Like so many, I started watching Professional Wrestling in 1984.  At that time Vince McMahon was deep in the process of taking his company National, and turning both the World Wrestling Federation and his biggest star, Hulk Hogan into household names.  As I fell in love with the pageantry and spectacle of the industry I wanted to learn as much of it as I could.","Like so many, I started watching Professional Wrestling in 1984.  At that time Vince McMahon was deep in the process of taking his company National, and turning both the World Wrestling Federation and his biggest star, Hulk Hogan into household names.  As I fell in love with the pageantry and spectacle of the industry I wanted to learn as much of it as I could.  Back then, the easiest way to do that was by magazines, specifically the Pro Wrestling Illustrated series.  It was there I learned about the competition to the WWF, specifically the National Wrestling Alliance and the American Wrestling Association.  This allowed me to learn of names like Harley Race, Ric Flair, The Road Warriors and the man who was the AWA World Champion at that time, Rick Martel.  Little did I know that over twenty five years later I would have the chance to interview the man who would become the man who transformed himself into “The Model”, one of the top villains of the late 80’s and early 90’s for the WWF.


It is not a misnomer to say that Rick Martel was born for the business.  His older brother of twelve years, Michel, was a successful wrestler in Quebec and the Maritimes.  At the age of seventeen, Rick was thrust into his first match when a promoter in Nova Scotia would be short a wrestler due to illness.  Michel recommended his teen brother for the task.  “I was already Greco Roman wrestling but had never wrestled professional before” Martel recalled.  Michel wasn’t worried about his little brother, and he didn’t have to as Rick got passed his first match with flying colors.  Rick was officially hooked on pro wrestling and had the pleasure of touring Canada with his brother and mentor Michel.

Martel would find himself in Calgary wrestling in Stu Hart’s popular Canadian territory.  It was there that his career was about to take its first turn to places he had never dreamed of going.  “I met Kevin Sullivan there and he mentioned that he could get me booked in Florida to work for the Grahams.  You have to remember that I never thought I would ever compete outside of Canada.  It was like being called up to go the Majors”.

Martel’s first night in the Florida locker room was a moment he would never forget.  “I walked in and there was Terry Funk, Dory Funk Jr., Harley Race and Jack Brisco.  These were people I heard about and read about for years and there I was sharing a room with them”.  In fact while Brisco was the NWA World Heavyweight Champion he would spend a week on the road with the young French Canadian.

After working Georgia and Texas, Martel was approached by Mark Lewin in 1977 to work New Zealand.  “New Zealand was where I learned ring psychology from Mark and King Curtis”.  Rick was actually told by several of his peers not to go to New Zealand; not because of the country but because of the unsavory reputation that Lewin had and that he couldn’t be trusted.  “I heard all that about Mark, but he was nothing but great to me and he taught me a lot” he recalled.  Martel wrestled throughout the Oceania and the Far East and came back to North America a much better performer then when he left.

Rick would eventually go to work for Vince McMahon Sr. in what was then called the World Wide Wrestling.  Rick’s older brother Michel passed away at that time, and he was fortunate enough to be paired up with Tony Garea.  “Tony and I bonded right away.  He was from New Zealand and I had just come off a long stay there so we had a lot in common that we could talk about.  Tony became like a brother to me”.  The two were a very successful tandem capturing the WWWF World Tag team title twice; once from the Moondogs and once from the Wild Samoans.  The two still keep in touch today, as Rick discussed how Tony was just at his house for a few days a month ago.  Martel loved working the WWWF as it allowed him to work the biggest crowds he had ever performed in front of.  As big is it was working for Vince Sr., he had a bigger mountain to climb in Minnesota.

The AWA may have fizzled out at the end of the 80’s, but in 1984 it was still a very relevant organization and one of the “big three” of pro wrestling.  Rick had wrestled there before, but this time he was going there in a much bigger role.  “They were going to give me the title from Jumbo Tsuruta.  I was told about a month before, and it was a real honor to become the World Champion there”.  Martel wrestled some of the most high profile opponents of his career, taking on Bob Backlund and Ric Flair in high profile Title defenses.  “I loved my time in Minnesota, it was an easier loop and I had a lot of respect for Verne.”  Rick would hold onto the AWA World strap for nineteen months when he lost it to Stan Hansen.  When asked his opinion on Hansen, Martel simply chuckled and said “he was tough”.

Shortly following his Title loss, Martel returned to his native Quebec and bought into the Montreal based promotion, Lutte Internationale.  This wasn’t his first attempt at promoting as he briefly owned a share of the Hawaii territory, but it was his first so close to home.  He co-owned with Dino Bravo and Gin Brito, and with Dino he developed a hot Montreal VS Quebec City angle.  “Dino was from Montreal, and I was from Quebec City and there was a natural rivalry between the two cities.  In Montreal, I worked as a heel and in Quebec City as a face.  We didn’t trash each others hometowns, but we put over why our cities were better.  It was a great angle designed to have Dino and team up other after we saved each other from outside attackers.  It worked because the fans knew we respected one another.”

That series of matches with Bravo was critical for Martel.  Not just because of the flawless execution of the program, but it was the first time that Martel had ever wrestled as a heel.  “I wrestled under a hood as Mr. Wrestling before in Nova Scotia in a tag team match with my brother and Frenchy Martin, but Montreal was the first time I wrestled as a bad guy under my real name”.  The heel bug would eventually become an itch that he would have to scratch eventually.

It wouldn’t be long before Rick decided it would be best to seek employment with the WWF.  By late 1986, the Connecticut based organization was steamrolling across North America and appeared unstoppable.  “We couldn’t stop the WWE machine.  They had all this production and we just had one camera for the matches.”  Rick called up Vince McMahon Jr. who he knew in his previous stint there and proposed a new tag team for the WWF.

The proposed tandem was Martel and a young man from Minnesota named Tom Zenk.  Zenk was not nearly as experienced as Martel, but he had a similar look and style to the experienced Quebecer.  They had competed together in Quebec and in All Japan, but Zenk was still a virtual unknown on the National scene.  “Vince didn’t know who Zenk was, but I kept saying trust me, this can work.  Vince was really getting into marketing those days and the name of the Can-Am Connection really had an appeal to him.”  The duo was an instant hit and got off to a really good start.  Female fans responded to the team due their good looks, and male fans respected their athleticism and ability.  High profile wins over Don Muraco and Bob Orton at Wrestlemania III and the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff on Saturday Night’s Main Event showed that this team was on their way to the WWF World Tag Team Belts.  Well, one half of them would.

Rick Martel recalls how Zenk was not enamored with the WWF lifestyle.  “Zenk would always say we should be asking for money.  I told him to be patient as I knew the titles were coming and big money was coming our way.  One time, I picked him up and he was wearing jeans.  The week before, the WWF had just instituted a no jeans and sweats policy.  The road agent said to me, you better have a talk with your partner as he is making you look bad since you brought him in.”  Martel recounts how Zenk struggled to adapt to the corporate atmosphere.

Issues with money would again come up.  Zenk would accuse Martel of getting more money than he did.  “All tag teams at that time got paid the same, as anyone from those days could tell you.  Even if I did get more, I was the veteran of the team but that wasn’t the case anyway.” The Can-Am Connection would disband in the fall of 1987 when in the midst of a high profile feud with the Islanders, Martel went to the front desk of his hotel to find a note from Tom thanking him for the opportunity but that wasn’t for him.  “Tom left a lot of money on the table and he never did make what he could have”.  Tom Zenk would later have a five year run in WCW, but it was met with ups and downs as some of his biggest wins were offset by being completely squashed by main event talent (Vader at GAB 90, Rick Rude in Havoc 91 for example). It was too bad for Zenk’s legacy as he and Martel were scheduled to win the Tag belts from the Hart Foundation.

Zenk was replaced by Tito Santana and the new duo was rechristened Strike Force.  “Tito was a complete professional inside and out of the ring”.  The move in partners was great for all parties concerned.  Santana was still considered a main event type of talent, but had not been in any major angle for months.  The slide into Zenk’s spot brought Santana another Tag Team belt (he had won it previously with Ivan Putski eight years before), and allowed Martel to keep the momentum going he had built in the WWF.  “Tito and I would discuss how we could have the best match every night.  I had a great time working with him.”  The pair would hold the tag belts until they lost to Demolition at Wrestlemania IV.  Shortly after, Rick was written off television following an angle with Demolition so that he could be home as he had to take care of his wife who was ill at the time.  “Vince couldn’t have been nicer as he told me that family comes first and to take all the time I needed”.  Rick Martel did return to the WWF, but that heel itch he got in Montreal was something that had to be addressed.

“I told Vince that I wanted to come back as a heel, but he kept telling me that it wouldn’t work.  I eventually told him that if I don’t do it here (the WWF) I will do it somewhere else.  That got his attention and after a second meeting he eventually agreed”.  At this time in wrestling, performers with Martel’s looks and scientific ability just weren’t cast as the villain.  Rick was determined to make it work.

At Wrestlemania V, Santana and Martel reunited to take on Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson.  The key point of the match was when Santana accidentally hit Martel with the flying forearm sending him outside of the ring.  It was a “gasp” moment as the two were long time veterans known for impeccable timing and it led to one of the more shocking moments of the card.  Martel would slowly get up and even more slowly walk out on his tag team partner.  As soon as Martel dropped off the ring apron to walk back to the dressing room, the crowd in Atlantic City booed immediately. Martel cut a scathing promo on Santana after the match.  “Hulk came up to me and told me that it would draw money.  He said I had the sneer down and I was going to be a great heel”.

Rick would first be paired up with Slick as his manager but the pairing did not last long.  “Slick was a good guy but we got into a few arguments where his timing wasn’t what it should have been.”  The pairing didn’t actually make a lot of sense as the jive talking manager didn’t seem to have a lot in common with Martel character wise and watching him walk to the ring to Slick’s “Jive Soul Bro” was out of place. It was masked with his great matches with Santana but Martel felt he could be a better heel alone.  “I went to Vince and asked if I could be on my own and he agreed.  Remember, no heel back then was without a manager.  Vince was always available whenever I had idea and I got to roll with most of them.” The idea was then pitched by J.J. Dillon that he become the “Model”, a role that he is still best identified today.

“Back then, we would get the gimmicks but it was up to the wrestler to develop them.  Agents didn’t have time to work with the talent.  It was up to the wrestler to make the gimmick work.  The Model gimmick was so arrogant that he didn’t need a manager because he was too arrogant to have one.”  Rick Martel would go on to make the Model gimmick his own, developing a new GQ look, a catwalk strut, a sneer dripping with an I am better than you attitude and of course his cologne, Arrogance.

Rick would soon go into his highest profile singles program with the Jake “The Snake” Roberts as the former sprayed the latter with his cologne in the eyes.  This would “blind” Jake, and the two would have stellar matches across the country culminating in their memorable “Blindfold Match” at Wrestlemania VII.  After the match Rick went back to Quebec as his own personal business was taking off.  It was the result of a life lesson he learned a decade before.

“In 1980 I was wrestling for Don Owen in Portland and Stan Stasiak was there.  Stan was a former WWWF World Champion but he was refereeing and wasn’t wrestling as much as he used to.  He wasn’t treated very well, but he stayed because he needed the money.  I swore I would never let that happen to me.”  Martel never forgot that lesson and began working in commercial real estate and by 1991 he was ready to make a go of it full time.

As Rick made his business ventures profitable and self sustaining, he looked to go back into wrestling.  He came back to the WWF but was not used in the same capacity.  “I guess Vince felt that he couldn’t trust me completely as he felt that maybe I would leave again to go back to my business.  I do understand it though.”  Martel still had good matches, making Tatanka look good and he had a memorable heel VS heel match against Shawn Michaels at Summer Slam.  In 1994, his return there he was also used to as a viable contender to make Razor Ramon’s title reign look good.  “Sometimes, I wish I didn’t come back.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love to wrestle, I did, but professionally I was in two places as I was also focused on my real estate.  It is tough to be focused on both”.  Martel would leave the WWF on good terms but after feeling that his business ventures were in good hands but this time he would go to work for WCW.

Martel returned to wrestling but this time as a babyface.  It was apparent that he could still deliver good matches and he was in a program with Booker T who was the WCW Television Champion at the time.  Martel would be injured at a WCW Pay Per View against Booker, but after healing from his injury he went against Stevie Ray.  This would be Martel’s final match as he suffered a neck injury against the big man but not before being hit with a chair by Bret Hart which was to have started a program between the two.  Martel quipped how he was “decked by Bret in his last match” but after his injury he knew it was time to hang it up for good.

Nowadays Rick Martel is still seeing the world but he gets to do so at a more relaxed pace.  He can now enjoy sightseeing with his wife and nine year old daughter.  Rick doesn’t much watch wrestling these days but it is not because he is bitter about the changes that have happened in wrestling.  “Wrestling always changes, it isn’t better or worse, just different.”  Martel simply doesn’t have the time to keep up with it.  “I did watch the last Wrestlemania and it was great to see the young kids give everything they had.  They do stuff, that I never thought of” he laughed.

When asked about the WWE Hall of Fame, Rick was very candid with his comments.  “I am not shy to say that I should be in the Hall, but if I don’t, it doesn’t take away from what I accomplished in my career.”  Martel is however being honored on April 18 at the prestigious Cauliflower Alley Club where he will receive the Lou Thesz Award.

Rick Martel still connects with his fans.  Roughly six times a year, he goes to various fan conventions.  “I love talking with the fans when they tell me about their favorite matches.  It always brings back good memories”.

As a fan of Rick Martel, I had the joy of discussing my favorite moments of his.  It was an even bigger joy to learn that he was not just a “Model” in the ring, but has the “model” life after wrestling too.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2015 18:47
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Kirk Buchner, "The Committee Chairman", is the owner and operator of the site.  Kirk can be contacted at [email protected] .

Comments   

0 #3 Knuckles -0001-11-30 00:00
I alos started watching wrestling in 1984, the first match I saw was Tito Santana' s IC title win over the Magnificent Muraco. Martel was AWA champ when we got cable, so he was the first champ there I saw. The feud he had with Stan Hanson was great, they would battle all over the arena. You really felt the two hated each other.
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0 #2 Committee Chairman -0001-11-30 00:00
Thanks Jimmy..... Interviewing him is definitely an early highlght for me on this site.
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+1 #1 jimmy26 -0001-11-30 00:00
Great interview. i always looked at Rick martel as a guy who could have been much bigger. He had all the tools. The looks, the skill and the personna but he just never seemed to become as big as he should hve been. I think the Ultimate Warrior is a good analogy of where timing pays off. Martel could have been every bit as big as he was if he would have been in the right palce at the right time as he was a much better wrestler. I too started follwing wrestling in 1984 and Martel was always at the top of the list of guys who should have been huge and only needed to be marketed better. and of course get to the WWF! I never thouhth his time there was as good as it should have been. I still think Martel is a hall of famer. Just always thought what might have been?
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