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The Death & Legacy Of WCW Star Tom Zenk, Explained

Highlights

  • Tom Zenk’s Can-Am Connection with Rick Martel was poised for tag team gold until he walked away from WWE in the mid-80s.
  • Known for his bodybuilder look in the 80s and early 90s, Zenk found renewed fame in WCW, capturing various titles.
  • Sadly, Tom Zenk passed away in 2017 at the age of 59, with his wrestling potential and lasting legacy still debated among fans.



Modern wrestling fans probably aren’t aware of him, but “Z-Man” Tom Zenk was one of the most impressive stars of the 80s and early 90s. As a bodybuilder, he had a look that drew your attention, but he could go in the ring as well. In the mid 80s, as part of the Can-Am Connection with Rick Martel, he was poised to be in one of WWE’s best tag teams, only for him to walk away. He found renewed fame in WCW, and though he never quite reached his potential, he created a lasting legacy that deserves to be recognized. Sadly, however, it’s a legacy that he didn’t get to live in long enough, as Tom Zenk passed away before he was even 60 years old.

Tom Zenk Career Accomplishments:

Wrestling Observer Newsletter Rookie of the Year 1984, 1-Time NWA/WCW World Television Champion, 1-Time NWA United States Tag Team Champion, 1-Time WCW World Six-Man Tag Team Champion


Tom Zenk Was Part Of The Can-Am Connection With Rick Martel

Tom Zenk Went To High School With Curt Hennig, Nikita Koloff, And Rick Rude


Tom Zenk’s destiny to be a professional wrestler was written while he was still in high school in Minnesota, for Zenk was in the same 1976 graduating class as future legends like Curt Hennig, Nikita Koloff, and Rick Rude. He went on to become a bodybuilder before finally finding wrestling in 1984 at the age of 26. He started in Minnesota’s American Wrestling Association (AWA), and was a quick natural in the ring, so much so that the Wrestling Observer Newsletter named him the Rookie of the Year alongside Jushin Liger. Not a bad way to start a wrestling career.

By 1986, Zenk had made it to the top, signing with WWE, where he was paired with Rick Martel, who he knew from AWA, in a tag team called the Can Am Connection (Martel was from Canada, Zenk from America). They quickly shot to the top of the division, competing in WrestleMania 3, but just months later, as the biggest babyface tag team in the company was about to win tag team gold, Zenk quit the company, unhappy with his pay.


In an interview for his website, tomzenk.net, Zenk spoke about Martel and why he left WWE. He said:

“I was in it for the money. My understanding was that Rick and I were signing as equal partners. And a “partnership” to me, means 50 – 50. Do you think, honestly, I would go along with him taking more money than me – or did they just forget to tell me? I assumed that, in any negotiations, it would be me and Rick against the promoter. But Rick had worked for Vince before and Vince went along with the idea of Rick taking a larger share of the contract money. He didn’t tell me any details of the negotiations and I never got to meet or speak with McMahon himself. In fact Rick blocked me everytime I said I wanted to speak to Vince. So I’d say, yes, he deceived me purposely. When I finally got to know the details, I left it alone for a while so that Rick could dig himself into his own lie. As far as I’m concerned, I was totally honest with him. And it was he who broke the trust between us. It was ultimately Rick, with his greed, who split the Can-Am Connection.”


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Tom Zenk Had A Lengthy Run In Early 90s WCW

Tom Zenk Became “The Z-Man” In WCW

After leaving WWE, Tom Zenk spent time in All Japan Pro-Wrestling and did more work for AWA, before landing in WCW in 1989, where he was called “The Z-Man”. Just like in WWE, he found fast success in the tag team division, becoming the NWA United States Tag Team Champions with Brian Pillman, holding the titles for three months until losing them to the Midnight Express. After an injury, he returned as a singles competitor, impressing fans by beating Arn Anderson for the World Television Champion. He later won the World Six-Man Tag Team Championships with Dustin Rhodes and Big Josh, but two months later, they lost their titles.


That turned out to be Zenk’s last great moment in WCW. He was relegated to being a jobber for much of the last few years of his WCW run, including losing to the debuting silly character, the masked WCW Phantom, at Halloween 1991, who was revealed by Paul E. Dangerously to be none other than Rick Rude. In May 1994, Tom Zenk was out of WCW.

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Tom Zenk Passed Away In 2017

Why Wasn’t Tom Zenk A Bigger Wrestling Star?

After his WCW days, Zenk did some more work in All Japan Pro Wrestling and worked on the indie circuit in Minnesota, but by 1996, at the age of 38, his career quietly came to an end. On December 9, 2017, in his hometown of Robbinsdale, Minnesota, Zenk passed away at the age of 59. Ryan Satin of Pro Wrestling Sheet later reported that, “A rep for the Hennepin County Medical Examiner tells us Zenk’s death was caused by arteriosclerotic heart disease – which is hardening and/or narrowing of the arteries — and an enlarged heart.”


So why didn’t Tom Zenk become a bigger star? Plenty of wrestling minds have shared their opinions in interviews. On his Grilling JR podcast, good ol’ JR summed up the opinion of many. Jim Ross said of Zenk:

“Tom had a great look, had a little charisma, but it came off to me as disingenuous, and he’s playing the role of a wrestler, and that disconnected me from Tom. I didn’t like him or nothing, it wasn’t personal… he just didn’t get over the hump… The it factor to take that next step was never found.”

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