The memories elude Luis Martinez. Try as he might, the diminutive wrestler can’t summon up the image of bringing a crowd to its feet with his battle cry of “arriba!” or grabbing The Sheik’s pencil and jabbing his villainous rival, time and again, in the forehead. The ravages of time and old age have stolen the memories from Martinez, and locked them away.
But, for the friends and fans he made in a career that spanned five decades, the memories still burn brightly.
“Luis Martinez is a prince of a guy,” said former promoter and TV announcer Ron Martinez, who worked with him on and off for more than 10 years (but is not related). “Luis never really had an ego problem, unlike many of the guys that worked in the past or any of the prima donnas that are in the business today.”
Resting quietly in a Chicago nursing facility, Luis can’t recall how his fans sat mortified at the fearsome beatings he once took or sprung out of their seats to root him to a comeback. Veteran Detroit area manager Dave Burzynski, known as “Supermouth” Dave Drason, recently talked to the bed-ridden Martinez and was saddened to find his old friend had no recollection of his time in the wrestling spotlight.
“Still sounding like Luis, but a bit slower, he said to me point blank that he has lost his memory. When I asked, he did not even know that he was a wrestler at one time,” Burzynski said.
Martinez, born June 17, 1923, was alert and responsive, and repeatedly apologized to Burzynski for his failure of memory. “I bid him a fond farewell, told him I loved him as a long time friend, and hope he stays healthy till I can come to visit,” Burzynski said. “‘Call me again,’ he said, and indeed I will.”
While Martinez’ present-day tale is heartwrenching, those who know his gentle nature are certain that he would be embarrassed that he’s remembered so fondly.
“He’s a real special person in my heart,” said former Canadian wrestler Rick Rawluck (Bobby Bilitsky), who credits Martinez with sheepherding him into the business. “As a person, you couldn’t find a nicer guy. He’d take care of everybody on the road.”
Buffalo-based ring announcer Rick Gattone, who traveled with Luis in the International Wrestling Association, said Martinez’ fiery wrestling persona contrasted with humble manners outside the ring. “You’d be at a bar having a burger and fries or a drink and he’d be talking about his family. He was a very well balanced character. If you saw him on the street, you’d never think of him as a professional wrestler. Maybe a bodybuilder or a movie star because he had good looks.”
Two of the Mexican wrestler’s signature moves resound with fans today-even though they might not be aware that he employed them. Martinez’ shout of “arriba” — associated in recent years with Tito Santana — was guaranteed to rally any throng of supporters. “Not a lot of the boys had a single word like he had — ‘arriba!’ That’s how he got the people up with just that one word, he got the whole audience doing that. He was ahead of his time with that,” Gattone said.
One of his finishers, the Indian deathlock, is now better known as the Sharpshooter or Scorpion deathlock. But Martinez was using it to dispatch hated rivals when Bret Hart and Sting, who popularized it to national audiences, were barely teenagers. “I don’t think it would bother him one bit that it was plagiarized,” Gattone said. “He’d probably be honored.”
The details of Martinez’ youth are a bit sketchy, even to his long-time road companions. The son of a shoe cobbler, Martinez told writer Rick Lanning in 1964 that he was born in Mexico and raised in impoverished conditions. His family migrated to Chicago when he was a teenager. Martinez later served in the Army and did an 18-month tour of duty in France. “I think that’s why he joined the military-it was his only means to support himself and I know he was probably sending most of the money home to support the family,” Rawluck said.
A gym rat from an early age, Martinez credited Karl Pojello, a Chicago promoter, with helping to guide him into the pro ranks. Match records show that Martinez started wrestling in Texas in the late 1940s. In 1957, he battled Danny McShain for the Texas heavyweight title, and then started to split his time between Chicago and the East Coast. For several months, Martinez also formed a tag team in Arizona with Joe Smith, the future Don Kent of The Fabulous Kangaroos. Smith even was godfather to one of Martinez’ sons.
Martinez held the Indiana version of the World tag title with Wilbur Snyder in 1966, and fought Bobby Heenan on that circuit in a bloody Mexican strap match. In the early 1970s, he was a lead babyface in the National Wrestling Federation, where he joined forces with Chief White Owl (George Dahmer) to win the association’s tag titles.
“They had a feud with the Love Brothers, then Kurt von Hess and The Executioner, and the Fargo Brothers,” Ron Martinez said. “Luis got over because of his talent and because he was believable. No one sold any better than Luis. When it came time for the hot tag, in came the Owl and the place went crazy.”
He had a protracted feud with Waldo von Erich, and often battled The Sheik in Detroit, among other rivalries. He was a fixture in Eddie Einhorn’s IWA in 1975, where he was not above poking fun at legendary masked wrestler Mil Mascaras.
“It was late at night, everyone was tired and Luis came on and said he knew the real reason Mascaras wore the mask,” Ron Martinez said. “He looked straight at the camera and said ‘Mil Mascaras wears a mask because he is one ugly mother—,’ then spat on the floor. Everyone broke up, a much-needed break after four hours of doing interviews. We trashed the tape, of course, but Mascaras got all huffy. That was Luis’ sense of humor, and he made no apologies for it.”
When Martinez squared off against Bill Terry (von Hess) one night, he took the added step of coating his body with sardine oil. “Bill couldn’t get near him. Every time Luis would put him in a headlock, Bill would push out and run out of the ring, gagging,” Rawluck said. “In the ring, he was a real practical joker. He made the business fun.”
Ken Jugan, who still wrestles as Lord Zoltan, first met Martinez with a friend 32 years ago when Luis started heading the wrong way from his downtown hotel to the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. “He came out of the hotel and he was just walking and walking. We were following him just to see where he was going, but he was lost. Finally, we caught up to him and he said, ‘Do you have any idea where the arena is?'”
Jugan befriended Martinez, set him on the proper course, formed a fan club in his honor, and eventually regularly wrestled and traveled with him in the Great Lakes area. “I just took a liking to him. I thought he had the psychology down very well.” One of Martinez’ few drawbacks as a wrestler was his notoriously bad eyesight, which required foes to stay on their toes. “His vision was poor. In the ring, he was famous for accidentally smacking you in the mouth if you got too close,” Jugan said.
Martinez preferred to keep on the move, going from town to town, preferably in the company of a case of Weidemann’s beer, an Ohio brew that he usually took warm, Jugan recalled with a shiver. He was not always meeting top flight opposition, either. Don Fargo recalled that Martinez went toe-to-toe with a bear one night and lost part of a finger when the bear’s muzzle slipped off. Martinez even refereed mud wrestling matches as part of a traveling caravan in the 1980s. “He didn’t care what they paid him or where he was. Nothing seemed to bother him. He just wanted to perform. He didn’t care as long as he had a place to stay,” Jugan said.
Perhaps his most amazing feat was pulling off quality matches at a remarkably old age. Always guarded about his date of birth, Luis confessed to Ron Martinez during a 1980-81 tour of Nigeria that he was 66 and had kept his true age to himself to circumvent state licensing authorities that might have barred him from the ring on the basis of age.
“That was Luis. That was all he really knew. He came out of the war and he got into wrestling. I often asked him, ‘Luis, you’re not getting any younger. Why don’t you get out of wrestling?'” Rawluck said. In response, Martinez shrugged his thick shoulders and said, “What else am I going to do?”
Yet he never came across as old as he was. Though his forehead looked like a graphic relief map with the scars and welts from years of beatings and cuts, Martinez, at 5-foot-9 and about 220 pounds, was sufficiently toned to compete in bodybuilding contests into his 70s. Martinez’ conditioning program startled Rawluck’s children when he stayed at the family’s Oakville, Ont. home for a few months in 1990. He jogged every morning at 7 a.m. and pumped up his biceps by curling a vacuum cleaner.
“When he was with us, all he did were situps, pushups, and the vacuum. Before he came out of the bedroom, he’d work out. My kids would say, ‘Gee, this guys wakes up, first thing in the morning, I hear him grunting and groaning.’ That’s how he kept himself in shape in the later days,” Rawluck said.
In recent years, Martinez has been in Chicago, where his relatives still lived. Burzynski found him with the assistance of former manager Percival A. Friend. “We worked many a time together over the years, and usually being on the receiving end of his moves, he always treated me with kid gloves. Anyone who has ever worked with him would have to say that he always sold to the hilt for them, and that no matter who got their arm raised, he always made you look like a million bucks in the ring,” Burzynski said.
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I never saw Luis Martinez wrestle at a place like Maple Leaf Gardens. But I remember seeing him wrestle on TV a few times. It was always a great match. nd besides his ARIBA sounds better than Tito Santana’s ever did.
I used to watch Luis Martinez at TV tapings at CTV’s Montreal CFCF studios and on TV in the mid to late 70’s. It’s hard to believe he is as old as the article says. Wow. I can’t remember many details as I was only 10-12 years old at the time, but he was definitely a fan favourite in the studios.
I once saw Luis Martinez wrestle at the old CNE Coliseum, he wrestled Wild Don Waite, who had to be the ugliest wrestler I have ever seen. My Father and I had ringside seats, it was a very small crowd as there was a show at the Gardens the same night. I can remember being on the edge of my seat even though my Dad was there to protect me. All I remember from the night was Don Waite approaching me at ringside and Luis pounding Don in the corner right in front of me as all the wreslers came into the ring to separate them.
I can also remember tuning in to see Luis on Superstars of wrestling with George Cannon.
I have some real fond memories of Luis “Arribbbbaaa” Martinez ….. He was part of Dave McKigney’s travelling troupe back in the early ’80s and regularly visited Sutton, Keswick and surrounding areas. I remember him as a solid fan favourite and a complete gentleman with the fans. I actually still have my 8×10 autographed photo of him he signed for me in Keswick back in 1981!! I also still have a few of those posters McKigney used to put up on telephone posts with Martinez’s picture vs. The Shiek for the US title. He was battling the hated Sheik (Ed Farhat) and took a fireball that night in a match that had me deathly afraid for his life!! I also remember him teaming with a young Dino Bravo as part of George Cannon’s International Wrestling Asssociation when they fought Sailor White and his partner … bloody , bloody matches! Luis was definitely an innovator, and his AAARRIBBAA came before Tito Santana’s! God bless him !!
Nothing, but nothing, amazed me like the match that took place in the old Cleveland Arena in the late ’70s. Maybe around 1975-76, if I remember right. The match was great! Had to be there … Waldo von Erich vs Luis Martinez in a Triple Death Match main event! The first match was a Texas Death match. The first fall was, of course, bloody as Martinez battled Von Erich from pillar to post, busted him up and won in about 20 minutes! If Martinez won, the next match after a five-minute rest period was a Mexican Strap match! Martinez came out swinging, but it was Von Erich who used the strap to tear into Martinez. Brutal! Waldo won the second fall, and set up the third match … a German Chain match! Waldo and Luis fought like animals! I really enjoyed this part and the Arena was packed and pumped! Great match! Of course, Von Erich won and retained his NWF World championship. It’s my favorite memory of Luis, truly a classic that would have been great to see again, but, no recordings were made from that era. A shame. Thanks for letting me share that with you!
Leonard C. Middlebrooks
ARRRRIIBBBAAAAAA! I’ll never forget that sound. Back in Michigan, during the days of Big Time Wrestling, Luis Martinez and Flying Fred Curry ruled the day. One night in particular is memorable. Martinez and Curry were going to take on Kurt Von Hess and Karl Von Shotz for the Tag Team Titles at Hackett High School Gym in Kalamazoo. I was horribly sick but my Mom knew I wanted to see that match. She took my brother and I and what a night! The ring was a bloody mess but when the smoke cleared Martinez and Curry held fast to the titles. I’ll never forget that night. I even got to shake his hand and he winked at me and called me “Amigo”. Not long after that at the Masonic Temple in Kalamazoo, he faced off against former friend Ben Justice in a Stretcher Match. Man, it was a nail biter. Of all the wrestling I’ve seen in my life, there’s nothing that compares with old school. The WWE is crap. Just because Vince calls his guys superstars doesn?t mean they are. Luis Martinez? Now there’s a Superstar. God Bless You, Amigo.
I have been a fan of Professional Wrestling since the ’60s… In the early ’70s I remember walking to Hackett High School here in Kalamazoo, MI to watch “Big Time Wrestling.” I used to be allowed in free because I would help with setting up the ring and generally helping when the wrestlers needed anything. Mr Martinez was always my favorite along with the “Wild Man Pampero Firpo”. These two men always took the time to Thank Me for helping them and I was HONORED to have the chance to talk to them on many occasions. One night in particular comes to mind when he battled the Sheik in what may to this day be the BLOODIEST match I ever remember. He was carried from the ring and I was very shook up and worried that he may have spilled to much blood. After getting cleaned up he made it a point to let me know that he was fine and looked forward to seeing me there again. These men today that call themselves great do not seem to know just what they owe to men like Luis Martinez, Bobo Brazil, The Sheik, Fred Curry, Firpo, and many more that never made the big money SOME make now. To this day I would just as soon go see a local promotion as anything that TNA or WWE have to offer…