Where Are They Now? Ken Patera
"I'm an old man with a nice dog," Ken Patera told WWE.com through a mouthful of his favorite chewing tobacco. "That's basically how you can sum my life up."
Of course, the now-67-year-old former Superstar is being modest. A world-class weightlifter before entering the ring, Patera was the first American man to clean and jerk 500 pounds over his head and won a gold medal in the 1971 Pan American Games. He was also the second Superstar to capture the Intercontinental Championship, defeating Pat Paterson for the coveted title in 1980. (PHOTOS) Long before that, however, Patera was just another kid, daydreaming in front of the family television.
"I was watching the 1952 Olympic Games on TV and there was a lifter named Norbert Schemansky — a Polish guy from Detroit," Patera remembered. "I was just enamored."
Although he was still in elementary school, Patera was inspired to lift weights by the Olympic Gold Medalist. By the time he was 12 years old, the Oregon native could press 100 pounds over his head with one hand.
"My brother was playing for the Baltimore Colts and he couldn't do it," Patera remembered.
Thanks to his amazing genetics and tireless work ethic, Patera grew to become an internationally ranked powerlifter and one of the top shot put and hammer throw competitors in the country. The big man even competed in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Still, despite all of these accomplishments, Patera's success didn't translate to financial gain.
"I was $25,000 in debt," Patera revealed. "I said, 'Heck with it. I want to become a wrestler.'"
Unsurprisingly, the strongman had little trouble attracting the attention of famed American Wrestling Association promoter Verne Gagne. The grappling legend invited Patera to join his fabled 1971 training camp, which included future WWE Hall of Famers like The Iron Sheik and Ric Flair.
"Ric and I had a house in southern Minneapolis that he destroyed," Patera remembered. "He had a party there every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was the animal house."
Patera's introduction into sports-entertainment wasn't all fun and games, though. A tough, no-nonsense figure, Gagne brutalized his students for hours on end throughout the harsh Midwestern winter.
"We beat each other up for two and half months in sub zero weather," Patera said. "It was grueling."
The training was intense, but effective, and after a few years of learning the ropes in Japan and the AWA, Patera's career took off. A hated villain who was billed as "The World's Strongest Man," the bulky grappler's amazing physique and legitimate Olympic background garnered him the attention of every major promoter in North America.
"In 1979, I wrestled 452 matches," he recalled. "I was working for Crockett Promotions down in Charlotte, "Cowboy" Bill Watts out in Louisiana, [Mr. McMahon] and his dad up at WWE."
Constantly competing during the late '70s, Patera battled some of the toughest men in the world on a nightly basis. Regular challengers to the strongman included infamous hard hitters like Wahoo McDaniel, Tony Atlas and Andre the Giant.
"I wrestled Andre over 600 times," Patera revealed. "He didn't have weightlifting strength, but he didn't have to lift weights — just drink vodka and bottles of wine."
The powerlifter was also a serious threat to WWE Champion Bruno Sammartino throughout the mid-'70s.
"Bruno and I wrestled in Madison Square Garden, and the place was completely sold out," Patera remembered. "There were thousands of people who couldn't get in. They were breaking windows at Penn Station."
Although he took on countless opponents during his career, Patera considers his greatest rival to be Bob Backlund. He also believes that their 1980 Texas Death Match in New York City was the greatest bout of his career.
"He beat me up, bloodied my nose, fattened my lip, but I forgave him," Patera said of the former WWE Champion. "It was a hell of a match."
It was at this point in 1980 that Patera's career hit its peak. Regularly performing on the top of the card at events across the country, Patera simultaneously held both the Intercontinental Championship and the prestigious NWA Missouri Heavyweight Championship.
"I'm the only one to ever accomplish that feat," Patera said. "But with both of those titles in my duffle bag, it did get a little heavy."
The big man's good fortune would continue until the spring of 1984. Competing for the AWA at the time, Patera was staying with fellow competitor Masa Saito in a motel in Waukesha, Wis. when two police officers arrived at the door.
The former Superstar didn't know it at the time, but his life was about to change forever.
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