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Life has been anything but easy for Chip Santiago, but he has turned his hardship into his livelihood.
By Justin George, Times staff writer
Published February 22, 2008
[Kathleen Flynn | Times]
See it yourself
The next ultimate fighting dwarf cage match is scheduled for March 13 at the James Joyce Irish Pub, 1704 1/2 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City. The match is expected to start about 9 p.m. For more information, call (813) 247-1896.
TAMPA- He's in a cage. Drunk, sweaty, bloodthirsty spectators jostle in anticipation.
The crowd packs in like cordwood, and the fight promoter incites them, stoking a frenzy with the skill of a carnival barker.
The man in the cage is the champion, Chip Santiago, or "Demo" - Demolition Man - who arrived with the fanfare of a celebrity. White fedora, silver chain, two strippers and a trainer all tucked into a limousine. Santiago enticed the crowd - a little shadowboxing, a few roundhouse kicks and some handstand pushups - before disappearing into the dressing room to prepare for Jason "Short Dog" Jones.
It's a winter night in James Joyce, an Ybor City Irish pub. The promoter wants the crowd frothing, ready to riot, before he'll start the match.
The time comes. The introductions begin.
Santiago looks down at his sandals. Size 3 1/2.
He's a current dwarf fighting champion!
He stands 3 foot, 6 inches!
His name is DEMO!!!
. . . Who's ready for some midget on midget violence?!
The words are repeated on T-shirts for sale: "I support midget violence."
The question arises. Why crawl into a dog pen? Why expose yourself to marginalization, objectification and exploitation? Why punch political correctness?
"The funny thing is," Santiago, 34, says, "this is my idea."
It's his mom's fault, really. She grew up in New York and made fun of little people wrestling at Madison Square Garden. Then, in one of those ironies, she had him.
She never limited Santiago or stopped him from playing football with other kids. The jeers and whispers in the high school halls gave him skin tough enough for the hecklers tonight.
The real world is far crueler than the cage.
"Where were you when people are making fun of me on the streets?" he asks anyone concerned. "Why are you trying to take money out of my hand?"
- - -
There weren't many dwarfs in Plant City, where Santiago was raised. Just Tony, a friend he pushed around in a wheelchair, who joined him at Hillsborough Community College. Santiago wanted to be an architect and build homes scaled for little people - no footstools required.
But in 1994, Tony, 20, died in a wheelchair accident. Classes were missed, then a semester. Santiago married an average-sized woman from church and worked a variety of jobs. Eventually, he auditioned at UPS - by lifting a 70-pound box over his head - and, two years later, he was operations manager.
But things changed, and Santiago got divorced. He began to think about becoming his own boss, and he took jobs that might make the Little People of America cringe. He wanted to become a star, someone accepted, "cool as hell."
Leprechaun at bars. A mascot for the Orlando Magic. An elf. "Lucky the love dwarf." Cupid on Valentine's Day. Little was beneath him except dwarf tossing.
Checkers cast him in a burger commercial, but he got edited out. He idolized World Wrestling Entertainment's Triple H and became a wrestler, donning an outfit similar to the Flash, with a big "D" on it. The WWE cast him on television, and Ric Flair, one of wrestling's biggest stars, sat next to him on a plane.
A strip club, Vegas Show Girls, hired him as stage security, where he was the novelty attraction - as if that were needed - twirling on the center pole about four times a night.
It's the "Playboy life," he explained.
- - -
Then came Christian. He's 2 months old, and he made Santiago grow up and work harder.
Santiago jumped at an idea suggested by his promoter. Ultimate cage fighting is a hit. So is the TLC reality show Little People, Big World. Why not dwarf ultimate fighting cage matches?
"It's like TLC meets Spike TV," Santiago says.
Charge $15 a head. Fly in little people to fight. Promote on Bubba the Love Sponge's radio show. Tell everyone it's a sports business, not a freak show. Put on a serious face for the sport you want to be taken seriously.
Put all 85 pounds on the line in the cage, wake up sore, bruised above the eyes, unable to move your wrists.
When Santiago gets tired, he thinks about his son and pushes on.
All around people say "kill the midget" and chant "Demo! Demo!" One man says, "We're all horrible people for watching this."
But no one looks away when Demo climbs into the cage.
Justin George can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3368.
[Last modified February 21, 2008, 10:12:29]