Tito Santana will be honored in Waterloo, IA, with the prestigious Lou Thesz Award

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By Juan Fourneau, Hola Iowa

It was 1985, I was in sixth grade and the WWF was coming to the Quad Cities for the first time. My dad surprised me by agreeing to take me to see a card headlined by Tito Santana in the main event. The WWF was beginning its nationwide expansion and was bringing live wrestling action to the Wharton Field House in Moline. 

My dad secured a front-row seat for me while he sat behind me. The Mexican American wrestling star was in a long-running feud against Greg “The Hammer’ Valentine as they traded the intercontinental title during the mid-80s. The main event featured a tag team match pitting Santana and Blackjack Mulligan against Valentine and the Russian villain Nikolai Volkoff. Ironically, the towering Mulligan would be billed from my mom’s hometown of Eagle Pass, Texas. 

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The card was exciting from start to finish in front of a raucous packed crowd. Seeing the WWF superstars I watched weekly on the USA Network blew my mind away. I told all my fellow sixth graders about the card at school on Monday. 

On the drive home, my dad talked admirably about Santana. Tito was the only Hispanic on the card but he was featured in the main event. He was in great shape and put on a fantastic performance. My dad had watched Lucha Libre as a child in Piedras Negras, Mexico, seeing El Santo among others from that golden age of Lucha Libre. But seeing a Latino headline a card and get strong support from the crowd in the middle of the country with just a few Latinos in the audience impressed him. 

Santana’s path to professional wrestling fame began as an accomplished football player in his hometown of Mission, Texas, located in the lower Rio Grande Valley, not far from the Mexican border. He went on to play football at West Texas State, a program that developed over a dozen professional wrestling stars. 

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The athletic gridiron star caught the eye of San Antonio wrestling promoter Joe Blanchard. The promoter was always on the lookout for Hispanic wrestlers who could draw fans to his wrestling promotion that toured South Texas in towns such as Corpus Christi and McAllen.

Once his wrestling training was complete, he began developing his craft nationwide. He eventually found his way to the New York territory where Vince McMahon Sr gave him the name Tito Santana, billing him from Tocula, Mexico. The powerful promoter took a liking to the young athlete, appreciating his reliability, his broad appeal to fans, often having him speak Spanish in his television interviews.

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Santana left the WWF under good terms and went to the AWA based in the Midwest. There he rose to compete against their World Champion Nick Bockwinkel. After leaving the AWA Santana was faced with a decision of going back to the WWF or joining the Mid South promotion where promoter “Cowboy” Bill Watts was courting him. Watts, who always liked legitimate athletes with size, wanted the Latino star, especially for his weekly Houston matches. Watts paid Santana well and made it clear he wanted him full time. But at the same time Santana was offered a spot to return to New York by Vince McMahon Sr. 

The decision was easy, as his wife was from New Jersey, and it offered the couple a chance to return to the area. His timing couldn’t have been better, as Vince McMahon Jr. took over his father’s company and began to move professional wrestling into the mainstream of pop culture. 

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His accomplishments in wrestling are many. He held the WWE Intercontinental title two different times, defeating Don Muraco in 1983 before dropping the belt to Greg Valentine in September. Santana regained the belt and held it for another stretch before losing it to the legendary “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Santana also held the company’s tag titles twice. Once with tag team partner Ivan Putski in 1979 and had another run with Rick Martel in 1987. 

He also has the honor of being the opening match on the first ever Wrestlemania card held in Madison Square Garden. He was inaugurated into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004 where San Antonio native Shawn Michaels gave his induction speech. 

Later this month, Tito Santana returns to the Midwest to receive the prestigious Lou Thesz award at the Waterloo, Iowa George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. The weekend runs from July 18-20th. Tickets for the banquet Friday evening and the live IPW wrestling card on Saturday night are available by visiting the museum’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GeorgeTragosLouTheszProWrestlingHallOfFame/. The weekend will feature dozens of wrestling legends such as Sergeant Slaughter, Mark Henry and many more. Santana, whose real name is Merced Solis, is receiving the award in recognition of his accomplishments outside the ring. After his career in the WWF, Santana taught physical education and Spanish in New Jersey for over two decades. 

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