|In the late 70's
and early 80's the mecca for bodybuilding in the Twin Cities was the St.
Paul's Sports and Health Club. Tom Zenk and a few friends in their late
teens went there to work out, gradually becoming part of the local bodybuilding
scene. Notable among Zenk's bodybuilding friends was Scott Doring, a Mr.
Teenage America and Mr. U.S.A. Runner-Up.
Although a contemporary of Curt Hennig, Rick Rood, Barry Darsow, "Nikita Koloff', Brady Boone and John Nord at Robbinsdale High School, Zenk's primary association was with Doring and the bodybuilders. The transition to wrestling came after a string of successes in Minnesota bodybuilding contests.
"After I won the Mr. Minnesota contest, I was approached by Animal of the Road Warriors. Animal suggested that if I was interested I should go to Ed's [Ed Sharkey's] training camp. He said that Hawk, [Rick] Rood, [Barry] Darsow, and he were doing well and having fun. He said AWA could use a 'face' who was a good athlete. I had no real wrestling ability and I was pretty awkward, but I told them I'd think about it."
Zenk enrolled in Sharkey's wrestling school in 1983. He trained for 3 months and paid Sharkey $330.00 (Sharkey discounted the other two-thirds of the fee).
After graduating from Sharkey's, Zenk debuted in January 1984 in Skip Sponsel's short-lived promotion, USA Pro. USA Pro had been set up to provide wrestling cards to regions of the upper Mid West that had been largely neglected by AWA. At the time, the US was divided into distinct wrestling territories with the general understanding that no-one worked another promoter's territory. USA Pro were operating outside this 'agreement.' and Zenk joined "despite warnings that doing so would severely hurt his future." (Dr Mike's Mondo Wrestling, 1984).
Wrestlers and promoters at USA Pro were soon in dispute over wages and the promotion folded in late April 1984 (go here for the full story).
But Tom was soon on the road again 'following the dream' to Baton Rouge in a Ford Fiesta, where he tried out with Bill Watts' Mid South Wrestling Federation.
In Louisiana he was stiffed by Watts out of his first week's wages. With no money and nowhere to stay, things weren't looking good. 10 days into the tour he was recalled to Minneapolis by a medical emergency in his family. "I said to myself, I'll go home - drive all the way through. I told myself 'you can always get work with Verne.' The next day I went to see Wally Karbo [at AWA]. I was hooked up with Butch Reed for a match the next night".
Around this time, Zenk had his first meeting with Verne Gagne during a visit to Wally Karbo's office.
"Gagne ...walked into Mr. Karbo's office, .... It was the first time I had ever seen him with street clothes on..." (Introducing Tom Zenk, 1984 )
Gagne and Karbo saw immediate potential in the young bodybuilder. Verne was particularly impressed by Zenk's "good attitude." He invited Zenk to his next wrestling camp.
"When I first got there, it was so crowded you couldn't move an inch without bumping into someone," Tom recalled, "but by the time we were half-done with the training, the camp was almost empty!" (Heyman, Wrestling Scene, 1985)
According to Heyman -
"This is no exaggeration. Since 1973, only 25% of those enrolled have completed the course at the camp. As one noted ring veteran stated, "When you talk about Verne Gagne's camp, you're talking about the roughest, toughest, most grueling training a wrestler can get anywhere in the world." This is why so few beginners actually make it through the camp. It "weeds out" those who won't make it in the dangerous world of professional wrestling. (Heyman, Wrestling Scene, 1985)
The camps which taught the basic feints, falls and holds of wrestling, were intentionally grueling, as graduates like Ricky Steamboat have attested. Would-be wrestlers were subjected to such intense rigors that only a tiny proportion stayed the course. The stated logic was 'survival of the fittest'. But it could also be a useful way of making money. The fees were collected up-front with few of the hopefuls staying for everything they'd paid for.
In addition to the physical rigors, the camps were intended to test the pliability of potential journeymen.
"It was a tough process," Zenk said. "I was so used to doing things my own way - but Verne convinced me that if I wanted to be a wrestler, I'd have to make some big changes. It was at that point that I was asked for a 100 per cent commitment to wrestling" (Introducing Tom Zenk, 1984 ).
"A 100 per cent commitment to wrestling" involved not just a physical commitment to taking bumps but mental preparation for the humiliation of endless jobbing in preliminaries - the ritual induction into wrestling known as "paying your dues."
Having paid his dues, a journeyman expected, in return, fair treatment from the promoter in the form of frequent bookings and gradual movement up the card with periodic 'pushes'.
But, as Zenk was quick to discover, in the family-run AWA, it wasn't going to be quite as straightforward as that .....
NEXT - "Paying dues"
" Promotions favored 'married and mortgaged' wrestlers..... Whereever they could, they avoided single men (unless already members of their own family), kept them in the lower card (where their defection would go unnoticed) or encouraged them to over-extend themselves financially to ensure continued 'loyalty' on terms dictated by the promoters...." PLUS Zenk's debut matches