MOONEYHAM COLUMN: Ken Patera was pro wrestling’s Olympic hero, world’s strongest man
Decades before Mark Henry claimed the title of the “world’s strongest man,” there was Ken Patera.
A world-class weight lifter before breaking into the wrestling business, Patera was the first American to clean and jerk 500 pounds over his head. He won a gold medal in the 1971 Pan American Games and competed in the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, Germany.
Patera, who will be a featured guest at the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest on Aug. 1-4
in Charlotte, has loads of memories to share of his time working in the Carolinas during the ‘70s.
Some of his best memories, though, are the ones he has of rooming with a future world champion before either got into the mat game.
“It was total insanity. That was the original Animal House,” Patera says of his roommate days with Ric Flair during the early ‘70s in southern Minnesota. “It wasn’t exactly cupcakes and liquorice.”
The two met while working at a Minneapolis dinner club.
“I worked the back door, which was the Red Dog Saloon,” says Patera. “That was the working man’s bar where everyone came in with (stuff) on their shoes, and their only purpose was to get drunk and get in a fight. Ric worked the front door, where most people came in wearing suits and ties and evening gowns.”
The club was a virtual gold mine, attracting several thousand patrons a day, says Patera.
Flair, a major sports fan even then, recognized Patera. “I just saw you on (ABC’s) Wide World of Sports,” he told the weight lifter.
The following week, says Patera, Flair invited him to his parents’ house for a birthday party.
“He was still living with his mom and dad at the time, and he was dating his first wife. After that we really got to know each other. He was totally insane,” Patera laughs.
The two eventually moved in together.
“Here I was at around 320 pounds, and he was about 280, and all we did was chase women. He was totally outrageous. Of course he was working at it 24/7.”
In addition to bouncing at the dinner theater, Flair also worked as an insurance salesman.
The late-night hours, though, continued.
“His boss would have to call the house several times a week looking for Ric. I’d have to kick his (behind) out of bed every morning because he had been out all night,” chuckles Patera. “It was a nightmare getting him to work.”
Patera says he finally laid down the law and told Flair that the all-night parties had to come to an end. Patera was training for the Pan-American Games and complained that he couldn’t sleep.
“I had to get up at six in the morning and work out. I had to put the kibosh on that.”
Patera says the two were roommates for about five months. He knew that Flair wanted to break into the wrestling business.
“He never stopped bugging me about introducing him to (AWA promoter) Verne Gagne.”
Flair had attended the University of Minnesota with Gagne’s son, Greg, and Jim Brunzell, both future wrestlers.
Patera obliged and took Flair to Gagne’s wrestling office. Initially Gagne refused to take Flair since he already had his limit of students at his training camp.
Patera, though, did a sales job on the veteran wrestler and promoter, telling him about “the stack of wrestling magazines four feet high” that Flair had collected. “I saw the pile at his parents’ house. It was actually four feet high.”
“You gotta take this kid,” Patera implored Gagne. “He knows Greg, he knows Jim. “We’re roommates, he’s a good, big, athletic kid. He’s a natural for this business. He can do all the spots and moves like Ray Stevens.”
Gagne agreed to consider Patera’s request despite the fact that his camp was at capacity.
“Trust me, he won’t be in the way,” Patera told Gagne, who trained the grapplers on his sprawling, 120-acre farm.
Gagne consented, and the rest is history.
At one point, says Patera, Flair wanted to quit. But he never did, as Patera wouldn’t let him.
“He didn’t quit for even an hour,” says Patera, who started the camp a couple of weeks after returning from Munich.
The group included Flair, Patera, Greg Gagne, Jim Brunzell, Hossein Khosrow Vaziri (later known as The Iron Sheik) and former NFL linebacker Bob Bruggers.
Flair would later admit that he had never worked so hard in his life as he did during that harsh Midwestern winter, as Gagne and trainer Billy Robinson put him through the paces of 500 free squats, 200 push-ups and 200 sit-ups.
The ring, notes Patera, was inside of Gagne’s horse barns.
The grueling workouts would set the stage for Flair’s later reputation of being one of the most well-conditioned performers in the business.
“That was Ric’s role in life. He was meant to be in this business. He was meant to be the Nature Boy,” says Patera.
Patera got hooked on wrestling at the age of 10 when his family became the first in his Portland, Ore., neighborhood to purchase a television set.
“Every Saturday when wrestling would come on, I’d watch. We got three half-hour shows every week ... wrestling from Portland, wrestling from Texas and wrestling from the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Since we were the only ones in the neighborhood with a TV, there’d be 20 other kids in our living room watching wrestling.”
Patera grew up watching the likes of Gorgeous George, Mad Dog Vachon, Tough Tony Borne and Kurt Von Poppenheim.
Like Flair, Patera broke into the business in 1972. Billed as “the world’s strongest man,” Patera performed feats of strength such as bending steel with his bare hands and holding back an accelerated car with his legs pressed against the car’s front and his back against a wall.
An amazing all-around athlete, he bench-pressed 560 pounds, squatted 820 pounds and deadlifted 785 pounds.
When he first arrived in the Carolinas, he began a money-drawing program with Johnny “The Champ” Valentine.
“I loved working with him. The place would always be sold out when we worked together. I remember one particular match where we just beat each other to a pulp for 35 or 40 minutes. He dropped me on my head with a suplex, and just about knocked me out. That was a great match.”
The best match he had in the Mid-Atlantic area, says Patera, was the first match he had with his former roommate.
“It was a match in Rock Hill. I had a hell of a match with Ric. I don’t remember who won or who lost, but it was a tremendous match.”
Patera says he always enjoyed working for Crockett Promotions.
“It was more of a family situation,” says Patera, who noted that many of the wrestlers lived in close proximity to one another.
He also liked the area — so much that he bought booker George Scott’s house in Charlotte.
“He had it custom-built two years earlier. I bought it from him for exactly what he paid for it. He built a bigger house out by the golf course. I wish I still had that house, but I ended up selling it to Jimmy Garvin.”
One of his favorite characters in the wrestling business was Mid-Atlantic favorite Wahoo McDaniel.
“Wahoo had a fishing pole and a bag of golf clubs, and he was the happiest guy in the world. He didn’t need anything else.”
Patera, during his second Mid-Atlantic stint in the late ‘70s, defeated McDaniel for the Mid-Atlantic heavyweight title, a crown he held for more than a year before losing it and later regaining it from Tony Atlas. He would eventually drop the belt to fellow AWA alumni Jim Brunzell.
“Forget about all the BS about Wahoo McDaniel. If you were a guy in need, even if he didn’t even know you, he’d take the shirt off his back and give it to you. He was that type of guy.”
Patera battled the best and toughest wrestlers of the era, but none more times than the biggest wrestler of that era, Andre The Giant.
It was a natural match-up: The Eighth Wonder of the World vs. The World’s Strongest Man.
“We wrestled each other more than 600 times,” he says. “Hulk Hogan was second at about 500. The reason I know it’s over 600 times is because Andre told me. He kept a record. If I had to do it all over again, I’d work with him every night. He was a brilliant guy. His favorite subject was math. He was an unbelievable card player. You should have seen him play cribbage. He’d beat you like a red-headed stepchild.”
He and Hogan had a number system, says Patera.
“One through 10. We didn’t even call the move. We just said the number. He was very basic. I tried to mix it up a little bit. Ray Stevens once told me to keep it basic and simple, and everybody will remember. That’s absolutely true.”
Patera lists his final official match as the 1988 Summer Slam pay-per-view, although he later did a few “mini-world tours.”
“I couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” says Patera, who had eight major surgeries as a result of his profession.
“In 1993 I had my hip replaced, and I said this is it. I don’t need it anymore. I could have continued, but I like being close to my kids.”
Being a strongman, Patera says he could have easily limited his repertoire.
“I could have stuck with the bear hug and the full nelson and the body slam, and I wouldn’t have had all these operations. I was the world’s strongest man. Why should I take a backdrop or a suplex? But I felt I needed to entertain the fans. I think I gave the people their money’s worth.”
Patera, a couple of months shy of 70, worked in a number of businesses following his wrestling career. He owned a limousine service, health club, tanning salons and sports apparel company.
He now works as a leading salesman for one of the leading industrial suppliers of replacement screening systems in the country.
In layman terms, he says, “We crush rocks. We make big rocks smaller and we put them through a screening system that sizes them. They’re taken off on big conveyor belts, and they make big piles of rocks. Every time you run by a sand and gravel operation, you see all the different piles. All those piles have different sizes. We make all that possible.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.