Between 'Rock' and a Hard Place
Zenk and Pillman vs The 'Ole Brigade'
 
Tom Zenk debuts in NWA at Fall Brawl '89 - "despite all the promises - those further down the line at NWA had no real plans for Zenk... there was no gimmick, no costume...they just had him show up in white trunks with no build up."

 

The best 'gimmick' the NWA could come up with was to debut him as "The Zodiac Man"  a caped crusader throwing star-signs to the audience in much the same way as "The Candyman" later distributed candies. Zenk quickly vetoed the idea. He debuted instead as 'The Z-Man' with no costume  - just plain white trunks.  For his debut, 9/12/89  at NWA's Clash of Champions ("Fall Brawl '89") Colombia, SC, Zenk was booked against The Cuban Assassin, David Sierra. Zenk regarded the debut as essentially a 'dud match.' Sierra called the match but didn't do much calling or flying around. As Dave Meltzer observed at the time - "Nobody 'knew' Z-Man and he just showed up out of nowhere with no build up" Things were made worse when Ross and Cornette pulled a "Who is he routine?"  in their commentary. Since a great number of people recognized Zenk, this was simply insulting the fans. For Meltzer "It was too routine a performance for a debut match ... Zenk has the potential to be a star here, but only if he's spectacular in the ring." Despite all their promises, the NWA had done nothing to provide Zenk with an auspicious beginning in the promotion.
 
Things began to improve  in January 1990 following a reshuffle of the booking committee.The new committee, which operated from January to March 1990, comprised Jim Ross, Kevin Sullivan, Ric Flair, Terry Funk and Jim Cornette. Ole Anderson was out, and Jim Herd and Jim Barnett were no longer taking as active a role in booking decisions. The power now lay with Flair, Cornette and Sullivan in terms of putting matches together, with Ross and Funk in production of the TBS and syndicated television shows respectively (WON 2/1/90).

In December 1989, Flair had seen the potential of teaming Zenk and Pillman and while Flair was chief booker 'The Z-man and Flyin' Brian' received a solid push. By late January The Wrestling Observer Newsletter  (1/22/90) was reporting "Zenk and Pillman are looking way better as a team than anyone expected.... Rock'n Roll aren't going to cut it this time around. Zenk and Pillman fit the same niche and are younger, fresher looking and tons better in the ring to the fans."

After several months of build up, Tom Zenk and Brian Pillman won the finals of an 8-team tournament, on 2/12/90, to become the United States Tag Team Champions.

Meanwhile Flair, who now dominated the booking committee, was using his position to push himself with matches over the younger talent.

In late January, early February, Zenk was booked for two matches against Flair. In the first (in Greensville, 1/23) Zenk outshone an old and lackluster Flair. After a confusing start, with both men playing face, the crowd was backing Zenk. Apparently frustrated and seeking crowd support, Flair backed Zenk into the turnbuckle for a series of trade mark slaps to the chest. These were delivered so stiffly that they cut Zenk's chest and drew blood. Out of character, Flair turned heel, using Zenk's trunks to reverse a cradle for the pin. In their second match (2/4 Texas) Flair played heel from the start and called the match. The two men never met in singles ring action again.  On 2/17 Flair booked himself to win over the smaller Pillman. Pillman, as Flair's protege and always anxious to please, worked more actively than the independent  Zenk to put Flair across.  As a consequence of their performances both Zenk and Pillman became the top candidates for the Fourth Horseman spot (WON 3/5/90) though Flair favored Pillman as the smaller, more pliable man.
 

By this time, Flair was under increasingly heavy criticism for booking matches to make himself look good. The practice was beginning to cause morale problems among the rest of the workers.  The Observer, generally sympathetic to Flair, noted - "Part of the problem from [the] management side is that the [booking] committee all consists of active performers and the ego problems are another can of worms. ...Let's just say for example that the booker of the NWA [i.e., Ric Flair] was also potentially its biggest drawing card ....and he pushed himself. Those underneath...will still complain and point out the weaknesses. Then you have a management that joins in and yet the guy is still being pushed as the top guy while everyone tries to shoot him down." (WON 2/26/90).

In response to increasing criticism, Flair resigned as NWA booker in the first week of March.  Jim Herd and Jim Barnett began to take a more active role in booking decisions.

Meanwhile, The Z-Man and Flyin' Brian had been generating considerable heat across the country defending the US Tag Team Titles against the Freebirds and later the Midnight Express (Stan Lane and Bobby Eaton).  Zenk and Pillman actively sought more work with the Midnights since it was readily acknowledged that Bobby Eaton was among the best workers in the circuit. However the Midnights and their 'manger' Jim Cornette were already struggling to save their spots within the organization.

The heat in a  feud being developed between Zenk, Pillman and the Midnights increased markedly following a match on 2/28 in Altoona, PA (broadcast on 3/10) when an interesting new twist was introduced. Towards the end of the match, Zenk went for his trade-mark sleeper-hold finisher on Lane. Cornette interfered, hitting Zenk with a 'loaded' tennis racquet. Zenk was thrown from the ring while Lane, Eaton and Cornette triple-teamed Pillman,  'injuring' his throat with the racquet and 'stealing' the tag belts. The fan reaction was enormous.
 
 

 
Ole 'Rock' Anderson replaces Ric 'Eagle Beak' Flair as Chief  booker, May 1990
The JYD, Anderson's top new babyface has no problems getting booked with Flair.

 

Stepping up the pressure on Zenk and Pillman, Anderson now booked them to drop the US tag belts to the Midnight Express at 'Capital Combat', May 19, 1990.  Zenk and Pillman responded by turning in a performance that ranked among the top ten performances of 1990. Their tactic was to make it glaringly obvious to everyone, through their perfromance, what was going on in the NWA.

The Observer reported - "Midnight Express won the US Tag team titles from Tom Zenk and Brian Pillman in 20.19. Jim Cornette was placed in a cage at ringside ...Pillman's chest was all bruised up before the match even started courtesy of working most of the past week with Flair. Good fast action all the way. In some spots the guys seemed slightly flat, I would guess because of the heat [no air conditioning]. Still, it was the best match on the card. Zenk and Pillman did most of their best moves early. Midnights gained control when Pillman missed a tackle at the 10 minute mark and they worked him over for most of the rest of the way. ... Midnights did their usual hot moves, including two or three new ones while working Pillman over. The hot tag to Zenk was the biggest pop live of the entire night. After Zenk kicked out of the rocket launcher and Eaton missed a tackle into the corner, Zenk put the sleeper on. It turned into a four-way and Lane gave Zenk an enzuiguiri (karate kick to the back of the head, although it looked more like the upper back) and Eaton cradled Zenk for the win  [*** and three quarters.] "

Within weeks, despite their good showing,  the highly successful tag team of "The Z-Man and Flyin' Brian" had been disbanded by Anderson while Morton and Gibson were being pushed in their place.

 
 

 

 
With Anderson's intentions now clear and Zenk refusing to quit ('until hell freezes over') Anderson began jobbing him out to an endless succession of 'hot heels' (Vader, Hansen, Vicious, Callas, etc).  The Observer  reported (6/25/90) that "Morale is pretty bad because everyone is so unsure of what their spot is." By June, Pillman - despite his friendship with Flair - had joined Zenk in jobbing to Callas, Vicious and others.

Zenk and Pillman were now receiving dramatically less push than the veteran Tommy Rich though "the fans have been rejecting Rich since his return last summer.' The Observer (6/4/90) reported that there "appears there will be a renewed push for Tommy Rich, while Tom Zenk, Norman and Cactus Jack don't appear to be seeing a whole lot of push. .... Pillman [is] booked mainly with the Iron Sheik and Mean Mark. That could mean lost in the shuffle but it may mean being shuffled to the bottom of the deck, but [it] doesn't look like he'll be keeping the high face spot either."
 

By mid June, Mick Foley had had enough. The Observer (6/18/1990) reported  "Cactus Jack finished up on Sunday night in Sunrise FL. Ole Anderson was going to job him out so he decided it would be best to quit. It appears both Brian Pillman and Tom Zenk are going to be phased down and out respectively" - with more than a year left to run on their contracts.

Though split up for their next PPV appearance (6/13 Clash of Champions - 'Coastal Crush' - Citadel, Charleston, SC)  Zenk and Pillman continued to put in solid professional performances.   Zenk unexpectedly found himself partnering Mike Rotunda against the Samoans without the benefit of any storyline. Zenk and Rotunda won in 5.27. Dave Meltzer reported -  " Finish saw Rotunda thrown over the top rope behind the ref's back. Fatu then gave Zenk a Samoan drop and splashed onto him off the middle rope. Rotunda then pulled Zenk out of the ring behind the ref and Fatu's back and switched places. When Fatu picked Rotunda up, Rotunda 'surprised' him with a cradle. Good finish."  Pillman was booked against Mean Mark Callas and lost. Having missed a spot he received considerable criticism. The Steiner Brothers,  also under considerable pressure from Anderson, showed the strain and fought openly with him backstage. The Steiners had expected to retain their belts at Clash but were instead booked to lose them to Doom. They rewarded Anderson with a not very clean finish.

After "Coastal Crush" Anderson removed Zenk from the booking schedule for almost a month while hiring two new 'faces' - Tim Horner ('The Star Blazer') and  Brad Armstrong ("The Candyman"). Both these men had worked for Anderson before and were willing to come in at cheaper rates. Anderson told Zenk he had nothing for him, expecting him to 'take the hint.' But it was summer, Zenk had an empty schedule and the checks were still rolling in. So he didn't take the hint. He reportedly told Anderson "Thanks for the time off" and went home to spend June on the sun-deck.

With the alleged no-show, the fine, the engagement of lawyers, the loss of the tag belts, the disbanded tag team, the enforced spell away and a squash to Vader booked for July - this must have been an extremely stressful time. If Zenk had time to reflect on the first two months of Andersons' tenure, it must have been clear what was to come for as long as Anderson was booker  - reduced bookings (Zenk was absent from NWA cards from 6/13 to 7/4) and an increasing number of losses (50% of all matches).

Returning to NWA in July, Zenk hung on despite continuing pressure and harassment from Anderson. He found support among some of the veterans, including Harley Race who told Zenk - following a match where both men had worked to put each other over  - "If you know how to work, they can never kill you off. And kid, you know how to work. Don't ever forget that. Keep taking what you have to take and do what you have to do - but never quit."

"Taking what you have to take" now included being booked to put over Vader at the Great American Bash '90, Baltimore Arena, Baltimore, MA on 7/7. NWA contracts stipulated that all finishes were final. If Zenk refused the match precisely as it had been booked, then Anderson finally had grounds for termination. Zenk took the match and worked to buff his body to make it obvious they were deliberately crushing one of the top babyfaces instead of using a jobber. Wrestlers and smarts, at least, would know what was going on.

The match was scheduled to last just over 5 minutes but after 2 minutes Anderson gave the signal to 'go home.' Again, this was a recognized way for a booker to humiliate a worker by screwing the match. As The Observer reported (box below), with no time for the match to develop, it simply became a squash.

 
Great American Bash '90
 
"NWA contracts stipulated that all finishes are final. If Zenk had refused the match then Anderson finally had grounds for termination."  

Meltzer reported that "Zenk sold his stuff good" despite Anderson cutting the match-time in half.

  

The Wrestling Observer Newsletter reported - "Big Van Vader pinned Tom Zenk in 2:16 with a big splash. There was interest in seeing Vader from the tv clips, and he got a babyface reaction coming down the aisle, especially when the fans saw the headgear blowing steam. Crowd was quiet once the match started because they couldn't work out if Vader was a  face or heel. Zenk sold his stuff good and he did some elbow drops and falling moves that got over because of his weight. But because of the time, this was really just a squash " half *.  

 

Summary
 

In the old-style regional federations, personal 'loyalty' and subservience to the booker/promoter had always been the key to survival. In mid 1990 Anderson was trying  to resuscitate this old-style atmosphere in the NWA stacking it with middle aged wrestlers ('Ole's guys') who had grown up in the old federations, were cheap, expendible and above all knew their place. In this context young wrestlers like Pillman and Zenk, who owed Anderson nothing and hoped to get on through talent and hard work rather than partonage and cronyism, were regarded as 'too independent', 'too expensive', 'troublesome' and even 'rebellious'.

Tom Zenk, after years of hard work and independence, having finally scored one of wrestling's glittering prizes -  a secure two year contract with a six figure salary - now found his career actively and arbitrarily undermined for reasons unrelated to his talent or work rate. It was a stressful time but Zenk struggled to keep the stress out of his ring performance. When things seemed particularly grim he adhered to Harley Race's advice and his own natural instinct to " take what you have to take and do what you have to do - but never quit!"

It goes a long way to explaining Zenk's capacity to withstand Anderson's onslaught (and Anderson's resulting anger and frustration) that Zenk never regarded wrestling as a matter of life or death. If Anderson refused to recognize his talent and instead "beat him like a rented mule"  Zenk was prepared to take it on the chin and smile, as long as the checks kept coming in,  If he needed reassurance about his ring abilities, he could turn to veterans in the business like Race, Herd and Barnett. Or simply listen to the crowd decibels as he entered an arena.  And after the matches there were always the parties. He may not have been NWA's current pushed 'star' but in the bars and at the parties, the crush was always around him and around Pillman -  not Flair, and never Anderson. He and Pillman could still put up more numbers than any of the 'pushed' wrestlers.

There was, after all,  more to life than wrestling.
 

 

Part 2 - Tom Zenk Match History - July to December 1990.
After Ole's sacking, Tom Zenk wins the TV title.
 
 
to the complete Tom Zenk Match History, January - July, 1900
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