In the 1980's, Mission's Tito Santana found fame on the biggest professional wrestling stage on the planet. As the WWF Intercontinental Champion, Santana toured across the nation, having great matches with men like Greg "The Hammer" Valentine and Randy "Macho Man" Savage. As he found success with his flying forearm smash, one may ask themselves, where did the man who was billed from "Tocula, Mexico" really come from?
Merced Solis or "Tito Santana" was born on May 10, 1953, in Mission, TX. Like many people in the Valley at the time, he was raised in a family of migrant farm-workers.
"Being a migrant worker, we lived on the wrong side of the track," Santana said. "I had real low self-esteem 'cause I knew my parents were not educated and we were poor."
At Mission High School, Santana participated in track, basketball and football. When he graduated in 1971, he went on to play football as a tight end, on a scholarship he received for West Texas State. Two of his teammates would also end up becoming well-known professional wrestling stars — National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) star Tully Blanchard and World Wrestling Federation (WWF) star Ted Dibiase.
Tully, son of San Antonio professional wrestling promoter Joe Blanchard, tried to convince Santana into giving this hybrid-form of sport and entertainment a shot.
"At the time, I had no interest in wrestling," Santana said. "Football was my first love."
After he graduated from West Texas State, Santana signed on to be a part of the Kansas City Chiefs' training camp.
"I was there ten weeks, as a matter of fact, I started every pre-season game. Then I got cut. Then I went to Canada and I ended up playing the rest of the season in Canada."
Santana was playing for the BC Lions and continued to be a part of that team for the following season. After that stint was over, he had some free time and stayed at the Blanchard family house in San Antonio. He got his first taste of professional wrestling by refereeing a few matches for their Southwest Championship Wrestling promotion. Tully was making plans to head to Florida, to train and perform there. After finally being convinced, Santana took a risk and tagged along with him as they took off from Texas. They arrived in Tampa on New Years Eve 1977.
Santana started training under well-known professional wrestling coach Hiro Matsuda.
"Once I started working out, I realized wrestling was a lot harder than [I thought]. For [Tully] it was easy 'cause he was around it all his life. I wasn't even a wrestling fan so I had to crawl before I was able to get in to the ring. It took me a while. It was tough, it wasn't a cakewalk getting started."
After he completed his training, he wasn't so sure if wanted to continue. He was struggling financially and was having trouble finding any working opportunities. He considered going back to the BC Lions until he ran into former NWA World Heavyweight Champion Terry Funk.
Funk, an alumni of West Texas State, would often visit his Alma Mater when Santana was practicing football there.
"He really liked me. He came in as the [NWA] world champion, he was the heel (bad guy). I was in the dressing room with the good guys. He sent for me and he asked me how I was liking it. I said, 'Terry, I really enjoy it but I'm not making any money.'"
It didn't take long for Funk to help out the young kid from Mission.
"He talked to Eddie Graham, who was the owner of Florida Championship Wrestling. Then I started getting a few bookings. At least making some money to buy food, pay the rent, and before I know it, they set up for me to move to Atlanta, Georgia with a different promotion. Things took off after that."
For a brief time, Santana worked under the name "Richard Blood", which was professional wrestling star Ricky Steamboat's real name. After working in Georgia, he went to North Carolina and then headed down to the Amarillo territory, which was owned by the Funk family. He wrestled under his real name there.
Shortly after his arrival, the territory was sold to Blackjack Mulligan and Dick Murdoch. Santana said that he wasn't pleased with the two new owners.
Luckily for Santana, he caught a big break.
"Andre The Giant came into the town. I had befriended Andre the Giant, when I was in Atlanta, I picked him up at the airport. I'd always hang out with Andre, whenever he was in town. Andre took a film of one of my matches, he was on his way to New York and he showed it to Vince McMahon Sr. Before I knew it, I was wrestling in New York."
When he got to New York, meaning the WWF, he got the name he would forever be associated with. Where did the name come from?
"There used to be a guy in Mission, as a matter of fact, his name was Santana. He ended up getting shot, he was a drug-dealer but I knew the name. So Vince [Sr.] asked me to think of a name, I told him that I liked 'Santana'. And he liked it. And he's the one that gave me 'Tito'."
It didn't take long before Santana found success in the WWF. He won the WWF World Tag Team Championship with Ivan Putski, by defeating The Valiant Brothers on October 22, 1979.
"I got pretty lucky, my career moved up pretty fast. To become a champion and walk into Madison Square Garden with the tag team belts was an unbelievable feeling. For somebody that came from Mission, to be wrestling in front of twenty-four thousand people was unbelievable."
After losing the titles to The Wild Samoans on April 12, 1980, Santana took off to Japan before becoming a part of the AWA in Minnesota. Santana is very pleased with his time there and is happy that he got to work with great wrestlers like Nick Bockwinkel and Sgt. Slaughter.
"In New York we used to wrestle three-hundred fifty days a year. In Minnesota, you'd work about two-hundred days a year. You'd make good money, you almost lived like a normal human being with days off. It was really great."
He eventually returned to the WWF in 1983 and was now working under Vince McMahon Jr. After a few months, on February 11, 1984, he defeated Don Muraco to become the WWF Intercontinental Champion.
In 1984 and 1985, he developed a legendary feud with Greg Valentine over that championship. It all started when he lost the title to Valentine on September 24, 1984. That led to a storyline that focused on Santana chasing after Valentine, hoping to get revenge and his title back.
"I think the reason it got over so big was because I legitimately got surgery on my knee," Santana said. "Then we get in the ring and both of us worked so hard, we had a lot of pride and we beat the heck out of each other. People believed our matches."
The rivalry with Valentine proved to be a big draw in the mid-1980's.
"We sold out Madison Square Garden without Hulk Hogan on the card," Santana said. "We battled in the ring and they saw it. We were good wrestlers, we had good ring psychology."
The feud climaxed in a cage match on July 6, 1985 in Baltimore. When asked what his favorite pro wrestling memory is, Santana picked this match, where he defeated Valentine to start his second reign as Intercontinental Champion.
"That was the biggest pop, it was such a successful match," Santana said of this memorable cage match.
The following year, Santana lost the title to Randy "Macho Man" Savage on February 8, 1986 in Boston. A few months later, the two had a bout in Toronto — on May 4, 1986 — that ranks as one of the best WWF matches of the decade.
"It was good, we had very good chemistry together. We had known each other for a long time. We were together in Atlanta in 1977 when I first started. Randy was a very hard worker, that's why he went on to become real famous."
In 1987, he became part of the Strike Force tag team with Rick Martel, and they won the tag team titles from the Hart Foundation on October 27, 1987. They ended up losing the titles to Demolition at WrestleMania IV on March 27, 1988.
The Strike Force team split up on April 2, 1989, at WrestleMania V, when Martel turned on Santana during a match against The Brainbusters (Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson). Santana found himself as a singles performer once again. His biggest moment of the year was at the King of the Ring, which took place on October 14, 1989. In one night, Santana went on to defeat Bad News Brown (Allen Coage), The Warlord, Akeem the African Dream and Martel to win the 16-man King of the Ring tournament.
In 1990, his highlights were his tilts with Mr. Perfect in the Intercontinental Title tournament finals and on NBC's Saturday Night's Main Event.
He was then given a bullfighter gimmick in 1991 and renamed "El Matador". Santana isn't too fond of that time period.
"I didn't care for it because they didn't push it. They told me they were going to push [the new character change] and then they didn't push it. They lied to me."
Then, in 1992, Santana explains that the company was thinking of expanding into Mexico and South America, and using him as a way to break into that Spanish-speaking market.
"They told me that they were going to be doing that, they were considering me for the [WWF] World Championship belt," Santana said. "Instead they went real heavy into Canada and that's when they decided to go with Bret "Hitman" Hart [as WWF World Champion]."
After being passed over for a main event title run, Santana worked a low-profile role until he left the company after defeating Damien Demento on August 13, 1993. He has spent a limited amount of time on the independent circuit, working on his own terms and schedule. In the late 1990's, he came back for a stint as the WWF's Spanish broadcast color commentator but that didn't last long.
In 2004 and 2007, he was inducted into both the WWE Hall of Fame and the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame. He now resides in Roxbury Township, NJ, where he owns Santana's Hair Salon and teaches Spanish at a local middle school in the area.
While his home is thousands of miles away, his Valley roots are still strong. His relatives and best friend still live in this area. He has made several public appearances in the Valley on local independent pro wrestling events over the past decade.
He strongly feels that his time here in the Valley and working in the fields played a major role in all the success he's had in his life.
"There's no doubt in my mind that how hard we worked as migrants, I developed a great work ethic. I think its what made me successful and not blowing my money on drugs and stuff. 'Cause I realized how hard as a young person, [me] and my entire family worked for every dime that we had."