in

5 Wrestler Firsts: Tito Santana

The WWF in the 1980s is generally seen as a time in wrestling when wrestling ability did not matter. A select few, however, were reliable and dependable performers who could, no matter what, put on a great display. There may be no finer example of a trustworthy worker than Tito Santana. Described by Don Muraco as “an exceptional partner in the ring” and by Greg Valentine as “a gift from Heaven” in-ring, Tito was a mainstay for the WWF from the early ‘80s to the mid-’90s, as well as working in the AWA and NWA’s ECW. As such a WWF stalwart, he was duly trusted to be the first to many accolades. 

With that in mind, here are the wrestling firsts of Tito Santana: one of the most truly underappreciated workers of his time.

1. First Competitor To Compte On The USA Network

In 1984, the WWF aired their first programme on the USA Network, with the show being opened with a significant match: an Intercontinental title bout. 

Rene Goulet, wearing his ring attire robe, holds up his gloved claw.
Journeyman Rene Goulet shows off his gloved hand.

Santana, then in his first reign, would take on long-time WWF journeyman Rene Goulet. This was a big match to start off the show, the most noteworthy on the card, as well as functioning to establish Santana further. 

Tito writhes on the mat, trying to fight to get up whilst lock in Goulet's claw hold.
Goulet applies his Le Scorpion.

Santana, of course, emerged with his hand raised, winning via his patented flying forearm strike. The win made him the first wrestler to ever win a match on the USA Network.  

2. First Competitor in a WrestleMania Match

On March 31st, 1985, the WWF held their first show on closed-circuit viewing: WrestleMania. 

At the time, Santana was in a feud with the then-IC champion Greg Valentine, but at the event he ended up opening the show in a squash match—a card placement he was very disappointed with. 

The Executioner cuts a promo backstage as "Mean" Gene holds a microphone to his face.

Santana took on The Executioner in this match. Effectively, this was an ill-attired Buddy Rose with all the gear mentioning his name hastily covered, such as black tape over his boots. Rose never came across as a threat really but more like a nephew doing some crap Deadpool cosplay. This would keep the real Buddy Rose looking strong, without a loss to his name as he was under a unique moniker. 

Tito Santana won the match, admittedly quite a strong contest all considered, hitting a flying forearm followed by a figure-four leglock, forcing a submission. 

Tito threatens The Executioner in the corner, holding back a closed fist; Executioner is sitting in the corner.

It’s probably very good for Tito that he won this, considering he would wrestle at the next seven WrestleManias (WrestleMania IX dark match not counted), of which he would lose all of them to wrestlers as diverse as The Funk Brothers, The Mountie, The Barbarian, Shawn Michaels, and Demolition to name a few. 

3. The First Holder of the Classic Intercontinental Title

On July 6th, 1985, Tito Santana beat Greg Valentine in a steel cage in order for the Hispanic star to win his second Intercontinental Championship.  

An exhausted Tito holds up the green IC belt, far above his head, displaying it to the audience.

The duo had had a long-running feud over the belt since Valentine won it off Santana nearly a year earlier and subsequently injured him. The feud ran through the inaugural WrestleMania up to this title bout. Santana won the match by escaping over the cage, simultaneously kicking the door shut into The Hammer’s face; Tito was crowned the new champion. 

After the match, an enraged Valentine destroyed the belt, smashing it against the cage in frustration. 

Tito Santana, still in his entrance attire, poses with his IC title around his waist and arms in the air.

After this, the WWF replaced the classic green version with the now-classic IC belt design, with a black strap and square-esque main plate. This design would last more than a decade and is likely the design most synonymous with the belt.  

4. The First Royal Rumble Participant

As mentioned in the 5 Wrestler Firsts on Bret Hart, “The Hitman” entered the match at number one with Tito Santana being entrant number two. 

Bret Hart, with Jimmy Hart talking to him in the corner stands opposite Santana whilst Harold Finkel is in the ring, announcing the match's rules.

Although the WWE make number one to be more impressive, two is the same as entering at number one as otherwise number one would just be waiting around for a minute for entry number two! 

The two opened with a very good sequence, with history on their side as Strike Force (Tito and Rick Martel) beat The Hart Foundation for the World Tag Team titles the previous year.  

Bret Hart holds Santana in place as Jim Neidhart hits Tito in the ribs; Tito lets out a sign of pain.

Soon enough, heels Butch Reed and even Bret’s partner Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart had entered, beating down Tito. After 10 minutes, Tito became the second person ever eliminated from the match when he was dumped out by Bret and Jim. Of course, entering that early will always lead to a small chance of winning.  

5. The First Person to Pin The Undertaker

Despite being an ex-WWF World Tag Team champion, ex-Intercontinental champion and ex-King Of The Ring, there may be no better accomplishment on Tito’s CV than his feat of being the first person to pin The Undertaker.  

In a non-televised bout taking place in Spain, Tito wrestled the still-undefeated Undertaker, briefly dropping the “El Matador” gimmick to revert back to the classic mullet and white tights look. 

Tito Santana decks The Undertaker with the urn upside the chin.
The grainy, bootlegged footage shows Santana decking The Undertaker with his urn.

The Spanish crowd were crazy for Tito, considering Tito was of Mexican descent, meaning he was able to speak Spanish (which he would do in a post-match promo). With the audience behind him, Tito went on to beat The Undertaker, although not clean, striking ‘Taker with the urn before getting a huge ovation for his victory. 

The match was essentially a test for ‘Taker to see if he would be willing to lose after so much prolonged dominance. In a time before social media or everyone wielding a filming device, few were supposed to have seen it or even known about it outside of the live crowd but it became popular tape-trading material.  

Tito covers The Undertaker, with the crowd on both sides of the ring going electric, jumping up and waving their arms for Santana's victory.
Fans went wild for Tito’s win.

Tito was not given too huge a push after, remaining as “El Matador”—a gimmick largely used to put over bigger and upcoming stars on TV, such as Razor Ramon, Adam Bomb, and Lex Luger. 

Epilogue

Tito Santana may not have been one of the biggest wrestlers of all time, but he was certainly one of the most beloved. A great, solid wrestler, he proved to be a reliable worker wherever he went: WWE, ECW, AWA. Santana helped the representation of foreign babyfaces as a role model to look up to in a sea of few Mexicans, as well as on a roster full of stereotypical foreign bad guys from Russians to Iraqis to French. His influence can and will be felt forever more, from giving Scott Hall the Razor Ramon name and showing Eddie Guerrero that a Mexican wrestler could make it big in America. “Arriba!” indeed.  

Written by Griffin Kaye

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Penn State receiver Jahan Dotson catches a pass in the endzone.

Jahan Dotson: Rookie Report Card

WrestleMania 38 logo

5 Talking Points From WrestleMania 38