Billed from the nonexistent town of Tocula, Mexico throughout his illustrious career, Tito Santana, one of the most technically sound and respected professional wrestlers of the 1980s through the early ‘90s, was actually born and raised in Mission, Texas, before gaining worldwide fame inside the squared circle.
“Vince (McMahon, owner of the then-World Wrestling Federation, or WWF, now World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE) told me to pick a place in Mexico where they would say I was from so I looked at a map and picked Toluca,” Santana recalled, in a recent chat with Royal Flush. But the Texan had no idea at the time how the random selection would become part of wrestling lore. “Howard Finkel (ring announcer) kept mispronouncing it as Tocula until I finally just gave up. But it’s funny because when I’d wrestle in Los Angeles or somewhere with a heavy Mexican fan base, they’d always ask me where Tocula was,” he laughed.
The “controversy” surrounding the ex-grappler’s birthplace is just one of a number of topics broached in Santana’s latest tome, Don’t Call Me Chico, a comprehensive autobiography that spans the athlete’s entire life, from his early days playing college football for West Texas State University, to his incipient passage through the local territories that predated the WWF national expansion, all the way through his rise to stardom in becoming one of the most popular figures in the world of pro wrestling.
Born Merced Solis 66 years ago, Santana released his first book, Tales From the Ring, in 2008. But due to the publisher’s bankruptcy, it never really had a chance to gain much traction and it quickly disappeared from bookshelves. Enter Kenny Casanova. The wrestler turned writer has enjoyed a lucrative post-wrestling gig as a biographer for several legendary ex-ring performers, including Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, Big Van Vader, Kamala, and “Dangerous” Danny Davis.
When Casanova approached Santana about giving it another shot, he admittedly had reservations resulting from his disappointment with his initial foray’s outcome, but ultimately, he’s glad he relented. “It’s quite a bit bigger than the other one at around 400 pages and although it took a while to complete, I’ve gotten a lot of compliments from those who’ve read it,” he stated. “It’s really well put together.”
Perhaps Santana’s most surprising accomplishment was his uninterrupted status as a babyface, or “good guy,” for the duration of his decorated time in the business. It’s a feat that most wrestlers cannot claim, as talent routinely switches sides over the course of their career, from the aforementioned babyface position to the inevitable heel, or “bad guy,” role, and vice versa. Otherwise, staleness is likely to occur. But impressively, this wasn’t a problem for Santana, who never turned to the dark side, despite being interested in the potential endless possibilities of such a character change.
“When I split up with my Strike Force partner Rick Martel, I asked Vince if I could be the heel,” Santana remembered. “I believed I could make the transition and felt I was experienced enough to make it successful, since the heel is the one who leads the direction of the match.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the plans, and Martel was deemed to be the more naturally arrogant worker of the duo, and thus, given the spot.
Another coup for Santana was his positioning at the inaugural WWF WrestleMania event, held at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1985, where he battled The Executioner (a masked “Playboy” Buddy Rose). Although Santana was given the victory, the match opened the show, a fact that didn’t please him initially.
“I was pretty disappointed because at the time, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and I had just had the hottest feud in the company. We’d wrestled each other for about a year and a half and were selling out arenas everywhere we went,” he stressed. But a pep talk from McMahon right before the bout started changed Santana’s perspective. “He said the reason I was in the opening match was that he needed someone who could go out there and get the fans off their asses. He had total confidence in me.”
The book’s curious title, Don’t Call Me Chico, is a callback to his former colleague and one-time Minnesota Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s famous in-character criticism of Santana, often referring to the competitor by the insulting moniker during Ventura’s time as lead color commentator on WWF programming. Ironically however, the racially-charged jabs were more of a help than a hindrance.
“It was a great way to get heat (a reaction). I never felt insulted and Jesse doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.” And according to Santana, the pair actually had a mutual admiration for each other. “He was such a great talker and he loved working with me as much as I loved working with him.”
The roster of talent that Santana worked with in his heyday is a virtual who’s who of professional wrestling. From Randy “Macho Man” Savage (“He came into the WWF from the Memphis territory and was really inexperienced but he quickly became one of the best ever”) to the “Magnificent” Don Muraco (“His ring work was so convincing, his interviews were ahead of his time, and despite being a heel, he had a large cult of fans cheering him wherever he wrestled”) to Hulk Hogan (“He was the Elvis of professional wrestling”) to the opponent he’s probably most associated with, Valentine (“Greg was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known, he really knew how to draw money, and I have so much respect for him”), Santana crossed paths with just about every top name the business had to offer.
Towards the latter part of Santana’s time in the ring, as the sport became more gimmick-based, McMahon spearheaded a transformation of his character and the Spanish bullfighter, El Matador, was created in 1991. While Santana eventually agreed to the change, he was initially reluctant to the idea.
“I didn’t think I needed a gimmick. But Vince spent a lot of money, over $500,000, to send me to Mexico, where I trained as a bullfighter,” he acknowledged. “So I decided to give it everything I had.”
Regrettably, the character had only moderate success. And when a promised “program” (series of matches) with “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase failed to come to fruition, Santana felt it was time to depart the promotion that he’d been such an integral part of for over a decade.
As for why the El Matador persona didn’t match Santana’s prior fortunes, it’s a debatable issue. But Santana believes an ambitious plan to market the WWF to the growing Hispanic fanbase simply didn’t take off as the company had hoped. “I heard the company was considering putting the World Title on me,” he said matter-of-factly. “I wrestled and beat the Undertaker in Barcelona in front of a sold out crowd. But then I guess they figured out that the Mexican peso wasn’t worth very much and there wasn’t a lot of money to be made. So they changed course and went with Bret Hart instead,” he conceded.
Save for a brief stint in the Spanish commentary booth in 1997, that was the end of Santana’s WWF run until his well-deserved induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.
These days, the retired athlete lives with his family in Roxbury, New Jersey, about 50 miles outside of New York City, where he teaches Spanish to middle schoolers and coaches basketball. And while the sport of professional wrestling is, in many ways, more prominent now than it ever was previously, the current product fails to intrigue Santana. “I’m not a fan. The talent isn’t trained properly now, for the most part,” he explained. “Nowadays, they rely on dangerous high spots and guys are getting injured much more. It’s a different era.”
But despite his lack of interest for wrestling’s evolution, Santana cherishes the time he spent entertaining fans all over the world. “Thank you so much for all the support,” he beamed. “I owe so much to the fans and my success is because of them. Arriba!”