Can-Am Connection – How Greed Killed WWE’s Potentially Greatest Tag Team

There were a lot of similarities between Tom Zenk and Rick Martel of The Can-Am Connection. They had a similar style in the ring and they looked like they could be brothers. They were poised to become one of the greatest tag team’s in WWE history but greed got in the way of that. So what happened? It depends on whose side of the story you believe…

The Can-Am Connection - Tom Zenk and Rick Martel. They were positioned to become one of the greatest WWF tag teams of their time, but greed and a deep hatred for one another got in the way of that.
The Can-Am Connection – Tom Zenk and Rick Martel. They were positioned to become one of the greatest WWF tag teams of their time, but greed and a deep hatred for one another got in the way of that.

In a battle of he said-he said, Rick Martel and Tom Zenk each tell their sides of the story of what happened behind the scenes to mark the rise and demise of The Can-Am Connection:

RICK MARTEL:

“I saw Tom Zenk wrestle when I was with the AWA. I saw a lot of similarities with me. My style, my looks. Of course, before I saw him, I remember Nick Bockwinkel was the first to tell me, ‘Hey Rick, we just seen a guy who reminds me of a young Rick Martel.’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’

‘Tom Zenk.’

Then when I saw him in the ring, I said wow, because it was so strange. He really was so similar to me.

Later on, I found out that Tom had been watching me a lot and kind of copied my style. Plus with his look being the same as me, a lot of people kept comparing us…”

TOM ZENK:

“I knew Rick had been thinking about [putting Can-Am Connection together] for a long time… People told us that we looked like brothers. And it was common knowledge among the wrestling community that Rick couldn’t give an interview because he had a hard time with English.

I was just starting out and I wasn’t that good a worker back then. He gave me a lot of good insight. He critiqued my work. He gave constructive criticism. I played naive. I played dumb. All the old-timers like to believe they’re ‘working’ the young guys…”

MARTEL:

“I helped him a lot at the beginning of his career. I helped him get booked…”

ZENK:

“I think Rick thought I was a mark for the business, a young guy with ‘stars in his eyes’ who was just happy to be in the ring. But I always regarded wrestling as a business. I was in it for the money…”

MARTEL:

“Back in the mid-80s, WWF was starting to take over a lot of local promotions. They were really bringing television to a different level. And of course, the local promotions had a hard time competing with that. So I could sense that it was just a matter of time before International Wrestling – the Quebec promotion – was going to go right down. I could see it was time for me to move on to bigger, better things…”

Tom Zenk and Rick Martel of The Can-Am Connection celebrate after a victory
Tom Zenk and Rick Martel of The Can-Am Connection celebrate after a victory [Photo: WWE.com]

“Rick Martel can be really charming but he was really only cultivating me to get where he wanted to go.”

ZENK:

“I learned early on that [Rick] can be really charming – on and off like a switch. He’s a good guy. He treated me like my brothers would treat me and I trusted him…but knowing what I know now, he was really only cultivating me to get where he wanted to go.

Some people think the whole world is a movie and he had a part for me. He was going to work me – a young dumb guy – and I played along…for a while anyway…”

MARTEL:

“[Vince] McMahon had called me about joining WWF. We had a meeting. He was really excited about me coming back to the WWF and I was excited about going.

I could see that [Zenk] and I had big potential as a tag team. So I asked McMahon. And of course, McMahon had never heard of Tom Zenk…”

ZENK:

“Rick conducted the negotiations with McMahon in the US while I was still working in Montreal. He told me, “a ship can only have one captain” and I agreed, given his long experience in the business, that he would be “the captain”.

Rick had experience but on the other hand, I had youth and I’m convinced that I made up at least half of the appeal of the Can-Am Connection.

From my point of view, it was a combination of equal partners…”

MARTEL:

“[Vince] had to go on my word. I said, ‘Look, I guarantee this is going to make a big impact as a tag team here. Major impact. I know it, I can feel it…'”

ZENK:

“We signed separate contracts. I signed in Montreal. Rick would never let me see his copy of the contract…”

“Had Tom and I stayed together as The Can-Am Connection, we would have been one of the biggest tag teams of all time.”

MARTEL:

“To this day, Tom and I – had we stayed together – we would have been one of the biggest tag teams of all time. I can say that still…”

ZENK:

“Our first show as The Can-Am Connection was while I was still based in Montreal. It was a sell-out at the Montreal Forum against The British Bulldogs – a hell of a show. We were over big time. The TV was so strong. People noticed us everywhere. Sophisticated people wanted autographs for their kids.

“It took [just] 6 months to get over in the WWF. We burned the Rougeaus, we burned Jannetty and Shawn Michaels – they got a tryout but we got the gig. We had the look, everything. They would put us on after Hogan to pop the crowd. We were the main event and they always had us go on last. They couldn’t follow us – only with Orndorff and Hogan…”

MARTEL:

“I guess Tom was overwhelmed by it all.

I think Tom, when it comes right down to it, is not very physical. Wrestling is very hard on your body. Hard on you mentally also. Tom wasn’t mentally or physically as hard as I thought he would be…”

ZENK:

“Rick always lied about the money. He claimed we made the same amount.

It was ultimately Rick, with his greed, who split the Can-Am Connection…”

MARTEL:

“When we got to the top, we went up a notch, turned up the volume and went into that category where you really got to put out, day in and day out. Every day go to that gym. Every day – even if you’re injured – you’ve got to keep going. I think that was too much for him. And also the pressure of wrestling in front of big crowds and always performing to your top level. He couldn’t take that…”

ZENK:

“I was used to do all the selling while Rick made all the comebacks and did all the finishing moves. Compare Can-Am Connection to ‘Strike Force’ and see if Tito [Santana] had to sell every match like I did. It never evened out over six months. Even Hogan mentioned it…”

Tom Zenk and RIck Martel of Can-Am Connection while in Japan
Tom Zenk and Rick Martel in Japan [Photo: TomZenk.net]

“It was ultimately Rick, with his greed, who split the Can-Am Connection…”

MARTEL:

“I remember in the last few weeks, I was the one that was kind of giving the pep talks. I would be excited. ‘Oh man, this is great. Look what’s going on.’ And I always had to kind of push [Zenk]. I thought it was going to be the other way around, where it was him that was going to be pushing me, saying, ‘Oh Rick, this is great. This is fantastic…’

I could feel that something was wrong there…”

ZENK:

“I was getting $2,500 a week as his tag partner in WWF. Vince paid for airfares but he booked us onto 6 a.m. early morning flights to save himself money. That meant we arrived into cities too early in the morning to check into hotels to get some rest.

At the other end of the day, we were often the last match.

By the time we got out of the building around 11:30 p.m, back to the hotel, bleached the ring gear – there wasn’t much time to sleep before you had to be up again at 5 a.m to check out of the hotel, return the hire-car and book in for the next flight.

We had to pay for all the hotels, rental cars, food, and incidentals. Deduct all that from $2,500 a week and then taxes – I was paying a single guy’s taxes – and there’s not much left.

[For Wrestlemania III] I got $10,000. Other guys in bad matches got $20,000. They even paid Mary Hart more. I asked Rick, “How much do you get paid?”

“Uh, the same as you.”

Then I heard from the other guys what he really got paid. Between us, we should have received $100,000…”

“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. He left like a thief in the middle of the night…”

MARTEL:

“One day in Boston, I got up one morning and I went to the front desk and they said there’s a message for you. There was a note from Tom saying, ‘Rick, thanks for the opportunity but that’s it for me.’ And that was it. He just quit right on the spot. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. He left like a thief in the middle of the night…”

ZENK:

“I got out before getting legally caught up in merchandising agreements.

Rick and I had agreed that if we weren’t earning $5,000 a week after 6 months in WWF, we’d take up an offer in Japan [for $10,000 a week].

I was still at $2,500. The money sucked.

I told Rick the money sucked. I’d tried to get our deal re-negotiated. But by then I knew he had his own deal. Japan wanted us – so he must have had something better. You don’t want to go back to Japan and work for $5,000 a week, then you MUST have a better deal. When I found out that Rick was taking a bigger share of the contract and that the merchandising was going to kick in, my buddy (who’s an attorney) told me to get out of there, otherwise, I was really going to lose. I’d have been held liable for all the costs of lost merchandising if I’d left after that…”

Rick Martel, Tom Zenk, Curt Hennig, 1985. Hennig and Zenk were buddies from High School in Minneapolis and formed a successful tag team in the AWA.
Rick Martel, Tom Zenk, Curt Hennig, 1985. Hennig and Zenk were buddies from High School in Minneapolis and formed a successful tag team in the AWA. [Photo: TomZenk.net]
MARTEL:

“[Vince]was shocked also. We couldn’t believe it because things were going great. The fans were taken by it and everybody was excited about the whole thing. It had really taken off. And everybody could tell we’d be really doing well.

So I asked McMahon, I said ‘Look, why don’t we give him three days? Maybe something went wrong…’”

ZENK:

“A number of things were coming to the boil. There was the money and Rick’s refusal to meet with McMahon to renegotiate. Then [Terry] Garvin and [Pat] Patterson had been using their stroke in the office to harass me – clock-watching in the showers, crude remarks, and then petty harassments if you snubbed them – like Garvin had started warning me about supposed ‘dress code’ violations. I’d heard rumors about them and the way they’d tried to manipulate guys like Barry O. Trying to hit on them.

We were in a Mac Big Boys on the road to Worcester, Massachusetts and I said to Rick, ‘You’d better get your French Connection buddies squared away or you’re going to be working alone.’ I used to tell Rick that his friends were his friends. I didn’t want to know them. After that, he gave me the cold shoulder in the car the whole way to Worcester. He acted real huffy – and when we arrived at the hotel, he threw the car keys at me. I went to my room to think things over.

[Later] I called the airlines from my motel room and booked the first flight to Minneapolis. Then I called my girlfriend and asked her to pick me up from the airport. I left Rick a note with the car-keys saying – ‘Thanks for the opportunity. I really appreciate it. Without you, it wouldn’t have been possible. But things didn’t work out the way you said. You’ll do better on your own…’”

“I could tell that he had cracked. He just couldn’t take it anymore.”

MARTEL:

“[WWF] flew me to Minneapolis and I went to meet him at his house. I said ‘Look, Tom, what went wrong?’

I could tell that he had cracked. He just couldn’t take it anymore. That was the end of it…”

ZENK:

“He came with ‘Blackjack’ Lanza. I was working in my garage, refinishing the kitchen cabinets. Rick was honest – he said I can understand what you’re doing. And he [finally] gave away how much he was earning.

I didn’t discuss in detail the real reason for what I’d done. I was so mad. I told him ‘I’m done.’ He told me we were going to win the belts and work a program with Demolition ….but the hot heel team draws the money – that’s the tradition – so we wouldn’t have held the belts for long.

Jack Lanza came in. Jack Lanza was one of the guys in AWA who had encouraged me to go to Portland (in 1985) and I owe Jack an apology. I hurt his feelings. Only he was in the line of fire and I told him ‘Get out of here. You’re just a stroke for the office.’ Rick had tears in his eyes. It was sad to see but he’d been so unnecessarily greedy. He asked me to go back for one final match – they planned to ‘finish my career’ with a pile-driver from the Islanders. He told me ‘Haku will pile-drive you, break your neck and then we’ll say you’re out of the business.’ I said, ‘No Rick. It’s finished. OVER…'”

MARTEL:

“That was the last day that I talked to him. I remember telling him, saying, ‘Look, Tom, I don’t disagree with what you’re doing…I just disagree with the way you’re doing it.’ I said we have commitments here. We had some matches that were already booked. And I’m old fashioned in that way. When I give my word I’m going to be somewhere if I’m not injured, I’m there.

WWF had given us the opportunity to show that we’re good. I gave my word on his behalf. The least he could do is finish it right for me. So I said come back, Tom and let’s finish those days, [then] if you want to go on with your life, that’s fine. He didn’t want to do that…”

ZENK:

“[They] didn’t mention more money. Jack Lanza didn’t mention money at all. After they left the garage and got to the Chevy Blazer that Lanza drove, Rick turned to me and said, ‘I hope you can’t sleep at night…'”

MARTEL:

“For him, that day, wrestling was finished. He was going to go on to other things – better things. And then he tried [to return to wrestling], but he didn’t succeed. He never really made it…”

Rick Martel and Tom Zenk. Fans were robbed of seeing this once-promising tag team rise to prominence.
Rick Martel and Tom Zenk. Fans were robbed of seeing this once-promising tag team rise to prominence. [Photo: TomZenk.net]

“WWE was like the mob – they were very big on loyalty but when you wanted out, they went after you.”

ZENK:

“A few days after I left, I got a letter from Vince telling me that I was hurting Rick’s earning potential. They both tried to put the responsibility for the split on me. But it was Rick’s own greed that destroyed the Can-Am’s and his own future earning potential. Later on, they sued me for breach of contract. They sued me for an amount which would have finished me financially. I rang McMahon. I wanted to make the point that they hadn’t treated me with respect. He wasn’t there so I spoke to Linda [McMahon].

I told Linda – ‘You made the decision to pay Rick more money than me. I found out; I left. You say I was a quitter to enhance your product. You replaced me with a ‘better’ wrestler, Tito. Strike Force didn’t get over. You lost! The joke’s on you.’

I asked them to leave me alone. ‘What do you want to do, wreck me?’

It was like the mob – they were very big on loyalty but when you wanted out, they went after you. I told Linda, ‘I’ve got the New York Times phone number in front of me. How would you like me to ring them and tell them that you’ve got Dr. Zahorian in your locker room with 2 tackle boxes full of steroids, painkillers, speed, and downers? And you’re making money out of selling your product to little children…’ And Linda said ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’

I said, ‘Are you threatening me?’ And she replied, ‘You can take it any way you want.’

I’ve never regretted to this day leaving the WWF. I laugh every time I think about it. I know Vince, Hulk, Jack Lanza all knew we were the best tag team ever. But it really wasn’t my decision to regret…It was Rick and his greed that split the Can-Am Connection, not me. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. We agreed on a 6-month try-out in WWF. I gave him the 6 months. After that, I saw the exit and pulled the rip-cord on my parachute.

At that time, wrestling was finished for me. A lot of people in the business get caught up and carried away and forget that they’re only just wrestlers. They forget that others lose to put you over. I yielded to get guys over. I never balked. That’s the business. People seem to forget that humility is part of the business. That’s when they start to lose touch with the real world.”

Watch The Can-Am Connection vs. The Magnificent Don Muraco & Bob Orton at WrestleMania III:

 

 

Quotes above contributed by Matt Pender and shared here with thanks to our friends over at Wrestling’s Glory Days’ Facebook page.

Avatar
Follow Pro Wrestling Stories on Twitter @pws_official, Facebook @prowrestlingstories, or reach out via e-mail at admin@prowrestlingstories.com.