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The pro wrestler known as Finlay promises fans he’ll have a “surprise under the ring” when he and other WWE stars come to town on Aug. 15 for a Smackdown taping.

Finlay’s surprise, if form holds, won’t surprise fans of the weekly show. But they’ll be entertained. Finlay, 48, is a third-generation pro wrestler who grew up outside Belfast, Northern Ireland. Until recently, his ring persona was merely that of a stereotypical Irish barroom brawler. “I like to fight!” was his tag line.

He’s worn that persona very well since coming to the States to wrestle in the mid-’90s.

“That’s how we’re brought up in Ireland,” Finlay says with a chuckle. “The stereotype’s true.”

Finlay’s character never got him above mid-card status. Yet he’s been catapulted to the top of the bill this summer by virtue of one of the most (depending on your point of view) cringe-inducing or hilarious closing moves Vince McMahon’s brain trust has ever devised. When Finlay has an opponent on the ropes, or finds himself in danger of losing a match, he invariably reaches under the ring apron and pulls out a foreign object unlike any other the sport has ever seen: a midget. Well, a leprechaun, if you wanna go with the WWE’s description.

In any case, Finlay’s matches now generally end soon after he hurls the 4-foot-and-change secret weapon into his opponent like a sack of potatoes. It’s a sight to behold.

The powers that be at WWE have been sufficiently impressed by the fans’ response to Finlay’s use of the midget to pluck the wrestler basically from out of nowhere and grant him the U.S. Championship belt earlier this summer.

“I’ve been around this business a long time,” he says. “I had worked with midget wrestlers before, of course, but they’re not around so much anymore.”

Midgets have forever been a part of pro wrestling. Vincent J. McMahon, the father of the current WWE boss, used to put midgets in the ring in the ’50s when he built up the family business by promoting cards at Turner’s Arena off 13th Street NW. Generally, however, the midgets got in the ring paired only against one another.

“Midget wrestling has probably been around for centuries,” says Jim Kay, historian for Little People of America (LPA), an advocacy group for short-statured folks founded in 1957 by entertainer Billy Barty. “I’m 70 years old, and I know when I was a kid these wrestling troupes would go around, and they would have [midgets] wrestling. But that was always equals against equals in the ring, not small people versus big people.”

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But the younger McMahon, as is his wont, took things a little further than his daddy on his way to becoming dictator to this sports-entertainment realm. The use of little folks in the wrestling promotion now known as WWE hit bottom with Wrestlemania III in 1986, where 400-pound King Kong Bundy did a body splash on the short-statured 60-pounder Little Beaver as ringside commentator and future governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura yelled, “Smash him, Bundy! Smash him, Bundy!”

The move broke the back of Little Beaver, a legendary midget wrestler whose real name was Lionel Giroux, and forced his retirement after four decades in the ring.

Midget violence got another boost during the so-called dwarf-tossing boom that hit barrooms across the country shortly after Bundy landed on Little Beaver. LPA successfully lobbied the Florida legislature in 1989 to pass a ban on what it called the “exploitation of persons with dwarfism.”

According to LPA, no other state adopted such a ban. But France outlawed dwarf-tossing a decade ago, and in 2002, the UN’s Human Rights Committee, ruling on a challenge brought by a 60-pound adult who claimed to make a living getting tossed in French bars, upheld that nation’s ban.

So even though midget wrestling was never made extinct, the little people had been pretty much kept under wraps for years at the upper tiers. Chemically inflated behemoths and scantily clad hussies gave wrestling all the freak-show oomph it needed.

But, for whatever reason, last October, McMahon gave midget wrestling a very big push. The WWE announced the formation of what was called a Juniors Division to its Smackdown lineup. This division would feature matches between “world class athletes at or below 5 feet tall.”

“Midgets, dwarves, the little people; they’re all welcome,” said WWE’s Palmer Canon at the time of the announcement. “We don’t discriminate against anybody, as long as they can bring it.”

The Juniors Division featured many Latino midgets and might have been timed to take advantage of the then-pending release of Jack Black’s feature film Nacho Libre. The WWE’s move proved to be an even bigger bust than the movie. In March, McMahon dissolved the division.

But McMahon, who no doubt remembers all the attention WWE got for Bundy’s splash, apparently wasn’t ready to give up on midgets altogether. Within months of the Juniors Division’s death, Finlay, who had been working for WWE behind the scenes in a production role, was put back in the ring. His Irish upbringing made for the perfect storyline to add a little guy into the big-guy mix. WWE won’t comment on the leprechaun’s real identity, but wrestling blogs have outed Finlay’s tossee as Dylan Postl, a 20-year-old 115-pounder who used to perform in the ring under the name Shortstack.

LPA has never taken a specific position for or against midget wrestling, though spokesperson Gary Arnold says there is a general stand against any form of entertainment that could be “regarded as demeaning.”

“LPA as an organization realizes that opportunities in the entertainment field are fairly limited, more so for people of short stature,” says Arnold. “So it’s a fine line for us as an organization to encourage people to pursue entertainment opportunities, while also sending the message that you should consider whether this [job] has been created only as a gimmick role simply because you’re a person of short stature.”

Being a ring veteran, Finlay sees a very good reason why WWE should keep him paired with his human weapon.

“People like the little guy,” he says.—Dave McKenna