by David Chappell
PART TWO (Catch up on Part One here.)
In February of 1978, exciting news broke on Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling television that Ken Patera was returning to the Mid-Atlantic area! Patera’s first television matches had him positioned as a “good guy,” but a subtle change in Ken’s personality and ring demeanor was evident from the wrestler Mid-Atlantic fans remembered in 1975. And that long blonde hair was hard to get used to! For instance, when Ken was paired with Johnny Weaver in a tag team match on TV, Ken gave credit to Johnny for securing the win, but in the same breath said the World’s Strongest Wrestler could have beaten both opponents by himself!
On the March 15, 1978 TV tapings at the WRAL studios in Raleigh, a few more eyebrows were raised regarding the returning Ken Patera. A main event tag team match was promoted at the start of the broadcast, the scheduled participants being Patera and Wahoo McDaniel against the tandem of Ric Flair and Greg Valentine. However, when it was time for the bout to begin, Patera was nowhere to be seen. The explanation given to the fans was that Patera had encountered travel problems. But the end result was that Wahoo was left without a partner against two diabolical opponents. Luckily for McDaniel, “Sensational” Dick Murdock substituted in as Wahoo’s partner, and in fact, the “good guy” team scored an upset win over Flair and Valentine!
Fast forward two weeks to the taping of the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling TV show on March 29, 1978, and this time Patera was paired with fan favorites Paul Jones and Ricky Steamboat against the ferocious team of Ric Flair, Greg Valentine and Cyclone Negro. The bout started off normally, but things started to change quickly. The first sign of trouble was when Jones went to make a tag to Patera, and rather than tag with Paul, Ken suggested Jones stay in the ring longer. That prompted an incredulous color commentator David Crockett to note, “Jones knows when he’s tired.”
As the match continued, Patera had Greg Valentine in a compromising position in his own corner, but rather than laying into Greg, Ken kept yelling, “GET UP VALENTINE,” all the while allowing Valentine to back pedal and make a tag to his partner Ric Flair! This conduct really had everybody scratching their heads. David Crockett even mentioned Ken’s “bad guy” stint in the WWWF saying, “his style was very different up there.” A perplexed Bob Caudle in his play-by-play role countered, “Maybe he’s bringing some of that style in here with him.”
It didn’t take long for the match to break down completely, with all six wrestlers in the ring at the same time. Rather than fight the “bad guys,” Patera started dropping elbows on his partner, Paul Jones! In response, Bob Caudle exclaimed, “PATERA…HE TURNED AGAINST HIS OWN TEAM, DAVID…I DON’T BELIEVE IT!!” David Crockett countered, “I DON’T BELIEVE IT!!” Luckily for Jones and Steamboat, Dick Murdock intervened and kept the carnage in the ring from being any worse.
When interviewed after the match with his new friends Ric Flair, Greg Valentine, Cyclone Negro and the Missouri Mauler, Patera was clearly relishing his new role as a Mid-Atlantic rulebreaker. Flair and Valentine were singing Ken’s praises, telling him he made the right career move by turning on his former friends. Ken called Jones and Steamboat “losers,” and said further that, “It’s always refreshing to be on the right side!” Patera concluded his first “bad guy” interview by saying, “When I left here I left as a winner, and I’m coming back ten times stronger!”
To cement Patera’s “heel turn,” Ken was matched up with Joe Furr, a perennially lower card “good guy” grappler, on the next edition of the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling television show that was taped on April 5, 1978. To hear the fans in the WRAL TV studios boo Patera then was a surreal moment. The World’s Strongest Wrestler went out of his way to punish the overmatched Furr, before finally putting him out of his misery with the vicious swinging neck breaker submission hold.
After the lopsided bout with Furr, Bob Caudle denounced Patera’s change of attitude and called him a “turncoat,” to which Patera responded that he had just become “very aggressive” in the ring, and he was just evening the score against wrestlers like Paul Jones and Mr. Wrestling, who had let him down three years ago when they were in the Mid-Atlantic area together.
It didn’t take Patera long to prove that his transition to the “dark side” had some career benefits associated with it. On April 9, 1978 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Ken defeated the immensely popular Indian Wahoo McDaniel for the prestigious Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Title. It was the first championship that Patera had ever held for Jim Crockett Promotions. Ken laughed that Wahoo was out of shape and over-the-hill, and turned back rather easily several challenges from the “Chief” in rematches during the spring of 1978.
Patera then embarked on a remarkable run with the Mid-Atlantic Title, holding it nearly continuously until being dethroned by Jim Brunzell in Richmond, Virginia on September 14, 1979. This upset occurred after “Jumpin’ Jim” had pinned Ken twice in non-title bouts during one TV show a few weeks earlier, which seemed to foreshadow the end of Patera’s extraordinary title reign.
But it’s hard not to marvel at how dominant Patera was during his Mid-Atlantic Title reign for most of 1978 and 1979. The only blemish was a four week spell during the fall of 1978 when Tony Atlas took the belt from Ken, only to have Patera come back at beat Tony for the Title in Atlas’ hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. The feud between the two weightlifters, Atlas and Patera, was an entertaining one. It even brought out Patera doing new feats of strength, including bending a spike, a steel bar and blowing up a hot water bottle until it burst on Mid-Atlantic TV! Atlas was able to match those feats, and the “good versus evil” battle between Atlas and Patera to see who should be called the “World’s Strongest Wrestler” captivated the Mid-Atlantic fans!
For a portion of the time Patera was the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Champion, he also held the unusual distinction of holding one-half of the Mid-Atlantic Tag Team Titles with his partner “Big” John Studd. Ken’s reign as a tag team champion ran from December of 1978 through the spring of 1979, and while this reign wasn’t terribly historically significant, it was quite unusual for the promotion to allow any competitor to hold more than one title at any given time.
Until Ken ran into the buzz saw named Jim Brunzell, Patera’s biggest threat to his Mid-Atlantic belt in 1979 came from the Italian sensation, Dino Bravo. Ken insulted Bravo calling him a “spaghetti bender” and a muscle-head who could lift a “ton,” but couldn’t spell it! Patera even put up a purse early in the year, adding fifty dollars for each TV opponent who couldn’t pin him or make him submit, and while Bravo made a strong play for the cash, Ken’s chicanery along with help from his partner John Studd, kept the money and title belt just barely outside the reach of Dino.
After Ken’s stunning defeat at the hands of Jim Brunzell, it was unclear what program Patera would embark upon next. In a bit of a surprise, in October of 1979 the articulate Patera took on the services of the great icon “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers as his manager. At the time, Rogers was managing the wild tandem of John Studd and Jimmy Snuka. This alliance had Ken team up with Studd, Snuka AND Rogers in some wild 8-man tag team matches. But just as Ken was getting settled in with Rogers as his manager, he abruptly left the Mid-Atlantic area in early November.
Unlike many wrestlers who would frequent the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling area multiple times over the years, Ken Patera never came back to Jim Crockett Promotions after his second stint. That leaves Ken with two very noteworthy, but very different, runs in the Mid-Atlantic area about two years apart. In many respects, the Ken Patera the fans saw in 1975 and then again in 1978 was like the difference between night and day. Which version was better? That’s certainly open to legitimate debate. But one thing is not open to debate…Ken Patera was a phenomenal performer whenever he wrestled in the Crockett territory, whether as a hero or as a villain, and that he left a legacy of excellence for all Mid-Atlantic fans to remember.