"Go Northwest, Young Man"
Tom Zenk began his pro-wrestling career in January 1984 in the renegade promotion USA Pro Wrestling. He then worked briefly in Mid South for promoter Bill Watts, before joining AWA in Minneapolis where he gained recognition as a significant new talent.
But before achieving serious star status in the WWF in 1987, Zenk faced two years of ring work in cold gyms, school halls and armories across the north of the US and Canada.
From August to December, 1984 Zenk worked mainly preliminary matches in the AWA but the work was sporadic, around 2 matches a month, supplemented with work as a bouncer in bars around Minneapolis. It was soon apparent that the AWA was Gagne territory with Verne's son, Greg, destined to remain the promotion's top baby face.
"I decided to head up North and try my luck. I went to Canada where the fans named me most improved wrestler of the year in Canada. From Montreal I came to the Northwest and I hope this area will be my big break." (Tom Zenk Interview Wrestling Ringside, No 19, May 1986).
Zenk's tour with Monreal's International Wrestling Alliance had been organized the help of Rick Martel, whom Zenk had met in the AWA in early 1985. The tour lasted four months over summer 1985. During that time Zenk was based in Montreal working for promoter Frank Valois and headlining cards against King Tonga, Jimmy and Ronnie Garvin, Bob Boucher and others. The pay was lousy - $300 - 400 per week compared with the $750 per night paid by Gagne. But he took the tour in the hope of more regular bookings, increased ring experience, and part of the business called 'paying dues.'
Zenk returned to Minneapolis in August 1985 to appear on the first ever pro wrestling program broadcast on ESPN.
Back in the AWA, Zenk was still mainly booked to preliminary matches. And while he was getting wider exposure on televison, he decided to look for main event opportunities elsewhere.
"The Northwest was talked about highly by my former [AWA] partner Curt Hennig. He said that Don Owen is a great promoter and highly respected and recommended" (Wrestling Ringside, No 19, May 1986).
In October 1985, Tom Zenk moved to Portland, Oregon.
Tom Zenk in action, October 1985, Portland Sports Arena against Tim Flowers
Don Owen was rare among promoters - a good payoff guy who sometimes slipped a wrestler $5 over their share of the house for "good attitude." He ran wrestling in the Pacific Northwest, out of the Portland office, with the help of his son Barry Owen (interview link). Meanwhile, Dutch Savage ran the NWA office in Washington State, with main event wrestlers working out of both offices.
After gauging crowd reaction to Zenk, Don decided to give the young wrestler a push. Zenk began appearing weekly on "Portland Wrestling" (KPTV 12 Portland) also known as "Big Time Wrestling" (KTZZ Channel 22, Seattle), at last main eventing with major angles written around him. The show was televised on Saturdays before a paying audience in the 'Portland Sports Arena' and broadcast from 11.00 to 12.30 the same evening with commentary by Don Coss (interview link).
The Portland Sports 'Arena' was a converted bowling alley that could seat about 3,000 fans.
"I remember driving up thinking this can't be right, it's a supermarket! I couldn't believe they'd converted a bowling alley into a sports arena."
With a wrestling ring mounted in the middle, there wasn't much clearance for aerial work, as Zenk recalls -
"Check how far down the lights hang. I was always worried I was going to fry someone when I bodyslammed them".
Tom Zenk and Ricky Vaughn
Zenk's initial matches were singles or partnering PNW Heavyweight Champion Ricky Vaughn (later 'Lance Von Erich') . Shortly into Zenk's tour, Vaughn left for Texas and the PNW Heavyweight title passed to Bobby Jaggers, the federation's top heel. With a heel as champion, the way was clear for a major 'babyface' contender. Enter Tom Zenk....
Zenk gets 'monstered' by the PNW heels - building up heat for the inevitable
confrontation with top heel Bobby Jaggers for the PNW heavyweight title.
Part 2 - "Run-ins and stretcher out"
"Run-ins by Jaggers and Oliver and frequent double teaming meant that Zenk often left the arena on a stretcher, leaving the crowds shocked, angry and ready for more. Match by match the heat was built up for the ultimate show-down between Zenk and Jaggers....."
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
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"TOM ZENK IN THE PACIFIC NORTH WEST"
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