For an old school wrestling fan, there is nothing more sad than to hear of the passing of one of your childhood heroes. Even worse when that someone is a long-time friend, someone who you worked with many nights in the business, someone you travelled many thousands of miles with on the road, someone who you have the greatest respect for that it brings a tear to your eye knowing that the Lord has taken a true angel from us. Oh, to turn back the hands of time and once again here the echo through the arena as the announcer bellows “… and from Monterey, Mexico, weighing in at 235 pounds, ladies and gentlemen, ‘Arriba’ Luis Martinez!”
Last week, I received a call from my good friend and Chicago resident Rich Tito with the news that Luis Martinez had passed away. Sad news indeed, but in truth, he had passed without any fanfare or notification last September. Living six hours away in Michigan, and at my constant urging, Rich has been my advocate for checking in on Luis whenever he could at the California Gardens Nursing Facility where he has resided for a number of years. This particular time, something just didn’t seem right.
Rich went to see Luis last October and was told he was not there. “I went there and stood about 30 minutes,” Rich said. “A nice supervisor came out and I could tell right away it was bad news. I think she knew he was dead but she wanted to find a date. I explained I was a fan and there were a lot of people who would like to wish Luis well and see how he’s doing. She typed in some stuff on the computer and said, ‘I’m sorry but Mr. Martinez passed away in September.’ I told her I was there at least three times since about October and she apologized and said that since I was not a family member that they could not release that info to me. She was really nice and I have no quarrel with her or the home.”
Writer Steve Johnson confirmed the worst, contacting Martinez’s family.
“Sadly, it is true that my Uncle Luis ‘Arriba” / “Apache’ Martinez did peacefully pass away in September,” said his nephew Robert Alvarado. “He was laid to Rest in Mount Carmel (Queen of Heaven) Cemetary Hillside, Illinois. There, you will be able to obtain his burial location. I am glad to know that there is someone out there still writing about these legendary wrestlers.”
It may be all for the best. His quality of life had diminished over the years, even more since I last reported of my visit to Luis a few years ago in a related story I did for SLAM! Wrestling [A heartbreaking visit with Luis Martinez]. Since that time, I cannot believe the number of responses I received from that article, from fellow wrestlers and fans alike, expressing their gratitude and relaying their own stories about their experiences and encounters with Luis. Here is a small sampling:
Writer Scott Teal: “Thank you so much for writing that story, Dave. I think it’s probably the most touching story (especially about wrestling) that I’ve ever read. I knew Luis when he worked here in Nashville for Buddy Lee in the UWA and made several trips with him. He was one of the nicest guys I had the pleasure of knowing in the business.”
The late Jim Melby: “What a wonderful, happy, yet sad tale all rolled into one. I had the chance of spending a weekend with Luis and Bobo Brazil many moons ago. I did an article on Luis for one of our magazines at the time. I still remember that he carried a program from El Paso, Texas with him in the main event versus Lou Thesz. He was extremely proud of that bout.”
Kristy: “I spoke with my father last night and asked him about any old friends that he would like to find. Of course, I knew the answer before I asked. My father was very close with one wrestler named Luis Martinez… All I know of him is, he was originally from Detroit and worked for just about every promoter in Canada.”
The Family of Luis Martinez: “I just wanted to write to thank your web-site (SLAM!) for the article on Luis Martinez. Reading this article brought back so many wonderful memories for me and my family. Your article portrayed Luis as he was… a warm, kind, loving, and mischievous person who always had a smile and a joke for everyone. He truly is one of a kind, and I can’t thank you enough for helping the world to see that. I think that you couldn’t have done a better job in summarizing some of the events in Luis’ life. His career was something that he truly loved. While wrestling, he created some of his most memorable moments and had the most fun he possibly could while doing it. Thank you again for your article and for posting the beautiful pictures of Luis. As I’ve mentioned…this has just brought back a flood of memories for us and I cannot thank you enough for the wonderful things you’ve said about Luis.”
Born in Leon, Mexico in 1923, Luis was the son of poor migrant workers. As a youngster, his passion for boxing and wrestling saw him and his brother stage matches in their neighborhood and charge the other kids admission to watch their bouts. Following a three-year stint in the army, he always kept in tip-top shape. A chance meeting at a Chicago gym would change his life forever. Meeting Steve Reeves, of TV Superman fame, they became good friends and constant workout partners. Given the advice to put his spectacular physique to good use, Luis embarked on a career in professional wrestling.
Debuting in 1952, he spent time criss-crossing the U.S. working for any promotion that would give him an opponent to work with. Within a few years, he achieved glorious praise from every promoter he worked for and respect among the boys and fans throughout the country. In the late 1950s, he regrettably worked a match with a wrestling bear. During the course of the bout, Luis got his finger stuck in the bear’s muzzle and lost his right index finger in the process.
His biggest success came in 1965 when he found a home in The Sheik’s Big Time Wrestling in Detroit. His fame blossomed for years working for Dick the Bruiser’s WWA in Indianapolis, George Cannon’s Superstars of Wrestling in Canada, and Eddie Einhorn’s IWA national promotion.
Armed with numerous highlite maneuvers such as the Indian Death Lock and his famous Airplane Spin finisher, probably the best gift he possessed was his ability to make everyone he went against larger than life. He made every heel look good, always let them get their heat, all the while selling their holds to the hilt to draw the fans into the match. Then, when it was time for him to make a miraculous comeback, he’d find that last ounce of strength to bring the fans to their feet, cheering him on to another victory.
One of the finest compliments bestowed about a worker in this business is when you never hear a bad word spoken about him. Luis was one of these rare gentlemen. When you worked against Luis, it was like having the night off. He was smooth as silk in the ring, always protected your body, and you knew that when you got back to the dressing room, you had a good match and gave the crowd their money’s worth.
“He was the best brother,” said Jimmy Valiant during a recent phone chat where I informed him of our good friend’s passing. “He taught me so much. You can’t buy knowledge like that. He was a great guy to travel with. I loved him like a brother. I remember when I visited him at the nursing home a few years ago, Angel (Mrs. Valiant) and I went to his room, and I remember his fondness for blondes. Even though it was hard to communicate with him, he stared at Angel the whole time and had a big smile on his face. God bless him, he was a good man”.
Like no other wrestler before him or one to this day, he was the only wrestler who possessed a rallying cry that he and every one of his fans shared. “Arriba!” A word that he would use to pump up his fans, and in return, a word that would serve as his “Popeye spinach” when he needed it most.
I choose not to remember my friend like the last time I saw him. Weak, bedridden and with severe dementia that left him not knowing of his iconic status as a professional wrestler or those he went against on a nightly basis. As I left his room, I turned, waved and said “Arriba!” to which I received a healthy thumbs ups. The image will always stay with me. In his honor, try like myself to remember all the excitement and joy he brought to you as a wrestling fan, the victories and the tough losses, his warm smile, the time he took to speak with you and the gracious autograph he may have given. In appreciation, look up to the sky and say “Arriba!” one last time. I’m sure he’d be looking down and giving you and the entire wrestling world a big thumbs up.