In the Rio Grande Valley, one of the most popular forms of entertainment is professional wrestling. Every week you can find at least one wrestling show to go to, and there are some weeks where we have more than just one option to check out. A few years ago the Scarborough Research team did a study where they found that the Valley ranked in number two in the entire nation for most avid fans of WWE and wrestling.
This article aims to be a primer on the history of wrestling here in the Valley, looking over and touching on some of the most memorable wrestlers, promotions, and events from this area. There is so much that has happened here over the past 100 years that it would be impossible to tackle over everything, but this will be a fun trip down memory lane for some of you wrestling fans in the Valley.
The earliest wrestling event I could track down in this area took place on Jan. 29, 1920, at the Gulf Coast Club in Brownsville. It wasn’t the first event held here, this is just the earliest record of an event I could find. Charles Rentfro and George Sauer were set to square off for this occasion, but I could find no result of who won that match. In another match they had here in the Valley, Rentfro defeated Sauer in a two out of three falls bout.
In the 1930s, wrestling began to be held at the McAllen Sports Arena (also sometimes referred to as the George Chapapas Arena or the Fifteenth Street Arena) on 15th street. The biggest match I could find from there took place on June 27, 1939, when world’s heavyweight champion Lou Thesz (spelled Louis Thez in this advertisement from the McAllen Daily Press) stopped by that arena to defend his crown against Chief Joe Little Beaver.
Thesz was into his second reign as champion at this point in time, and according to then McAllen wrestling promoter George Chapapas, this was the first time the world’s heavyweight championship was defended here Valley. A series of elimination bouts in McAllen led to Beaver earning this shot against Thesz, who was on a four-bout Texas tour in that month of June 1939. Thesz defeated Beaver that night in McAllen.
Also according to the McAllen Daily Press, Mildred Burke defended her women’s lightweight (128 lbs.) championship, defeating Faye King in succeeding falls on Oct. 17, 1939, in McAllen. Burke was one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time and later became an activist for women wrestlers to get fair pay for their work and job opportunities. The newspaper, the day after, described her match: “It was a bangup good winup of a splending show all the way.” This was Burke’s second match in McAllen during the month of October for the year of 1939, as she had defeated Louise Kelley the previous week, building anticipation for her match with King.
On Oct. 4, 1939, The McAllen Daily Press wrote this bizarre caption underneath this photo of Burke: “Adolf Hitler once ran her picture as propaganda to show how brutal Americans are, but pretty Miss Mildred Burke, 24, world’s champion wrestler in the lightweight division, [is] in McAllen to wrestle at the Fifteenth Street arena Tuesday night, just grins delightedly about it all.”
There didn’t seem to be much of a Mexican presence in these shows during the 1920s through the 1940s. A few Spanish names popped up here and there (Pancho Valdez being one of them), through some of the thousands of results I went through. But it appears that the local reported scene was mostly built around Texas wrestlers, journeymen stopping by, and national stars like Burke and Thesz making special appearances. Of course, the Spanish-language press may have been reporting on different events that were also happening during that same era that the English press ignored. Another possibility is that so much of this entertainment was just underreported.
In the 1960s, both Jose Lothario and Mil Mascaras emerged as the top draws of this area. Lothario, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, but by that point, he was based out of San Antonio, was a beloved brawler, who resonated strongly with the working class audiences here in the Valley. He often was involved in feuds where nationality, race, and class were the focal points. The white American heels would often use slurs to insult his identity, status, and background. When feuding with fellow Mexicans, it was sometimes a matter of class or of questioning Lothario’s own Mexican identity. You would often see similar themes explored in boxing.
Lothario would tour the state of Texas where he was a hero to Mexican and Mexican-American wrestling fans. On the other hand, Mascaras was more of the international Mexican superstar, a favorite of wrestling magazine covers, who would stop by from time to time in the Valley. Lothario was like your favorite regional conjunto, while Mascaras was the international act that would pop up on special occasions. El Santo, the most beloved wrestler in Mexican history, was another top star who would also make appearances here.
Feb. 16, 1977, issue of the Brownsville Herald.
Mascaras’ biggest match in this area appears to have been when he wrestled Dory Funk, Jr., for the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) world’s heavyweight championship on May 29, 1970. That match had previews written in newspapers throughout the Valley. However the newspapers here didn’t follow up with the result or match details but we know through the lineage of the title that Funk, Jr., retained that night.
Lothario first appeared in the Valley in 1969 where he got involved in a rivalry with future Hall of Famer Dusty Rhodes at Wrestlethon (the name of the local promotion based out of Harlingen). Lothario got the better of Rhodes during their rivalry, which also extended to Corpus Christi and San Antonio. One match to point to is a Texas heavyweight championship contest where Lothario beat Rhodes via a cradle pin in August of 1969. In those days, Lothario was promoted by Joe Blanchard or Johnny Goodman and would wrestle hundreds of matches here in the Valley from 1969 to 1983. During that time, Lothario wrestled high profile singles bouts with Johnny Valentine, The Mongolian Stomper, Black Gorman and Bruiser Brody. The local match that stands out the most while researching this is one where Lothario challenged the legendary Terry Funk for the NWA world’s heavyweight championship at the Casa de Amistad in Harlingen on Oct. 21, 1976.
Details about the match are lost in time except the obvious which is that Funk retained his crown. Having a feel for both of their styles, it was probably a great match. Over the past decades, Funk has been one of the few top wrestlers that have always gone out of his way to praise Lothario. Funk wrote in his book Terry Funk: More Than Just Hardcore:
“One guy whose name hardly ever comes up in discussions about great promo men is Jose Lothario, but he was an amazing talker. He would cut these very serious promos, half in English and half in Spanish. Between listening to him talk and working with him in the ring, I probably learned as much from Jose in 1966 and 1967 as I did from anyone.”
Lothario’s matches in the Valley weren’t filmed, but the closest thing we can get to an idea of what they looked like is from the rare Houston territory footage R. Bruce Tharpe, who some of you may know as an attorney in Brownsville, released in recent years. One of Lothario’s best matches was against Gino Hernandez, a classic feud here in Texas.
Jose Lothario vs Gino Hernandez, Texas Death Cage Match, Jan. 19, 1979.
In 1978, wrestling made its debut at La Villa Real in McAllen on Aug. 10, 1978. La Villa Real had opened its doors the previous year in 1977 and would become one of the most popular destinations here in the Valley, regularly hosting all types of events. This wrestling event, in particular, was promoted by Joe Blanchard of Southwest Championship Wrestling fame and was headlined by a battle royal that featured touring international superstar Andre The Giant. It was the first of many wrestling events at La Villa Real, some from Blanchard with touring acts and some that were locally produced. Arnaldo Ramirez, Jr., who owned and founded the space, once told me a great story about how one of working security guards at La Villa Real kept getting mad at a wrestler who kept cheating during his match. Even after Ramirez informed him several times that it was part of the show, the security guard still kept yelling and getting visibly upset at that wrestler in the ring.
In the early 1980s, we saw more Southwest Championship Wrestling shows in the area, including in Harlingen. Also, according to Miguel Salinas, Jr., his dad Miguel Salinas, Sr., a local wrestler, promoted his first show in 1983.
“My dad promoted a wrestling show with Mil Mascaras at Greg’s Ballroom in Mission, Texas,” Miguel Salinas, Jr., said.
That would start a tradition of promoting for the Salinas family. In the 1990s Miguel Salinas, Jr. would start promoting as well, but more on that later.
World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) eventually started having shows here in the Valley, specifically in Brownsville where wrestling had previously been banned for a period of at least 12 years after a fan riot. One memorable card featured WCCW star Kerry von Erich going up against NWA world heavyweight champion Ric Flair at the Jacob Brown Civic Center (now called the Auditorium) in Brownsville. The card also included Mexican stars in Lothario, Chavo Guerrero, and Gran Markus.
As the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now known as WWE) expanded nationally throughout the 1980s, they finally made a stop in the Valley at the very end of the decade on Sept. 1, 1989, at the Pan American University Fieldhouse in Edinburg. Tito Santana, originally of Mission, was one of the featured stars of the event, as he faced off against his former tag team partner Rick Martel. There was also a match between the Rockers and The Rougeau Brothers, and a main event of WWF Intercontinental Champion The Ultimate Warrior defeating Andre The Giant in 30 seconds. I was in attendance, but I was only 3-years-old, so I don’t remember anything. For this, I am relying on my dad’s memory and on “The History of the WWE” website.
When business for WWF started to go down, they stopped hosting events in the Valley in 1995. Miguel Salinas, Jr., started promoting in 1995, holding his first show at the Pulga de Alton, and then later on at the Tejano Saloon in Pharr. He built his brand of Promociones Salinas over his wrestling character alter-ego, Spawn, the self-proclaimed “Mejor Luchador del Mundo” Pirata Morgan, Mascara Sagrada, Tinieblas, Jr., Super Parka, and luchadores from the Valley and Reynosa. El Hijo del Santo had matches here on special occasions as well. Salinas continues to promote to this day, still working with and booking most of those names and occasionally busting out the Spawn gimmick, like he did at his most recent show on Dec. 22 at the Pulga in Alton.
In 1996, a promotion named National Wrestling Association announced that they would start holding shows on a regular basis here in the Valley. The first show was called the Rio Grande Valley Rumble ’96 and took place at the then-named Harlingen Field on Nov. 9, 1996. The event was built around Chavo Guerrero, Hector Guerrero, Black Bart and randomly enough, newcomer Scott Putski. Unfortunately, perhaps due to low attendance, there was never a second show. That one show was pretty fun though and it was great seeing the Guerrero brothers in action. The year that followed saw Hector become a WCW regular, where he worked one cool match with his brother Eddie Guerrero on television, and Putski would have a very brief run in the WWF and then WCW.
The Texas Wrestling Alliance (TWA) also made the Valley a regular stop, starting in February of 1999 at the Tejano Saloon (now known as Aragon Music Hall) in Pharr. That show was built around appearances of the then recently retired Shawn Michaels and Jose Lothario. It featured a battle royal main event and a memorable match where then WWF performer Sho Funaki teamed up with Pete Lothario, the son of Jose Lothario.
“That was one of my favorite places to wrestle,” Pete Lothario wrote to me online, referring to the Tejano Saloon. That same weekend the TWA also had a show at the J.D. Hall in Harlingen. The TWA continued to have shows here well into the 2000s.
It was around the year 2000 when the International Wrestling Federation (IWF) started to get attention here in the Valley. It was based out of Brownsville and founded by R. Bruce Tharpe, a referee turned announcer, turned wrestler, turned local attorney, turned promoter, turned all of the above and much, much more.
“When I came down to the Valley, I acquainted myself with some of the Mexican lucha libre guys across in Mexico,” Tharpe told me in 2015. “I trained with them and I wrestled in Mexico when I was working as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office. In fact, I wore a mask and wrestled in Mexico on the weekends.”
Tharpe’s IWF group was the only local promotion that I can recall that actually shot and aired a television show here in the Valley within the last 30 years.
Montages that would air on IWF Wrestling International, which would air on Sunday nights at 11:00 PM on XERV Canal 9, Cable 19. Montage created by James Limas, who worked with the IWF for years
Tharpe would have multiple roles in that program as the owner, promoter, TV show co-host, play-by-play commentator, and even a part-time wrestler. One time when a feud got really intense in 2005, he adopted the bizarre character of Dr. Zodiac for a grudge match that was set to take place at IWF Slamboree on June 23, 2005, in Brownsville.
Tharpe would later become the owner of the NWA and launch a wrestling streaming service called NWAClassics and NWA On Demand, where those Lothario classics from Houston were released. During his time as the owner of the NWA, he would often make appearances in New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). He recently sold the NWA to Billy Corgan in 2017. Tharpe still resides and practices law in Brownsville.
The only show I can find that World Championship Wrestling (WCW) had here was when they held WCW Monday Nitro at South Padre Island on March 27, 2000. The highlight of that event was a dark match with Three Count defeating El Dandy, Silver King, and Chavo Guerrero, Jr. It also featured the amusing scene of Sting giving Lex Luger a piledriver on the actual water of the beach at SPI.
WWE returned to the Valley on Nov. 17, 2003, with a Smackdown house show (untelevised show) that had a lot of local hype around Eddie Guerrero, the little brother of Chavo Guerrero Sr. That was right around the time that Eddie Guerrero, originally from El Paso, was becoming a star to wrestling audiences in the Southwest, and something of a Chicano hero.
“I noticed it very early on. It was probably about a year-in-a-half before he started getting the big push,” Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter told me during a phone conversation we had in 2015 for a story I was writing about the late Eddie Guerrero. “At the time, I was getting the quarter hour breakdowns of not just ‘Smackdown!’ but of ‘Smackdown!’ in all these different markets. So I noticed that Los Angeles, Houston, and Dallas, there were certain markets, where Eddie and Rey, whenever they were on TV, (the ratings) wouldn’t just go up; They would skyrocket. Then at the same time, ‘Smackdown!’ was the number one English language network show in Hispanic homes. So I’m looking at those two things, putting one and one together, so that’s when I figured it out. That’s when, I think, (WWE) started opening their eyes, that Eddie was more than just a good (in-ring) worker, that he had that potential.”
That night at the sold-out Dodge Arena (now known as the State Farm Arena) in Hidalgo, Eddie Guerrero teamed up with his nephew Chavo Guerrero, Jr., to take on the Basham Brothers for the WWE tag team championship. Even though it wasn’t the main event, it’s the match that people who attended always remember. The crowd chanted “Eddie, Eddie” non-stop throughout the match. Probably the most consistent chanting I’ve ever been a part of at a wrestling event. The fact that the Bashams actually won the match by disqualification is a detail that is often forgotten due to the fact that, in the post-match, we got to see the Guerreros hit duel frog splashes on their opponents and celebrate with a fan’s flag of Mexico.
Since that night, the WWE has been making stops in Hidalgo every year, sometimes twice a year. Their next stop is two shows on Jan. 13 and 14, a rare doubleheader that they’ve only done one time before here in 2013.
“Hidalgo is the best city. Chicago & Houston are the best major cities,” Meltzer tweeted in 2014 when talking about WWE’s attendance. In an exchange of messages I had with him that same year, Meltzer pointed out to me that WWE had more consistent sellouts in Hidalgo over the past 15 years than in any other market where they tour.
Wrestling Revolution was founded on Oct. 31, 2005, and originally worked with Tharpe, according to their “Dreams” statement from a few years ago. The first independent show they had was held in Roma on July 4, 2011. A few weeks later, they held their first show at Cine El Rey in McAllen, the venue that would become their home base for years to come. Every Friday night, you can find the Wrestling Revolution crew working their weekly show at that theater in Downtown McAllen on 17th St.
Compared to other local promotions, Wrestling Revolution has had more women involved in the lineups for their events. Not as much nowadays but there was a point a few years ago where that was the case. One of the more established women wrestlers from yesteryear was Kat Green.
“I only wrestled for one promotion in the McAllen area,” Kat Guerrero, who also goes by the name Kat Green, said. “[That] was Wrestling Revolution. They had tryouts and I was training with a few other girls. [But] only one of those established a story within the company and we traveled [out of the Valley] together occasionally to other parts of Texas for other wrestling promotions.”
Green continued and listed some of those other promotions she worked at. “I don’t really remember all of the promotions but these are some I visited the most during my short career: Inspire Pro Wrestling (Austin), BOW (San Antonio), LWA (Laredo), TWA (San Antonio). Wrestled for promotions in Corpus, Rockport, Seguin and a few Lucha promotions as well. My last show was in Austin for Sabotage Wrestling.”
Other talent that has performed for Wrestling Revolution over the years include Ruthless Lala, Matt Riot, Sharpshooter (Shooter Roberts), Richard Reason, Danny Ramóns, Bandana Joe, Coven, Danny Chance. From time to time they’ve also brought in top independent wrestling talent like Keith Lee, Brian Kendrick, Ricochet, Amazing Red and ACH.
This past decade in Brownsville, 3 Bat Productions has been doing an annual Hallowmania show every year around the same time as Halloween. The show consists of popular luchadores and American wrestlers, along with some local talent. This year’s show, the 9th annual Hallowmania on Oct. 21 at the Jacob Brown Auditorium, featured Penta el Zero M and King Fenix as the headliners. Ivelisse also wrestled Keira for the Crash women’s championship. They had a strong match, which ended after Ivelisse beat Keira with a kick. It drew around 1,500 fans, the biggest non-WWE show here in years. Last year’s Hallowmania show included Rey Mysterio, Jr., one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.
Robles Promotions is a promotion that has been putting on shows this decade, usually in partnership with Promociones Salinas. They like to do shows with top stars from Mexico, along with local Valley and Reynosa wrestlers. Most recently they had a show with El Hijo del Santo and Corazon de Barrio taking on Canek and El Hijo del Fishman, at Famoso Fuego in McAllen on Dec. 10. Santo, who has been making special appearances in the Valley for decades and whose iconic father before him also wrestled in the Valley, is still great in the ring.
Lucha Powerhouse is another local company that launched recently and who uses a similar booking strategy of popular touring acts on top and local talent on the undercard, but with less frequent shows. Penta el Zero M wrestled Black Taurus on Dec. 22 at the Pharr West Club in Pharr for Lucha Powerhouse’s final show of the year.
It is incredible how many shows there are nowadays. There were four shows recently, all going on simultaneously on Dec. 22, across McAllen, Pharr, Alton, and Palmhurst. This is by no means a complete list of all the different promotions and wrestlers who have worked here in the Valley, as their continues to be so many shows that take place under the radar. This is just a starting point for now, but I hope this encourages fans of different forms of entertainment here in the Valley to document and collect our own history down here. There are so much great events going on around us all the time, let’s capture it so it doesn’t get lost through time.