There are countless wrestlers over the long and illustrious history of sports entertainment who have a legitimate claim to the title of "most underrated." They are the performers who could be counted on to deliver between the ropes and were part of tremendously entertaining angles and promos.
Perhaps none stayed as relevant as long, or as great from bell to bell, as Tito Santana.
A mainstay in World Wrestling Entertainment for 15 years, the Mexican-American competitor excelled in both singles and tag team competition, and in the process, he proved to be one of the most adaptable stars in the entire industry.
A Superstar synonymous with the early days of the intercontinental title thanks to legendary matches with Greg Valentine, Randy Savage and Mr. Perfect, Santana was an elite in-ring performer during wrestling's initial boom period.
Remembered more now for his days as El Matador, jobbing for bigger and badder heels late in his run with the company, Santana had a lengthy career full of title reigns and high-profile angles and matches.
Recently, he made headlines for a feature in Sports Illustrated for his focus on helping at-risk children.
Now, in celebration of a career that spanned numerous decades and featured some of the greatest performances of the era by a babyface, enjoy this retrospective of the phenomenal Tito Santana, told through his greatest matches and moments.
Arriving in New York
Prior to entering the world of professional wrestling, Santana starred as the starting tight end for West Texas University, a school he attended on a full athletic scholarship.
Why is that important to his future inside the squared circle?
His starting quarterback was future NWA world television champion Tully Blanchard. The future Hall of Famer was integral in helping Santana get into the industry following his modest career in professional football, directing him to Florida, where he broke into the industry.
After learning in that territory and then traveling north to Minnesota and working for Verne Gagne's American Wrestling Association, Santana earned the attention of promoter Vince McMahon and found himself invited to New York.
Debuting in the historic Madison Square Garden in 1979, Santana wasted very little time establishing himself as one of the brightest young stars in the industry, winning the tag team titles from Jimmy and Johnny Valiant with Ivan Putski.
They would reign as champions for 173 days before dropping them to the Wild Samoans. Following the disappointing loss, Santana would break out on his own, where he would start amassing titles and establishing himself as one of WWE's premiere stars.
By 1983, "The Magnificent" Don Muraco was the intercontinental champion and one of the biggest heels in all of WWE. His rivalry with "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka over the title had culminated in a huge Steel Cage match, complete with Snuka's dive from the top of the structure.
As great as Muraco had been for McMahon and the promotion, the decision was made to change directions, and on February 11, 1984, Santana defeated him for the title, making history as the first Mexican-American star to hold the gold.
The feud between the two had stretched months prior to the title change, with Muraco making comments about Santana that, in today's world, could be construed as racially tinged.
Eventually, Santana would dispatch of Muraco and move on to the man considered his greatest opponent by many longtime wrestling fans, the great Greg "The Hammer" Valentine.
Before he got there, though, he would wrestle The Iron Sheik for the WWE Championship to a double disqualification.
With momentum on his side, many expected Santanta to roll over Valentine, but that was not the case.
Instead, Valentine knocked off Santana in September of '84, ending his rival's title reign to the dismay of the fans who had helped make Tito one of the most popular babyfaces in the entire industry. That defeat fueled Santana to improve, to dedicate himself to his craft and avenge his championship.
The future Hall of Famers waged war in arenas up and down the East Coast, including Madison Square Garden and the historic Boston Garden.
While chasing the title that signified his climb to the top of the industry, Santana made history by competing in the first WrestleMania match, defeating The Executioner. Later in the night, he made his presence felt once more, attacking Valentine and furthering their rivalry.
After a year of chasing the IC title, Santana finally regained the gold, defeating Valentine in a brutal and violent Steel Cage match.
During his second run with the title, he would hold it until the following February, when he dropped it to "Macho Man" Randy Savage.
It would be a disappointing development for Santana, but he would recover and soon enough wear championship gold around his waist once again.
Striking Gold and Feuding with Rick Martel
The second half of the 1980s saw WWE tout the most talented tag team division in the sport, thanks to the presence of The Hart Foundation, British Bulldogs, Fabulous Rougeaus, Demolition and The Killer Bees.
By 1987, Rick Martel was in need of a partner and Santana was doing little of importance as a singles star, so the decision was made to pair them up and label them Strike Force. With a theme song ("Girls in Cars"), a cheesy music video and matching red and white tights, the duo almost immediately won the tag titles, knocking off Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart to capture the gold.
The team would run atop the tag division, working every major team and successfully retaining their titles for the remainder of the year.
Early in '88, though, they would have the great misfortune of running into Demolition at WrestleMania IV. The most dominant team in Vince McMahon's company, Ax and Smash defeated Strike Force for the titles and, unbeknownst to fans at the time, signaled the beginning of the end of Santana and Martel's stint as a tandem.
Exactly one year later, at the biggest event of the year, Martel shockingly abandoned Santana and left him to endure a beating at the hands of Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard.
It was the start of an intense rivalry between the former partners.
Martel adopted Slick as his manager and displayed a new cockiness that fans had never witnessed before. Santana was still very much the lovable and believable babyface who had been such a staple of WWE programming to that point.
The two men would feud throughout the remainder of 1989 and even into the early days of the new decade, squaring off in mutliman tag team bouts, including a SummerSlam match that saw Martel team with the Rougeaus to defeat Santana and The Rockers.
Tito would get the last laugh later, defeating Martel in the finals of the King of the Ring tournament.
As 1990 approached and young talent began ascending the ranks in WWE, Santana found himself in a rare position: directionless, aimless and a glorified jobber for some of the new powerhouses McMahon was putting in the position to succeed.
In the summer of 1990, Santana chased the WWE Intercontinental Championship one more time, making it all the way to the finals of the tournament to crown a new champion. His opponent? The great Mr. Perfect.
Despite his greatest efforts, Santana fell to the second-generation star.
It was the last time he would be considered a legitimate challenger to any major championship.
In 1991, the WWE repackaged Santana, gave him a new gimmick as a Spanish bullfighter and renamed him El Matador. It was a childish gimmick, one with flashy outfits that fit the cartoonish nature of the product at that point.
Unfortunately, as was the case with so many other stars forced into ridiculous gimmicks at that point in time, Santana found himself stuck in the midcard, losing to guys without an ounce of his talent. Eventually, he was finally able to share the ring with talented workers, including Shawn Michaels in the opener of WrestleMania VIII.
He lost in an abbreviated match.
By the time early 1993 rolled around, Santana's usefulness in the company had reached its end, and, despite still being one of the most talented workers in the industry, he disappeared from television.
Hall of Famer
In 2004, Santana returned to the company he was so synonymous with as an inductee in the WWE Hall of Fame.
The great in-ring competitor and hero to the Mexican fans, Santana more than earned his honor.
Today, Tito continues to work the occasional indy show and makes frequent appearances at autograph signings and conventions. His above-mentioned work with at-risk youth, however, is a true testament to the quality of man he is, which is far more important than his legacy as a sports entertainment legend.