Tito Montez, who died Wednesday at age 78, was a little man in a big man’s business, but he had a big heart and never forgot those who helped him along the way.
When it was his chance to be honoured by his peers at a Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in 2003, Montez chose to have his sister, Marie Johnson, present the award to him, rather than a fellow grappler or promoter.
“The reason I want her with me on stage is because she was the one who stood behind me and supported me back in 1957, when I wanted to become a professional wrestler,” Montez recalled in a CAC newsletter. “[T]imes were tough where we lived near San Antonio, but she gave me the encouragement and the push that I needed to follow.”
Edward Montimayor — Montez’s real name — had a supportive father, who built a ring in the family’s backyard so he could learn to wrestle. On wrestling nights, his father would drive the pickup truck around the neighbourhood and collect anyone who had the one dollar needed to get into the wrestling matches.
By the age of eight, Montimayor knew he wanted to be a professional wrestler, and set about getting himself in shape at the YMCA. His heroes were Blackie Guzman and Rito Romero.
Along the way, he learned to ignore any detractors.
“I told my high school teacher that the day that I would wrestle in San Antonio, Texas. He told me that I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, that I was too small, I would never make it,” said Montez on the podium while receiving the CAC award. “The harder I worked, I knew in my heart that I had to do it. I asked Jesus Christ to help me and I still ask him to help me each and every day of my life.”
Later, Montez went back to that same teacher with a pair of tickets to see him wrestle. “He couldn’t get over it, he couldn’t believe it.”
According to Montez, it was his sister who first approached local promoter Frank Brown about her brother. The promoter was impressed by Montez’s look and decided to give him a break — and Montez, who was not yet 18, lied about his age to start. He also didn’t have a driver’s license, so in the early days, his sister drove him to his matches around Texas, leaving her own children at home.
“She encouraged me to go on the road, even though she knew it would mean leaving my family for she knew that a true professional wrestler could only make it if he worked many areas,” said Montez. “I can’t thank her enough for everything she has done for me.”
His first match was against Herbie Freeman: “He beat me in about 15 minutes. I guess I went south with his arm and he was upset with me, to say the least. He said he had a bad shoulder. I said I had no knowledge of that.”
After that, Montez worked steadily, including getting squashed by the 600-pound Haystack Calhoun in Galveston, Texas, when Tito was just 17 years old. Pepper Gomez got him his first big break, getting him booked into the Pacific Northwest territory, run by Don Owen. There, he was renamed Eddie Sullivan for a time. Later, he would also work under the names Eddie Montez, Eddie O’Hara and Tito Montimayor.
“Here’s me, 5-foot-7, I had the opportunity in 1974, duly chosen by Don Owen in Portland, Oregon, to wrestle with André the Giant as a tag team partner,” reminisced Montez. “André the Giant, the night we wrestled, he didn’t need me, but I was there. Probably one of the greatest thrills of my life to wrestle with this man, because when we won the match, he picked me up with one arm, straightened me over his head and I’m looking down at the ring saying, ‘Put me down! It’s high, it’s high! I can’t get no air!’ I’m serious, he had me way above the ring.”
But for all his successes in Texas and the Pacific Northwest, Montez is most associated with Arizona.
At the CAC banquet where Montez was honoured, former Seattle promoter Dean Silverstone summed it up: “If you have 14,000 Arizonians, Tito Montez goes over.”
The Arizona Wrestling Legends website has a lengthy piece on Montez: “Trying to do a tribute to Arizona Wrestling Legends without featuring Tito Montez would be like trying to make a sandwich without bread. You just can’t do it.”
The late Don Arnold was one of the men who worked with Montez often in Arizona.
“He looked good, in tremendous shape. He weighed about 200. He really could move well. He looked like he knew what he was doing, which he didn’t, from an amateur standpoint,” said Arnold. “He really was a very pleasant personality. Heck, out of all the Spanish guys that I knew, I think he was tops. Most of the Spanish guys kind of went off in the corner and talked amongst themselves. They would work with you, but were always kind of holding back.”
In a December 2002 interview in The Ear, the newsletter for the CAC, Montez talked about the genesis of his time in Arizona.
“The highlight of my career happened when Buddy Fuller took over promotional duties in Phoenix (from Monte LeDuc),” said Montez, launching into a story from 1962. “They had a championship tournament and the final was held at the Tempe Giants baseball stadium. There were 14,000 fans there, and they put me over against Don Bulldog Kent, who later become one of the Kangaroos. They brought in Joe Louis to referee, and in winning the match, I got a $610 payoff, plus a brand new Cadillac.”
In 1976, Montez decided to stop wrestling, though he promoted matches and trained wrestlers.
His most successful student ended up being his son-in-law.
Dean Silverstone shared the story in a CAC newsletter:
TEACH ME TO WRESTLE OR I’LL MARRY YOUR DAUGHTER
A few years ago, Tito Montez was honoured by the CAC and told this story while enjoying his banquet meal. In 1973, he was approached by a young man who wanted to learn how to wrestle. Tito took him under his wing and trained him for four or five months, meeting with him at least twice a week.
His protégé (Bob Yuma/Frankie Vaughan) was given a chance in the pro ring and worked a few dozen times in the Northwest and Arizona. During this time, Tito became the proud parent of a baby girl and continued to wrestle through the 1970s. His protégé went on his own and was always grateful that Tito had opened the door for him.
Twenty-six years later, in 1999, Bob Yuma, Tito’s protégé, married the daughter that had been born in 1973. Bob Yuma got both, he learned to wrestle and he married the tutor’s daughter.
For the last number of years, Montez and his wife, Maggie, ran T’n’S Carpet Cleaner in Oregon. He also loved to golf.
Besides the CAC honour in 2003, Montez is a member of the Oregon/Washington Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Western States Wrestling Hall of Fame.
He passed away on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 from complications of Alzheimer’s. Details on the funeral arrangements are forthcoming.