Masanori “Masa” Saito, known as Mr. Saito to a generation of American wrestling fans, passed away at the age of 76 last weekend following a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. An Olympic freestyle wrestler in 1964, Saito was a legendarily hard man and among the most universally respected people in the wrestling business; his toughness, his skills as a performer even well into middle age, and his long-term success in America made him a legend. Or, anyway, that’s the bigger part of the legend. But it would be hard to blame midwestern fans if they remembered Saito in large part for the time that he and Ken Patera completely lost their shit at a McDonald’s and nearby Holiday Inn in Wisconsin. We’ll get to that.
In the ring, Saito was something of a precursor to 1980s and ’90s stars like The Steiner Brothers and “Dr. Death” Steve Williams—built like a fire hydrant, blessed with elite wrestling skills, and mean as hell; current WWE star Chad Gable is like a less hard-nosed version. Saito could and gladly would grind opponents into the mat or suplex them out of their boots, and his particularly gnarly back suplex variation eventually being nicknamed “the Saito suplex” within the business. In his American prime, he was a dastardly heel in the mold of a number of stereotypical Japanese villains—kimono, sandals, calfless tights, the whole deal, all while throwing salt at his virtuous opposition. Pro wrestling has never been terribly subtle or terribly enlightened about this sort of thing, but Saito was considerably more skilled than the other wrestlers cast in that role. So when he ended up in the normally plodding regional version of the WWF in 1981, it was a breath of fresh air. This was doubly so when Saito and Mr. Fuji were paired up with Rick Martel and Tony Garea, who worked in a considerably more exciting style than that area’s fans were used to.
In 1983, Saito returned to Japan when fellow Olympian Riki Choshu formed a new stable—Ishingundan, which translates as “Restoration Army” and was sometimes referred to as the “New Leaders”—to take on the incumbent NJPW stars (sometimes “Now Leaders” or Seikigun, which means “Regular Army”). It was in that feud that Saito, who was already something of a hero to his peers in Japan for his long career in America, really began to make a definitive mark as one of the very best pro wrestlers in the world. After a stretch back in the U.S. for the upper-midwest’s AWA promotion, Saito was set to return home and usher Ishingundan to new heights in All Japan Pro Wrestling; at the time, NJPW was bleeding talent thanks in part to founder Antonio Inoki’s embezzlement. But after a particularly dazzling tag team match with Choshu against AJPW’s Jumbo Tsuruta (another Olympic wrestler) and ex-sumo Genichiro Tenryu, and at what was by all rights the height of his career, Saito had to return to the states. That was because he needed to stand trial for what happened in Wisconsin.
Here is what was never in dispute. In the earliest hours of April 6, 1984, on the way back from an April 5 show nearby, Saito and fellow AWA villain Ken Patera tried to get a post-show meal at a McDonald’s in Waukesha, Wisconsin. They were refused service because it had closed. This is where the official story diverges from what the wrestlers would claim in contemporaneous reports from the next few days.
Witnesses said that Patera, a former Olympic lifter and “World’s Strongest Man” competitor, threw a rock “the size of a bowling ball”—or possibly bigger, as another article cited the police in calling it a “33 pound boulder”—through the McDonald’s window. The wrestlers then went to their motel and the police soon followed, where they asked if a large man checked in. Two had, as it happened, and the police were directed to the wrestlers’ room. Minutes later, one of their supervisors responded to the motel, where he found one of the officers, Jacquelyn Hibbard, unconscious on the floor, and two others battling with the wrestlers. It took “about a dozen” cops in total to actually arrest Saito and Patera; they were booked on charges of battery to a police officer, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, obstructing an officer, and criminal damage to property.
The wrestlers disputed much of the narrative: Their lawyer, Al Ugent, told the Boston Globe that they were dismayed because they saw customers eating inside the restaurant after the doors were locked and weren’t let in, even being refused a tray of burgers that was thrown in the garbage. Ugent was insistent that not only had someone else thrown the rock, but that the police knew where to find the wrestlers because Patera himself had told the McDonald’s staff he was retiring to the nearby Holiday Inn. As for what happened at the hotel? “The woman officer is 19 years old,” Ugent said. “Apparently she must have been unsettled by such large men. They are law-abiding people. If the police had phoned, they would have come to the station. There wasn’t any need for trouble. The woman officer sprayed mace in Mr. Saito’s face. Apparently when you’re shot in the eyes with this stuff, it’s instantly blinding and it really stings. There was a lot of confusion after this.”
According to longtime friend and Japanese wrestling journalist Fumi Saito (no relation) on his podcast this past week, the other Japanese wrestlers who had settled in America had simple advice for Masa: Surrender your green card and go home. Having made a life for himself in the states over the past decade and a half, though, he decided to face the charges. That may have to do with the fact that Saito told the same story privately as he did publicly, which is that he was defending himself after being preemptively maced. (Fumi, for his part, made sure to note that “it’s stupid to fight police officers, then or now.”)
It was over a year before Saito and Patera went to trial, and each kept up their wrestling schedules in the interim. Jurors and assembled media heard harrowing testimony of the physical and neurological damage that Hibbard suffered when being knocked out—blurred vision, facial numbness, and some missing teeth. A non-police witness staying at the hotel testified to dragging her to safety as the fight dragged on; the fight proved difficult to stop because Saito “could do pretty much whatever he wanted by moving his arms.” Another officer had his leg and several teeth broken. Patera, meanwhile, gave testimony consistent with his pre-trial defense, that “a kid in a light blue sweatsuit” threw the rock/boulder, and maintained that he was preemptively maced after telling Hibbard to get a warrant. Saito, meanwhile, denied attacking anyone; in-ring associate Nick Bockwinkel doubted that he used a headbutt, as police alleged, because it was not part of the Japanese Olympian’s in-ring repertoire.
Saito and Patera were found guilty within hours; their trial lawyer (it’s not clear which one) was found to be in contempt of court because he and his clients skipped the verdict to go drink beer somewhere nearby. Days later, they were each sentenced to two years in prison; the judge reportedly told them that they would each be eligible for parole in six months and guaranteed it in 18.
At least at first, they were treated well while incarcerated; a burglar in an adjacent cell even called a local newspaper to complain about it. Once the two wrestlers were separated and placed in separate minimum security camps, the judge wrote a letter reconsidering his earlier recommendation for parole and Patera was moved to a maximum security prison “for allegedly disobeying orders.” The two were released in late 1986, with the superintendent for the Department of Corrections telling the AP that “both of them have done really quite well; they both have adjusted.” While both men were the same age, Patera immediately began a steep athletic decline and his post-prison comeback fizzled thanks in large part to WWE miscasting him as a misunderstood good guy. Saito, who was lauded for how he handled prison—while running the kitchen and devoting himself to training, he mentored fellow inmates in diet, Japanese cooking, and exercise—returned to wrestling as an even bigger star. After realizing on a trip to visit his parents that he wanted to move home, Saito came back to Japan in the best shape of his career and feuded with Antonio Inoki in a series of wild matches. The most famous of those was, improbably, held on a secluded island and went on for two hours.
That Saito appeared to come out of prison somewhat humbled probably helped him reintegrate himself into society and cement his place as a legend back home. He’s one of the very best pro wrestlers of all time, and that he maintained anything close to his best form as a middle-aged ex-con is an impressive achievement. But given the crazy shit that wrestlers have been arrested for—and mostly gotten away with—his time in prison is a noteworthy chapter in one of the sport’s biggest lives. It seems like Saito knew that, because he invented a new hold when he got out and named it the “Prison Lock.” Watch the matches of his that you can find online; they’re pretty great. Or you can watch Patera threaten an interviewer who asked about the arrest.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.