I found an interesting story on the NY Times (2/21/2009) about Tito Santana:
IN “The Wrestler,” Mickey Rourke plays Randy (The Ram) Robinson, a big-time pro wrestler from the 1980s who has bought himself a one-way ticket to Palookaville. By the time we see him in the 2000s, Randy the Ram is: middle-aged, divorced and alone; estranged from his only daughter; working part time at a supermarket; living in a trailer in New Jersey that he’s constantly being locked out of because he can’t make the rent; and shooting up his battered body with steroids so he can continue wrestling weekends on a local circuit.
I loved Mr. Rourke’s performance, which has made
him a front-runner for the best actor Oscar tonight.
But it made me wonder. Is this how big-time
wrestlers wind up in middle age?
And so, I went looking for a real-life star from the
1980s, and in the very same state, found Tito
Santana, who at 55 still wrestles on the local circuit.
One recent Saturday night, I watched him fight the
Kodiak Bear at St. Patrick School in Bay Ridge,
Brooklyn, before 600 fans happily downing $2
It was a long way from Mr. Santana’s heyday, when
he won the World Wrestling Federation’s
Intercontinental title, and ranked close behind Hulk
Hogan. In 1987, he wrestled before 93,000 during
WrestleMania III, at the Silverdome in Michigan. He
toured Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, England,
spending 340 days a year on the road.
He saw “The Wrestler” and found it true to life.
Drugs? “We’d get a pay advance every night, and it
was such a grueling job a lot of guys turned to
drugs. When we flew to a new place, the dealers
were waiting for us — pain pills, steroids, pot,
cocaine.” Loneliness? “I spent 12 years on the road,
visiting and stopping over at my home when I
could. Christmas, New Year’s, we wrestled. My wife
raised our sons. I’d say 90 percent of wrestlers I
knew were married a second time or more. Lots of
Mr. Santana knew wrestlers like Mickey Rourke’s
character, but he did not turn out that way. He has
been married 27 years and is close to his sons.
One’s a Princeton grad doing human rights work;
another is about to graduate from law school; the
youngest is finishing at James Madison University.
The family lives in a handsome home here on three wooded acres atop a hill. He teaches Spanish at Eisenhower Middle School and coaches boys’
basketball, while his wife runs their hair salon,
Santana’s. He is, in short, the antithesis of “The
Wrestler.” Through the craziness of the pro circuit,
he hung on to a set of values — family, education,
frugality, hard work — that enabled him to reach
middle age whole. This story doesn’t have the
edginess to be a major motion picture coming soon to a theater near you. Battered middle-aged men may provide filmgoers with a much-needed
catharsis. But if you’ve seen Mr. Rourke in “The
Wrestler,” or Anthony Quinn in “Requiem for a
Heavyweight,” or Marlon Brando in “On the
Waterfront” and wondered if they really coulda
been somebody, the answer is: yes, Tito Santana.
Born Merced Solis in Mission, Tex., to Mexican-
American migrant laborers, he started working at
age 7, picking asparagus in Illinois, cherries in
Wisconsin, cotton in Texas. Until ninth grade, he
never attended school full time, but that year, his
mother stood up to his father so her son could get
an education. He finished high school, won a
football scholarship to West Texas A&M and after
graduating, played pro football in Canada for two
years. A former teammate got him his first wrestling job.
He reached the top circuit in 1979, averaging $
300,000 a year for a decade, although, he said, he
never had a written contract. “You couldn’t take a
day off. If you did — they could get rid of you.”
He said Vince McMahon Jr., chairman of what is
now called World Wrestling Entertainment,
controlled the scripts, deciding “who will win and
who will make the millions.” As Tito Santana, he was cast as a good guy, always ranking between the middle and top. Asked why he was given such a good role, Mr. Santana said: “I was a very
dependable person. In the 12 years, I missed just
twice, once when I asked permission to be with my
wife for the delivery of our second baby, and once I
was snowed in. They knew I wouldn’t get busted for drugs. I wasn’t involved the way a lot of wrestlers were. I had a good attitude, I was agile, plus, I was Hispanic, and they needed ethnics.”
Robert Zimmerman, a spokesman for the wrestling
organization, called Mr. Santana “an incredible
performer and even better person.” As for drug
use, he said, there has been a screening program
for the last decade.
Tito Santana wasn’t as flashy as some. Randy
(Macho Man) Savage had a signature move where
he’d climb to the top of the turnbuckle, jump and
land on his hip. “Now he has hip trouble,” Mr.
Santana said. “I always took educated bumps.”
After matches, “if I was within 300 miles, I drove
home. I wanted to wake up in my bed and see my
kids. That’s probably what saved my marriage.”
“Tito called me and the boys three times a day,” said his wife, Leah. “I understood his business.”
“She knew every dime was accounted for,” he said.
“He was very frugal,” Mrs. Solis said.
“I got home, I wasn’t Tito,” he said, “I was Merced
with my kids.”
“He did the diapers, the baths, he took over when
he was home,” Mrs. Solis said.
Though he thought he had many years left, he
retired from World Wrestling in 1993. In his heyday,
they wrote scripts for him with long-running feuds
against Mr. Wonderful, Rick Martel, Greg (The
Hammer) Valentine. “They weren’t giving me good
feuds anymore, they wouldn’t give me a story line,”
he said. “A lot of my friends had been let go. They
were bringing in new characters. I went to Vince
McMahon. I said, ‘It’s time for me to go.’ He said, ‘I
think you’re right.’ ”
He wrestled weekends on a smaller circuit and was
a substitute teacher. Then he earned his
certification, and for 12 years has taught full time.
He works out, is in great shape and still does a
dozen matches a year. “I enjoy it,” he said. At the
recent Brooklyn event, he set up his briefcase at a
table in the back of the hall beforehand, selling
hundreds of dollars of Tito paraphernalia, including autographed photos for $10.
Many performers were half his age, and the man he was wrestling, the Kodiak Bear (actually Tom Casola, a computer technician from New Jersey) kept calling him “sir.”
Just as in “The Wrestler,” Tito, Kodiak and the ref,
Vincent Romano, worked out a scenario for the
match. “His manager’s going to hit me with a
foreign object,” Mr. Santana said. “But I’m going to
beat him with my flying forearm. I’ll hit the opposite ropes, I’ll fly across the ring, and catch him in the neck with an elbow. Some nights I get up in the air better than others — sometimes my elbow only reaches the guy’s belly button.”
Before going out, the wrestlers were examined by
Dr. John Sayad, a cardiologist, whose eyes widened
when he read Mr. Santana’s blood pressure: 110
over 84. “You’re the coolest one here,” the
“Making his way to the ring,” cried the announcer,
“the legendary Tito Santana.”
“Tito! Tito! Tito!” The match lasted 15 minutes, with Kodiak pulling every dirty trick in the book, including a head butt tothe groin — totally illegal, as the crowd pointed out.
Somehow, when things looked darkest, Tito pulled
himself off the canvas, bounced off the ropes, and
with that flying forearm, stunned and then pinned
his opponent, jumping to his feet to the ding, ding,
ding of the final bell, and shouting his signature
victory cry, “Arriba!”
In “The Wrestler,” Mickey Rourke is so spent after a
match, he collapses from a heart attack.
After this match, Mr. Santana said: “I didn’t break a
sweat. I don’t work that hard anymore.”
In “The Wrestler,” Mr. Rourke takes his pay and
heads to a topless bar, where he tries to pick up
Marisa Tomei, a good-hearted pole dancer.
After this match, Mr. Santana took the $900 he
made from souvenir sales and the bout, and before midnight, was home to his three acres on the hill and his wife of 27 years.