We're grateful for the following information from George O'Brien, co-author of Wrestling to Rasslin': Ancient Sport to American Spectacle, who has helped set the record straight. If any one has additional information (ring reports, tapes, photos, or brochures from USA Pro-Wrestling) we've be very pleased to hear from you - email me from here.
Tom Zenk's real ring debut
Tom Zenk's family were from Robbinsdale, a western suburb of Minneapolis. Tom's father was a pharmacist, who owned his own drugstore. Robbinsdale and vicinity were the home to several wrestlers from middle class families. Larry 'the Axe' Hennig and his son Curt, were from Robbinsdale, and Rick (Fliehr) Flair was a surgeon's son who went to a private high school in nearby Hopkins.
This concentration of wrestlers in one area occurred perhaps by chance or perhaps because Ed Sharkey who ran most of the early Verne Gagne (AWA) schools, had his own training school nearby.
Ed seems to have moved his operation about over the years. When I visited his school in November, 1985 it was operating out of an old closed junior high-school in St. Louis Park, another Minneapolis suburb. At that time, he was trying to do some of his own promoting.
Tom Zenk graduated from Robbinsdale High School in 1976, and, I believe studied at either St. Cloud State University or the University of Minnesota for a degree in communications.
He was into bodybuilding and working out and took out the Mr. Minnesota, Mr. Twin Cities and Mr. North Country bodybuilding trophies. He was then trained into the game by Ed Sharkey.
The AWA schools of the time, as described by former champion and AWA promoter Verne Gagne, were "no different than going to college or going to a trade school. There's tuition, and you pay the tuition and you pay half of it up front. And then at the end of the four week period, if we don't think you have a future, we don't encourage you to go on. A lot drop out on their own. It's not what you thought it was. It's too hard" (Interview, Inside Wrestling, October 1986; 40). Tom survived the tuition.
I don't know if Tom had an amateur wrestling background. Most wrestlers in Minnesota college sports come from the high-school ranks. But according to his own account (below), he was small and played soccer in school. Secondly, his routines and moves, don't suggest much or any amateur wrestling background. Depending on the school era, amateur wrestling rewards takedowns and or mat work toward a pin. Tom favored high flying action interspersed with mat work. But, of course, the length of a pro-wrestling bout requires built-in rests and re-coop time. In fact, many if not most professional wrestlers have little or no amateur background.USA Pro-wrestling
Tom got his wrestling start with a new promotion in the winter of 1984 in Minnesota.
At this time, the country was divided into closely regulated wrestling 'territories' with promoters, such as Wally Karbo, jealously guarding their territory against 'outsiders'. However smaller towns and cities were being ignored by the established promoters with local fans receiving only a few cards a year.
A group of nine anonymous Minnesota investors saw a void in the upper midwest as far as wrestling went. Pete Bissonette, a spokesman for the group, and Skip Sponsel, the president had some innovative ideas and were ready to go. The group, known as "USA Pro Wrestling", had leased a ring, sound and light equipment and technicians to run the equipment, motor homes for touring, a PR firm, TV cameramen, and about ten wrestlers who were not under local contract, including several beginners in the game - Tom Zenk, Rick Renslow, and George Wells from the Canadian Football league (see card below).
General poster/brochure for
USA Pro-wrestling cards.
The promoters hoped to use video to market their shows and generate fan turnout. They were first on the local mat scene with laser lights and the loud sound systems that gave showbiz glitter and hype.
The premier tour of USA Pro Wrestling was to be to a circuit of around 32 towns. Everything had been contracted for, including the T-Shirt and Magazine concessions. They were to tour the 32 cities at the rate of 4 a week on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Taping would be done back home in Minneapolis on Mondays.
The circuit was to run 8 weeks and to be repeated 4 times a year. That was the theory.
The young promoters and investors had a pretty good idea. They even hit the towns where matches were to be held and talked at bookstores such as Dalton Books - wasn't that classy? But no one knew the wrestlers yet - a small detail, I guess.
I went to one of the first tour cards in Duluth, Minnesota on 22 February 1984. The crowd was sparse since TV advertising had been almost non-existent. but there were at least 300 present. There were five bouts in all. Quality was fair to middling as the guys were new to the circuit, and most inexperienced and a bit hesitant. But the light and sound show hyped them up.
The USA Pro Wrestling brochure for the show promoted Tom as follows -
Tom Zenk went up against a 'good-old boy' heavy, Bill Ash (5'11"; around 225lbs and about the same age as Zenk). I believe Ash was Tom's opponent in his ring debut earlier in the month. Ash was promoted as a redneck resulting in a classic, Northern vs Southern angle. Though chubbier and smaller than Tom, Ash won through greater ring experience and heel tactics after 18 minutes of a scheduled 20-minute bout.
After the show, I talked with Zenk, Gary Lowler and Todd Cooley as we worked our way out of the arena into a cold Minnesota winter parking lot. The guys needed to eat and get to the motor home for the trip back to the Twin Cities. But they were all upbeat and hoped the promotion would be a success.
I personally saw only two of their cards. I believe that in the short time they were in business, they presented around 6 cards - at least two in the Twin Cities (see the results from a 10 match card at Bloomington, MN on 27 February 1984 below), and some on the road like the Duluth show. And if memory serves, the guys mentioned having been on the road in Iowa. In any case, the leased road vehicles suggest a road show or two.
The second USA Pro Wrestling show I managed to catch was the promotion's last. It was held at the Carlton Supper Club in Minneapolis. The promoters had thought of going the old boxing supper-club route, not too bad an idea - good for the light and sound stuff but noot too good for videoing the show. That card was on March 27, 1984. There were 8 matches on the card; some new wrestlers had been added.
The match largely reprised the themes of the earlier show. George Wells, the new USA Pro heavyweight champ, was smoother and won his match against the same opponent. Tom Zenk had a new import, but the script was the same. Tom lost to the heel at 18 minutes.
USA Pro Wrestling folded right after the March show. The wrestlers who held 30% of the franchise were holding out for more.
When I talked to Pete Bissonette in June, 1984, he said the investors decided to pull the plug at that time, since the pay off was too far ahead and with dissension among the wrestlers, they felt it wasn't worth continuing.
Most of the wrestlers were blackballed in Minnesota for working with another promotion on traditional AWA 'territory'. But Tom Zenk, George Wells and another young Minnesotan, Glenn Lieske went on to the AWA as did Rick Renslow who became another "Alaskan".
George Wells (right) had a good, but fast stint with the WWF. Tom Zenk split from the AWA for the Pacific North West (1985 - 6), then IWA, Montreal, Canada with Rick Martel in 1986 and later, the WWF (1987).
Even at this stage Tom's ring persona seems to have been fixed as a suffering hero -the old Greek "agonia". It plays well with the audience, is followed by a late spurt, only finally to fold as a fallen Icarus.
Some people have argued that Tom never in developed a ring persona, Tom stayed pretty close to his own mood and personality rather than going for something larger-than-life.
As I understand it, developing the persona is as much the wrestler's task as the promoter's. Most guys in the game I have talked with, say that they make suggestions, receive them, and then see how the bigger-than-life role works in the ring.
So it's probable he was happy with his established persona for as long as it worked for him. Certainly he didn't follow his former partners (Martel, Pillman, Gunn, Bagwell) in making dramatic character transitions in search of popularity.
Overall, his approach to the game appears to have been pretty easy going and when WCW dumped on him, he doesn't seem to have been prepared to hang in whatever the cost.
Ultimately this, and an occasional stiffness (as though caught between pro script/routine and real shooting), didn't help his wrestling career.
Tom's flash, skill, tenacity - what we all miss about him - never quite transcended this somewhat hesitant persona. But I'm not sure if that wasn't part of his great appeal or that we would have wanted it any other way.
Results of an early 1984 USA Pro Wrestling card
Todd Cooley beat Rick Renslow
This is what we know so far, courtesy of Brian Westcott's Wrestling Archives. We appreciate any further information you may have on the men who were part of this USA Pro tour - email us from here
As noted above, most of the wrestlers were blackballed in Minnesota for working with another (non-AWA) promotion and left the State for other territories. But Tom Zenk, George Wells and another young Minnesotan, Glenn Lieske went on to the AWA as did Rick Renslow who became another "Alaskan".
Mike George - a seasoned veteran from Kansas City captuured many titles before retiring, including the NWA Central States Tag Team Title - (8 times); Kansas City: NWA Central States Title - (4 times); Louisiana/Oklahoma: United States Tag Team Title; Louisiana: Mid-South Louisiana Title; Louisiana/Oklahoma: Mid-South North American Title; Louisiana/Oklahoma: Mid-South Tag Team Title; Mississippi: Mid-South Mississippi Title - (2); Tulsa: NWA Tri-State Title; Kansas City: Central States TV Title - (2); Kansas City: WWA Title - (2); Missouri: MWF Title.
Tommy Gilbert - probably the father of Eddie Gilbert - iff so, he retired shortly after this promotion, to become a referee with UWF.
Jerry Valiant/Guy Mitchell (Jerry Heenan) - another seasoned wrestler who held the Australia: IWA Title; Vancouver: Pacific Coast Title (4 times); Indianapolis: WWA Title; WWF World Tag Team Title; Indianapolis: WWA Tag Team Title (2 times); and Kansas City: NWA Central States Tag Team Title.
George Wells - according to Dave Meltzer's The Wrestlingg Observer's Who's Who in Pro Wrestling. George Wells (6'1", 245) Age: 49 Hometown: Oakland, CA Years Pro: 13 (in 1986) "An outstanding athlete who never made it in pro wrestling because of out-of-the-ring problems. . . Played college football at New Mexico State University and Chabot College in Hayward, California. . . Also wrestled as a heavyweight in college and did well in many AAU national tournaments. . . Went into Canadian football with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Rough Riders as a defensive end, earning all-pro honors twice during a nine year career. . . Started wrestling in the off-season in 1974 and became a full-time grappler in 1980. . . Did well in several areas, but had problems showing up for his matches and was basically trudging along in the smallest of groups when Bill Watts turned him into Master G and tried to make him a superstar in 1984. . . Wells blew that gig as well, and went to Titan Sports, where his problems were overlooked. . . Has mainly worked in prelims without getting a push with Titan." "An outstanding athlete who simply blew a great pro career. . . Weak on interviews. . . Fantastic agility for one so large. . . Just going through the motions now and no longer a good worker, but has the potential to have good matches when he wants to."
Tom Zenk -
joined went to work very briefly in Bill Watts Mid
South until his father's illness forced a return to Minneapolois, where
joined the AWA, leaving shortly afterwards for the Pacific North West
(1985 - 6), commencing a long period of nomadism before settling, finally,
in NWA/WCW (1989) and achieving national recognition.
Morton, G., and O'Brien, G., Wrestling to Rasslin: Ancient Sport to American Spectacle, Popular Culture Press, Bowling Green University, Bowling Green, 43403 Ohio. ISBN: 0-87972-324-6 available from Amazon.com