As Rick Martel and Tom Zenk as the Can-Am Connection came up for discussion this week, I thought I’d take a look at the shoot interview conducted with Martel a few years ago and see what the future Model had to say. It’s a long interview, so it’ll be a watch, listen and type approach for me.
Rick was a fan of wrestling as a kid because his older brother was a wrestler, so he went to the matches, then into the dressing room, so wanted to be a part of it. Michel Martel died in Puerto Rico after a match.
Rick idolized Jack Brisco and watched all of his moves. He became a wrestler in 1973 when they needed a replacement for an injured guy. He was only an amateur, but he took the gig and flew out to Nova Scotia. He and Michel had to be careful because Rick was a babyface and his brother was a heel, so they couldn’t be caught fraternizing or they’d be fired.
Rick left school aged seventeen. Neither he nor his brother spoke English originally and were conscious of their shoot real surname (Vigneault) being hard to pronounce, so they changed it to Martel. They wrestled each other for the first few weeks. Very different bodies, as Rick was lean and Michel was stocky with a belly, but he was in better shape and Rick would be puking in the dressing room after their matches.
First match was with a guy who spoke French, so he could lead him through it. J.J. Dillon was the top heel in the territory at the time. The promoter saw Rick had it from the start, so there was a lot of faith in him.
Michel tutored him at home on the terminology (kayfabe, stooge, etc.) and the psychology of wrestling.
Rick met Mark Lewin and was asked if he’d be interested in going to New Zealand, so he did. He also had interest from Australia, so they worked out something prior. It was so successful that he was in Australia during the week and New Zealand on the weekends.
Lewin taught him a lot as he was the booker, so he got insight into how to build to a big show. King Curtis and Steve Rickard offered him to buy into Honolulu based on the knowledge he accrued.
King Curtis was one of his favourites as he didn’t have much in the ring but his crowd psychology was top tier, plus his interviews were incredible. He recalls an angle where Rick was portraying Mark Lewin’s illegitimate son and Curtis called him a bastard, which got massive heat. All the ladies were writing him letters after that as they adored him and wanted him to be OK.
He met Mr. Fuji in Atlanta and he’s heard his reputation as a ribber, but they became instant friends. They lived in the same building, so Fuji’s wife would have him over for dinner. They followed each other to lots of places and enjoyed working together.
Fuji never ribbed him, but he saw a few of them, both mild and rough. He recalls the time where Masa Saito got ribbed by Fuji setting him off on a LONG journey to the arena, then getting them back home in an hour. He also recalls the General Adnan rib where he fed him dog.
The interviewer asks him if he sees any comparison with Chris Benoit, based on learning different styles. Martel somewhat agrees although it’s obvious he’d never thought about it. He went to Japan when he was nineteen and them asking his brother if they could use him more because you always asked the eldest first.
Went to Portland after Hawaii where he’d booked and befriended the Sheepherders, who got him in. Roddy Piper and Buddy Rose were there too.
Don Owen makes him smile because he was an archetypal promoter, but he was nice and he was fair. Endearingly he spoke like a farmer.
Roddy Piper was like his big brother and they spent lots of time together. Jay York had recommended him for Hawaii and they bonded immediately, becoming roommates. They got in a lot car accidents together, though. He recalls one when Mt. St. Helens exploded and caused major havoc.
Buddy Rose was a great worker and really creative, but would annoy him as he’d want to give Rick long sequences of moves to remember when both were good enough to go move by move.
The WWWF followed Portland. He describes Vince Sr. as total class and a man of his word. They teamed him with Tony Garea for no apparent reason and they clicked. When Michel died in 1978 it was a big void, because he was his go-to guy for advice, and Tony filled that gap. He caught up with him a month prior to this interview in person and still keeps in touch with him.
A quick discussion of his finishers, including the airplane spin, but the Boston crab was his favourite.
He met the Wild Samoans in Montreal in the winter, where they still dressed like it was summer. He was impressed by how quick they moved and how nimble they were for how big they were. They looked like killers but were as soft as silk, which to him is the art.
The Moondogs were interesting, as Sailor White really was the essence of the team with how wild he was. He recalls the first match he and Garea had with them was not good because they didn’t want to put the effort in, so Tony went off on them in the locker room. They accepted it and made a promise to improve.
The drug and party scene was burgeoning, particularly drinking in the early eighties. They’d go to the Savoy, which didn’t match his impressions of big time New York. He doesn’t think it was much different to any other sport, though.
Bob Backlund was a nice guy, but a bit odd. One night he fell out with his wife and stopped at Rick’s, bringing his workout bicycle with him and sleeping on the floor. Impressively strong with lifting guys up over his head. They went to a dive bar in Florida called Deep South where a biker got in their face and Bob wiped the floor with him in an arm wrestling match.
Hulk Hogan in his early days was a nice guy. When they reconnected in Minnesota he stopped with Hulk and took over Brutus Beefcake’s room. He became a much bigger star in the AWA via Rocky III. Rick respected his discipline for training and dieting and feels the fans could relate to him because he took time to talk to them at any time.
Andre the Giant was another guy he was close with. He recalls a story from Atlanta where two ladies in the lobby of a hotel saw him and wondered whether he was big all over, so Andre asked if they wanted to come and see. He saw the deterioration of him over time, though, and the unhappiness that brought. This was a drop down from the one time where someone blocked their car in, so Andre was able to lift the other car and moved it.
Vince Jr. when he first met him was just the commentator. They had a good rapport and connected over working out.
Road story from the time – picking up a hitchhiker one time and George Steele stayed in character all through the trip and freaked him out. Rick liked that Vince didn’t mind going along with ribs and appreciated a lighter atmosphere, so they would rib people at interview days.
Rick got ribbed by Terry Funk one time into mooning some other wrestlers and then running around the car naked, at which point they drove off and left him with no clothes on. They were in the Everglades, so Rick wasn’t keen on hiding in the bushes because there were alligators, but they left him out for a few minutes before letting him back in.
Rick had a good run in the WWWF, but got an invitation to come to the AWA after a good match with Nick Bockwinkel. He was reticent to leave, and Vince Sr. didn’t want him to either, but he listened to Nick’s words of “You have to look after tomorrow’s business today”. He recalled Pepper Gomez getting screwed over in Florida one time when he was settled and it really affected him, so he figured best to leave on his own terms rather than being shown the door. He left on good terms and went on to make good money, although he didn’t enjoy working for Verne (“It was like going from silk to sandpaper!”) between the strict kayfabe divide, Verne’s outdated rules and everyone having to laugh at Greg’s jokes.
From the AWA to Montreal, working for Dino Bravo, when Nick called him again about having a run with the belt. It caused some tension with Vince Sr. because of a tour he’d booked for him in Japan. Vince Jr. called him too and understood he had to take that deal, but wished he’d called them first so maybe they could’ve worked something better out for him. He doesn’t know if that caused heat in the long term.
Back to Montreal, where Dino beat “everything on two legs” as the booker/owner/top babyface. Friends said he was crazy to go there, but they worked out an angle for them to have an area-based rivalry based on something successful from the fifties where they’d switch babyface and heel positions based on hometown. This would culminate in them becoming a super team and behind the scenes becoming a one third owner with Gino Brito as well.
Being involved in the business in Montreal was better than in Hawaii, because the three saw more eye-to-eye, but the WWF in 1985 was steamrolling everything, so they couldn’t make the money and had to spend more money to pay the wrestlers than they wanted to. They knew it was a matter of time, so he had a secret meeting with Vince about coming back in with Tom Zenk as his partner. He’d mentored Zenk and sent him around the territories for seasoning, so Vince was up for taking them.
Dino was hot about Rick leaving, but Rick put it to him that he could send Jimmy Garvin two years prior as a main event opponent, then Dino screwed with that and brought Ronnie in to be Jimmy’s partner in a hot tag team feud with the Rougeaus. Rick’s attitude was a friendly “You screwed me, I screwed you back, we’re even”, which Dino accepted.
This leads to a discussion of Dino’s demise. Vince had tired of him and had no use for him, so let him go. Rick suggested bringing him back as a tag team partner for him. Dino had got himself used to an expensive lifestyle, and the wrestling wasn’t going to provide that any more and he couldn’t adjust, so he relented and worked for his uncle in the Montreal mafia, which he had great consternation about. The breaking point had been that he’d had to ask his mom for money to keep up with payments.
Cigarette smuggling was big business in the nineties, so he used his connections with the Indians to get access through the rivers for smuggling. It went from cigarettes to cocaine deals, which the RCMP became aware of and caught the coke guys in a sting. Everyone blamed Dino, so an inside person shot him inside his house, which they’re aware of because of no sign of forced entry or tracks out of the house or obvious concern from Dino that he was in his house.
The reckoning is that he was shot in the back of the head from behind with the remote in his hand because if you’re shot from the front and tense for it the muscles make you grab something, whereas from behind you’re relaxed. Luckily his daughter was spared the sight of seeing him because she was asleep after ballet lessons in her mother’s arms, but her mother saw the sight with blood on the ceiling (“He had ten bullets pumped in him!”).
He’s asked for more stories on Verne, so tells one involving Hulk. Verne started talking tough to him and challenged him to a fight. Verne went for his legs and Hulk caught him in a good front facelock and held him there, destroying his rep in one moment. Verne was pissed off about it and challenged him to another fight, but Hulk rightly took the “Why end an unbeaten record on two?” attitude and blew him off. Rick reckons that had a big impact on Verne’s downfall when the WWF was against him.
Back to Nick Bockwinkel, Rick took Hulk’s place when he was in Japan. Nick stayed in excellent shape well into his middle age. He’d hit him with some gut shots that would take all the air out of him, so he quit taking them after their second match. He eventually got Nick on the defensive when they were in St. Louis where the ring was like concrete and refused to reduce the pace, but it was all good.
On Ric Flair and their title versus title match, he respected him a lot. A lot of Japanese people were there to watch, so he knew to be at his best.
Bruiser Brody’s death really shocked and upset him. He met him first in New Zealand, where he had a similar Australia/NZ schedule. Rick had done a job on tape to Harley Race which Brody said Harley was going to show in the US, which he hated the idea of, but the promoters wanted to book him as he looked great even in defeat. You had to fight guys like him and Stan Hansen back every step of the way as they’d eat you up if you let them. However, he thinks there was no good reason for his murder because business should never get that far out of hand.
How did Verne change when AWA went national on ESPN? He’d already lost it by that point, it wasn’t what it used to be. He should’ve delegated more rather than controlling everything, looking too much at irrelevant details and missing the big picture. He couldn’t change with the times.
The Fabulous Freebirds – he recalls different angles with Michael Hayes and thinks the three as a trio were an awesome package.
Were things political when the NWA and AWA started doing business together? Yes, especially in New York. None of the promoters could gel and were more worried about hurting Vince back than anything else. Everyone was used to being the king of their own area, so all wanted to be in charge.
Jumbo Tsuruta – their first match was the one where Rick beat him for the belt. They struggled with the language difference initially, but they bonded and had a lot in common. By rights he should’ve taken Giant Baba’s place, but his poor health stopped him from doing it.
WrestleRock – “Oh Christ!”. It just didn’t work.
Shawn Michaels in the early days – he remembers more from when he came into the WWF and the initial aborted Rockers run where they got fired because everyone thought they had a bad attitude and were too wild. They were getting into a rut where their reputation proceeded them, but Shawn wised up and when he was considering a heel turn he asked to travel with Rick so he pick his brain. They weren’t incredibly close because of the age difference, but he always respected him. He enjoyed their Summerslam ’92 when he was on his decline because he was more into real estate at this point. Shawn was really thankful for him contributing towards his first big payday.
Shawn later – at WrestleMania X he and Razor went way over time, scuppering the ten man tag Rick was booked in. It didn’t bother him as much as the younger guys. Randy Savage really chewed him out for it, but Shawn was never a prick to Martel.
Stan Hansen – he recalls him from the seventies when they were both starting. Tough matches, but a lot of respect. Japan considers him a god. He recalls a match with Zenk against Hansen and Ted Dibiase where he and Zenk had to fight for their life against Stan one time because it was a double disqualification finish. Hansen was the only person he wanted to lose the AWA championship to.
Leaving the AWA – he had the belt for a long time and was having no fun and Verne was hard to work for because he made things hard for no reason.
Meeting Tom Zenk – people said that he reminded them of a younger version of himself. Verne wanted to sign him to a stupid contract, so Rick talked him out of it and got him booked in Portland and then booked him in Montreal and Japan. Rick made the deal to book the Can-Am Connection to the WWF.
Why did the team split and Tom left? Rick says it may be his fault a bit, recalling a prior incident where he worked for Jim Barnett when he was twenty and speculating too much with the other guys about the money they’d make and saying they’d tell Barnett to go fuck himself if they didn’t get what they want. And he didn’t, so he knocked on the door and questioned Jim about it. Jim set himself up in front of the booker Tom Renesto and the secretary, where Jim put it to him that he was already paying him double what he was making at the last place he was booked, at which point he realized he’d fucked up and got embarrassed about ever challenging him on it, with him getting fired to teach him a lesson. He learnt the lesson there to never discuss money with the boys and just be happy with it unless he was legitimately unhappy with it.
So, in the WWF he never talked money with Zenk. He says Vince never paid one tag guy more than the other, but Rick wouldn’t talk about it regardless and Tom got it in mind that he was getting paid more. Rick thought he would’ve appreciated any big bump in pay, which was only going to get bigger as they were destined for the tag belts. Rick was thinking the younger guy would lead the way with his enthusiasm, but it was the other way round as Tom brooded about it all.
Finally, Tom wanted to buy a house but had no financial history so couldn’t get a mortgage, which led him to asking Rick for help. Rick spoke to Hulk, who then went to Vince, who went to Linda, who wrote a letter of approval for him, which secured it for him. There were other favours he did for “this asshole”. Tom one time was dressed like a bum when there was a dress code and refusing to look smart and didn’t care about any heat. Vince came to Rick about Tom to try and straighten him out, so Rick was pissed off about “this fucking asshole in his jeans fucking up our opportunity”. Rick cut straight to the point about his “fucking attitude” and “half-assed work” – “Who the fuck do you think you are? God’s gift to wrestling? Sort your act out!” – no more conversation the rest of the drive, and the next day Rick got a memo from Tom thanking him for the opportunity, but he was done and gone.
Rick spoke to Vince and wanted to talk Tom back into it with Jack Lanza. Tom didn’t want to know and they argued about it and left it. Rick wanted to at least do something where a team like Demolition left Tom laying and taken out on a stretcher to explain the departure, but Tom wouldn’t do it. Tom overestimated his worth, because nobody else was going to come begging, so Rick moved on from Tom to Tito, who was a “dream to work with”. Vince didn’t hold it against Rick. Zenk came to the matches a few years later and Vince had him thrown out. Tom did try to make contact with Rick years later, but Rick had washed his hands of him.
Did Vince change? Not really, even during the steroid trials. He thinks he had the benefit and insight from being a promoter himself that he could level with Vince. Verne would’ve just blown his top constantly. Vince’s mantra was “make the best of it”. Vince was very understanding when Rick’s wife got ileitis and had to have part of her intestines removed and was very ill. Rick was all over the place about it, so he spoke to Vince and said he had to leave even though there was a big feud between Strike Force and Demolition over the tag belts, but Vince supported him 100% and told him the door was open to return any time.
Was Rick a victim of politics in the WWF? No, he was always in control. Vince was fully behind him as the Model, where he created all the ideas for it, but Rick got into real estate in 1990 and Vince could see his interests had changed and had no resentment towards him.
WCW – Rick had met with Vince in 1997 about being the Supermodels with Don Callis. Rick had established his business well enough to leave it in the hands of others and he wasn’t entirely satisfied with when his nineties run earlier in the decade, so he wanted to make up for that. They were going to do a deal where Callis, as the younger guy, turned on him to jump off himself. Vince was a bit vague about what money deal he could offer, describing it as “a smorgasbord”, so he was thinking he could ask for a one year deal and see after that. Rick went to the Maritimes to get his wind back, then back to Vince, who was now thinking about a deal for three months of “proving yourself” then reevaluate after. Rick wasn’t keen and said to Don to go himself but he was going to speak to WCW. Eric Bischoff signed him to a deal “that was the best one year deal of my life”.
WrestleMania III – “What a day for wrestling!”. He talks about Hulk and Andre being legends and wanting to see their match.
Hart Foundation – he liked both, but they didn’t seem happy about dropping the belts to him and Tito. It was more business than personal. Bret’s success did surprise him a bit. Rick was reticent to do a job for Bret in Europe one time, but ended up doing so.
Was the drug/party scene any worse? Rick talks more about the intensity of the schedule before talking about those that succumbed to temptation because it wasn’t hard to look for the bad stuff, or it came looking for you, so it was worse in that respect.
Brain Busters – two professionals. He loves Arn and how he conducts himself inside and outside of the ring.
Did Dusty ever try to recruit him for the NWA? No, they were OK with one another but weren’t especially close. Gary Hart was more of a champion of Rick than anyone else when they were all together. In a follow-up to the earlier Jim Barnett firing story, Gary booked Rick to Texas for Fritz, where he had a good run, good enough for Barnett to want to offer him another job there with no hard feelings.
The Model – that was Rick’s idea, because he felt he’d done everything as a babyface. Vince almost laughed him out of the room and wasn’t hot on the idea, so they decided to go their different ways, but Vince thought about it again and went for the heel run. They also were concerned that Randy Savage’s heel turn might overshadow his, so they did it a bit slower with the Strike Force reunion/split. There was a bit of miscommunication in the process, so Rick started booking himself out to other places, but they worked something out. Vince and J.J. actually came up with the name, and he wasn’t initially keen, but his wife’s perspective was “At least it’s not the Red Rooster!”.
He loved being a heel, because if you were working in a department store and you had an irate customer you couldn’t just go “Look, you fucking bitch, if you don’t like then fuck off out of my store!”, which was the same for a babyface, but a heel had much more creativity and freedom. Never any discussion of a Hogan run, though.
Jake Roberts – he very much admires him and compares him to King Curtis with his psychology. The blindfold match came when he had one foot out the door. His sister also died in 1991 and that had a big impact on him too, as she’d been ill for a long time. That was a few weeks before WrestleMania VII and he was really depressed, so he gave his notice. He was reticent about the blindfold match as they tried it in Florida first and he couldn’t see through the thing, but Jake told him to hang with it and it went fine.
Tatanka – working with him was to teach him in the ring, but his heart wasn’t in it. Chris Chavis was a nice guy, though.
Why did he leave again? He came back in to get some funds for his business interests.
ECW – Paul Heyman talked to him about coming in. Rick knew him from when he was a kid and friends with the Grand Wizard. Don Callis set up the meeting, but Rick wasn’t into the ECW style. Paul said he could have any kinds of matches he wanted, but he thanked him and declined.
Eric Bischoff – he saw him a month prior and thanked him for the opportunity in 1998. Eric knew him from when he started in the AWA and always showed him respect. He knows a lot of people had bad interactions with him, but he was always a nice man to him.
Vince Russo – he met him a couple of times, but doesn’t really know him.
His first night in WCW – he confirms he came without his gear on his first night, although he doesn’t know if he was booked to win the TV title that night. It was a very quick call from Terry Taylor on the day of, and he didn’t have any gear on him, so he just showed up regardless of what they had planned.
Perry Saturn – he recalls the angle where Perry threw him through the glass door. It was actually not a glass door in appearance, but a door that had a plastic layer over that made it look like steel, so when his head went through it was a shock it was glass that broke. Perry froze and was asking if he was OK. Someone, not knowing, said “It really looked like real glass he threw you through!”.
Politics in WCW – more clique-ish, but he didn’t know a lot of the guys. There were people there before and after it got big, so there was separation between them.
Leaving WCW – he got an injury against Booker T, who was really stiff. He compares him to Haku, who looked like he was killing you with stuff and was “the toughest motherfucker in wrestling” but was light as a feather, but Booker’s stuff killed you, especially the kicks. The Harlem Hangover (somersault legdrop) was a dangerous move where he couldn’t manage his landing properly, so his ass landed on his face and turned his neck, resulting in a concussion. He tried wrestling the next day, but was puking and the doctor sidelined him. The plane trip back home made his head feel like it was swelling. Rick says he should’ve refused the move, because he found out later that Booker knocked out Saturn with it.
He came back and was due to drop the TV title to him, but the rings were smaller than the WWF, so a toss from the corner was mistimed and his knee ended up on the ropes and ripped it up. He had surgery, took four months off, got himself back in shape. First match back – Stevie Ray, who was using the Flapjack (Pedigree) as a finisher (Rick mistakes the name initially for Pancake or Slamcake – “I knew it was something to do with food!”). He realized he’d land on his knees on the bump, but Stevie talked him into it because he felt under pressure to use that finisher. As a result, it took out two vertebrae in his neck trying to protect himself, at which point he said “Fuck this!” and decided his health was more important.
Can he wrestle today? No, as he has two artificial hips. The operation went great, but prior to it he was struggling. Roddy Piper and Rene Goulet, who both had it done, talked him into it. He’s enjoying life with his wife and daughter and has no regrets.
Why is the business in a decline (in 2006)? The business goes in cycles, things are popular and then they’re not, plus TV shows have time off, whereas wrestling goes on all year. He estimates it as seven year cycles.
Has he spoken to TNA at all about doing anything? No, nor any contact with WWE regarding a Legends contract or being in the Hall of Fame.
Any favourite or least favourite opponents? He has no malice towards Harlem Heat for injuring him, because it was the nature of the beast that they’d not had the opportunity to learn how to work. Booker T just wanted to do well, but hadn’t been trained properly or built up the experience.
The internet and newsletters – they’re great, because they create interest. He was a fan himself and would want to talk to others about wrestling too.
Today – he owns several properties and manages them. He just mostly enjoys his life with his family now.
Closing words – he thanks the fans for their support and hopes they enjoyed his work. He always tried to put himself in their place to meet their expectations.
Melting it down: A really good interview, where Rick had a good attitude, although it was funny to hear him be so gentlemanly yet swear like a trooper at times. The best stories were the ones involving Dino Bravo and Tom Zenk, plus Verne Gagne took a bit of a drubbing. I didn’t realize the level of security and experience he had, which basically made him immune from being gamed with by Vince McMahon, so he could come and go within reason. He admitted his mistakes, he wasn’t a boaster, he told the truth, so that makes for a pleasant, although long, interview.