Strike Force: The Rise and Bitter Fall of a Popular WWE Tag Team

Strike Force: Tito Santana and Rick Martel

Photo Credit: Pro Wrestling Stories.

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 ruined their momentum before they even had a chance to take off.

The History Behind The WWF Tag Team, Strike Force

The newly formed team of Tito Santana and Rick Martel, Strike Force
Photo Credit: WWE.

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.

How Strike Force Came to Be

Photo Credit: WWE.

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.

The Islanders Feud Continues

Photo Credit: WWE.

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.

The Strike Force Team Temporarily Splits Up

Photo Credit: WWE.

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.

Santana 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.

Santana Knocks Out Martel

Tito Santana of Strike Force alongside Arn Anderson of The Brain Busters looks to make a tag but Rick Martel's nowhere to be found! WrestleMania V.
Photo Credit: WWE.

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.

The Strike Force Internal Feud

Photo Credit: WWE.

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

Photo Credit: WWE.

TITO SANTANA:

"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."

RICK MARTEL:

"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."

An Instant Success

WWF program from 1987 showing the tag champs Strike Force, Rick Martel and Tito Santana.
Photo Credit: WWE.

SANTANA:

"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."

MARTEL:

"Tito’s attitude compared to this other ******* [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]"

SANTANA:

"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."

Martel Explains Why He Left Strike Force

Photo Credit: WWE.

MARTEL:

"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.

A Rivalry Created

Photo Credit: WWE.

MARTEL:

“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…"

SANTANA:

"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.’

MARTEL:

"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."

Wrestling Injuries That Ended Careers Too Soon

Tyson Kidd and Cesaro with some tandem offense on Kofi Kingston.
Photo Credit: WWE.

“When I hit the mat, I knew my neck was broken and that I was paralyzed.”

These individuals’ lives were irrevocably altered while doing what they loved.

Greg Valentine’s Defiant Act Behind The WWE Intercontinental Championship Belt

Greg Valentine on His Career and the Tragic Fate of His Destroyed IC Title
Photo Credit: WWE.

When Greg Valentine and Tito Santana met on July 6, 1985, in a steel cage in Baltimore, Maryland, Santana got the victory to reclaim the title. Valentine responded by retrieving the championship and destroying the belt, beating it repeatedly against the cage and tearing the gold away from the leather.

"I had to give the belt back to Tito after that angle," Valentine said. "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.”

Read: Greg Valentine on His Career and the Tragic Fate of His Destroyed IC Title

Owen Hart’s Death: What Really Happened, From Those There

RIP Owen Hart (1965-1999).

VINCE McMAHON: “Earlier that day, I was shocked and surprised by what Owen said.”

On May 23rd, 1999, the wrestling world mourned the loss of Owen Hart. People behind the scenes on this unthinkable day reflect on the tragedy, answering the all-important questions.

Learn more in Owen Hart’s Death: What Really Happened, From Those There

Mr Perfect Curt Hennig – A Great Life with an Unfortunate End

On camera, Curt Hennig was arrogant, and he backed up his Mr. Perfect persona brilliantly. However, outside of the ring, it was a different story. Here is the story of an extraordinary life with an unfortunate end.

On camera, Curt Hennig was arrogant, and he backed up his Mr. Perfect persona brilliantly. However, outside of the ring, it was a different story.

Learn the story of an extraordinary life with an unfortunate end.

Katie Vick – Behind WWE’s Most Shameful TV Segment

The Legend of Katie Vick, featuring Kane and Triple H.
Photo Credit: WWE.

Bruce Prichard: "Vince McMahon was like, ‘I love it! That’s perfect!’ I lost a couple of crew members because of this shoot that were highly offended at the subject matter."

In 2002, Katie Vick was introduced to the WWE audience. Many consider what followed one of the most tasteless segments in television history!

Learn more: Katie Vick: Behind WWE’s Most Shameful Storyline

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Matt Pender is an old-school wrestling fan who currently lives in New Zealand. He is also a musical performer with his band OdESSA who can be investigated at the link above.