Surrounded by 50 drunken revelers and the screams of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle," Chip Santiago, AKA Lucky the Dwarf, stands a confident 42 inches tall on an 8-foot-wide mat covered in plastic wrap. Opposite him, three women in skimpy outfits prowl the mat on their hands and knees, eager to pounce on the 75-pound man. Once the bell sounds and bottles of baby oil are applied to the mat, the four wrestlers slip, slide, slink and 69 around to the screams of an oddly diverse crowd of tattooed women, frat-boy types in polo shirts and the occasional older couple. Cameras flash, oil flies and Santiago spends most of the time on his back.
Welcome to the world of dwarf wrestling — the newest Ybor bar gimmick by Ryan Gougeon, six-month owner of the James Joyce Pub in Ybor City. More of a novelty exhibition than a true competition, this is Gougeon's third dwarf wrestling event, meant to resuscitate what he says was once an ailing bar.
"When I bought this bar people didn't even know the name of it," says Gougeon. "My job was to get the name out there and have a freak show that would take people away from their daily problems."
On this particular Thursday night, the stunt seems to be working. While other bars are sparsely populated at 9 p.m., the pub already has most of its barstools filled. An hour later, at the start of the event, patrons must squeeze by each other to get around. And while some people leave after the dwarf spectacle ends, most linger, buying drinks and chatting with friends.
"In less than six months I've turned the business around with shock value and entertainment and exciting bartenders," says Gougeon, his eyes as wild as his disheveled blond hair. "And it's worked!"
Not everyone shares Gougeon's enthusiasm.
"It breaks my heart," says Richard Campion, the original owner of the James Joyce Pub. "The whole place is kind of going down. Now it's come down to midget or dwarf wrestling. It's the polar opposite of what I created and what I wanted."
It took Campion a year to build the pub from a three-bedroom apartment into an authentic Irish pub, literally carving the wooden bar and booths himself before opening it in 1997. To him, the pub was a relaxing antidote to the louder clubs lining the rest of Seventh Avenue.
When Campion sold the bar in 2000 to pursue an aviation career, Larry Mills took over and operated it until March, when Gougeon bought it. (Campion went on to open the Dubliner Irish Pub in Hyde Park.) Gougeon maintains the bar is still an authentic Irish pub, just with the occasional dwarf thrown into the mix.
"It's all show business," he says. "We're putting asses into seats."
It's not a new concept — dwarves have been used as entertainment for decades, from circus sideshows to the now-illegal dwarf-tossing events held at bars. While critics call such dwarf events exploitation, Santiago doesn't think it's such a big deal.
"I'm doing this on my own free will and I get paid," he says. "Who wouldn't want to do this?"
Santiago also doesn't take mind the term "midget," commonly regarded by little people as offensive. Beyond that, there are technical differences — dwarf refers to someone who has the medical condition dwarfism and is disproportionate, while anyone who is 10 percent below their age group's average height and remains proportional can be called a midget. For the record, Santiago is a dwarf and very proud of it; he is esteemed in pro wrestling circles for his matches in the World Wrestling Entertainment circuit, as well as with the touring "Micro Wrestlers" company.
And is dwarf wrestling really too far off from James Joyce? There is a reference to "Marcella the midget queen" in Ulysses, and leprechauns have always had their place in Irish lore, right? Joyce biographers have long acknowledged the author's interest in pop culture and the risqué. For every Campion who might decry dwarf wrestling and its place in the Ybor's downward spiral, there is another person, like John Derby from Treasure Island, who will show up for the event.
"It's just fun," the spectator says, between sips of beer. "It's great to see the vertically-challenged go at it with scantily clad women. I'm like a monkey in the zoo."