On September 16th, Dave Burzynski, a.k.a. former Detroit-based manager “Supermouth” Dave Drason, ventured to Chicago to visit Luis “Ariba” Martinez. He shared his tale with friends via email and at the Titans In Toronto II fundraising dinner. We’re pleased to be able to share his very moving tale with you on SLAM! Wrestling.
I made my way to Chicago where it is my annual privilege to lend support for Alicia’s House, a food bank that feeds the hungry and homeless in South Chicago. Celebrities from all over the country fly in to participate in the weekend activities which include a golf outing, silent auction and banquet, all in an effort to raise funds for this wonderful charity spearheaded by former American Karate Association Hall of Famer Juan “Mr Karate” Hernandez. In the spare few hours that I had after arriving, I swore to myself that I would make the pilgrimage I had wanted to fulfill for quite some time. That was, to visit a very dear old friend.
Just like oceanographer and researcher Robert Ballard made it an obsession to find the Titanic, knowing it was out there but not really sure exactly where, and not quite sure the condition it would be in when he found it, I felt much the same in trying to locate this old friend. But I knew with a little determination and effort, I would be able to locate the treasure with which I had searched for many years.
Along with fellow manager and travel companion, Percival Al Friend, we gathered directions in search for the California Gardens. Located just south of downtown Chicago, near 28th St. and California Ave. smack dab across the street from one of the largest prisons in the country, it was by no means a botanical oasis we were headed to. A nursing home and rehab center was our destination, the place where our friend now calls home.
Upon entering, we asked the receptionist where we might be able to find him. We were given visitors badges and directed to the second floor. We were pointed in the direction of Room 214, where my long search finally brought us to once again meet face to face with wrestling legend, Luis “Ariba” Martinez. When I walked in, our eyes met, his opening as wide as the moon, mine welling up with excited emotion. As we shook hands, the first question I had to ask was “Do you know who I am?” He quickly nodded an affirmative yes, without saying a word.
This somewhat surprised me, since the last time I had spoken to Luis, quite a few months ago when I first found out where he was after nearly 15 years, was when I successfully reached him via telephone at this facility. At that time, when we first had spoken, he had no idea as to who I was, who he was speaking to, did not recall any wrestlers names that I mentioned to him, and saddest of all, he had no recollection to the fact that he was ever a professional wrestler. I had heard from local sources in recent time that his condition was stable but still in an amnesia like state. After that initial conversation, heartbroken about his state of health, I made it a promise to myself that I would hopefully get a chance to visit with him at my earliest opportunity while he was still with us.
His home is a small room which he shares with another resident. His space is devoid of any photos, cards, or mementos of any kind that would make reference to any family members, friends, or his wrestling notoriety. Confined to a wheelchair, we were happy to see him up out of bed, nicely dressed in black jeans and blue sweater. Looking much smaller in stature from his muscular heyday, hair very shortly cropped, wearing glasses and looking quite a bit older from when last we were together, it was just a joy to once again be in his presence.
As we sat down to converse with Luis, we noticed that whenever we said anything directly to him, he nodded in agreement, never making any verbal response. This made me a little suspect as to if he really knew who we were. We mentioned his family and numerous wrestlers from years past, hoping that this would spark some sort of response. Rattling off names such as The Sheik, Bobo Brazil, Fred Curry, George Steele, Killer Brooks, Tony Marino and Lou Thesz, he nodded his head as as to tell us he knew who we were speaking of. When we spoke of Jimmy Valiant, it was the first verbal utterance from Luis that we were able to provoke. He said the single word “Jimmy?” and we said yes, and a broad smile came over his face. It was then that we finally realized that he was coherent, and knew of whom we spoke.
Only a few times during our visit were we able to coax a few words of speech from him. With the burden of conversation left totally up to us, we were just happy to get any kind of response from Luis. Besides the frequent nods, another form of communication towards us was him making the sign of the cross on his body when we mentioned a name of one of our deceased comrades such as Bull Curry, Moose Cholak, Eric the Red, Bulldog Brower and Jesse Ortega.
He raised an interested brow when we spoke of Pampero Firpo, telling him that he was still alive and living in California. His eyes gleemed in delight in the same manner when making reference to Mickey Doyle, Bruce Swayze, Ox Baker, Paul Christy and Bobby Heenan. I told him as of their whereabouts and current state of employment or status in life. He nodded as if pleased to hear they were all doing well.
I asked Luis if he remembered the time we drove up to Montreal in a snow blizzard and got our car stuck in the middle of Highway 401 on our way back home. He pointed to his head as if to tell me that he did remember indeed. I recalled our riding partners Frenchy Martin and Don Ross and at the sound of Ross’ name, he again pointed to his head but moved his finger around in a circle as to say, yeah, I remember that crazy nut.
We got the quickest response from Luis when we happened to mentioned the bear. It was then he lifted his right hand, showing us where the muzzled beast was able to bite off half of his index finger in a match back in the late 1960s. We laughed at his timely jesture.
He shrugged his shoulder in response to our question as to how old he was. When Al said 50 years old, Luis lifted his thumb to say a little more. At 60, his thumb was still raised. I’m sure he may not have known the actual answer because it has been a question left unanswered to many of us who have known him for many years. People swear he was wrestling at the age of 60 back in the 1970s. No one ever really knew. My personal belief is that when last we worked on the same card together back in the early 1990s, he had to have been in his 70s, early or late I can not even guess. If I had to pinpoint a guesstimation, I would have to say he was in his late 80s or early 90s.
I asked Luis if I could get him a Weideman’s, his beer of choice for so many years. He declined the offer by waving his hand in a negative sort of way. Thank the Lord for that one, as anyone who has ever had the pleasure to ride with Luis on any road trip well knew, that as soon as he started to drink his Weideman’s, the potty breaks needed to drain his bladder were frequent and non-stop.
Delighted with the reactions we were able to coax from Luis, be they small and simple, I had to test him to see if he knew who he truly was, remembering from our last chat that he did not recall this bit of information. I gave him my pen as I searched for a piece of paper for him to sign his name. He instructed Al to look on his vanity dresser, the longest verbal utterance we heard from him during our stay. I placed a business card of mine in front of him, and slowly and methodical, he signed the name Luis Martinez. How happy I was to witness this simple but reassuring exam.
Knowing that our time was limited and our scheduled commitments needing to be addressed, we asked if it was okay to record our visit with a few photographs. With a hearty thumbs up, we proudly posed with our old friend for a few treasured portraits.
With a sad look coming over his face, Luis expression confirmed to him that our visit was about to come to a close. We asked him if there was anything he needed or that we could get for him. He shook his head no. With a firm grip he shook my hand, at which time I gave him a huge prolonged hug, gave him a kiss on top of his head and told him that I loved him.
As we said our final goodbye and headed towards the door, it was very hard emotionally for me to turn my back to him, looking at his eyes, knowing that this could be the final time I see one of the closest friends I had in the business.
As I looked back one more time, I said to Luis, “Ariba”.
With that, he slowly thrust his fist into to air as if to reply, “Ariba my friend”, in return.
To anyone wishes to send a card, letter, or photograph to Luis, send it to:
c/o California Gardens Room # 214
2829 S. California Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60608
I am sure that it would bring joy to his heart and a smile to his face.
EDITOR’S NOTE: With thanks to Wrestling Revue magazine for sharing this great piece with us before publication. Be sure to look into the re-launched Wrestling Revue at www.wrestlingrevue.com