The immovable and indestructible ‘strongman’ has always held an important place in professional wrestling. This designation has existed since wrestling’s infancy before the turn of the 20th century with George Hackenschmidt. It still exists in men like Mark Henry and Braun Strowman. One of the most legendary was Ken Patera, an Olympic weightlifter turned pro wrestler. Along the way, he experienced many moments that changed his life forever.
Ken Patera: Early Glory
Born in Portland, Oregon, Ken Patera experienced a life-changing event in 1953.
At the ripe young age of ten, Patera’s father brought home a coveted Sylvania television set, keeping Ken and his brothers in a trance-like state.
After getting acquainted with the test pattern, Patera could view a recorded version of the 1952 Summer Olympics from Helsinki. Although spellbound by all the athletic events, Patera was particularly enamored with weightlifting.
The Olympics were followed by ‘Portland Wrestling,’ featuring the stars of Don Owen’s Pacific Northwest National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) territory. But, again, it was love at first sight for Ken, as he, his brothers, and his friends often attempted to emulate the grapplers, much to the dismay of Mrs. Patera.
Ken Patera excelled in athletics throughout his high school days. Although he loved basketball and could dunk when he was 5’10”, Ken was particularly adept at wrestling, football, and track and field.
He ran the high hurdles and high jumped until a severe ankle injury shifted his focus to the strength-centered shot put. During his stay at Brigham Young University, he became one of the best shot putters in the country.
After a disappointing sixth-place finish at the 1968 Olympic trials, Ken again refocused, this time to Olympic weightlifting.
Ken Patera: Weightlifting Champion
Ken Patera won four consecutive U.S. Weightlifting Championships (1969-1972), the Gold Medal at the 1971 Pan American Games, and placed second in the 1971 World Weightlifting Championships in Lima, Peru.
Patera was the first American to clean and jerk 500 pounds and the only American to ever clean and press 500 pounds.
Ken won the 1972 Senior Nationals in Detroit, which guaranteed him a spot on the 1972 United States Olympic Team.
Patera won and dominated these competitions, settling many records along the way.
Going into the Olympics, Ken lifted a world record total of 1,396 pounds in the Olympic weightlifting trio (Clean and Jerk, Clean and Press, and Snatch). But unfortunately, he suffered from chronic knee issues, which would preclude him from any Olympic gold.
Tragedy at the 1972 Munich Olympics
Ken Patera was the special guest on the 100th episode of my podcast Dan and Benny In the Ring. He spoke at great length about his experiences at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, where he witnessed the tragic massacre on September 5th, 1972.
When a fellow Olympian mentioned the breaking news, which was being carried on German television, Patera was watching the scene unfold from the window of his hotel room.
Eleven of Israel’s Olympic team members, including a West German policeman, were killed along with five hostage takers.
Following this horrific event, Olympic officials made the decision to cancel the rest of the games.
After learning that he would no longer be competing, Ken and U.S. Track and Field team members reacted as many would after learning something they had worked their entire lives for would no longer be occurring: they drowned themselves in food and drink.
While Patera and friends consumed into the early morning hours, the Olympic officials soon reconvened, reversing their original decision and continuing the remainder of the games.
The following day, Ken was awakened by one of his teammates informing him of this decision and that they needed to be on their way to the Olympic Village, “In diesem Augenblick” (German for “Right now!”).
Naturally, this was a shock for the very groggy and hungover Patera, who, with his fellow athletes, drank away their pain the previous night.
Although he did compete that evening, his performance reflected the effects of his severely damaged left knee and night out.
A far less than 100% Ken Patera did not win an Olympic medal. Indeed a shame, as a fully functioning version of the Oregonian Strongman would likely have claimed Olympic Gold and set many records to boot.
Going Pro: The AWA
Before the Olympic games in Munich, Ken Patera was counseled by many to forego the 1972 Olympics, train for another four years, and then dominate in 1976.
Patera told them, “This is going to be my last meet. After the Olympics, I’m going to become a pro wrestler.”
“I already gave it four years,” Patera explained. “I’ve got an injured knee. If I injure that knee for another four years, I lose all that income. I’m $25,000 in debt, thanks to the Amateur Athletic Union. And that was after Verne Gagne sponsored me.
“I mean, it was a hundred bucks a week, but a hundred bucks a week is all I needed to live on back in 1972.
“So, I said, ‘Screw it, I’m gonna become a professional wrestler.’ That’s how I got into wrestling. I went back to Minneapolis and contacted Verne.”
Ken Patera’s brother Jack facilitated Ken’s relationship with AWA owner and perennial world champion Gagne.
Jack played in the NFL for seven seasons and later coached for several teams, including the Defensive Line Coach for the Minnesota Vikings from 1969 through 1975; he ultimately became the Seattle Seahawks’ Head Coach. During his stay in Minneapolis, he met and befriended Gagne.
Patera’s grueling Olympic training regimen was undoubtedly instrumental in matriculating through Verne Gagne’s equally brutal training camp. Patera’s ‘classmates’ included Verne’s son Greg, Khosrow Vaziri (whom we have all come to know and love as the Iron Sheik), and some guy named Ric Flair.
Patera launched his career with the AWA on December 10th, 1972 (per WrestlingData.com), picking up a victory over Rene Goulet in Minneapolis.
Patera faced the legendary Larry ‘The Ax’ Hennig for his third match, picking up a DQ win at the Civic Memorial Auditorium in Fargo, North Dakota.
Ken Patera remained undefeated in singles competition in December and was sent to Japan for the first of many tours in January 1973.
His first recorded loss was by disqualification to future AWA kingpin Nick Bockwinkel on March 3rd, 1973.
Patera also suffered losses to Billy Graham and Dusty Rhodes that month, but these were by count out or disqualification.
Working The Territories
After an approximate 16-month stay in Minneapolis, Ken Patera ventured south to work for Fritz Von Erich and World Class Championship Wrestling.
On May 16th, 1974, barely a year and a half after his professional wrestling debut, he faced then-NWA World Heavyweight Champion Jack Brisco in a two out of three falls match in Corpus Christi, Texas. Ken particularly enjoyed recounting this event on Dan and Benny In the Ring.
“Jack Brisco came down to Texas; he would be in for about two weeks. So, after the third or fourth day, we were booked to wrestle each other in Corpus Christi.
“At this time, Corpus Christi was this little fishing village with beautiful weather, beautiful beaches, and the perfect place for a vacation. But for a wrestling match, not so good.
“They had a nice building there that held between three and four thousand people, a couple of blocks from the beach.
“And so, the day of the match comes. It’s a Saturday night, and I went over early. The matches started at 8, so at about 6:30, nobody was there. No fans and no one around like there normally would be. And finally, about a half hour later, Jack Brisco comes in.
“His first comment was, ‘Is anybody gonna show up to this f****** place tonight?’
“I answered, ‘Well, the rumor is, there was no TV.’
“Tully Blanchard’s dad, Joe Blanchard, was running the show in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and a couple of other smaller towns.
“[Joe Blanchard] was in love with some 20-year-old girl; I think he had just gotten divorced or something. I don’t know how old he is; he had to be close to fifty at the time. And so he was madly in love; he’d been off the bottle for several years and was back on the bottle.
“He popped in after Jack and I showed up, and he hadn’t shaved for three or four days; he was all messed up.
“He had a pair of Levi’s and a tee shirt on; he just looked like a drunk off the street and smelled like one too.
“He commented, ‘We lost the TV contract six weeks ago, but we get it back next week.’
“So, Jack and I go out there, two-out-of-three falls. We went about a half hour; we had a pretty good match.
“Now, I was only in the business for a couple of years, so I wasn’t the greatest worker then. We went out and worked our a**es off.
“There were around 70 people in the house. So anyway, we got back to the locker room after the match; I put Jack over in the third fall; it was a countout, I think.
“We got paid that evening, right after the show down there in Texas. They always paid with an envelope. So, [Joe] puts the money in the envelopes. I open mine up. Twenty-five dollars.
“Then, Jack opens his up, and he’s looking at it. He says, ‘Ken, how much did you get paid?’
“I said, ‘Twenty-five dollars. How much did you get paid, Jack?’
When Patera commented that his payoff wasn’t enough to get drunk that night, Brisco graciously offered to pick up his bar tab. The champion and challenger made their way to a local strip club, accompanied by The Blackjacks (Lanza and Mulligan).
That night, Ken recounted that several patrons, their machismo undoubtedly bolstered by some liquid courage, were foolish enough to try to start something.
Blackjack Mulligan quickly finished this by pushing their table over, pushing each of them off their chair, telling them that if they didn’t shut up, he would knock each of them out, and strongly suggested that perhaps they should resume their drinking at another bar.
Fortunately, though sensory impaired, the young men made a very hasty retreat.
Ken Patera: WWWF Headliner
After Ken’s less-than-lucrative stay in Texas, he started working the territory trail. His travels took him to Georgia Championship Wrestling (GCW), Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, Mid-South Wrestling Association, and finally to the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), where he made his debut in January 1977.
He defeated then-reigning WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden via countout on January 17th, 1977.
To make your debut in the most prestigious territory in the country, at the most prestigious arena in the country, in a title match against ‘The Living Legend’ speaks volumes as to the reputation Ken Patera had carved out for himself in the world of professional wrestling in just four years.
During his appearance on Dan and Benny In the Ring, Patera revealed that both Vince McMahon Sr. and Sammartino approached him about ending Bruno’s reign and becoming WWWF Heavyweight Champion.
Patera commented, “When I first started up there for Vince, the old man, he was interested in me. I’m in less than a month, and he said, ‘Ken, how do you like this business? I know you’ve only been in a couple of years. Well, we run a pretty tight ship here. Bruno’s been our champion for quite a while now. Would you be interested in being our champion someday?'”
“So, Bruno got ahold of me,” Patera continued.
“‘Ken, how would you like to have the championship belt? I’d really like to drop it to you. But there’s a problem. Vince works with Eddie Graham down in Florida.’
“So, that’s what happened. Vince and the NWA Board of Trustees. Vince didn’t have a vote, but he was on the Board because he was friends with Sam Muchnick from St. Louis, who started that NWA Board.
“So anyway, at that time, Billy [Graham], before he came back to WWWF, was down there in Florida.
“When they were having that NWA powwow, Eddie got together with McMahon and agreed that Superstar Billy Graham could be the next WWWF Champion. But when Billy left the WWWF a couple of years before that, he and Ivan Koloff both had heat with the old man.
“And the old man [Vince Sr.] said, ‘F*** this godd*** superstar mentality. I don’t want any more godd*** superstars.’
“So, he was grooming Bob Backlund at the same time. I think he was working for the Funk Brothers out there in Amarillo, Texas.
“Then [Backlund] went to Florida, and Eddie Graham and Vince, those guys, talked all the time. But my name was still on the top of the list.
“I don’t know what happened.
“They brought Superstar into the WWWF to work a two to three-city program with Bruno, then Bruno dropped the belt to him.”
Ken Patera was an unfortunate victim of the political machinations of professional wrestling.
Although he may have been a victim here, Patera won numerous titles during his legendary career: the NWA Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Title (twice), NWA Missouri Heavyweight Title (twice), AWA World Tag Team Title (twice), and the WWWF Intercontinental Title.
Ken won the Intercontinental and Missouri titles a mere four days apart, defeating Pat Patterson for the Intercontinental Championship on April 21st, 1980, and Kevin Von Erich for the Missouri title in Missouri on April 25th, 1980.
He held each of these championships for over six months. While this would be virtually impossible today, this was a spectacular feat, even during the transient territory days.
Ken Patera was in very high demand during the entire duration of his career, routinely wrestling 250-plus matches per year. He wrestled close to two hundred matches in 1988 at 45 (his last full year).
With the exception of his early AWA years and his last year with WWF, Patera was consistently at the top of the card.
Ken Patera on the McDonald’s Incident
Although the life of Ken Patera has been abundant in fame, awards, and accolades, both in Olympic Weightlifting and professional wrestling, there is, unfortunately, a bit of notoriety as well.
On April 6th, 1984, Patera was involved in an after-hours incident at a McDonald’s restaurant in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where Patera had wrestled earlier that evening.
After being refused service from the restaurant (they were closed to the public for the evening but still had staff preparing food on the premises as they were filming a commercial), Patera allegedly threw a boulder through the cashier’s window.
Patera vehemently denies this, claiming that a recently discharged employee hurled the boulder.
Patera discussed this unfortunate incident with Devon ‘Hannibal’ Nicholson on The Hannibal TV.
“They had cameras all set up, and they had two or three platters with hamburgers stacked like a hamburger mountain.
“I asked, ‘Could I get four of those hamburgers to go?’
“[An employee replied], ‘No, they’re not warm anymore. They’re cold, and we need ’em for the commercial we’re shooting tonight.
“I said, ‘Come on, you probably got three or four hundred hamburgers there,’ you know? I said, ‘Me and my buddy are at the Holiday Inn. Their restaurant’s closed, and we’re starving.’
“They wouldn’t serve me.
“I was pissed off, and I was starving.
“I started to walk off, and some kid, who I found out later that they had fired the week before for being a jerk, comes running up there, grabs a boulder [from the rock garden in front of the restaurant], and throws it right through the side window by the cashier.
“I turned around, and the cashier was ducking while the guy was cursing, ‘Those sons of b****es fired me!'”
Patera didn’t think anything of it and returned to the Holiday Inn he was staying at for the night.
Ken was sharing a room with fellow AWA wrestler Mr. Saito. Saito had wrestled Mad Dog Vachon that evening and had injured his knee and therefore had not accompanied Patera to the McDonald’s.
Patera and Saito were greeted by two members of Waukesha’s Finest shortly thereafter.
Per Patera, a female officer maced him; a melee ensued, resulting in many of the officers going to the hospital.
“You know, you do a thousand good things, and you f*** up one time, and that’s all they want to talk about,” Patera expressed.
Eventually, the case made its way to court.
Patera continued, "We had an a**hole judge and an a**hole district attorney and that old saying, Murphy’s Law, if anything’s going to go wrong, it’s going to go wrong.
"The judge’s last name was Murphy, and he sentenced us to two years in prison, four years stayed and four years’ probation. They gave us ten years. We got out after a year and a half for good behavior.
“I spent a year-and-a-half in prison, whereas nowadays it would be a slap on the wrist with no bond and you’d walk right out of there. But, those were different days.”
It was an unfortunate incident, though it should not overshadow Ken Patera’s extraordinary athletic accomplishments and the many years of dedication and sacrifice it took to achieve them.
Dan Sebastiano asked Ken Patera how he would like to be remembered.
He responded, “Well, I gave it my all, no matter what I did. Whether in athletics or business or just being a good guy, I might have offended a few people over silly stuff. Still, I never went out of my way to talk down to anybody or abuse them or anything like that, like many people in the wrestling business had done. I just didn’t want to be that way because that follows you home.
“I was married three times, so I struck out three times, and that was the end of my marriage career. I never got married after that last divorce. But I have two beautiful daughters, Emily and Natalie; they’re 41 and 37.
“Right now, I live with my oldest daughter and her family. I sold the other house I lived in for thirty years in Minneapolis. So, we’re up here in Hinckley, Minnesota. I’m really comfortable here, live out in the country, and I don’t have any neighbors to yell at.”
In addition to his phenomenal accomplishments in the ring, Mr. Patera attained notable prowess as a ladies’ man.
On one occasion, he ‘wrestled’ Verne Gagne’s niece in a no-holds-barred, falls count anywhere encounter while residing at Canterbury Condos in Minneapolis while rehabbing from a recent knee surgery.
As Patera explained, “I had a cast from my balls to my ankle. But I got the job done!”
The age-old conflict between good and evil is at the very heart of the world of professional wrestling.
As Howard Jerome stated so eloquently in the movie 350 Days, “There is a fundamental longing in the human heart to see good triumph over evil.”
Promoters worldwide built up the latest heel to near-invincible levels, creating a perception amongst the fans that their babyface hero faced certain defeat.
The promoters who best capitalized on this were mightily rewarded as eager fans flocked to box offices.
And Ken Patera will always be remembered as one of the greatest superhuman heels of all time. Patera made us fear he would dethrone our generation’s heroes- Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund.
He was ever so convincing and legit. That Ken Patera isn’t in the WWE Hall of Fame is yet another reason to question the legitimacy of said venue located in that mythical place called Parts Unknown.
You can hear Ken Patera share more stories with me about his life and career on Dan and Benny In The Ring:
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