After a heated departure of his then tag team partner Tom Zenk from the WWF in 1987, Rick Martel would find great success teaming with Tito Santana in the form of the tag team Strike Force. Santana and Martel would thrive together as a team in (and out) of the ring, capturing tag team gold early on in their run. Yet, they were almost doomed with a gimmick proposed by Vince McMahon that would have killed their momentum before they even had a chance to take off.
The History Behind The WWF Tag Team, Strike Force
Strike Force got their official start as a tag team in the then-WWF in July of 1987, but it was five years earlier, on August 29, 1982, when Tito Santana and Rick Martel teamed up for the first time. They faced AWA Tag Team Champions The High Flyers, Greg Gagne, and "Jumpin’" Jim Brunzell for the title. Martel and Santana came up short in that battle after Brunzell pinned Santana. Despite the loss in their first attempt as a team, they would find great success just half a decade later.
On August 15, 1987’s episode of WWF Superstars, the Islanders attacked Martel after his win over Barry Horowitz. Santana, who was performing commentary duties in the Spanish broadcast booth at the time, ran to the ring to help Martel fight off the intruders. This marked the beginning of the pair as a team.
The team of Rick Martel and Tito Santana were played off as good looking pretty boys, a storyline coincidentally coming directly from the team’s predecessor, The Can-Am Connection. They even used the theme song, "Girls In Cars," which was initially composed for the Can-Am Connection. The name Strike Force came from Santana’s promise that, as a team, they would "be striking (the Islanders) with force." Martel immediately came up with the team’s name based on this.
Santana and Martel would feud with the Islanders until October 1987, when they received an opportunity to face The Hart Foundation for the Tag Team Championship. On October 27, 1987, Strike Force won the titles when Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart submitted to Martel’s Boston crab.
While feuding with the Harts, they resumed their feud with the Islanders, successfully defending the title against both teams at house shows across the country.
Strike Force would hold onto the tag titles until WrestleMania IV, where they lost the belts to Demolition. At the end of the match, Martel had Smash in the Boston Crab when Ax came in for the save and hit him in the back of the head with Mr. Fuji’s cane while the ref was distracted by a fight between Santana and Fuji.
In July 1988, Martel was written out of storylines with a (kayfabe) injury after taking Demolition’s finisher on the floor, splitting up the team of Strike Force for many months. In actuality, Martel took an extended leave of absence to help take care of his wife, who was severely ill at the time.
Sanatana wrestled in singles competition during Martel’s time off, but the two would reunite again soon after Martel’s return at 1989’s Royal Rumble. From there, Strike Force was booked to face The Brain Busters at WrestleMania V.
During their match at Mania that year, Santana accidentally knocked Martel out with a flying forearm. When Martel came to, he walked out of the match, leaving Santana alone in the ring to fend for himself, thus turning heel.
In promos in the days and weeks to come, Martel would state that he felt Santana had been riding his coattails and was sick and tired of carrying him. The two feuded for the next year, and in the process, Martel transformed into "The Model," an arrogant narcissist.
Both men would score wins over the other, including a win by Santana over Martel in the 1989 King of the Ring tournament final. Martel scored a victory over Santana later in the year at the Survivor Series when he pinned his former partner as the first elimination of the night’s opening match. The feud between the two effectively died out after the Survivor Series, with the two occasionally facing off against one another in matches throughout 1990.
Tito Santana and Rick Martel Discuss the Rise and Demise of Strike Force
"When we first got together, Vince told us we were going to be ‘Border Patrol’ as our gimmick…
I said, ‘Are we going to be babyfaces or heels?’ Because this is 1987, ’88, somewhere ‘round there…they had found a bunch of Mexicans dead in the boxcars at the border patrols…they were coming across from Mexico, and a lot of them were dying…
So that’s why they went with ‘Strike Force,’ which turned out to be a great run. At the time, tag team wrestling was really popular; it was as big as any of the single bouts."
"In a tag team, you have to feel supported, that the guy you’re tagging with can get the job done. I remember the first day I teamed up with Tito; he was an instant hit right away. Inside the ring, outside the ring. We got along just like two peas in a pod. I could feel comfortable having him beside me. I had somebody that could get the job done. He was a great guy, a really nice guy."
"We got along pretty good…I get along with everybody, you know?
We were told immediately that we were going to get the belts. I guess Vince had confidence that we would get over."
"Tito’s attitude compared to this other asshole [former partner Tom Zenk in Can-Am Connection] was like, man, what a dream. There was no ego involved. We were there for the match; Tito and I were just like that, man [clasps fingers together]"
"To team up with somebody as good as Rick Martel and the chemistry we had together, it was an enjoyable night every time we went out there. The fans got behind us right away, we had a great following, and it’s always a good feeling when the fans are behind you. You never get tired of people screaming your name.
Rick Martel is a hard-working man. [He] can’t be trusted at all times, but he’s a hard-working man. The reason he has been successful is because of his hard work."
"What happened with Strike Force was, after a while, I decided that I wanted to be on my own. I had been in wrestling for several years and accomplished many things, and Strike Force had done well.
But now I felt that I wanted to go back as a single competitor. I was tired of tag team matches.
So I remember one day I had a meeting with Vince McMahon about it. I said, ‘I want to change my style a little bit.’
He said, ‘No, no, you guys have a great thing. People like you the way you are…’
So he didn’t want me to change. He wanted me to stay with Strike Force.
I was disappointed. I gave them my notice – ‘If you don’t want it this way, somebody else will…’
So I gave him my notice, but he didn’t take me seriously at first.
He thought I was bluffing or something. So I guess when he found out I gave my notice and was serious, he called me up and said, ‘Rick, listen,’ this is exactly what he told me, he said, ‘WWF don’t need Rick Martel, and Rick Martel doesn’t need the WWF…’
I walked out on Tito at WrestleMania [as storyline], and two weeks after, [Vince] called me up. Come back and let’s talk.’ Because I guess the fans’ reaction was much bigger, and they didn’t anticipate it.
The fans reacted by my walking out on Tito…we created an interest there where they wanted me against Tito…"
"When Strike Force split up, I asked if I could be the heel, but the plan was already all set for him to be ‘The Model.’
"I remember the first day I came back; people started booing me. It was the first time ever. Whoa, what a different feeling. And funny enough, it felt pretty good.
I walked in there, and they started booing me. Of course, the return matches against Tito were pretty exciting. My career took off from there as a different kind of style."
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss the following articles on our site:
- Can-Am Connection – How Greed Killed WWE’s Potentially Greatest Tag Team
- Michel Martel | The Tragic In-Ring Death of the Forgotten Martel Brother
- Honky Tonk Man and Greg Valentine | Unkept Promises for Rhythm and Blues
Sources used in this article: SLAM! Sports interview with Rick Martel, Online World of Wrestling interview with Tito Santana (H/T: ‘Wrestling’s Glory Days’ Facebook page)