Who's ready to see a midget bleed tonight?"
The 4-foot-6-inch man with the microphone was born Steve Richardson, but tonight he's Puppet the Psycho Dwarf. He's kneeling in the middle of a sagging wrestling ring. Over the next 30 minutes, the structural integrity of this red-canvas square will be challenged with an onslaught of blood, sweat and piss. The soundtrack: the beehive whine of tattoo needles digging into freshly sanitized flesh.
This is the Immersed in Ink tattoo convention at Harrah's Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and at the moment, everyone is watching Puppet.
"I'm a dwarf," he says in a tar-coated croak. "Do you know what the difference between a midget and a dwarf is? With a dwarf, the torso is full size. So if I sit down next to you, we can look each other in the eye. Now, here's something you didn't know. There were eight dwarves in Snow White. I was the eighth! They wrote me out. Know why? Because my dingaling is part of my torso. Snow White didn't bite a poison apple. She choked. Oompa, loompa, doopity doo."
While Puppet works through his routine, Little Kato waits behind a set of makeshift curtains, getting into his crimson shorts. Like Puppet and Turtle, his two partners in tonight's Half-Pint Brawlers show, Kato stands less than 5 feet tall. Changing clothes takes some time, especially fitting the pads onto his knees. Bone spurs grind in his neck. He had scheduled an MRI before this show, but his health-insurance carrier disputed the test's necessity. Not that its results would have stopped him from being here tonight.
As Puppet finishes his jokes, Turtle climbs into the ring with as much grace as he can manage. Unlike his partners, Turtle can't wrestle. He needs a cane to walk. "He's a fucked-up midget with a rod in his spine," Kato says. "He ain't blessed."
Turtle finds his own ways to entertain. While Kato straps on the last of his gear, Turtle urinates into a beer pitcher. Puppet hands it to a woman at ringside, who attests to the crowd that, yes, this is genuine urine. With the fluid's authenticity established, Turtle pours a glass and proceeds to drink his own waste in one agonizingly long pull. Not content, Puppet offers the shirt off his back to any woman who will make out with Turtle for five seconds. The winner beats three other women trying to make their way to the ropes. She mounts Turtle for what seems far longer than required.
"He does this every time, and some of these girls that get in there ain't even fat," Kato says.
An hour before Puppet asks the crowd to howl for midget blood, Little Kato (real name Chris Dube) sat at the casino bar, a can of Coors Light open in front of him, the aluminum pinched in the center where his thumb gripped it. On his right was a woman named Rocki Elliot. On his left was Raychael McDuffy. Both had driven from Omaha to see him wrestle.
"I tell you, I'm getting pretty pissed off," Dube said. Event organizers had refused free passes for his friends. "They say it's not in the contract, but that's bullshit. It shouldn't have to be written in. It's just being fair. I'm performing here. They're making enough money." Dube wouldn't talk about his contract, but at an event like this, he usually makes about $1,000.
McDuffy, a 28-year-old brunette with an hourglass figure, has known Dube since she was a girl. "He was on a break from wrestling when I met him. He was my mom's friend. He just seemed like this nice guy," she said. "He's got a temper, though."
When Dube got to the convention gate, the first thing he did was ask to see Amy Garfield, who booked the Brawlers. He wanted his friends comped, and he wasn't backing down.
"If I have to give you tickets, I have to give them to everyone," Garfield told him. "I'd have to give free ones to the eight guys that put the ring together. I wouldn't make any money."
"The guys putting the ring together aren't performing tonight. I am!" Dube answered.
As the pair argued, casino security guards slipped into a four-man perimeter around them.
Garfield's partner, a man with full-sleeve tattoos on both arms and wearing a maroon shirt, knelt down so that he and Dube could talk eye to eye. That was Dube's cue to walk. "Fuck this. I ain't working tonight."
Elliot and McDuffy watched him go, debating whether to follow. "It's not that big of a deal. I'll pay," Elliot said.
"Yeah, but to him it's the principle of it," McDuffy said.
Alerted by Garfield, Puppet went after Dube because he knew, without Kato, there was no show. Puppet finally returned but without Dube. "I'm just having them take your tickets out of my pay, but don't tell him that," he told the women. He sighed. "Every time, it's something."
Chris Dube was 24 years old when he met the man who could have been his father.
Raised near the San Francisco Bay, he grew up knowing he was adopted. "All I knew about him was that, supposedly, he was a midget wrestler who had a one-night stand when he was in town for a show," Dube says of his biological father.
Dube wasn't much of a student, but he was athletic. Yet no matter how naturally talented, there's no demand in the NFL for short linebackers. He found his answer watching wrestling matches on television, seeing diminutive athletes such as Little Toyko earn the same attention as hulking bruisers like Gorilla Monsoon.
Once he found his calling, his size still presented a problem. It's almost impossible to learn how to properly body-slam someone who's twice your size and outweighs you by 200 pounds. Dube could find just two wrestling schools in the country that specialized in midget training. The closest was in St. Joseph, Missouri. The trainer was Eric Tovey, a compact veteran grappler. It helped that Tovey didn't charge anything. For those who made it, Tovey became manager and earned a percentage of every booking.
In 1986, Dube boarded a plane to Missouri with visions of a sleek gym, a good ring and pro athletes.
"I got here, and it was just this house with a big lawn, and that was it," he says. "I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?' There wasn't any gym. There were a couple free weights thrown around, but that was it."
The training regimen was simple: Paint Tovey's house, work on his cars, weed his yard, split wood, and push a lawnmower over cruelly uneven terrain. His students flipped logs end over end around the property line until their muscles were shredded and screaming. Tovey's one piece of pro equipment was a 12-foot-by-12-foot blue-canvas mat, where his students learned basic moves and ring psychology.
Despite the austere setting, Tovey was a legitimate trainer. Born in England, he came to the United States at age 14 as an acrobat and circus clown. He eventually found another place where a man who knew how to work a crowd and take a fall could make a good living. In the great tradition of wrestlers abusing stereotypes, Tovey renamed himself Lord Littlebrook, a posh British nobleman wearing a plaid jacket, a monocle and oiled hair. The crowds hated him enough to get him noticed. At the top of his career, he performed in a tag-team match in what is generally considered the zenith of pro wrestling, WrestleMania III, which set the record for largest attendance for a live indoor sporting event in North America when it attracted 93,173 people to the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1989. In 2004, he was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, one of only three midgets ever to have been named.
From 1986 to 1991, Dube worked with Tovey in what's now called World Wrestling Entertainment and independent shows across the country. The men got along as if they'd known each other much longer. Every so often, someone would joke with Dube: You know you look just like him? An idea started to form.
"I didn't want to do it while my mother was alive — my adoptive mother. That would've been disrespectful," Dube says. "But when she passed away, I called the adoption people and started trying to find my paperwork. And I finally got the documents, and there on the sheet, it lists your biological parents, and under father it said Eric Tovey."
A note of caution when you read stories about professional wrestlers: The best performers are, by definition, the most convincing pretenders — those who live their fabrications until they feel true. And Dube is a very good pretender. Someone who has spent 20 years in a business of make-believe and violence, manipulating people's emotions in the ring, can be maddeningly evasive when talk turns to proving his lineage.
The Pitch: Do you have any records that show Tovey is your father?
Dube: "Yeah, I got the paperwork, but it's all boxed up somewhere. I don't know where to find it."
How about family members? How did they feel about your search?
"Nah. I don't really talk to them much. See, they got sort of mad. Like I was rejecting them. Like, 'They're not your real family. How could you say that about them and turn your back on us?' But that's how it is. This right here, this is my family."
Today, Tovey can't tell his side of this. In 2007, he was diagnosed with dementia and now lives with family, only a few miles from Dube's home. The Half-Pint Brawlers and Tovey's friends in Council Bluffs have only known Dube as Lord Littlebrook's son.
Dube might be able to prove his story, but either way, he long ago stopped living as if he had any family other than the one in St. Joseph.
The crumpled bills littering the mat should be proof that the Immersed in Ink crowd most definitely wants to see a midget bleed.
The flurry of green erupted shortly after Dube and Puppet squared off in the ring, and after Turtle, in his official capacity as referee, held up a staple gun. "They can't use this if there isn't anything to staple!" he said.
The match goes from vaudeville routine to classic grappling to blood sport in the space of 10 minutes. Dube is almost pinned and kicks out. Puppet begs for mercy as his ankle twists in Dube's clutches. Both men have dollar bills stapled to their bodies. When he takes one to the tongue, Puppet makes sure the crowd gets a good long look at the throbbing muscle.
For a moment, it looks as though Puppet is going to win the match, but then he gets distracted by a group of kids next to the stage. This is the moment when it's obvious he's going to lose. As Puppet berates the children, Dube takes the opportunity to drop-kick Puppet's head and roll him up for the pin.
While Turtle celebrates, Dube rolls unnoticed out of the ring, tilting his head slowly from left to right on the walk back to the dressing room. Neck injuries are a common occupational hazard. Less than a month before the Immersed in Ink convention, WWE champion Edge announced his retirement; spinal damage had caused numbness and trembling in his arms. Stone Cold Steve Austin, one of the most popular wrestlers of all time, stopped performing in 2002 because of neck injuries similar to Dube's. Japanese wrestler Mitsuharu Misawa was diagnosed with severe neck damage. He continued performing and died during a match in 2009 after taking a back suplex that resulted in what doctors called an "internal decapitation."
Dube knows all of this.
"When I get into that ring, nothing hurts," he says. "It hurts just getting dressed for the match these days. Then it starts, and the crowd is screaming, the adrenaline gets going, and I feel invincible. Then it's over, and everything hurts again."
He's 48, and he knows his career is reaching its finish. He also knows that if he doesn't leave the ring, he'll be lucky if he ends his days requiring only a cane.
"It's hard," he says. "I don't want to walk away. I love this.
"Part of it is that I got six kids, man. I got a little one that's 7, and the oldest is 19. That's a lot to support. I got a boy, and he tells me he wants to be a wrestler just like me and his grandpa because that's in his blood. Shit, I don't want him to be a wrestler. I want him to go to school and get a good job, not beat himself up the way this business is now. I can't tell him that, though. How do you tell him no?"
The biggest crowd Dube ever wrestled in front of was at Madison Square Garden, in 1989. That's the benefit of working for the WWE. There are few places for midgets on the best-known wrestling card in the world. Today the company employs only one, Dylan Postl, who performs as a leprechaun named Hornswoggle.
Dube and Tovey were blacklisted, as Dube tells it, after they complained of sexual harassment by former wrestler and WWE creative consultant Pat Patterson.
Patterson is a legend for having played the bad guy — the "heel," in wrestling jargon. When he started his career, almost 60 years ago, he carried a poodle into the ring. He wore red lipstick and pink trunks to wrestle. Patterson, who later came out, was essentially baiting 1950s fans with the thrill of seeing an effeminate man beaten bloody.
"I don't care if you're gay, but it got bad," Dube says. "I didn't want to do that, and my dad went to bat for me, and that was the end of us working with the WWE."
The WWE did not respond to Dube's allegations as of press time for this story.
Editor's note, posted April 28: According to WWE spokesman Robert Zimmerman, who contacted The Pitch after this story went to press, the WWE's individual contracts with Tovey and Dube ran from September 1987 to September 1989. Zimmerman denies any wrongdoing on the part of Pat Patterson; he adds that previous allegations against the booker, made by other parties, were proved false. "We're going back 20 years, and no one here has any recollection about any kind of complaint from Dube or Tovey," he says. "There's nothing in these files in regards to any kind of complaint. So, to the best of our recollection, their contracts ended and they just weren't renewed."
The only instance of Lord Littlebrook speaking for himself regarding the alleged harassment can be found in the self-published e-book Counterfeit Hero, an examination of pro-wrestling scandals by writer Kaye Corbett. In it, Corbett reports that Tovey claimed to have written WWE CEO Vince McMahon in the late '80s regarding sexual harassment, and that as a result, those wrestlers were dropped from future cards. Corbett did not respond to an e-mail requesting an interview.
The WWE doesn't seem to carry a grudge. The company has for years helped pay Tovey's medical expenses, sending money to pay for supplies such as wipes, rubber gloves and bed pads. "He is living on Social Security, and his daughter, who is a single parent, was not able to cope with these expenses," a WWE spokeswoman told The Pitch in an e-mail. "We donate $2,000 [every two years] which covers costs for about 2 years."
Dube's best shot at national fame since his WWE days came with him staggering around an empty warehouse, blood seeping from a split in the back of his head.
Spike TV picked up Half Pint Brawlers for six episodes in the summer of 2010 as a Jackass-style stunt show, with the hook that all the stunts were performed by men who were shorter than 5 feet. Dube was sold as the veteran of the five-man team.
"There's a lot of little guys that call themselves wrestlers, but Kato can actually do it. He can do things in the ring as an athlete," says Puppet, who owns the troupe. "He really is probably the best midget working at this in the country."
In the first episode, recorded in Kansas City, Dube was splayed on a folding table when a brawler crashed from the ring onto his chest, sending them both through the table and cracking Dube's head against the concrete floor.
The back of Dube's head was split open. Blood soaked through his shirt, and he almost lost consciousness. Dube was rushed to a hospital, where his scalp was sewn back together with 28 stitches. The next night, Dube hid the wound with a bandanna, gauze and some tape.
"They got a doctor that has to clear you for insurance reasons, and I didn't want him stopping me from wrestling the show," Dube says. "You get used to working beat-up."
The Brawlers have the distinction of being the first wrestlers targeted by Little People of America, essentially an NAACP for people with dwarfism.
Dube says LPA's public statements about the show are why the network never called the brawlers back for a second season. Spike TV executive David Schwarz confirms that the show won't return and that there were complaints about the show's content and use of the word midget. He says objections are standard for all of Spike's programming, which includes Deadliest Warrior; 1000 Ways to Die; and iMPACT!, a program produced by WWE rival TNA Wrestling. The network's working title for Half-Pint Brawlers was Bloody Midgets.
"It's the m-word — that's the marketing hook," says Gary Arnold, vice president of public relations for LPA. "When you talk about little people and people with short stature, the key thing is that they are people, and when you discuss it, you retain that humanity. As soon as you use the m-word, you lose that humanity and become an object in some way. That word is just dehumanizing."
"Well, there's things I don't like to be called," Dube concedes. "I don't like the word dwarf. I like being called a midget. We're little — we're midgets, man. People trip out on us."
After the match, everyone is a Brawlers fan. People wait in line to get a photo with Puppet in front of the ring. A bare-chested Turtle accepts a free beer as he waits to add fresh ink to his blossoming chest piece.
Dube is already gone. Instead of soaking in the glory, he, Rocki Elliot and Raychael McDuffy are the only customers in a quiet dive called 2-Ps about a mile from the casino. On the bar, Dube's hand covers a folded wad of dollar bills. When he spreads the cash to pay for a beer, the bartender sees the holes where some of the bills have recently been stapled.
"This wasn't my happiest night," Dube says. "The people who watch us don't know about that, though. And they shouldn't. When that one guy got down on his knees to talk to me, man, that pissed me off."
He doesn't want to work matches this way anymore, but he doesn't want to leave the business. He thinks about Tovey's house, which has stood empty for years. He could rebuild the place, open his own wrestling school. Maybe this summer, if he finds the right help.
After two games of 8-ball, Dube is ready to go back to the casino. Outside, a few young men are finishing their cigarettes before they go into the bar. The sidewalk glows fluorescent from the beer signs, and the porn shop across the street, Romantix, gives off a jack-o'-lantern glow.
"Did you see that dude?" one of the men asks. "I fucking love midgets."
"We should've bought him a beer," another says. "I bet he gets drunk off, like, one shot."
"Fuck, yeah, we should've," the first says. "Midgets get mad if you stare at them, even though they're awesome."