Thursday, September 9, 2021

I met Tito Santana...TWICE!

And I think that's a cool way to celebrate post 1111.

I have been meaning to write more about Professional Wrestling in multiple serieses(es) of posts covering books, video games and memorable moments.  Since, for me, all of those would begin with Tito Santana, I need to start here.
Based on his athletic, animated style in the ring, his exuberance in promos, and the fact that he’s one of the few performers who never had a heel run, Tito Santana was my favorite wrestler back in the day.  

As a super-hero fan, that last one meant more to me as a youngster than it would now that I follow the performance and story quality.   Thinking back on it,  his in-ring storytelling was always outstanding. A heel run would have been gravely disappointing then, but he would have done a heck of a job and it probably would be a lot of fun to revisit now.

Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat had similar appeal for me, but he had a shorter time in the WWF. I didn’t know about different promotions at the time, but I did notice some shows had much better (or at least more spectacular) production values.  I bring this up because one ring name he used before "Tito Santana" was "Richard Blood" - Ricky Steamboat's real name...because I love referencing pointless coincidences, and now thanks to the book pictured above, I know why.
The time of the WWFs rise to becoming THE nationwide promotion was my key wrestling watching years, and Tito Santana was there, with matches in the first nine WrestleMania shows.  Only Hulk Hogan can also say that.  (I'm couting the dark match before Wrestlmania IX.  See how pumped up the crowd is when the filmed part starts?  He did that.)

Tito Santana held the Intercontinental Title, the Tag Team Title as part of Strike Force and consistently put on fantastic matches.  There are good reasons he’s a 2004 inductee in the WWE Hall of Fame.
More important that those reasons are two direct encounters that are why all my other posts would have started with him.
The first happened Tuesday April 28, 2010 at 4:30PM. (Thank you old e-mails and photo time stamps.)  It was Anabelle's first "big girl" haircut at a place called Santana's.
We chose Santana's Styling Salon because my little girl was a fan of 1980's era wrestling, thanks to my set of DVDs, and the Legends of WrestleMania Video Game based in that era.  From watching those and listening to
my periods of never shutting up about wrestling books I read, Tito Santana was also her favorite. The salon was (and is, which will be important later) owned by he and his wife, and we learned his “day at the desk” was Tuesdays.
Then and now, he teaches Spanish and coaches in the middle school nearby (
which will also be important later) under his real name, Merced Solis.
Anabelle knew she was getting a haircut, but not where.
She was very excited when we got there and she saw what it was.
(As was I, but I tried to be an adult and not geek out too much).
Patti cut Anabelle's hair, and not only did a great job, by keeping her calm and happy the whole time, she also managed the much more difficult task of keeping Rosa calm and happy at the same time.
Rosa and I were really impressed by how nice Tito Santana was.  Part of that impression came from seeing how he dealt with other customers and community members while we were there. We saw him: sweeping up when he clearly didn’ t have to, helping a little old lady get set to leave and walking her out, as well as discussing town and school board issues with people stopping in.
However, what really drove it home was how he related to and talked to (and not DOWN TO) our daughter.
Anabelle was usually very skittish around new people, even people she'd been a fan of. (Her trying to hide under a seat at a Wiggles concert comes to mind.)  
However, after being there a short while she went from not wanting to get her picture taken, to asking him herself to be in a photo with her.  She did insist I be in the picture too, for which I am grateful. He told her to "Make a fist like you're gonna attack someone!"

We could imagine how good of a teacher and father he was based on what we saw.
He was still in great shape (having an independent match later that night) and appeared every inch of his billed height.
It’s kind of rare that a celebrity looks as big as they look on screen.  
I felt small, which was also unusual.
While Anabelle was getting her hair washed, Rosa and I were looking at the wrestling action figures behind the counter. He showed them to us and told us a new one was coming out. I asked him how cool it was to have action figures of himself and he said, "It’s pretty nice."
Anabelle told him she put a picture of him and Rick Martel (his old Strike Force tag team partner) on her "things I like" poster for school. He thanked her and told her he had just talked to Rick on the phone over the weekend. They had upcoming appearances in the Carolinas and Ireland together. 
(Wait they're still really friends after Rick turned on him??? Says teen-aged me.)
As I said, I tried not to geek out too much, but did compliment him when Anabelle was in the chair, saying I remembered absolutely hating Rick Martel after he turned heel during their WrestleMania V match.  I explained how going back to watch matches as an adult, not only are the athletics impressive, but the ring storytelling was amazing.  He said that it used to be like that and I clarified I meant in his era.  Then I told him that having kids is like living with a tape recorder.  A few nights before I was flipping through the channels and found a current wrestling show.  Anabelle asked, "Is that the stinky wrestling Daddy." and I said, "Yes, yes it is".
He smiled.
Overall, it was a great first haircut experience for Anabelle-.  When we put her to bed and asked how her day was she replied,
"This was the best day in my entire life.”
She kept both the picture of them together and the signed photo she got that day hanging in her playroom, and they're still there. 
(Yes, she was still too shy to tell him how to spell her name.)

Fast-forward over a decade. 
There has been significant expansion in:
My collection of classic Wrestling DVDs
My many hours spent on the “creative mode” of the Legends of WrestleMania  game
My library of wrestler autobiographies and other books.
I had been watching the wrestler biographies with my wife on A&E. She got very into them, though she refused to watch the fighting parts. Why this was true when she can watch violent movies with me is a testament to how good those performers are at selling the moves.
In yet another failed planning effort of writing about this stuff, I started to create a list of my books. Since we’re continuously reorganizing, there was a blockage in front of the shelves in the library and I was looking up the names online.
Tito Santana’s autobiography Tales from the Ring was on my list of “excellent, but I wish it was longer” books.  Luckily, forgot that title.  I discovered he released another book recently, which was twice as large called Don’t Call me Chico.
I controlled my immediate instinct to order it and looked up the salon to make sure it was still there, with all the global plague stuff going on.  The “Santana Girls” had returned to work after reopening and it was going strong.
Rosa shopped nearby regularly, and I knew I'd rather give the money directly to them instead of an online bookseller.  She stopped in to ask and was told they didn’t have the books in the store, but one could be dropped off by Saturday.  Anabelle was getting ready to move into college, but Rosa and I planned to be there when it opened that morning. However, my wife received a call before we left.  Tito’s wife, equally nice as he is, explained the price Rosa was given by the other person was incorrect (it was for a photo, not the book, which we figured out before the call) and that her husband could stop by later in the morning with the book. She said he didn’t do personalized signing without the person there anymore since some people had ordered items and not shown up. 
(Because some people suck. That’s me saying that. Leah Solis is far nicer than I am.)
We drove there and as we pulled in the parking lot, an unmistakable man was headed towards the salon.  Making him even more unmistakable, he had a t-shirt with his name and picture on it like he wore to enter the ring sometimes. Sadly, in my excitement, I neglected to ask if having a t-shirt with yourself on it was as cool as having an action figure of yourself.  He continued to be in fantastic shape, continued to make me feel short, and I know he continued wrestling in independents as recently as a couple of years ago.
I’ll get to the book in detail soon when I write about my wrestling library. (He likely lied yet again.) The short version is- it is fantastic, funny, and informative.  It covers from his youth in Texas (not the non-existent Tocula, Mexico) through various territories and the international rise of the WWF, up to his current teaching days. Its conversational style whipped along allowing me to finish its four-hundred pages in a couple of days. As a bonus, he accentuated punch lines and amusing happenings by actually writing Arriba! In the text.
Rosa and I chatted a bit with him and his wife. The old book publisher went out of business leading to the expanded memoir.  I again complimented him on his style and in ring storytelling back in the day.  I made it a point to tell him what impressed me the most, especially after reading and watching biographies of many others of his peers.  The most impressive thing I find about him is that he had the sense to put his family first throughout his career, focus on them rather than the “excesses of the road,” and have a way to support himself and them through the salon and teaching after he retired from the WWF. This let him wrestle in independants to satisfy "the itch" as he called it, instead of needing to due to having no other opportunities. (This, sadly, happened to many other wrestlers.) Yes, I included his wife in the compliments; I’ve been married long enough to know she played a huge part in whatever he achieved as well. Plus, he said so in the book.
They were personable and patient as he explained how he was heading up to a signing event that day mask ready. He talked about how the pandemic was affecting the school, and we agreed at being baffled how anyone could fight against measures that were in place to protect children and teachers.
Once more, the impression of what incredibly nice people they are came through.  A cool coincidence of confirmation happened when I was excitedly chattering about the experience on social media. A woman I went to high school with, who teaches physical education in his school, said he’s one of the nicest men she’s ever met, and included his family in that statement.  It’s always fantastic to have impressions about people confirmed by those who know them.
He became completely serious only once.  When I mentioned it being amazing how they could do what they did every night with all that travel and without getting hurt.
He matter of factly stated. “We were injured all the time, but if we didn’t wrestle, we didn’t get paid.”
What I meant (and I explained afterwards) was they did it without the probably life ending injuries that would occur if people did what those moves looked like was happening on each other without the proper training and skill sets.  Rosa backed me up (proving she actually does listen when I babble on about wrestling) pointing out we knew they didn’t have health insurance then.
The way they could continue to do what they did night after night, while putting in insane amounts of travel (daily in some cases) is yet another indication of their athleticism, and dedication.  Their storytelling ability remained undimmed as well.
I’d like to end with a much more personal testament to storytelling ability:
Though he didn’t have to, he signed the book, “To my friend, Jeff  From Tito Santana H.O.F. 2004 Arriba!”

I felt funny asking for a photo with him as I’m a theoretical adult and he had an event to get to.
However, he offered if I would like a picture with him in front of a wrestling poster on the wall.
Just as he told my kindergarten-attending daughter all those years ago, he told me to, “Make a fist.”
And there was the power of storytelling inherent in the best wrestlers.
What began as an encounter between two New Jersey residents in a hair styling place:
a fifty-one year old engineer talking to a schoolteacher in his sixties…
Became a thirteen-year-old wrestling fan meeting the Intercontinental Champion of the World!


Dina Roberts said...

I love the photos!!!!

Jeff McGinley said...

Thank you, I usually avoid putting photos of people in my posts. (Not sure why I started that way and it became tradition) but these needed to be there.

Dina Roberts said...

Seeing the photos in this post made me wish you had photos in the old posts....especially the Disney ones.

I can be like that, though with traditions....

Jeff McGinley said...

I started with not wanting pictures of the kids online, and kinda evolved into a style, where I sneak people in in the background or something. Maybe I'll change someday.