An Evening With

TITO SANTANA

It's worth noting that the first instinct of my crew and I, upon meeting the legendary Tito Santana, wasn't to ask him about his classic rivalry with Randy "Macho Man" Savage, nor was it to find out about his bizarre transformation in the early 1990s into El Matador.

 

It was to ask him to pose with us in the same manner as his (iconic?) constipated LJN action figure from the early-1980s. More on that in a bit...

 

We've spoken before in this space about the many professional wrestlers I've gone to see perform "one man shows," featuring guests ranging from Jim Ross to Hacksaw Jim Duggan to Mick Foley to Ricky Steamboat to Jake The Snake Roberts.

 

For the most part, they're a lot of harmless fun, an opportunity to hear a WWE Hall of Famer talk in an intimate setting about their career, what could have been and the legacy they hoped they've left. Some are laugh-out-loud hysterical, and some.... well, some we make laugh-out-loud hysterical out of lack of anything else better to do that night.

 

The latter was the case with Santana, a former WWF Intercontinental and Tag Team Champion, someone who appeared at the first nine WrestleManias and was part of wrestling's boom period in the 1980s. Sitting with my buddies The Big Rybowski, former manager of the year Stu Stone and independent wrestling sensation DJ Farbsie, would Tito's one-man show set the world on fire?

In a word, no.

 

After a brief opening act with a comedian who tried to appeal to the marks in the room by using hip wrestling lingo, Santana came out for about an hour and discussed his career from football to the squared circle to a retirement where he's largely stayed out of the spotlight.

 

The WWE Hall of Famer spoke about his early days wrestling in "Atlanta, Florida" which must have been an error (Santana later admitted he's taken too many bumps over the years, jarring his memory) and how bookings were controlled by Vince McMahon Senior following his first WWWF run. That meant that even when he wasn't working in New York, McMahon helped him get bookings in Japan and in "Minnesota," which is how Santana frequently referred to his time in the AWA. There, he teamed with future Strike Force partner Rick Martel against The High Flyers, Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne, in a rare face vs. face match.

Following his AWA run, Santana returned back to the WWF, where he would have the most successful run of his career. After Intercontinental Title reigns battling the likes of Don Muraco and Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, Santana was relegated to the opening match at the first WrestleMania against a masked Buddy Rose (he explained that he was asked to jerk the curtain at Mania because Vince McMahon still wanted future Santana-Valentine matches to main event B-shows on the live event circuit).

 

At the height of 80s, Santana was even featured in the CBS cartoon show Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling. When asked about the cartoon by a slovenly fan in the third row, Santana admitted that he had nothing to do with the program (a quick IMDB search states that the role of "Tito Santana" was played by some jabroni named Nick DePinto), but also suggested that it was number two in the Saturday morning ratings behind only The Smurfs.

 

After appearing in the first nine WrestleManias (see WrestleMania's Biggest Losers for more on his non-Undertakeresque Mania track record), Santana largely called it a career, founding the short-lived AWF with Sgt. Slaughter (someone actually asked about that promotion) before retiring and becoming a Spanish teacher and working at his wife's hair salon - no Brutus Beefcake jokes, please.

Even though Santana's life story wasn't as exciting as, say, Mick Foley's, he did manage to pop the crowd by dishing the dirt on some of his contemporaries.

 

Shawn Michaels, for example, was deemed an "asshole" because of the way he treated his colleagues during the mid-1990s, even mouthing off to El Matador once when he was sitting in first class on a flight. Hulk Hogan was "the shits" in the ring, though Santana confirmed that he always sold out the house.

 

After his monologue, Santana answered questions from the crowd, which included people who could have been the top star in the WWF had it not been Hulk Hogan (Bob Orton was brought up, for some reason); memories of working Jos LaDuc in a dark match (stiff as hell, man); The Iron Sheik's crazy drug stories (the "You've tested positive for drugs" "Thank you, meester Mac-Mann" story we've all heard about a billion times before); and whether he watches the current product (not so much).

 

When asked about the types of ribs the boys used to play back in the day, Santana offered up stories about how The British Bulldogs (no relation) used to inject Matilda with growth hormones and how some of the boys used to drug and then undress women on planes -- more crimes than ribs, if you ask this humble reporter.

 

Santana closed by mentioning he's been happily married to the same woman (the aforementioned hair dresser) for 37 years, and there are few people in wrestling that haven't gone through a string of failed marriages, so maybe he was on to something. As someone who's been under the chupah, so to speak, more than once (but fewer times than Naitch!), I could have taken offense to it... but understood his point.

After the show was over, Chico worked his gimmick table, offering a handshake and that famous Santana smile to anyone who wandered by.

 

Of course, my group just HAD to ask him to pose like his old wrestling figure because irony. Personally, I had the best "constipated" expression of the group, but you can't see it because Tito is shouting "ARRIBA!" at the same time.

 

Was it a worthwhile night out? Absolutely -- and that's not just the cooking at Mama Santana's talking.

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Wrestling Historian Mike Rickard