Given the way that Tom Zenk and Rick Martel's ring careers criss-crossed each other from 1984 to 1987, it's impossible to ignore Rick Martel's recently announced retirement from wrestling.
All the more so since the occasion has been used by Martel's allies to renew the attack on Martel's former tag partner Tom Zenk.
The Jackyl ('mastermind' of WWF's 'Parade of Oddities') and former tag partner of Rick Martel has devoted his past weekend's column in the Winnipeg Sun newspaper to a chronicle of Martel's career. In his column The Jackyl (real name Don Callis) credits Martel with helping him reach the "heights" he has attained today in the WWF.
The column includes references to the break up of the Can-Am Connection. The WWF Jackyl writes -
"Zenk fell into the worst trap a wrestler can succumb to--he believed his own hype. Poor Rick, the consummate professional, found himself dealing with a spoiled brat, and despite the efforts to salvage the team, which would have gone on to do huge business, Zenk was soon gone and Rick was left without a partner. A team with Tito Santana followed, as did another world tag title, but they didn't have the magic that the Martel-Zenk team had and their run on top was brief." (quoted in issue #507, August 15, 1998 of The Pro Wrestling Torch).
Earlier this year, we wondered aloud on Martel's possible motivation in constantly re-igniting bitterness over a failed business partnership of eleven (11) years ago. That was after Martel had used an extensive interview with the on-line Canadian Slam-Wrestling (April 2, 1998) to launch a sustained attack on Zenk over his defection from the Can-Am in 1987.
We speculated that Martel's motivation arose from the frustration of his plans to use the younger Tom Zenk to revive his own flagging ring career in 1987. As Wrestling Eye observed in 1987 -
For Rick Martel, [Zenk] was like a dream come true. Since he dropped the AWA heavyweight title to Stan Hansen, Martel's career had definitely taken a nose dive.
But within months of Martel's teaming with Zenk, the duo were playing to wrestling's biggest ever audience and to America's biggest indoor crowd - the 93,173 fans crammed into the Pontiac Silverdome for Wrestlemania III (March, 1987); an event simultaneously viewed around the world on closed-circuit broadcasts and pay- per view television.
Writing at the time Liz Hunter wondered - "The sudden appeal of Martel is somewhat surprising because he is no newcomer to wrestling." Hunter attributed Martel's new appeal to rejuvenation through association with the exuberant Tom Zenk.
Zenk, a mere baby by wrestling standards, is only getting better. Martel renewed by his partner's exuberance, is on the top of his game. "I don't think I've ever seen Rick look better", said former partner Tony Garea. "His drop-kicks, his execution is just perfect. I remember when we were a team, we were pretty tough to beat and Rick just couldn't wait to get into the ring every night. I think he looks at Zenk like a teacher looks at his star pupil and it excites him to think about what they can accomplish together. Rick and Tom can go very far (Liz Hunter, PWI, June 1987).
At Wrestlemania III, Tom and Rick "entered the ring to a thunderous ovation" and left it with their reputations "solidified... as the up-and-coming tag team in the WWF". Having achieved ring credibility and fan popularity the Can-Am Connection was by mid 1987 booked to win the WWF world tag team belts from the Hart Foundation (Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart).
Suddenly, on July 10 1987, Zenk pulled the pin on Martel's ambitions.
Martel's career barely recovered, despite WWF's drafting Tito Santana to replace Zenk and Can-Am's reinvention as Strike Force. According to Zenk "the Strike Force took up where we left off, and won the tag belts". But as Martel, Zenk and the Jackyl all acknowledge, the team of Martel-Santana "didn't have the magic that the Martel-Zenk team had and their run on top was brief".
Martel saw out his time in WWF as "The Model" - a camp and entertaining but invariably jobbing ring villain. As Bobby Heenan cruelly but perceptively remarked - without Zenk " I guess Martel's just the CAN now!"
After several years in Winnipeg independents (where he wrestled solo and tag, with and against 'The Jackyl' Don Callis), Martel returned to WCW in mid 1997, holding the WCW TV title for a brief spell before incurring the injuries that have now apparently led to his retirement.*
MARTEL - CAREER HIGHLIGHTS If the break up of the Can-Am Connection was a low point in Martel's career, the high point was undoubtedly his reign as AWA World Heavyweight Champion from May 13, 1984 - December 29, 1985. Canadian Slam Wrestling notes of Rick Martel (real name Richard Vigneault),
He was a strange choice in some ways to be AWA heavyweight of the world. That crown should have been Hogan's. Hogan had feuded extensively with then-champ Nick Bockwinkel and was poised to win the title before he jumped to the WWF. Instead, the title passed from Bockwinkel to Jumbo Tsuruta and then from Tsuruta to Rick Martel on May 13, 1984. Martel was a veteran by that point in his career, yet not that old. He knew his way around in the ring but didn't have that magic star-power that sets superstars apart from the rank and file. He was a clean-cut Canadian boy from Quebec who had paid his dues and made it to the top through hard work and perseverance.
Martel comes from a wrestling family. His brother, Mad Dog Martel, was instrumental in getting Rick into the business. Martel explained his start in a 1996 on-line interview with AOL: "I got my start in Nova Scotia. There was a wrestler that got injured one night and they needed a replacement for him within 24 hours. So, my brother called me up and told me to get on a plane from Quebec to Nova Scotia and he told me I was starting as a professional wrestler. I was only 17 years old." He was quick to gain success. Martel won the British Empire/Commonwealth title in New Zealand on three occasions from 1977-1980. He's held the WWF tag team titles on three occasions --twice with partner Tony Garea and once with Tito Santana as Strike Force. Martel would also have likely won the titles with partner Tom Zenk as the Can-Am Connection if Zenk hadn't bailed out on him.
THE CAN-AM SPLIT
Martel and Zenk's paths first crossed in the AWA in 1984. After his loss of the AWA title in late 1985, Martel traveled to the PNW where Zenk was reigning heavyweight champion. Both men then headed north to Montreal to work much of 1986 in Gino Brito's International Wrestling Association (IWA). After a try out in a lucrative tag tournament in Japan in late 1986 - where the lines of the Can-Am Connection were finally forged - Zenk and Martel moved to the WWF, achieving immediate rating among the world's top ten tag teams (December, 1986). By the spring of 1987 the Can-Am Connection was No 1 contender for the World Tag Team Titles then held by the Hart Foundation.
Why the Can-Am Connection suddenly imploded is one of wrestling's mysteries and the subject of much speculation. Currently we only know the detail of Rick Martel's side of the story. And that version is tainted by its origins in WWF storylines, hastily devised to "write" Zenk out of their 1987 season.
Since Tom Zenk has never sought to give his side, perhaps feeling that there's nothing to explain, the truth may never be known.
For those of us still happy to idly speculate on the issue without much objective information - possible explanations of the break up include the following.
There is some evidence that Zenk, initially, sought to emulate Martel's career path and may have sought a mentor in the older and more experienced wrestler. He certainly considered Martel, at that time, a more skilled wrestler - " better than I'll ever be" (Martel had 15 years ring experience compared to Zenk's 3 years). But Zenk has also hinted in interviews that, working closely with Martel, both in IWA and in WWF, proved difficult and his former admiration turned to disillusionment at being treated as a 'junior partner' and generally being pre-empted by Martel; "I told Rick it wasn't working. He was constantly trying to overshadow me." In another interview Zenk spoke of the importance of regaining control from Martel - "I was the student and Rick was the teacher, I'll admit that. When I broke it off with Rick, I felt for the first time I was really on my own. SInce then I've done things for my career that I, and only I, thought were right. That's a real turning point" (Sports Review Wrestling, May 1991).
Zenk has indicated to one interviewer that another significant reason for the split was a difference between the two men over the terms of their contract with WWF. According to Zenk - "To be totally honest, it was nothing sleazy or scandalous. It was a money dispute. I felt that I was being shafted. The WWF was making good money off of me but my payoff wasn't that great. I talked to Rick about it, since he was supposed to be handling the business end of the deal, but he didn't do anything about it. He just kept telling me to hang in for a few years, make some money and THEN leave. I finally got ticked off. I don't like being used. So on July 10th of last year, in Boston, I dropped off a note to Rick and the keys to our rental car at our hotel's reception desk and left." (Wrestling Fury, June 1988).
The Jackyl's comments - that Zenk came to "believe his own hype" - might thus be re-construed to mean that Zenk had come to value himself equally alongside Martel. On the other hand, the WWF contract is said to have favored Martel financially over Zenk. Zenk sought a better return on his work from WWF. Martel, the team's business manager, wasn't prepared to renegotiate their contract - Zenk refused to continue the 'partnership' on these unequal terms and left - "I'm going to wrestle on my own terms now."
Complicating this is the clear undercurrent in Zenk's career that independence and integrity counted for a great deal more than money - leading to speculation that Zenk had been placed in an impossible position by sleazy behavior from some of the WWF booking and ring staff. According to Steve Keirn, Tom found himself in WWF with only one choice "Zenk wanted to be seen as a serious wrestler and these rumors would make him lose his reputation in the sport. Tom stood up for what he believed in. He walked out on money for integrity". Zenk himself has discounted the 'sleazy and scandalous' stories while acknowledging - in evidence before the McMahon trial (1994) - that episodes of harassment had occurred in the WWF.
Money considerations alone could not have been Zenk's sole motivation for the split since the financial costs of his walk out proved considerable. Not only did he lose a lucrative salary but WWF attempted to put a levy on his subsequent earnings. "I was served papers for breach of contract. The action was settled out of court but I'm really not free to discuss it." Moreover as subsequent events proved, the break with WWF had the long term effect of reducing Zenk's financial leverage with other federations (after AWA's demise). Zenk could no longer follow the well worn path between WWF and WCW in an effort to improve his contract conditions. After 1989, his ring future lay entirely in the hands of WCW management, and as time was to show, WCW turned out to be poor managers of his talent.
Overall, concern for personal gain seems to have been secondary to ideas of what constituted a "fair deal" between wrestlers and promoters. Zenk, at the time, was a strong advocate of group insurance and unionization for wrestlers. "Well, you know how I feel about all that. Like I've said before, in this business, the promoter is the pimp and the wrestler the whore. The boys have no rights. Not only that but, depending on the original contract you sign, you may not take anything off photo sessions, dolls, T-shirts, etc. All the revenues from Can-Am merchandise would have gone to McMahon. There should always be a percentage for the boys. After all, the promotion is capitalizing on their face/image." At the same time Zenk acknowledged the near impossibility of ever organizing "the boys" against the intimidatory tactics of promoters.
A 'SPOILED BRAT' WHO 'BELIEVED HIS OWN HYPE' ? On July 10, 1987, the WWF having scripted Can-Am to win the tag titles, were suddenly forced to explain away Zenk's defection. They attempted to do so by portraying him variously as "a cowering idiot" who'd fled WWF rather than face Bobby Heenan and "The Islanders"; or as having retired completely from wrestling because it had become all "too hard". Different angles on where he had gone and why he had left, were churned out by the WWF writers, ranging from his supposed general lack of wrestling skill to various aspersions on his personal and moral character. Martel ran with all these angles and as recently as April, 1998 was still attributing Zenk's departure from Can-Am in terms of supposed "character flaws" - including an unwillingness to respond to the work-rate, the large crowds, and the stresses of performance experienced at top levels of the sport.
Others wrestlers like Steve Keirn reject this. "There was never anything wrong with Zenk's work - no character flaws except a natural cockiness." According to Keirn, Zenk's problems in the sport arose from both harassment by bookers and from " telling it as it was- he wouldn't do what the bookers wanted and if he was forced - then it showed in his face and in his attitude and in his performance."
Tito Santana, who replaced Zenk as Martel's partner, agrees - "Zenk had it all (looks, talent, charisma) and could have been the longest-lasting wrestler, and have it all on a silver platter .... if he'd towed the booker's line."
Instead Zenk held out for a fair return from his work. It is this advocacy of a basic principle that the Jackyl chooses to describe as the tantrums of a 'spoiled brat'.
If Zenk felt his value to Can-Am was undervalued by Martel, the truth of this became clear with his departure. Martel and WWF were suddenly left with more than their fair share of nothing. The consequence, according to a friend of Martel's was - ""The break-up seriously damaged Rick's earning potential. Rick saw Tom as his key to the money jar. And [after Zenk's departure] Rick's earning potential never met what it would have had Tom stayed".
Whatever, finally, were the reasons for the Can-Am split - and they must have been complex to excite such long standing passions on Martel's side - they are incapable of encapsulation in The Jackyl's glib characterization of Zenk as a "spoiled brat" who "believed his own hype".
The evidence appears to be that Zenk quickly put the episode behind him after settling with WWF's lawyers. This is consistent with his general attitude that people individually make their own fate. Perhaps Martel, now exiting the ring, can also, finally, put the episode behind him.
That would be preferable to his continued use of Zenk as scapegoat for his own career disappointments. There is, after all, a great deal in Martel's career to look back favorably on.
* The August 17, 1998 issue of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter sheds further light on the relationship between Martel and Jackyl. "Martel had left mainstream wrestling for several years before deciding to return due to the current boom period in January 1997. He had wrestled on Winnipeg indies and some overseas tours with and against Don Callis (WWF Jackyl) and later formed a tag team with him in Eastern Canada to tune up for a spot that they originally planned to start late last year in the WWF. However, after the two had reached an agreement to go to WWF and he had been sent a contract, before signing, Martel had second thoughts about the direction of the WWF and began talking with WCW as well. Martel made the decision to go with a better money offer for a two-year deal from WCW last September. Callis, who was also offered a spot in WCW but not as a tag team with Martel, decided WWF would better fit his career since it's generally the better place to make a name, and the two split up amicably"
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