By early 1985, Zenk was receiving national attention as "one of wrestling's brightest up-and-coming stars." (Wrestling Scene, 1985). He visited Studio 54 in New York for a series of publicity shots organized by Paul Heyman including several with then current personality Shaun Kovell.
He was featured prominently in a number of major wrestling magazines, including a feature by Heyman "How Gagne Put Some Flex Into Tom Zenk's Muscle-bound Physique" in Wrestling Scene (early 1985).
Reports included this imaginative though entirely fictitious account of Zenk living in an apartment in Minneapolis, "his first flat, not-far-away from his family home in the suburban hamlet of Robbinsdale, Minnesota."
"Zenk walks by a wall of photos that chronicle his athletic career. There's a photo of his wrestling team at the University of Minnesota, there are a series of photos commemorating his Mr Minnesota, Mr Twin Cities, and Mr North Country bodybuilding championships. There's a photo of Zenk with nine-time AWA World champion Verne Gagne and St. Paul promoter Wally Karbo. And there's one more photo of Zenk, a shot of him backdropping Jimmy Doo, taken during his first professional match at La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Zenk walks into his living room and sits down on his couch, which converts into a bed at night. He has a bedroom but it's currently inhabited by a weightlifting bench, a rowing machine, a stationary bicycle, and a number of barbells and dumbbells. He has traded a bit of the muscle that won him his many bodybuilding titles for an increase in cardiovascular capacity" (Introducing Tom Zenk, 1984).
AWA Heavyweight Champ Ric Martel and Dino Bravo with Ken Resnick
In the early 1980s, it was usual for wrestlers to move between territories, generally on a 3-month rotation. This increased the variety of talent working a promoter's card and allowed young workers opportunities to deepen their experience and explore opportunities in different promotions. Zenk's work with AWA had taken him regularly to Canada during 1984 - 5 (see results Manitoba, Canada). In the summer of 1985, following an appearance on the first ever pro wrestling broadcast on ESPN, Zenk headed back to Canada for a three month tour with Frank Valois' Montreal promotion, Canadian Wrestling Alliance.
Heyman reported "One of the many men who have been following the career of this young fan favorite is Montreal promoter Frank Valois, who recently signed Zenk to wrestle in the beautiful Canadian city starting in late June . "In Tom Zenk I see one of the finest youngsters in wrestling today," Valois noted, "and we have some great young wrestlers here in Montreal, such as The Rougeau Brothers, Rocky Della Serra and Gino Brito Junior."
Tom admits that he was at first hesitant about signing to appear in Montreal.
"My immediate goal in the AWA is to break into the top ten contenders list, and I thought I'd ruin any chance of that by going to Montreal."But when Tom learned from promoter Valois that the Canadian Wrestling Alliance (the governing body in Montreal) is affiliated with AWA, he agreed to change his home base. "Rick Martel defends his belt up there all the time," Tom said, "and the Road Warriors have defended their belts there several times, so I'll be able to get my title shot when I'm ready!"
One title for which Tom hopes to contend is the prestigious Canadian-International Heavyweight Championship, which as of press time, is still being held up due to the brutal series of matches which took place between champion King Tonga and former champion Dino Bravo. "I've met Dino Bravo at a few of the Pro Wrestling USA TV tapings, " Tom said, "and he told me that maybe we could get together for some work-outs when I came to Montreal!" (Heyman, Wrestling Scene, 1985).
On September 9, 1985 at the end of the Montreal tour, Zenk appeared at the Winnipeg Arena teaming with Hennig against The Long Riders (Bill and Scott Irwin) in an Appreciation Night for promoter Wally Karbo - click for program. A few weeks later, he was back in Minneapolis. Montreal had turned out to be an ill-paid tour (about $300 Canadian per week) and Zenk was happy to be back in the better paid Gagne promotion.
"THE YOUNG LIONS OF THE A.W.A."
Verne Gagne's Pro-Wrestling Report, Nol 1, No 11 c. 1984 gives front page coverage to "The Young Lions" of the AWA while an article by Larry Cranston predicts they will be "the superstars of tomorrow." Gagne claimed to recognize that "the backbone of any sport is the younger athletes ...coming into their prime."
Back in the AWA, Zenk was booked with partner Curt Hennig to 'go after' the Road Warriors in a program on Pro Wrestling USA.
" I'll tell you, so far the toughest match I've been in has been against the Road Warriors, " he admitted. "Curt Hennig and I took them on one night, and I'll never forget the beating we took. They are absolutely awesome. All those terrible things you hear about them are true. I came out of the ring with more bruises and bumps than in any other match."
"The trouble with me wrestling the Warriors is that I have a lot of trouble getting aggressive. I've always learned to follow the rules in any sport I've participated in, be it football or baseball or wrestling. When you wrestle a guy like Jimmy Garvin, who's so good at hiding the illegal tactics from the referee, you really get hurt if you can't fight back. One thing I have to learn is that in the pros, you have to bend the rules to win sometimes." (Introducing Tom Zenk)
By mid 1985, Zenk had been working 15 or more months in preliminaries and could reasonably expect a push from Gagne. According to O'Brien, writing of the mid 1980s -"Wrestlers are hired on by oral agreement to work an area for a set time - initially usually three months. A promoter, typically, guarantees the newcomer to his territory ....a chance to develop a following in the region booked out of the franchise city. Wrestlers often sign contracts for specific matches but not general employment agreements. ...."In the trade a match is discussed in terms of so many changes, or exchanges of holds. A promoter asks the wrestler for so many 'exchanges' for a given time. As to who wins - that depends on the local conditions. Whatever will draw the best crowd for next week will be the deciding factor." (Morton and O"Brien, 1985; 69).
But as Hogan had already discovered, much of AWA's booking was designed to push the Gagne's, their in-laws and close family friends - even at the expense of house sizes. Despite Zenk's growing popularity both in singles and tagging with Curt Hennig, the big push didn't come - the top 'baby face' spot in AWA having been reserved for Verne's son Greg. As Zenk's popularity grew, Greg moved in to steal his spot, booking Zenk to 'a career threatening injury' at the hands of Ray 'Crippler' Stevens.
Resnick, Hennig (left) and Greg Gagne (center right)
Greg Gagne - "If they want to step in the ring with Curt and myself, we'll take them on ...right now!!"
With Zenk 'forced out of competition' (i.e. out of work!), Gagne teamed with Hennig, in a feud with Zbyszko, Stevens and Bockwinkel designed to win popularity for Gagne by 'avenging' Zenk's injury.
||For Zenk, it was time to leave 'Gagne town' if he was going to progress beyond preliminaries. During a meeting with 'Black'Jack Lanza (left) and Greg Gagne. Greg reassured Zenk that there would always be work for him at AWA. At the same time, he noticed Lanza 'giving the finger' to Gagne from behind his briefcase. Zenk took the hint. On Curt Hennig's recommendation he went to work for Don Owen in Pacific North West. He quickly found himself with nightly bookings and a mega-push from Owen.|
The American Wrestling Association in 1984/5
In early 1984, AWA was a thriving federation comprising much of wrestling's major talent. The major cities and promoters included Denver (Gene Reed), Milwaukee (Dennis Hilgart), Chicago (Verne Gagne), San Francisco (Leo Nomellini), Winnipeg (Don Brinton) and Minneapolis-St Paul (Wally Karbo). Cards were offered on a less regular basis in smaller centers, particularly in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. In the same year the WWA promotion based in Indianapolis, Indiana merged with the AWA.
Nick Bockwinkel was reigning AWA Champion (managed by Bobby "The Brain" Heenan). Bockwinkel had in recent times defeated Mr. Saito, Jesse Ventura and Rick Martel in title challenges but was coming to the end of his championship reign. On February 23, 1984 he lost the title to Jumbo Tsuruta in Tokyo. Tsuruta in turn lost the title to Rick Martel (St. Paul Civic Center, Minnesota, May 13, 1984). Steve Regal was, at the time, AWA light heavyweight champion.
Also appearing on AWA circuits at this time were, Dick the Bruiser, Craig Carson, Scott Irwin, Sheik Adnan El Kaissey, Rick Steiner, Roger Kirby, "Steve O" [Steve Olsonoski], Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, Rick Renslow, Billy Robinson, Wilbur Snyder, Larry Hennig, Chris Markoff, Brad Rheingans, "Mad Dog" Vachon, Natcho Verrera, Baron von Raschke, Woody Wilson, "Rock'n'Roll" Buck Zumhoff and Larry Zbyszko.
In the mid America AWA rings "The Fabulous Ones" (Steve Keirn and Stan Lane ) were engaged in a wild vendetta with "The Zambuie Express" (managed by JJ Dillon). Jimmy Hart was managing Joe Le Duc, "Killer" Karl Krupp, Sabu and "The Bruise Brothers". Hart's newest protégé was Ric Rude (formerly Rick Rood) and his valet Angel. Also appearing in AWA's Mid America rings were The Rock'n' Roll Express (Robert Gibson and Rick Martin), Sabu, "The Jaguar", Randy Savage, Terry Taylor, "The A-Team", Art Crews, Terry Gibbs, Angelo Poffo, Tommy Gilbert and Eddie Gilbert - and the young Tom Zenk.
On the tag scene, the reigning Tag Champions at the time of Zenk's debut were "The Sheiks" (Jerry Blackwell and Ken Patera) who were feuding with "The High Flyers" - Greg Gagne and Jim Brunzell. The AWA tag scene also included The Road Warriors (Animal and Hawk) - who subsequently took the title from von Raschke and Blackwell (August 25, 1984), "The Fabulous Ones" (Steve Keirn and Stan Lane) and "The Freebirds" - various combinations of Buddy Roberts, Michael Hayes and Terry Gordy. A new tag team, "The East West Connection," (comprising Mr. Saito and Jesse Ventura) had formed to challenge "The Sheiks" for the tag title. Blackjack Mulligan had returned to the AWA and joined his old friend Blackjack Lanza ("The Black Jacks") to knock off the Sheiks. Abdullah the Butcher and King Kong Bundy were another new combination under the management of Sheik Adnan El Kaissey.
Nationally the "top twenty" wrestlers of Tom Zenk's debut year included Nick Bockwinkel (AWA Champion), Hulk Hogan (WWF Champion), Ric Flair (NWA World Champion), Carlos Colon (Universal Champion), Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes, Ted Dibiase, Paul Orndorff, Bob Backlund, Stan Hansen, Billy Jack Haynes, Kerry and Kevin Von Erich, Ken Patera, Curt Hennig, and Jack and Jerry Brisco.