Jan. 1, 2015
Justin Henry

Santana's Survival

Survivor Series 1990 was an evening that stood up on the pilings of odd imagery. From The Undertaker's first deliberate steps into wrestling lore, to the Gobbeldy Gooker's regrettable ten-minute foray into WrestleCrap's theoretical hallowed halls, Thanksgiving night ran the gamut of quality wrestling moments. Other little quirks, like the sight of sphere-headed Boris Zhukov in camouflage make-up, and supposed superhero-sidekick Fred "Tugboat" Ottman being booed out of the Hartford Civic Center, are lesser-known incidences of the surreal that are only spoken of by the most ardent living room wrestling historians.

If you're the sort that mines for these absurd moments that spice up wrestling shows, for better or worse, you probably know about a moment of odd contrast from this particular Survivor Series.

For the only time in the event's history, the surviving team members from each of the scheduled elimination bouts would be pooled into a special main event, dubbed in bloviate, "The Grand Finale Ultimate Match of Survival". All of the babyfaces would go to one team, while all of the heels would file on the other, which is a bit comical, implying that wrestlers know for sure whether or not they're a 'good guy' or 'bad guy'.

Nonetheless, into these teams the wrestlers went based on designated alignment, with three good guys joined up to face long odds: reigning WWE World Champion The Ultimate Warrior, equally-muscular superhero Hulk Hogan, and innocuous do-gooder Tito Santana.

Santana was the lone survivor of an awful bout in which he, Nikolai Volkoff, and The Bushwhackers outlasted a contingent of Zhukov, the undersized Orient Express, and sudden America-hater Sgt. Slaughter. Excluding the fact that three of the eight are in the company's Hall of Fame, the match was duller than dirt. Not actively awful like the Gooker/Mean Gene Okerlund dance routine that followed, but just plain dull.

Not that Santana was at fault. At the time, the former Intercontinental and Tag Team Champion was one of the more reliable workers on the roster, in a position similar to where Kofi Kingston is today: the reliable workhorse hero that will make any villain look good, regardless of their personal merit.

Still, imagine if the modern Survivor Series events utilized the Grand Finale concept as the show's coda. Picture the babyface team if it consisted of John Cena, Daniel Bryan, and Kingston. Immediately if you were certain that if the entire slate of good guys didn't run the table, you knew which one was getting eliminated first.

Such was the case of Santana. He did manage to score an upset in that Grand Finale, eliminating the outsizing Warlord, but he would know his role and succumb minutes later to The Million Dollar Man. Shortly thereafter, Hogan and Warrior cleaned house of what opposition remained.

Seeing Santana stand at the interview hub with Hogan and Warrior didn't make too much sense in 1990. Four or five years had passed since Santana could realistically be considered anything resembling a headliner, his wattage fading each year as the roster became younger and more vivified in color and character. Posturing with the last two company champions felt like The Expendables were headed into battle: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, and Ty Burrell.

In other words, the nice-guy-next-door wasn't sharing the brightest spotlight with Superman and Batman. And that was fine.

To illustrate Santana's standing at the time, consider that in 1990, after six WrestleManias, his record at the marquee event stood at 1-5. The inaugural event saw him go over on the masked Executioner (really, Portland-area legend Buddy Rose). From there, he was the unpinned wrestler in three straight tag team matches from events II to IV, before getting pinned by the Brain Busters at WrestleMania V (a result of partner Rick Martel turning on him, as even a pinfall of Santana was second fiddle to another character's shift). One year later, Santana was pulverized by The Barbarian, landing awkwardly after the behemoth's flying clothesline.

The ensuing WrestleManias didn't add any prestige to Santana's legacy, but instead imbued its futility. At VII, he lost in 90 seconds to The Mountie after being zapped with a cattle prod. One year later, Santana at least received a quality showing with rising star Shawn Michaels before putting the eventual 'Showstopper' over.

By the time Michaels took position on WWE's totem as its high-flying, mat wrestling wizard that could carry any opponent to twenty worthwhile minutes, Santana, at one time bearer of the same job description, was all but retired.

In 1985, Santana was a necessary supporting character in the Rock n Wrestling movement (he was even on the Saturday morning cartoon, wearing a blue jacket that looked like a cut-off bathrobe). Instead of being the stepping stone for tomorrow's villain, he was vanquishing today's baddie. At the time, Santana reigned as Intercontinental Champion, surviving a grueling feud with Greg Valentine that included knee injuries, lumberjack matches, and steel cage frenzies. To properly define the visual positive of Santana, as a standalone character, in WWE canon, the photo would be of him kicking a cage door into an unaware Valentine's mug.

It was, perhaps, appropriate that his role as launchpad came shortly thereafter. In February 1986, Santana dropped the strap to one Macho Man Randy Savage, after a classic bout in Boston. Savage would participate in the company's best match of 1987 (with Ricky Steamboat), win the company's World Title in 1988, and revert to being its king villain (literally, he was adorned in regal splendor) in 1989. Going over on Santana wasn't the sole catalyst for Savage's rise to the squared circle pantheon, but you can argue the match elastically sprung the inevitable forward. Santana did his job, literally and in the sense of the wrestling term.

Santana would go on to do many 'jobs' in the late 1980s/early 1990s, to the likes of 'Mr Perfect' Curt Hennig, Rick Martel, The Warlord, and numerous other heels with any notion of upward mobility. The climb to stardom was perilous and uncertain; Santana was the company's trusted sherpa.

By the time Santana left the promotion in August 1993 at the age of 40, he'd been stenciled in with cartoonish hues by a turn as "El Matador", complete with long green tights and hot pink boot sleeves. The watercoloring of WWE in that time frame didn't exclude Santana, for whom a career timeline was consistently staked by white trunks and white boots. El Matador was still recognized as Santana, but now as a man who'd embraced the bullfighting roots that a white wrestler couldn't accurately assimilate in masquerade.

Martel became a runway model, Barbarian was costumed as a fur-trapper, and, in 1991, a returning Steamboat ended up an anthropomorphical dragon. For Steamboat, it was treated as the advent of a new face with a new character. For Santana, El Matador was a renewal of himself. After all, what good is Tito Santana as a stepping stone if everyone's beaten bland ol' him? Add a few coats of paint, and maybe it'll mean something when somebody beats him again.

The green-mile walk into helping every John Q. Villain up the ladder was a testament to Santana's reliability. In 1987, Santana stepped in when Tom Zenk acrimoniously walked out on the promotion, forming Strike Force with Martel, and becoming Tag Team Champions for close to five months. The Kenny Loggins-ish instrumental theme that the duo co-opted was irksome enough without reminding yourself that Martel and Zenk were supposed to be a good-looking, teeny-bopper tandem. Santana replacing the beefcake Zenk was a bit like adding Clark Gregg to the cast of Magic Mike.

The shift of male archetype didn't damage the team's credibility; there was a time when Santana's workmanlike attitude rang out in an increasingly-comic book WWE. In 1987, Santana bopping down the aisle to wimpy synthesizer strains showed how bulletproof 'plain' can be (his post-split theme, upbeat but stereotypical Mexi-festival dance, was actually an upgrade). By 1990, Santana was entangled in the backdrop by frequent losses and an audience shift. An eight-year-old watching would have no frame of reference to a time where Tito Santana was almost as relevant as the raving Hogan standing next to him.

McArthur said, "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away." As the odd wrestler of the time that hasn't passed away young, been mired by poor life choices, or served as a shoot interview target of contempt, Santana faded away with a smile, his life and house in order. So what if he was a sore thumb among the grunting goblins of your son's wrestling company? The sore thumb worked its skin to the bone, and the time in disuse eased every wound away.

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