by Don Liable, Wrestling World, May 1990
His career was on the upswing. Tom Zenk and partner Rick Martel were a tag-team combination taking the WWF by storm. Zenk and Martel, known as the "Can-Am Connection," were on their way to the tag title. Then, shockingly, Zenk walked away from wrestling. Now Zenk has returned. He has moved to the NWA and is happier than ever. This time Zenk says he's here to stay!
The billing has changed but the package is the same. Tom Zenk has experienced more ups and downs during the past six years than most veterans will in a career. It's been a learning experience for him. Zenk has done some soul-searching, trying to find himself in the highly competitive world of professional wrestling.
Zenk has had the good fortune to be advised by many mat greats of the modern era, giving him an extra advantage against the "cream of the crop" in competition. There has been much to digest on how to further his career. It has taken a few years for him to arrive at a conclusion. But now, all his questions apparently have been cleared up.
Zenk, a native of Minneapolis, has retained and refined the finer points of the grappling game. Observing a match of his today is proof that he is at peace with his current pro surroundings. It's quite evident that the competitive level of the National Wresting Alliance had brought out the best in him. "The Z Man", as Zenk is labeled these days, and the fans have come out a winner with his participation. The "We Wrestle" philosophy of Tom's current employer (NWA) appears tailor made to his style.
Zenk is the first to admit that his past affiliations with various promotions weren't a waste of time: they provided a launching pad that enabled him to reach the NWA.
Always optimistic and planning strategies for future encounters on the canvas, he concentrates on situations in which he has the ability to make a difference. This has allowed him to bounce back quicker and with more vigor than the majority of his fellow pros who tend to be reluctant to clear their minds of defeats and other less than spectacular performances.
When coming into the NWA, Zenk stated that he wasn't setting any specific goals, at least publicly. Most ring veterans concur that his talents in the ring will do all the talking necessary to lead him to his wrestling destiny. "The Z-Man" possesses all the right traits a manger looks for when thinking of signing a wrestler to his stable. Probably most important, he must have his priorities in the right order. Before wrestling cards , it's not unusual to see Zenk working on new holds that several rookies are trying to master. "Making time to benefit others is a practice Tom enjoys," manager Jim Cornette said.
The Z-Man," like most wrestlers, has his eye on the NWA Heavyweight Championship. It's a crusade he has undertaken with mixed emotions. The current NWA champ, "Nature Boy" Ric Flair and "The Z-Man" have enjoyed a close friendship outside of the arena for much of the past half dozen years. Along with the Champ, "Flying" Brian Pillman, "Hotstuff" Eddie Gilbert and "Wildfire" Tommy Rich are also buddies. They are all top contenders who Tom would reluctantly have to go through en route to a showdown with Flair. As a professional, uneasy situations as this do occur, but they are necessary.
Zenk has handled the top challengers in the NWA with great success. "The Z-Man" attributes his winning ways to his past experiences in the American Wrestling Association and the World Wrestling Federation.
After years of opposing may varied styles of wrestlers, and with so many financial options up for grabs with each match, Zenk has adopted the "wait until that bridge is crossed" attitude.
But, "The Z-Man" is now making doubters into believers. Zenk doesn't like to speak of his undefeated streak in the NWA. Some of the more talented personalities have fallen victim to Zenk's finishing sleeper hold. "Wild" Bill Irwin, Mike Rotunda and Norman the Lunatic are all casualties he has claimed.
Of all his opponents, Norman continues to be the most perplexing for Tom to prepare for. One major reason being predictably that the match becomes a two-on-one fiasco, with Theodore R. Long, Norman's childhood friend and manager, sticking in his two cents from his ringside positioning.
When tied up against the ropes or pressed against the turnbuckles by the 300 lb. Norman, Long doesn't have a second thought about slipping in a few kidney punches or applying a choke hold. As much as "The Z-Man" disagrees with the tactics employed by his challenger from the State Hospital, he expresses sympathy and compassion."
He's not your typical wrestler. Norman looks overweight, out of shape, and totally disorganized when he steps into the ring. But with the proper teaching, there's no telling how far he could move up in the rankings. Obviously Norman has been exposed to the amateur wrestling level. Just look at some of the more complex maneuvers he executes when not being scolded by Teddy. Who knows, maybe one day we'll be tag team partners without a manager distracting us", Zenk commented in Rochester, New York's Memorial Auditorium.
Many of Tom's best moves have come at the expense of the Lunatic. He has been cunning enough to avoid getting locked in a bearhug that Long has had his protégé implement to win his matches. Zenk has also been able to dictate the tempo of their clashes. Leaping over the Lunatic's head after springing off the ropes, followed by a flying head scissors and drop-kick has been more than enough to confuse his opponent into positioning for the sleeper.
During a recent NWA tour in New York, on consecutive evenings in Troy and Syracuse, "The Z-Man" defeated Norman and also got in several good licks on Teddy. In Syracuse, Tom jumped out of the ring, risking disqualification, and connected a right fist to Long's jaw. The punch sent Long over the guard railings and into the first row of ringside seating. After that, Long wasn't a factor in the rest of the two matches between them.
"The Z-Man" has dealt with wrestlers as challenging as Norman the Lunatic before. However, he has also weathered many promotional demands as well. What goes on behind locker room doors with matchmakers and event co-ordinators has had much to do with "The Z-Man" maturing in the sport. He began earning his degrees in wrestling with the American Wrestling Association, where, as with the NWA, the emphasis is on the selling of the athlete as well as the skill he possessed, Many fans tabbed him as the next Verne Gagne. That was a tall order to begin a career with. In his early days with the AWA, Tom formed a twosome with Verne's son, Greg Gagne. They did well as a unit. Baron Fritz Von Raschke and Sheik Adnan El Kaissey, two internationally known veterans highly regarded for their ring savvy and savagery, were among the first to fall in defeat to Tom and Greg.
These two wins, more than any other at the time, proved to be confidence builders. Former AWA World Champion, Nick Bockwinkel has high regards for Zenk.
"Tom Zenk is an intelligent, well-rounded athlete who comes along once every decade. Whatever field he chose to enter, he would have scored high marks in, " said Bockwinkel. "He has taken on brawlers, wrestlers with martial arts backgrounds and those acrobatically inclined and not had too many problems. Adaptability has been the key to his winnings. There's no hesitation in Tom's approach, he's got good instincts, that's what separates him from the rest of the pack."
"The Z-Man" first gained national prominence when signing a contract with the World Wrestling Federation. Promoter Vince McMahon immediately aligned Tom with Canadian Rick Martel and labeled them the "Can-Am Connection." The large number of affiliate television stations all across North America in the WWF network turned Tom into a heart-throb women couldn't get enough of.
The cohesiveness between him and Martel as ring partners jelled rapidly. A shot at the tag team championship was imminent. Tom's professional life couldn't have been better; at least from the layman's view.
Then, shockingly, after a match in the Boston Garden, instead of heading on to the destination of his next encounter, Tom Zenk quit the promotion and the sport.
Rumors ran wild upon his departure. To this day, he's never commented beyond stating he was tired of the crazy travel itinerary required when being a member of the WWF family.
'modeling in Minneapolis ... while waiting for his WWF contract to expire'
Leaving on his own, and not being released from his contractual obligations, Tom was not allowed to compete for another outfit unless a percentage of his earnings were turned over to the WWF coffers. During his hiatus from wrestling, he did some modeling in Minneapolis and occasionally competed on an independent wrestling program. Temporarily, the sport lost one of its best stars.
While waiting for his WWF contract to expire, he toured the Orient for All-Japan promotions. The several tours over the past three years have sharpened his skills. Tom has had the opportunity to team with Harley Race and Dusty Rhodes, something U.S. promoters were reluctant to do. Giant Baba, the Japanese equivalent to Bruno Sammartino, stated to the media that Zenk reminded him of the late great Antonio Rocca, but equally as strong in his arms as his legs
Higher television ratings have coincided with Zenk's appearance in the NWA. More fans are tuning into the telecasts since "The Z-Man" arrived on the scene. His training, which consists of four visits to the training center per week, and approaching each match as if it were his last, have made "The Z-Man" the complete package.The Road Warriors and Dynamic Dudes have awakened him to tactics and the need to be on the look out for some awesome soon-to-be challengers - The Freebirds and The Skyscrapers, to name two.
Going into any NWA battle blindly is simply out. Tom has been schooled on the current crop of personnel. No one is trying to change him: only enhance his effectiveness. After all, why tinker with something if it isn't broken.