SLAM! Wrestling’s Greg Oliver interviewed Rick Martel over the phone from his Quebec City home on Wednesday, April 1, 1998. He’s on the shelf at the moment due to injury, but enjoying the time off.
Below is the transcript of the 45-minute interview. The interview came a little out of the blue, so we didn’t get a chance to solicit more than a couple of readers’ questions.
Q: So let’s change a little bit. How did you get started in wrestling?
A: How I got started was in 1973, my brother was in wrestling in Nova Scotia.
Q: Which brother was this?
Q: He’s the one that’s passed on.
A: Right. That’s correct.
Michel was in the Maritimes and the wrestler got injured and they needed a wrestler within 24 hours. And they couldn’t find one. So he ventured, ‘my kid brother, he wrestles’ and I was 17-years-old. I had wrestled amateur, Olympic- style, Greco-Roman style, but I had never wrestled professional. So he called me up on a Friday night and said ‘I’d like you to get on a plane tomorrow and start professional wrestling.’ And I said ‘whoa, I’ve never wrestling professional.’ He said, ‘that’s alright, you’ve wrestled Greco-Roman, and all that. You’ll do alright.’ So I got on the plane and wrestled that Sunday in New Glascow, Nova Scotia. No, North Sydney was the first time.
Q: Was it love at first match?
A: Oh yes. I won my first match and I was great. I got a great feeling and loved it right away. And this is what I wanted to do. In fact, I did it for the summer and then I was supposed to go back to school in the fall. So I went back to school for one day and that night, I went to bed and I kept thinking, ‘wow man, I miss it already.’ The next day I went back to school and went to see the principal and I told him, this is it for me, I’m quitting. He said, ‘after one day?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I know I’m not going to finish the year because I miss wrestling already. That’s what I want to do. This is it.’ My parents were shocked. And I went back into wrestling, and I never regretted it.
Q: You also had family connections in wrestling. Your brother Michel. When would he have started wrestling?
A: Michel started five years before, in 1968, in the U.S. He had been to Mexico and everything. Of course, he paved the way for me. He helped me We went to Japan together when I started and all that. He helped me a great deal. Definitely. In fact, when I was 16 years old, he was wrestling in Calgary for Stu Hart and he flew me out there for two weeks in the winter the year before I started professional wrestling. He just wanted me to see what professional wrestling was like on the road and all that. And get a feeling of it. When he first started, right away he wanted me in. We were really close. He knew I loved wrestling, amateur wrestling. And he knew I would love professional wrestling.
Q: Are you related to Frenchy Martin too?
A: No, with Frenchy, we’re like brothers. We’re not related as such. But we are like brothers. I grew up, when I was a little kid, around Frenchy. Frenchy and my brother were together all the time. So I knew him. He’s like a big brother to me.
Q: Now, I’m also to understand that your nephew is getting involved?
A: Yes. In fact, my nephew Kevin Martel. Yes, he’s a very good athlete, very athletic, acrobatic. Unfortunately in the past few years, he loved wrestling — he’s a great wrestler — but he’s too small. But with the welterweight division, there’s an opening for him. He’s going to give it a try.
Q: So he has signed a deal with WCW?
A: No, what he’s doing now, he’s planning to go to Mexico and polish his wrestling abilities, learn the different moves. Then he’s definitely give it a try with WCW.
Q: Just so we have it on the record, you’re no related to Sherri Martel, right?
A: No. [Laughing]
Q: That comes up a lot.
A: Oh yes. Yes, some people thought it was my wife, my sister. But no, she’s not at all.
Q: After you went to Nova Scotia, you eventually went to New Zealand, Japan. What were some of your favorite memories from some of those places?
A: In New Zealand I won the Commonwealth title against King Curtis. That was the biggest thing that happened to me early on. I remember I was so excited about it. So go I wrestle in Australia, New Zealand, and I had the Commonwealth title around my waist and it felt great, exciting. It went to Singapore, Malaysia. That was quite a year for me, 1977, part of 78. That’s was the best memory.
Q: Shortly thereafter you entered the WWF and became a tag champion with Tony Garea. What were those days like?
A: Oh those were great days. We still keep in touch. Tony had a big impact on my professional life and also personal life. He was like the brother that I lost. Of course, nobody will replace Michel, but Tony was like a big brother to me. I got really close with him. We had the titles two different times, Tony and I. We beat the Samoans and we beat the Moondogs for it. It was great. Those were great years. I had a great time and I really enjoyed it. There were guys like Don Muraco, Angelo Mosca, a Canadian, a guy I respect a great deal. Angelo’s a good friend of mine. And so I met a lot of good people. It was exciting also with the big crowds. That was when we were wrestling in all those big towns like Philadelphia, New York and all that. That was pretty exciting.
Q: You also spent a lot of time wrestling out of Montreal, but you were never associated with Grand Prix the way the Rougeaus were.
A: What happened was, at the beginning of my career, Raymond was Johnny’s nephew and Johnny Rougeau, who was running the promotion when I started. I remember he was maybe like a year older than me. He was liked 18. And back then, wrestling at that early age was kind of a novelty. I was doing real well, and the crowd liked me, but I couldn’t be booked on cards for some reason. I was very disappointed because I thought I was pretty good. People liked me. I remember I could only wrestle like once a week or something. So finally a local promoter came to me, and said, ‘listen Rick, I’m going to give you a piece of advice, I like you a lot and people like you, but if you stay here you’re not going to advance. They don’t want to give you a chance here because you’re like Raymond. It takes the novelty out of Raymond, a young wrestler around. I venture to give your name to be on a card, and they always so, no, no. So if I was you, I’d go outside.’ It was the best advice someone could have given me. That’s when I got booked overseas, Japan.
Q: Do you have any regrets? Do you wish you were a bigger hometown star?
A: No because I am very happy with the way things happened. I was able to see a lot of countries and met different people and saw different wrestling styles. Like in New Zealand, Australia it was rounds. So I learned a lot, went to Europe. That was early on in my career. It helped me a great deal because I matured outside, overseas. And then when came back into the States, I had maturity with me. So it helped me a lot. I don’t think that I could have learned that here.
Q: Who were some of the mentors you had over the years? You mentioned Tony Garea.
A: Definitely. Mark Lewin also had a big impact on me. He was in New Zealand at the time. Don Muraco.
Q: In today’s wrestling world, you’re a much older star. Have you stepped into the role — someone the younger stars can look up to?
A: I think so. I was fortunate when I started I got a lot of help from veterans, who helped me along. I try to return that. I always do. Whenever someone, a young wrestler, comes over and asks me questions or has me watch his match and criticize him, constructive criticism. It’s my pleasure to do so. I’m glad I can help out because people helped me in the past. I’m glad I can do the same now.
Q: How did you end up working for Verne Gagne in the AWA?
A: I wrestled against Nick Bockwinkel, I was in Hawaii. I was Hawaiian champion in 1978. I wrestled against Nick Bockwinkel for the AWA title back in 1978, it was June 1978. I wrestled him to a draw, it was one hour. It was a pretty exciting match. I guess Bobby Heenan was there — he was his manager, Bockwinkel’s manager. They noticed me. I kind of took them by surprise. They had never heard of me before. I guess they kept that in the back of their minds and somebody mentioned my name to Verne Gagne. I guess that he called a couple of people in Hawaii and found out about me. I was wrestling in the WWF, and they had plans to bring a younger wrestler in the AWA. So they got in touch with the WWF out of New York and asked me if I was interested. The AWA was a very respectable association, federation. So I jumped at the opportunity.
Q: Eventually you became World Champion. What was the match like against Jumbo Tsuruta where you won the belt? [May 13, 1984]
A: It was something else! I had been to Japan before and I remember he was treated like a god in Japan. A big man, about 6’5″, 6’4″, a big guy. I had always admired and respected him. He was brought up by Dory Funk, and that kind of thing. I had respect for him. So when I wrestled him in, I remember stepping into the ring against him in Minneapolis, and I look across, and said ‘that’s a big guy.’ It was pretty exciting. I had trained pretty hard for that match, so I was ready for him. We had a pretty physical match. I was very happy. It was definitely the biggest night of my career.
Q: And then you lost the title to Stan Hansen.
Q: Now there’s a rough, tough customer. Your styles kind of contrasted.
A: [Laughing] Oh yeah. Stan, I’ll be honest, is the toughest man I’ve ever met in wrestling. No doubt. I remember Stan because we wrestled a couple of times back when him and I started, back in early ’75 in Texas. I wrestled him a couple of times back in Texas. It was really tough matches. We wrestled a lot of draws. I remember these matches to be so physical. I was real light, he was pretty heavy. Going after 15, 20 minutes, he kept going at his size. I couldn’t believe it. He would never get tired. So then when I wrestled him again in the early ’80s, he had been to Japan a lot of years. The style in Japan is very up and down, a lot of movements. Stan was perfect for that style. So when I wrestled him here in the States for the AWA title, he had kept that style with him. He had brought that style with him from Japan where it was just back and forth, and back and forth. Really physical, and up and down a lot. I couldn’t believe that he could keep that pace going at his weight. He’s definitely the toughest man I’ve ever met in wrestling.
Q: During your time as AWA champ, you even had a couple of unification matches with NWA champ Ric Flair. What were those matches like?
A: Ric, you know, has that flamboyant style. So it was perfect for me. Again, Ric is another guy I have a lot of respect for as far as endurance. In fact, that’s why he’s still there after all these years. He’s a guy that has a lot of endurance in that ring. So those matches, I had some really long matches with him. I wrestled some hour draws. You couldn’t tell the difference at the 5 minute mark or the 55 minute mark. He was the same. He just kept going and going. So I had some terrific matches with him.
Q: A lot of people would say that when you were AWA champion, and they had Hulk just starting in the WWF, and Flair in the NWA, that was one of THE pinnacles of wrestling history. How would respond to that?
A: I would feel very privileged with that comment. Of course, that was a great era, the fans were really following what was happening, especially with Hulk. His career was really taking off, really coming on. People could feel his charisma coming on. And also Ric Flair and all that. It was a really exciting period. And also Nick Bockwinkel was tremendous on that period. I was really happy to be a part of all that.
Q: You weren’t really around when the AWA died, but how did you feel when you heard that it went under?
A: I was pretty saddened by that. When I left the AWA, things were going really well. Sometimes I didn’t agree with the things Verne Gagne did but I certainly respected what he did for wrestling and what the AWA accomplished for wrestling. What they brought to wrestling. They brought respectability to wrestling that they deserved. I admire that on Verne Gagne’s part. So when I saw the AWA crumble, I didn’t like it. I was saddened by it.
Q: Why did you leave the AWA?
A: Now I felt that I wanted to come back to Montreal, to Quebec. I wanted to come back to Quebec. And Dino Bravo was here, and Gino Brito. And Montreal wrestling needed some new blood. And now that I was established overseas and internationally, I wanted to come back to Quebec and show my family, my friends, and also the Quebec fans, that ‘hey, here I am, and I’m from Quebec, now I’d like for you to come see me, see what I’ve done, what I’ve accomplished, what I’ve become.’
Q: What was it like working with some of those guys? What about Dino Bravo?
A: Oh Dino. Dino was real close to me. We wrestled in the AWA as a tag team for a couple times. In fact we won the tag team championship once. I remember him being real strong, short-tempered. [Laughing] I liked being around him. He was a good influence in the gym. We’d go workout together and he was really good to workout with. He would push me a lot. I liked being around him.
Q: How about Gino Brito?
A: I have nothing but respect for Gino. What I admired about him was his fire. The fire in his style, very aggressive, very explosive wrestler. I remember when I was a kid, I was 10 years old, I’d go to wrestling and he was one of my favorites. I remember when he would explode, he would just go crazy. I admired to explosive style he had. So when I got to be around him, I liked that.
Q: Well, let’s move on then. Why did you join the WWF?
A: 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. Their production and all that. 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. So I said before it does happen, I could see where it was heading, and I could see where WWF was going, so I said it was time for me to move on to better things, bigger, better things. The WWF had called me, I had won the AWA title, I talked to McMahon, he had called me about joining WWF. Of course, I went on to win the AWA title, then I went to Montreal. So I said maybe it was time to get in touch with him. So I called him. We had a meeting. He was really excited about me coming back to the WWF and I was excited about going.
Q: When you came back to the WWF, it was with Tom Zenk as the Can-Am Connection.
Q: What was your relationship like with him inside and outside the ring? [Jamie Roberts]
A: When I saw Tom 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’ ‘I heard about him.’ Then when I when I saw him in the ring, I said wow, because it’s so strange. He really was so similar to me. His style. And later on I found out that Tom had been watching me a lot and kind of copied my style and did a lot of the moves that I was doing. Plus with his look being the same as me, a lot people kept comparing us. Then what I did with Tom was like what Mark Lewin, a lot people did for me. My brother and all that. I helped from day one. I helped him get booked, get tours done. … I helped him a lot in the beginning of his career. Then when I decided to the WWF, I could see that him and I had big potential as a tag team. So I asked McMahon, and of course McMahon had never heard of Tom Zenk. So he 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.’ And sure enough when we joined WWF, 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.
Q: I can remember the impact you guys had when you arrived. But why didn’t it last?
A: 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 also mentally. It’s hard physically. Tom wasn’t mentally or physically hard as I thought he would be. I think that when he realized, 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. Everyday go to that gym. Everyday, 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. I remember in the last few weeks, I remember 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 him. 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, what’s going on.’ But I would be the guy that had to push him. I could feel that something was wrong here. So sure enough 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 right in the middle of the night, like a thief in the middle of the night.
Q: Have you talked to him since.
A: Yeah, in fact McMahon 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. So let’s give him three days to rest and stuff and then I’ll go talk to him.’ So they flew me to Minneapolis and I went to meet him at his house. I said ‘Look Tom, what went wrong?’ He said ‘Look, I can’t this and that.’ And he was really … I could tell that he had cracked. He just couldn’t take it anymore. That was the end of it.
Q: Do you still keep in touch with him?
A: No, in fact that was the last day that I talked to him. Because 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. Because 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. I said ‘Look Tom, let’s at least finish.’ Because the WWF had given us the opportunity to show that we were good. Let’s no penalize them. Let’s finish what you’ve started like a couple of months. Because he wasn’t injured. So I said ‘Let’s come back on finish the days.’ And also I gave my word on his behalf. The least he could do is finish it right for me. Because I had spoke for him. So I says come back Tom and let’s finish those days. If you want to go on with your life, that’s fine. He didn’t want to do that. I said ‘that’s not right. At least have the guts, the responsibility to come back and finish your days and then go on.’ He said ‘no, no’ and just kept knocking everything. For him, that day wrestling was finished. He was going to go on to other things, better things. And then he tried after, but he didn’t succeed.
Q: He never really made it again.
A: No, he never really made it. He had the potential. But then again, he didn’t have the potential, because he didn’t have what it takes, with what I said earlier, he wasn’t mentally or physically, he was not up to par.
Q: And so was born Strike Force.
A: Yeah. And what a difference! Because Tito was, I remember the first day I teamed up with Tito, instantly I felt… Because in tag team, you have to be supported. You have to feel the guy you’re tagging with can get the job done. So for Tito, right away he was an instant hit. Inside the ring, outside the ring. We got along just like two peas in a pod. I could feel comfortable having him beside me. I had somebody that could get the job done. He was a great guy. I’m still in touch with him. He’s a really nice guy.
Q: Now, from there Strike Force kind of ran its course.
A: What happened with Strike Force was, after a while, I decided that I wanted to be on my own. I had been in wrestling for several years, and accomplished a lot of things, and Strike Force had done well. But now I felt that I wanted to go as a single, a single competitor. I wanted to go back to single. I was tired of tag team matches. So I remember one day I had a meeting with Vince McMahon about it. I said ‘I want to change my style a little bit.’ He said, ‘no, no, you guys have a great thing. People like you the way you are.’ So he didn’t want me to change my style. He wanted me to stay with Strike Force. So of course, I didn’t want to. I was disappointed. I remember that I gave them my notice as well. If you don’t want it this way, somebody else will. So I gave him my notice, but he didn’t take me seriously at first. He thought I was just bluffing or something. So I guess when he found out I gave my notice and was serious, he called me up and said, ‘Rick, listen,’ this is exactly what he told me, ‘listen…’ In fact I walked out at WrestleMania and he called me up, two weeks after WrestleMania when I walked out on Tito. He said ‘WWF don’t need Rick Martel and Rick Martel doesn’t need the WWF.’ So he said, ‘let’s go from there. Come back and let’s talk.’ Because I guess the fans’ reaction was much bigger, and they didn’t anticipate it. The fans reacted by my walking out on Tito, the reaction was to … the fans reacted tremendously. We created an interest there where they wanted me against Tito. I remember the first day I came back I wrestled in Rochester, New York, after WrestleMania where I walked out on Tito. After I walked out, people started booing me. It was the first time ever. Whoa, what a different feeling. And funny enough it felt pretty good. I walked in there and they started booing me. Of course the return matches against Tito were pretty exciting. My career took off from there as a different kind of style.
Q: So who came up with The Model gimmick?
A: J.J. Dillon. Yep, J.J. Dillon. He has to have the credit for that. Because J.J. had known me, in fact my first television match was against J.J. Dillon in Nova Scotia in 1973. So that was my first television match was against him. And J.J. had seen me in 1973, in Hawaii, New Zealand. So he had kind of seen me the way I was. I always liked to dress nice. I was always careful about how I looked. So right away when he saw fans start to boo me, he said he could see me as a kind of guy like that. So that’s how he put that name on me.
Q: So did you enjoy your time as The Model?
A: I loved it. Really, it was a change that I needed at that time to motivate me. To keep me going, to keep reaching higher and higher. That was a big challenge for me because, of course, everyone was against it from the start. Nobody believed that it would work because I was so established as a babyface-type wrestler. Nobody believed they would buy me as a villain-type. And when it took off, people really liked it. They said, wow, it’s working. They couldn’t believe it. I would adjust to it. For me, it was satisfaction on my part, from making that succeed.
Q: How about the Arrogance perfume?
A: All those were my ideas. Everything. The Model, the WWF just gave me the name and I ran with it. Everything else was my idea.
Q: You had some big feuds other the years as The Model. One of them, was at WrestleMania XI, if I remember correctly. Was that the one in Toronto?
A: The one in Toronto was against Koko B. Ware. But I guess as the time as The Model against Jake ‘The Snake’ in Los Angeles at WrestleMania [XII] was …
Q: The Blindfold Match. That’s why it’s sticking out.
A: Yeah, The Blindfold Match. That was pretty different. It was a lot of fun doing it. Of course the feud I had with Jake was pretty good. The fan interest was pretty with it.
Q: You had one feud there with Tatanka where you stole his headdress and wearing his feather. But that got dropped pretty quickly. What happened there? [Jeff Marek]
A: Again, I blame that one on myself. Because that’s when I divided my interest into commercial real estate. It was the beginning of the end for me there. I didn’t stay with it 100%. Wrestling, if you want to succeed to be in there 100%, if you want to succeed, everything. So I was busy between the two. That’s when they could feel it and I could feel it, and that’s how it started. That’s how we knew, they knew and I knew, that I wasn’t interested anymore.
Q: When you left the WWF, you did little spot shows. You worked for Tony Condello [Winnipeg] a bit.
A: Yeah, I didn’t do much. I didn’t do that many. Because I just did it to keep in touch with the wrestling world. I didn’t depend on that, because I had my business here, and was doing well with it. I just did it every once in a while, to keep in touch with what was going on in wrestling.
Q: Who are some of your best friends in the business?
A: Well, right now there’s Don Callis, who’s wrestling as The Jackal in the WWF. At first, I was supposed to … when I decided to come back into wrestling, I saw this guy Don Callus wrestle, and I wrestled tag team with him in the Maritimes. The idea of coming back in tag team matches… I liked him. I liked the way he wrestled. He was a pretty exciting character. He could have some pretty exciting interviews. I saw there was something here, some potential. My style, his style combined. Of course, we were supposed to go as a tag team, when I decided that WCW would be better for me as a singles. So he went with the WWF and he’s really happy to be there.
Q: Do you follow the other shows, the WWF?
A: No, not really. I have a satellite dish, I have TNT and TBS. This is what I concentrate on. I will once in a while tape WWF to see Jackal and how he’s doing.
Q: You’re one of the rare guys around who’s wrestled at the peaks of all the major federations, including Japan. Which one stands out as the best and why?
A: There’s different periods. Right now, there’s no doubt WCW is really, really got the wind in its sails. It’s exciting. You can tell they’ve got the momentum going. Back in the 80s, the WWF was exciting. Now, really the winds have shifted. What makes it happen I think, is definitely the quality of the wrestlers that are there. I think that was a big mistake on McMahon’s part. I think that he thought at the end of 80s, he thought he was the only person responsible for the success of the WWF. He didn’t credit the wrestlers, as credit was due to them. Because what make it happen — I don’t care what kind of production you have, I don’t care how many millions he invests into his production, if you don’t have the quality wrestling, the quality of the wrestlers that people will enjoy watching, they’re not going to watch it. McMahon thought he was going to start, get some new guys and get away from the veterans and just say I can make anybody, I can take this unknown guy and make him, put the production around him and make him a big star. But it’s not so. It didn’t happen. You have to have the basic quality, which is to be a good wrestler. And then if you have good, exciting production around it. It a package. It’s both that makes it happen. And I think that’s what WCW has now. Quality wrestlers. They really have the best wrestlers right now. That’s why they’re the best. And WWF has lost them, and they’re all with WCW. That’s why WCW is number one.
Q: How long could or should someone keep wrestling? We’ve got guys in their late forties now. Should there be a retirement age?
A: No, I don’t think age has anything to do with it. I think that as long as the fans enjoy watching them, I think that’s what matters. Because wrestling is so complex, that I think people decide who should be there and who shouldn’t. I think the response when you walk out, and people are excited about seeing you, I think there it is. There’s your response. You have some guys that are great forty-something, and some guys that are terrible at twenty-something. I think the fans decide who should keep going. I think every wrestler should know when you walk out there, and the response isn’t there anymore, that’s when you should have to intelligence to say, that’s enough, I’ve had a great career and now it’s over. And the day I feel that is the day that I’m not going to go in there anymore.
Q: That was my next question. How long do you think you’ll keep going?
A: When I walk out there, and people aren’t excited about seeing me or I can’t make a match exciting, that’s the day I’m not going to be there anymore. But to do that — I’ll be 25 years in wrestling — to do that now you have to keep yourself in top shape. I don’t even drink anymore. I train, I diet. I know that at my age, after many years wrestling, I have to keep myself in top shape in order to perform out there and to make sure from the first minute to the last minute of the match I’m out there and exciting to watch.
Q: Thanks for your time.
A: Thank you. It was fun.