Former WWF/E star Tom Zenk shared a number of details about his career with us in an interview in 2002. His career spanned several promotions and in various different roles. In this very honest interview, Zenk didn’t pull any punches about those he ahs come into the ring with or his interactions outside of them as well. As a time, when honesty is revered the Z-Man discussed the differences between competing in North America and Japan. Tom Zenk also shared his thoughts on the talent of today.
Tom, you gained a huge following in AWA, WWF and WCW and All Japan. How does Tom Zenk think the styles of wrestling have changed over the past 10 to 15 years?
Tom Zenk: I think each new generation develops its own style. But maybe the biggest difference I’ve observed lies in the ability to make it look ‘real.’ When I started out it was arm drags, headlock takeover, head scissors…. and a high spot was a finish. Now high spots are the whole match-high spot, high spot, high spot, high spot ….. If you watch TV there’s really only so much you can follow. I think they have to slow it down and get as much mileage as possible out of the work they do. You want to do the least and get the most out of it – not lazy – just ‘less is more.’ And make the high-risk stuff really count for something. High-risk means increased injuries and shortened careers and guys like the Hardys are getting smart to that. To me the style I see on TV looks fake, loose…. the finishes are weak. And with three-minute matches, there’s no time to sell. People are following a story but there’s no story. There’s no emotion in any plot or story being told currently. In a lot of ways, it’s become how Japan used to be.
In the ring, you combined superb revolutionary technical maneuvers along with speed and finesse. Do you think wrestlers today are lacking in their actual ‘in-ring’ ability? Does this affect the quality of their matches?
Tom Zenk: No. Some of the young guys today have really raised the bar physically. But a lot of their effort seems to mean nothing given the booking. So it becomes not so much wrestling as rehearsed high spots. Wrestling should be psychology and improvisation. I looked for audience support – ‘help me, help me’ – look the audience in the eye, get them involved in the hurt and provide energy for your comeback. It seems to me that in the WWF like WCW before them, on one side, you have the young guys who HAVE it and are frightened to USE it in case they show up the top guys and put their jobs in danger, and on the other side, the top guys who have it, and refuse to pass it on because they don’t want young guys to get over. They’re saving it for themselves to lengthen their own careers. Either way, the young guys, the lifeblood, are losing out.
Tom Zenk has been equally successful as both a tag team and singles wrestler. Were you more content in singles or tag?
Tom Zenk: Bear in mind that wrestling may look glamorous but it’s only work. And it attracts the kind of guys who don’t want a 9 – 5 job and couldn’t work one anyway. So the idea is to get the most money for the least work. Thinking along those lines, I was more content as a tag, because it meant only half the work. But I preferred singles. I just never got the push. And it all depends on how they wanted to push you. I went to WCW on the understanding that I’d work as one of the top five single babyfaces but inside a few weeks, they relegated Pillman and me to tag. The guys on top didn’t want any competition from anyone. They never do. Just look at the WWF today!
During your time with the WCW and the WWF, did either of these companies do a good enough job to promote you?
I was in WWF for a total of six months and they made us one of the top tag teams in the business. Six months in the WWF was equal to about 18 months in the WCW. The ‘good ole boys’ – Flair, Dusty, Watts – ran WCW southern style. Nepotism and cronyism were all they knew or understood. Between them, they managed to blow off an entire generation of wrestlers. Look at the talent they jobbed out or let go!! Austin, HHH, Foley, Pillman, Douglas, Ace… my whole generation! None of us was good enough to be pushed in WCW!!! Instead, it was all Dusty’s boy, Watts’ boy, Bischoff’s boy (DDP), Flair’s boy and their Florida cronies. And if they were all so great, where are they now? I remember Dusty Rhodes telling the booking committee “Why should we push Z-Man? What did Zenk’s daddy ever do for the business?” They pushed the wrong people and they drove WCW into the ground.
Along with Rick Martel, you formed one of the best teams in the WWF. Do you think teams today offer the type of competition that both of you had?
We had unique stuff that we never got to show. And I’ve never seen any of it used ever since!! WWF brought in Shawn Michaels and Jannetty and blew them off. The Rougeaus were nothing. The Hart Foundation was a great team to work with but Neidhart blew up easy. He couldn’t bump around like Bret. Bret was a master technician. He knew it was all about making it look real and protecting your body. We wrestled the Bulldogs in Montreal – Dynamite writes about it in his book. We were the hometown heroes, the Bulldogs played heel and right away WWF had money in the bank!! I guess that’s what annoyed Vince and Rick so much – they lost the whole deal by being cheap. And Vince’s still cheap. So I guess he learned nothing. The tag team scene seems to mean nothing in the current booking. And the competition is for what?
You worked hard to attain the popularity you have. What is it about wrestling that has always appealed to you?
Wrestling provided the money and lifestyle I liked – a single guy womanizing night tonight, town to town, from 18 – 36, the best years of my life. Verne Gagne told me when I was starting out “you should get down on your knees and thank God there is such a thing as a ‘work’.” Because, once they let you in on the con, it was all money for nothing.
As a fan rather than an actual athlete for a moment… if you could watch any match of any two wrestlers who would it be?
Dynamite Kid impressed me a lot in his prime when he was in WWF and I was in Portland and I used to ask my girlfriend to tape his stuff when I was out wrestling. So I guess Dynamite Kid vs Tiger Mask. I’ve never seen those matches but I’ve heard a lot about them. I’d like to see them on tape.
Are there any other wrestlers either past or present you would like the opportunity to work with?
No. It is what it is.
Has there been anyone stands out moment of your career that you would call a defining moment?
When I quit the WWF after just six months and Vince came after me with a lawsuit. That definitely limited my future choices. After that, I was at the mercy of the All Japan and WCW bookers.
What do you think of the current monopoly? And should wrestlers form a union to prevent being strong-armed?
Vince classifies all his talent as ‘independent contractors’ to avoid paying employee taxes and benefits. There’s no health insurance and no 401 k. And outside the main guys, the payoffs are tiny compared to how much WWF is earning. That’s why I quit. So there definitely IS room for a union … but the guys themselves are too disunited. But thing will change if the Department of Labor gets involved. DOL almost caught up with WCW before they went bust. It’s only a matter of time before they investigate Vince and the ‘independent contractor’ BS. Then hang on to your share values!!
Name association. What comes to mind when you think of these?
Vince McMahon – ‘the devil in a suit’
Steve Austin – a tenacious, hard working bastard.
Ric Flair – Eagle Beak. The Pinocchio of wrestling with the nose job to prove it.
Terry Taylor – a guy who should be bitter like no other and just isn’t. On a 1 to 10, a 10 as far as talent. Just wonderful to work with.
Verne Gagne ––the best training camp and a sweet territory and what the business should be based on – respect
Eric Bischoff – a loser.
Rick Martel – a great guy. We got over in the WWF in record time.
Tom Zenk – the worst wrestler who ever lived.
Hardcore wrestling – stupid. The garbage cans made of tin foil… stuff for hardcore hidden under the ring…stupid.
Backyard wrestling – do they have insurance?
If there’s anyone thing Tom Zenk could change in the wrestling business what would it be?
I’d change who gets over and who does jobs. They push the wrong people. They’re not in tune with their audience. Meltzer says it right – “ Young wrestlers are the lifeblood of the business.” They’ve got to start pushing the young blood.
Was there anything you would like Tom Zenk fans to know?
Yes – just remember it’s all a work, phony, fake. Just ‘sports entertainment.’