The WWF in the 1980s is generally seen as a time in wrestling when wrestling ability did not matter. A select few, however, were reliable and dependable performers who could, no matter what, put on a great display. There may be no finer example of a trustworthy worker than Tito Santana. Described by Don Muraco as “an exceptional partner in the ring” and by Greg Valentine as “a gift from Heaven” in-ring, Tito was a mainstay for the WWF from the early ‘80s to the mid-’90s, as well as working in the AWA and NWA’s ECW. As such a WWF stalwart, he was duly trusted to be the first to many accolades.
With that in mind, here are the wrestling firsts of Tito Santana: one of the most truly underappreciated workers of his time.
1. First Competitor To Compte On The USA Network
In 1984, the WWF aired their first programme on the USA Network, with the show being opened with a significant match: an Intercontinental title bout.
Santana, then in his first reign, would take on long-time WWF journeyman Rene Goulet. This was a big match to start off the show, the most noteworthy on the card, as well as functioning to establish Santana further.
Santana, of course, emerged with his hand raised, winning via his patented flying forearm strike. The win made him the first wrestler to ever win a match on the USA Network.
2. First Competitor in a WrestleMania Match
On March 31st, 1985, the WWF held their first show on closed-circuit viewing: WrestleMania.
At the time, Santana was in a feud with the then-IC champion Greg Valentine, but at the event he ended up opening the show in a squash match—a card placement he was very disappointed with.
Santana took on The Executioner in this match. Effectively, this was an ill-attired Buddy Rose with all the gear mentioning his name hastily covered, such as black tape over his boots. Rose never came across as a threat really but more like a nephew doing some crap Deadpool cosplay. This would keep the real Buddy Rose looking strong, without a loss to his name as he was under a unique moniker.
Tito Santana won the match, admittedly quite a strong contest all considered, hitting a flying forearm followed by a figure-four leglock, forcing a submission.
It’s probably very good for Tito that he won this, considering he would wrestle at the next seven WrestleManias (WrestleMania IX dark match not counted), of which he would lose all of them to wrestlers as diverse as The Funk Brothers, The Mountie, The Barbarian, Shawn Michaels, and Demolition to name a few.
3. The First Holder of the Classic Intercontinental Title
On July 6th, 1985, Tito Santana beat Greg Valentine in a steel cage in order for the Hispanic star to win his second Intercontinental Championship.
The duo had had a long-running feud over the belt since Valentine won it off Santana nearly a year earlier and subsequently injured him. The feud ran through the inaugural WrestleMania up to this title bout. Santana won the match by escaping over the cage, simultaneously kicking the door shut into The Hammer’s face; Tito was crowned the new champion.
After the match, an enraged Valentine destroyed the belt, smashing it against the cage in frustration.
After this, the WWF replaced the classic green version with the now-classic IC belt design, with a black strap and square-esque main plate. This design would last more than a decade and is likely the design most synonymous with the belt.
4. The First Royal Rumble Participant
As mentioned in the 5 Wrestler Firsts on Bret Hart, “The Hitman” entered the match at number one with Tito Santana being entrant number two.
Although the WWE make number one to be more impressive, two is the same as entering at number one as otherwise number one would just be waiting around for a minute for entry number two!
The two opened with a very good sequence, with history on their side as Strike Force (Tito and Rick Martel) beat The Hart Foundation for the World Tag Team titles the previous year.
Soon enough, heels Butch Reed and even Bret’s partner Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart had entered, beating down Tito. After 10 minutes, Tito became the second person ever eliminated from the match when he was dumped out by Bret and Jim. Of course, entering that early will always lead to a small chance of winning.
5. The First Person to Pin The Undertaker
Despite being an ex-WWF World Tag Team champion, ex-Intercontinental champion and ex-King Of The Ring, there may be no better accomplishment on Tito’s CV than his feat of being the first person to pin The Undertaker.
In a non-televised bout taking place in Spain, Tito wrestled the still-undefeated Undertaker, briefly dropping the “El Matador” gimmick to revert back to the classic mullet and white tights look.
The Spanish crowd were crazy for Tito, considering Tito was of Mexican descent, meaning he was able to speak Spanish (which he would do in a post-match promo). With the audience behind him, Tito went on to beat The Undertaker, although not clean, striking ‘Taker with the urn before getting a huge ovation for his victory.
The match was essentially a test for ‘Taker to see if he would be willing to lose after so much prolonged dominance. In a time before social media or everyone wielding a filming device, few were supposed to have seen it or even known about it outside of the live crowd but it became popular tape-trading material.
Tito was not given too huge a push after, remaining as “El Matador”—a gimmick largely used to put over bigger and upcoming stars on TV, such as Razor Ramon, Adam Bomb, and Lex Luger.
Tito Santana may not have been one of the biggest wrestlers of all time, but he was certainly one of the most beloved. A great, solid wrestler, he proved to be a reliable worker wherever he went: WWE, ECW, AWA. Santana helped the representation of foreign babyfaces as a role model to look up to in a sea of few Mexicans, as well as on a roster full of stereotypical foreign bad guys from Russians to Iraqis to French. His influence can and will be felt forever more, from giving Scott Hall the Razor Ramon name and showing Eddie Guerrero that a Mexican wrestler could make it big in America. “Arriba!” indeed.