was on their feet clapping,” Postl says. “It took a lot to not say: I f------ told you.”
But even that match was presented as a gag. A trio of little people replaced the usual commentary crew; same for the ring announcer and referee. The match was contested under “tables, ladders and chairs” rules, but instead of being abbreviated as the usual TLC, it was known as WeeLC. “Personally, I loved it,” says DiLucchio, who worked on the announcing team as Jerry Lawler’s miniature stand-in, Jerry Smaller. “It gave everyone a taste of what a midget wrestling show could be like.”
On a blindingly bright Saturday afternoon in April, Postl lies on his back in a shadowy corner of the Starland Ballroom, a concert venue in the central New Jersey suburb of Sayreville. He is groggy from another early morning of travel. A sound like thunder rumbles from the nearby ring as wrestlers rehearse for the night’s show. It’s being run by WrestlePro, a reputable Jersey-based outfit. Postl is asked how he has been in the two months since the match in upstate New York. “Awesome,” he says. “Awesome.”
He has certainly been busy. Working under the trademark-adjacent moniker Swoggle (WWE owns the rights to Hornswoggle), Postl has been booked solid, including four matches in four days during WrestleMania week in Orlando, when an array of independent promotions traditionally descend on the WWE mega-event’s host city. Last weekend the local company he runs with two childhood friends, All-Star Champion Wrestling Wisconsin, drew a record 875 fans to Oshkosh’s convention center. He has also become a regular in other outfits, assuaging some of Postl’s concerns that promoters are hiring him mainly for a jolt of WWE-derived name recognition.
At the merch stand that afternoon, it is clear how far that mainstream exposure still goes. Postl was released from his WWE contract last year; when the Torito story line from WeeLC faded, the company had little for him to do. (There was also a 30-day suspension for failure to produce a urine sample for one of WWE’s regular drug tests.) Nearly every fan who approaches in Sayreville to purchase a T-shirt or photo references his time with WWE. I used to watch you on Raw. . . . Remember when you . . . Would you ever go back? (“In a heartbeat,” he replies.)
Asked if he would have been able to stitch together a career on the independent circuit without being established in WWE first, Postl doesn’t hesitate. “Not at all,” he says. “And I wouldn’t have wanted to. I’d have been dumb to.” Here is the value of having gone along with all the jokes. Postl was 19 and green when WWE signed him for what was expected to be a six-month gig as the undersized ally of a gruff Irish baddie. He played the part with enough glee to parlay it into a nearly decadelong tenure. If he was most often deployed for laughs, he also built up the clout needed to pursue a successful career in the industry he’d always loved.
He is not sure how much longer this long shot occupation will last. He is 31 now and in the midst of what he refers to as his resurrection, savoring the opportunity to work more freely and accrue what he jokingly calls his “indie cred.” Last February he had said he might have three years left in him; now he says he will wrestle until the minute his body tells him to stop, so that he is in the physical condition to properly raise his son, Landon, who is now seven.
“Real life scares the s--- out of me,” Postl says. “This is all I’ve done.” Perhaps, he says, he will train to become a chef.
He sits in a small lounge backstage at the Starland, shiny with sweat from having performed twice tonight: once in a 30-man battle royal and once in a six-way match with five larger wrestlers. His entrances to each prompted two of the loudest crowd responses of the night, and despite winning neither, he served as the six-way’s fulcrum, first drawing laughs by gnawing on each opponent’s rear end, then cheers by propelling each backward over his head in a rousing series of German suplexes. He’s asked how he would assess his performance.
“I had a hell of an ass-bite tonight,” he says, smiling impishly. “Hell of an ass-bite. Then I got to wrestle.”