Ken Patera – The Great American Weightlifter and Professional Wrestler

If you’re a fan of professional wrestling or weightlifting, you’re probably familiar with the name Ken Patera. But did you know that Patera was also a top-notch track & field athlete? Ken was good enough to qualify for the 1968 Olympic trials in the shot-put, where he placed a respectable 6th. In high school, Patera couldn’t get enough of sports. He played football, wrestled, and competed in four different events in track & field. He competed in the high hurdles and the high jump and later switched to the discus and the shot-put.

Patera came from a long line of athletes in the family. His younger brother Dennis played for the SF 49ers in 1968. His older brother Jack played in the NFL from 1955–1961 for the Baltimore Colts, Chicago Cardinals, and the Dallas Cowboys. After his playing career ended, he became a defensive line coach for the Rams, Giants, and Vikings. He served as the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks from 1976-to 1982.

A Change In Olympic Sport

After failing to qualify for the Olympics as a shot-putter, Ken began competing in weightlifting. He placed first in the Senior National Weightlifting Championships in 1969 and 1970 in the superheavyweight division. 1971 proved to be an excellent year for Patera as he won the Nationals again and won a gold medal at the Pan American Games.

But his most significant achievement in 1971 was winning a silver medal at the World Championships in Lima, Peru. Patera continued having success, as he won his fourth consecutive gold medal at the 1972 Nationals. Big Ken not only placed first, but he also became the first American weightlifter to clean & jerk 500 lbs.

His superb performance also qualified him to compete in Munich, Germany, at the 1972 Summer Olympic games. But his dream of winning a medal in the Olympics was not to be. Although he placed third in the press with a lift of 212.5 kilos/468.5 lbs, he failed on all three of his snatch attempts, which eliminated Ken from the competition. Ken was not the only one to perform below his best that day. Many of the lifters were mentally affected by the tragic events that unfolded less than 48 hours earlier when Palestinian terrorists killed eleven Israeli athletes/coaches.

A Switch To Wrestling

Shortly after the Olympics, the International Weightlifting Federation voted to eliminate the Press (Ken’s best lift) from competition. With little to gain financially from lifting, Patera, now 30 yrs old, decided to retire from weightlifting and go into the world of Professional Wrestling. Ken’s best competition lifts are as follows. Clean & Press — 505.5 lbs. Snatch — 386.5 lbs. Clean & Jerk — 505.5 lbs. His 1,397.5 pound total (all three lifts combined) is the highest total ever by an American weightlifter.

Patera began his pro wrestling career in the AWA (American Wrestling Alliance) under the tutelage of the legendary Verne Gagne. With Patera playing the role of the babyface, a feud developed between himself and villain Johnny Valentine.
After leaving the AWA, Patera wrestled for the NWA, where he feuded with another villain, Superstar Billy Graham.

Joining the WWWF

In 1977 Patera joined the WWWF, this time as a heel. His signature move was the swinging neck breaker. After making a name for himself, Ken wrestled Bruno Sammartino for the championship belt. These two gladiators would wrestle each other numerous times. 1977 was a busy year for Patera as he would also compete in the first “Worlds Strongest Man” contest, finishing in third place.

Throughout his wrestling career, Patera would perform various feats of strength, such as blowing up hot water bottles until they popped, bending spikes with his hands, and bending bars behind his neck.

In the late 1970s, Patera wrestled Bob Backlund for the championship belt. Although Patera never held the WWWF World Title, he did hold numerous other belts, including the International Heavyweight Championship and the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Championship.

Moving To The AWA

Never staying in the same place for too long, Patera wrestled in the AWA in 1982 & 1983, joining the Heenan family and feuding with Hulk Hogan. By this time, Patera was a seasoned veteran and understood that you had to change roles from time to time. He teamed up with the Massive Jerry Blackwell to form a tag team with that in mind.

Sheik Adnan El-Kaissie managed the team. Kassie had wrestled against Patera several years earlier under the name of Billy White Wolf. Patera broke White Wolf’s neck using his patented move, “the swinging neck breaker.” But unlike the time when Bruno Sammartino had his neck broken (accidentally) by Stan Hansen, White Wolf’s broken neck was a fabrication.

White Wolf retired from wrestling and became Manager Sheik Adnan El-Kassie. With Kassie as their Manager, Blackwell and Patera wore Arabian-style garments and defeated Greg Gagne (Verne’s son) and Jim Brunzell to win the AWA World Tag team Championship in June 1983. All was going well for Ken Patera, who was at the height of his wrestling career, but then he got into some trouble.

Trouble Outside The Ring

After checking into a hotel late at night on April 6, 1984, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Patera and his tag team partner Masa Saito needed to get something to eat. They were hungry after just wrestling at a nearby show. With all nearby restaurants closed, Patera walked over to a McDonald’s to purchase burgers for himself and Saito.

But that too was closed. Patera pleaded with them and explained that he just wanted to buy the leftover burgers, and he’d be on his way but to no avail. Enraged, Patera allegedly threw a large rock through the window, although Patera denies this, claiming it was a disgruntled former employee who threw the rock.

In any case, the police showed up at the hotel, and Saito and Patera roughed them up. In August 1985 they were both sentenced to serve a two-year prison term. They were released six months early for good behavior.

Back In The WWF

Patera returned to wrestling in the WWF as a “babyface” and feuded with former manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, whom he said ‘sold me down the river while I was in prison.’ Not long after his return, Patera had to take another layoff from wresting due to rupturing the bicep in his right arm.

Now in his mid-forties, Patera was no longer a headliner, but he continued wrestling through the 1990s.

In 2013 Patera was an honoree at the Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen Reunion Dinner in Newark, New Jersey. You can watch the video of this by clicking on the link below.

Ken Patera was inducted into the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Westside Xtreme Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2016. Surprisingly, he has yet to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.  

Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond.  He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area. 

He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training (Second Edition): A Guide for People with Limited Time and Running Wild: (Growing Up in the 1970s)

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    6 thoughts on “Ken Patera – The Great American Weightlifter and Professional Wrestler”

    1. Of course I remember Ken Patera! When you think pro wrestling and weightlifting, first thought is…well, of course! Only having ever followed pro wrestling from the summer of 1983 into the fall of ’85, and it only being WWF, I thought I remember him being in the WWF within that time period and knowing he had a big-time history in weightlifting. It’s vague enough therefore my memory must be off. I’m pretty sure he was a heel and had a sidekick. Heenan, perhaps? But you say he was his rival so I’m not sure.

      Was his older brother, Jack, a competitive weight-lifter as well? Or did he, perhaps, just engage in it to better himself for football and other sports he partook in? If not for a disagreement with Weeb Ewbank, he could have played on a League Championship Colts team (or two) not to mention playing in “The Greatest Game Ever Played!” He did play both-ways in his brief NFL playing career and played on Tom Landry’s first Cowboy team in ’60. Coached the DL for both the Fearsome Foursome and also the Purple People Eaters before becoming Seattle’s first-ever head coach, piloting the new Seahawks to two-straight winning seasons in ‘year 3’ (1978) and ‘year 4’ (’79) of their existence! And everyone seems to only focus on Tampa Bay’s surprise NFC Championship Game appearance in ’79!

      • Thanks for your comments. Patera moved around a lot, from one federation to another, but yes, Heenan was his manager at one point. After Patera served his time in prison, he returned as a babyface and feuded with Heenan. Patera spent most of his career as a heel, but he’d play the babyface occasionally.
        I never heard anything about his brother Jack competing in weightlifting. But you’re right; he was a heck of a coach, both as a defensive coach and a head coach.


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