Tito Santana and the Title That Eluded Him

In the early 1980s, Tito Santana became one of the WWF’s hottest commodities. Unfortunately for him, the elephant in the room showed up at the worst possible time.

Tito Santana over the years.
Tito Santana over the years.

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Tito Santana: What Could Have Been

During the height of the World Wrestling Federation’s ’80s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling boomHulk HoganUltimate Warrior (in 1990), and Randy Savage earned the top prize in the company: the WWF Championship.

Meanwhile, Tito Santana, an immensely popular worker throughout this time, who was as over as anyone within the Fed, was as deserving as some who held the gold.

Sadly, he didn’t cap off a stellar career with the belt but had a long and distinguished run along the way.

Early Life and Career

Born on May 10th, 1953, Merced Solis’ life began in Texas, a state long connected to professional wrestling.

He eventually became Tito Santana, a name now woven into the patchwork of Texan wrestling royalty.

Billed in kayfabe as hailing from Mexico, Santana ventured towards the wacky world of professional wrestling thanks to playing football as a tight end with quarterback Tully Blanchard at West Texas State University. Tully would introduce Solis to the mat world.

Trained by Hiro Matsuda and Bob Orton Jr., Solis made his wrestling debut in 1977.

Stints in Florida, Georgia, Mid-Atlantic, Western States, and Japan prepared the young prospect for a 1979 debut in the World Wrestling Federation.

In 1979, Ted DiBiase and Tito Santana held the NWA Western States Tag Team Championships. Back then, Tito wrestled under his real name Merced Solis.
In 1979, Ted DiBiase and Tito Santana held the NWA Western States Tag Team Championships. Back then, Tito wrestled under his real name Merced Solis. [Photo: @MDMTedDiBiase on Twitter]

Unlimited Potential

Tito Santana was young, good-looking, well-built, and charismatic.

An accomplished wrestler, he always gave 110% in the ring and performed dramatic high spots that were less common in that era. Urban areas like New York City also had a large contingent of Hispanic fans that took to the rising babyface star.

Then-WWF promoter Vince McMahon Sr. visualized his potential and expressed his desire to push Santana immediately.

The boss put out a call that he wanted someone to team with him to pursue tag team glory. And luckily, a huge star answered that call.

“Ivan Putski told Vince that he would, and he wanted to team up with me, so it was Ivan’s suggestion that we come out together and make a team,” Tito told me in an interview for the PWB Podcast in 2010.

“It was the biggest break in my career up until then.”

The tandem hastily accrued tag team gold, winning the WWF Tag Team Championships at Madison Square Garden from tag team champions Jerry Valiant and Johnny Valiant– no mean feat for the newcomer.

Pro Wrestling Illustrated even awarded the pair its Tag Team of the Year Award for 1979.

WWF Tag Team Champions Tito Santana and Ivan Putski in 1979.
WWF Tag Team Champions Tito Santana and Ivan Putski in 1979.

Tito Santana Comes Close

Tito Santana soon left the WWF and had spells in the AWA, Georgia Championship Wrestling, and Japan until he returned to the WWF in 1983.

He was thusly entrusted to engage in long-running, high-profile feuds with Don Muraco and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine.

At the time, the WWF Intercontinental Championship was a prestigious accolade, a belt for which he would beat Intercontinental Champion Muraco for in 1984.

Like Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat, Tito Santana-Greg Valentine is the feud that will be cherished forever.

Their program included many great matches across 1984/85, thanks partly to their in-ring chemistry over 18 months.

They traded the IC title until their grudge was settled in a steel cage match – with Santana prevailing.

Just watching the footage of that cage match paints a picture of how over and popular Santana was at this time.

“Probably the biggest, most memorable match I ever had was when I regained the Intercontinental title in a cage match against Greg Valentine,” he explained to me.

“The notoriety that the match got and the response from the fans was unbelievable.”

After the match, Valentine responded by retrieving the championship and destroying the belt, beating it repeatedly against the cage, and tearing the gold away from the leather.

In an interview with Bobby Mathews of Pro Wrestling Stories in 2018, Valentine explained, "I had to give the belt back to Tito after that angle."

"And one day, when I saw him a few years ago, I asked whatever became of that belt, because Tito kept it after that angle. What he responded with broke my heart.”

You can learn more about the fate of the destroyed belt in our article entitled: Greg Valentine on His Career and the Tragic Fate of His Destroyed IC Title.

Tito and Greg headlined arenas throughout the WWF, including Madison Square Garden. On many occasions, while Hulk Hogan wrestled in a different venue the same night, the sizzling Valentine-Santana feud was counted on as the headline draw and sold out huge arenas throughout the WWF.

There were also innumerable nights where Tito was in the main event or co-feature defending or challenging for the then coveted IC belt.

Tito Santana and His First Attempt at the WWE World Heavyweight Championship

Tito Santana even got a shot at the Iron Sheik’s World’s Heavyweight Championship Title during his brief reign after The Sheik bested Bob Backlund.

However, it wasn’t meant to be, and Santana came up short. Two days later, Hulkamania would run wild, with Hogan defeating The Iron Sheik to win the WWF Championship for the first time.

You could make a case for Tito Santana paving the way for Hulkamania!

On one MSG card on December 7th, 1986, Tito teamed with “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino in the main event to take on Macho Man Randy Savage and Adrian Adonis in a memorable and bloody Steel Cage Match.

Making Wrestling History

Amidst his feud with Greg Valentine, Tito Santana claimed a piece of wrestling history as he took part in the first-ever WrestleMania match, submitting The Executioner with Valentine’s own figure-four leglock.

“When I first found out I was going to be the opening match, I was kind of disappointed because I had a big angle with Valentine going on,” he revealed to the PWB Podcast.

“We were going to different cities every night, and I talked to Vince Jr., and he told me that it was the most important match of the night because we needed to get people off their a**es right off the bat. That’s why I picked you to do the job. Then I took a little of a different outlook on the match.”

Reclaiming the tag straps with Rick Martel as Strike Force in 1987 led to the two feuding the following year.

Strike Force: Tito Santana and Rick Martel.
Strike Force: Tito Santana and Rick Martel.

He would also win the 1989 King of The Ring tournament.

The multi-time champion seemed ahead of his time with his athletic ability and energetic style compared to the slow, methodical, and often plodding styles of the WWF’s super heavyweights.

Main-eventing the 1990 edition of Survivor Series on Hogan and Warrior’s team and pinning The Undertaker in front of a red-hot crowd all pulling for Santana was proof enough that he was as close as he could be to reaching the pinnacle and winning the WWF world title.

Being Passed By for the World Title

Tito Santana was reportedly considered to win the WWF Championship in the early 1990s, where he would have become the maiden kayfabe Mexican to hold the title. It was a tactic intended to drum up interest within the Latino market, much like Nick Aldis and Jinder Mahal holding TNA and WWE world titles to build business in England and India.

Bret Hart was instead chosen to win the belt.

Santana believes he and Ted DiBiase were as over as Bret at the time, as he explained in an interview with WrestleZone in 2020.

“I think they were prepping me because they were planning to go into South America, Central America, and Spain.

“Before the switch to Bret, I wrestled The Undertaker in Spain, and I beat him, and I think that was the time they were starting to prep me to be the World Champion," Santana noted.

"Then the WWF decided not to go into Central America and Mexico and went into Canada full blast. I think at that point they went with Bret Hart.

“I don’t know if you remember; it took him a long time to start drawing any crowds. He was a middle guy. The WWF Tag Team Championship was the most success that he and Neidhart had achieved.

“I had been higher on the cards in the WWF; I was above Bret Hart… So I went back as a Spanish commentator," he explained.

"I saw what was going on between the Canadians and the Americans, and man, Bret Hart finally got over like a million dollars. The Hart Foundation were drawing big crowds. The Canadians against the Americans was a hot topic, and all of a sudden, I figured, ‘Man, this guy is hot!’"

The Sportster.com lists Tito in its top ten wrestlers who could (and probably should) have been WWF champion in the ’80s.

Even WWE refers to Santana as “one of the company’s most popular Intercontinental Champions ever.”

He was so popular that he was one of the rare few who never turned heel.

Tito Santana’s Legacy

Tito would eventually transition to El Matador in 1991 and, for the next couple of years, drift away from the top of the card, never again reaching the heights of his earlier popularity.

He eventually moved to the indies, where he had a long, successful run working worldwide.

Interestingly, Tito Santana and Hulk Hogan are the only duo to wrestle on the first nine WrestleMania events, one of many laurels that earned Tito a spot in the 2004 WWE Hall-of-Fame class.

He was inducted by the man he wrestled at WrestleMania 8: Shawn Michaels.

“I don’t know how that came about,” he told me about HBK inducting him, “but I was really pleased for him to accept; I never asked him.

“For him to say the nice things he said about me was really touching. Shawn Michaels went on to become one of the best performers in the history of the WWE.”

Tito is so respected within the business that there’s even a term named after him.

“The Tito Thing” is having a lengthy career culminating in a good life with a loving family post-wrestling. It’s quite the compliment in a business plagued by unhappy endings.

Now a Physical Education and Spanish teacher in New Jersey, the man who only missed two shows in twelve years while with the WWE remains a universally loved superstar.

Arriba!

Former WWE star Tito Santana is now helping at-risk kids as a teacher.
Former WWE star Tito Santana is now making a difference as a teacher. [Photo: SI.com]

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Ian Aldous is a former boxing writer who covered the sport for BoxingNews24.com for a decade and currently represents the International Boxing Organization as a fight supervisor. He briefly covered pro wrestling in the late 2000s for WrestlingNewsWorld.com and the PWB Podcast before finding a home for his work on Pro Wrestling Stories. He can be reached by e-mail at: ian_aldous@yahoo.co.uk.