Long before Brock Lesnar brought his menacing brand of legitimacy to the world of pro wrestling, Ken Patera used his real-life exploits as a successful weightlifter to strong-arm territories and terrorize crowds across America from the ‘70s into the ‘80s at a level few could match, all while having fun.
“I loved it. I loved yelling and screaming at the fans. I just loved that,” said Patera.
Dubbed The World’s Strongest Man, the Oregon native was the first American to clean and jerk over 500 pounds. He won a gold medal in the 1971 Pan American Games and represented the United States at the 1972 Olympics, both in weightlifting. And his feats of strength on popular television programs gained him worldwide recognition.
But once he joined the ranks of pro wrestling, tormenting good guys and their supporters made Patera an even bigger star. However, as one night in Baltimore proved, remaining in character wasn’t always easy.
“So, this old lady, she’s up shaking (an) old rag toy at ringside,” said Patera, “I jump out of the ring, and I run up to her, I put nose-to-nose. I said, ‘You old hag, why don’t you sit down.’
“And she says, ‘Fuck you.’ I started laughing so fucking hard. I had 10,000 people at the Baltimore Civic Center or Auditorium, whatever they called it, and I had the whole house break up because they could see how hard I was laughing.”
When he wasn’t using his words to incite spectators, Patera would torment them with his slow undressing, casually slipping out of his Olympic tracksuit as ringsiders jeered and hissed. When aided by a manager like the Grand Wizard or James J. Dillon, fans became quite vocal and inappropriately suggestive when it came time for Patera’s aides to remove his pants.
Occasionally, insults gave way to something more sinister.
Patera figures at least half a dozen or more of his matches ended in a riot, with chairs flying into the ring and at him. In one incident, a soaring chair hit him in the mouth, knocking out one of his teeth.
Rowdy patrons also tried stabbing the 300-pound behemoth but the strongman claims they often found themselves knocked out before they could strike.
And while Patera was a master of getting under people’s skin, he revealed that being a great villain requires leadership and imagination.
“You have to be creative. You have to have a creative bone in your body,” said Patera. “When a wrestling match is going, somebody’s got to be the captain of the ship. So the heel is calling the match, like, headlock, toss me up, tackle off the rope, arm drag, leapfrog.”
When it came to letting a good guy call a match, Patera said, “We’ll let the babyface do some stuff, but not a hell of a lot because they usually fuck it up.”
In addition to being charismatic and clever, Ken Patera was tough as nails. And his unique ruggedness allowed him to endure not just the rigors of the ring but also his most unpredictable opponent, Mother Nature.
In the mid-’70s, Patera was driving through Paris, Texas, during a severe thunderstorm when his brand new Oldsmobile 442 hydroplaned and landed in a ditch. During the accident, Patera gashed his head open, and his knees hit the steering wheel so hard that it ripped it from the dashboard.
Yet, he still wrestled the next night, which, as luck would have it, saw his match end in a riot.
In 1979, while working primarily in the Carolinas, Patera said he wrestled 454 matches that year with just ten days off. According to Patera, he might wrestle as many as four times on the day of TV tapings, twice on Saturdays and twice on Sundays, plus another four nights a week.
When I asked how he wrestled through such injuries and a grueling schedule, Patera replied, “Willpower and the love of the business.”
Throughout his career, Patera held several titles. His most notable reign came after becoming the second man to win the WWE Intercontinental Championship.
Initially, Patera said Vince McMahon Sr. promised him a run with the WWWF (now WWE) World title in 1977. But he says plans changed when McMahon went with Superstar Billy Graham as a favor to his friend, Florida promoter Eddie Graham. McMahon Sr. made it up to him later with an Intercontinental title push.
During his near-eight-month stretch with the gold, Patera was a regular contender to Bob Backlund’s world crown while fighting off challengers for his title, such as Pedro Morales and Andre the Giant, who Patera said was his favorite opponent.
Following his time as the Intercontinental Champ, Patera continued to wrestle for various promotions before retiring for good in the early ‘90s.
Today, Patera is the co-author of his autobiography, Ken Patera: Weight of the World, which is available for sale at his website, KenPatera.com.
Patera is also preparing to celebrate his 80th birthday with family and friends this November. Among those expected to show up is Ric Flair. Their friendship dates back to their days in Minnesota in the early 1970s, where they trained together and worked as bouncers at a local club before entering the wrestling business.
Considering Flair’s propensity for having a good time, Patera could be in for a wild night.
“He says, ‘Kenny, you’re going to be 80 years old in November, right?’
“I says, ‘Right.’
“He says, ‘I’m going to come up for your 80th birthday. We’ll have a hell of a party.’”