Greetings Ragers, and welcome to the second edition of 'The Wrestling Flashback.' Two months ago (wow, has it really been that long?) we traveled back in time to the first golden age of modern professional wrestling. That's right, we went back to the height of the Hulkamania era, and discussed the career of 80's arch-villain 'The Million Dollar Man' Ted DiBiase. This time out, we're going to examine the tumultuous life and career of a wrestler that could be just as evil as Dibiase, but still spent most of his career getting rabidly cheered by the fans. That man's name is Jake 'The Snake' Roberts.
First, some background on Roberts' life pre-wrestling. Jake was born Aurelian Smith, Jr. on May 30, 1955 in Gainesville, Texas. As with Ted DiBiase, Roberts' father was also a professional wrestler. Aurelian 'Grizzly' Smith debuted in 1958, wrestled for several decades, then worked in backstage roles for various promotions. To say that Jake and his father didn't get along would be a massive understatement. The long, tragic backstory of the Smith family could fill several pages. I have no desire to ruin the day of everyone reading this, so I'll just suggest you watch the well done WWE DVD 'Jake Roberts: Pick Your Poison' for a thorough recounting of Jake's early years.
Anyway, Jake made his pro debut in the mid-1970's, working for territories like Mid-South, Mid-Atlantic, and the NWA's Georgia Championship Wrestling. By 1983, Jake joined the Paul Ellering led heel stable 'The Legion of Doom,' alongside such stars as The Road Warriors, and King Kong Bundy. In 1984, Roberts went to the Von Erich owned promotion World Class Championship Wrestling, where he captured both the Television and 6-Man Tag Team championships.
In early 1986, Jake finally hit it big, signing with the then red-hot World Wrestling Federation. The WWF didn't waste much time making him a star. Capitalizing on his existing nickname of 'The Snake,' Vince McMahon decided that Roberts should carry an actual snake to the ring with him. The gimmick worked wonders, and Jake's PPV debut at WrestleMania II ended up with his opponent George Wells "vomiting" as "Damien" the python coiled around his head.
'The Snake's first major feud was against fellow 80's legend Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat. The rivalry began on an episode of 'Saturday Night's Main Event,' in which Roberts delivered his dreaded DDT finisher to Steamboat on the concrete floor. While the DDT is a very common move nowadays, Jake had just introduced it to the wrestling world at large. He was understandably nervous about doing the move on the concrete, and only agreed to it when Steamboat insisted that he could adequately protect himself. This turned out to be a mistaken belief, as the DDT legit knocked Steamboat unconscious and caused him to suffer a concussion. Oops. The incident can be seen below, including comments by both men concerning the sickening thud when Steamboat's skull connected with the concrete.
Roberts and Steamboat would continue feuding for most of 1986, including a 'Snake Pit' match at Toronto's stadium card 'The Big Event,' and a re-match on an October SNME broadcast. That match can be viewed in its entirety below:
Following the Steamboat feud, an interesting thing happened to Jake's career trajectory. Up until this point, 'The Snake' had been portrayed as a conniving, manipulative bad guy. His character was so dastardly in fact, that when a rare heel vs. heel match was signed between Jake and the 'Macho Man' Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Championship, WWF management naturally assumed the fans would cheer the champion by default.
To the audible shock of broadcasters Vince McMahon and Jesse Ventura, the fans cheered loudly and consistently for 'The Snake.' Even more unexpected was the audience reaction to Jake laying out then mega-popular WWF Champion Hulk Hogan with a DDT on the 'Snake Pit' interview segment. Instead of 'Hogan, Hogan' chants, the crowd chanted 'DDT, DDT.' This terrified company brass, who canceled the planned series of matches between Roberts and Hogan, and had Jake pull a quick face turn. It appeared that the growing popularity of the ice-cold, all-business 'Snake' could no longer be denied.
A newly turned Jake moved on to a series of matches against 'The Honky Tonk Man,' which culminated in a match at WrestleMania III. The whole storyline was pretty forgettable, although at least we got Alice Cooper torturing Jimmy Hart with a snake out of it.
Which brings us to Jake's first major opponent as a "good guy." Roberts' real-life wife Cheryl was introduced as a character on-screen, and the recently debuted egomaniac pictured above decided to put the moves on her. Jake was understandably upset by this, and thus a blood feud was born. The two wrestlers hated each other with the fire of a thousand suns, with Rude going so far as to wear an airbrushing of Cheryl's face on the crotch of his tights.
Sadly, despite how hot the feud was (with many now calling it a precursor to the raunchy 'Attitude Era' that arrived in the late '90's), the two men never had a real "final" match on PPV or TV. Still, here's a highlight package of their best moments:
Following a quick feud with Andre the Giant over the big man's snake phobia, Roberts moved on to what is probably my favorite storyline of his career. This time 'The Snake' would do battle with none other than the 'Million Doillar Man' Ted DiBiase.
The rivalry began following a 1989 match between Roberts and DiBiase's bodyguard Virgil. Playing off of a legit neck/back injury Jake had previously suffered, DiBiase and Virgil brutally attacked 'The Snake,' causing him to spend some time on the disabled list. Following time off for badly-needed surgery, Jake returned to seek vengeance on Mr. Fancy Pants, stealing the MDM's prized 'Million Dollar Belt.' Dibiase's attempts to retrieve it were foiled by Jake's "security system," that being his python Damien. Would you reach into a bag with a snake inside? I sure wouldn't.
The Roberts/DiBiase feud would come to a head at WrestleMania VI on April 1, 1990. Prior to the opening bell, Jake gave what I (and many others) consider one of the greatest promos in the history of professional wrestling. I could try to summarize it, but it wouldn't do Roberts' artistry justice. It's best to just watch the interview for yourself.
That video gives me goosebumps every time. While Jake may have never been the greatest athlete (although he could certainly put on a good match with a talented opponent), his skills on the mic were always second to none. Jake's cerebral, calm tone was in such stark contrast to the wild-eyed screaming of most of his contemporaries that it never failed to command attention. This guy didn't need to yell, or even raise his voice. Which only made him more threatening really. Opponents couldn't "read" Jake. They never knew what was happening behind that steely gaze.
But I digress. Post-Dibiase, Jake feuded with 'The Model' Rick Martel. Their Blindfold match at WrestleMania VII was about as good as you'd expect a match with two blindfolded participants to be.
In mid-to-late 1991, Jake's career was briefly reborn, as he finally returned to the dark side. Roberts aligned with The Undertaker, and pulled a long con on The Ultimate Warrior. In the process, he proceeded to make Warrior look like the world's most gullible person:
Seriously dude, never trust a snake. Warrior had a tantrum and left the company, causing Roberts to set his sights on the "retired" Macho Man. The two greats had a terrific feud, including this classic moment where Damien goes to town on ol' Mach:
Savage would eventually come out on top, with Roberts transitioning to a showdown with the recently face turned Undertaker. The two emissaries of darkness would collide at WrestleMania VIII:
Jake became the second victim of Taker's WrestleMania streak, and left for a short, uneventful stint down south in WCW. At this point, Jake's years of substance abuse issues caught up to him, and he wouldn't return to a major company until 1996. A supposedly "born-again" Roberts came back to the WWF with a new snake called "Revelation" and a new attitude. The fans welcomed 'The Snake' back, but the most notable moment of Jake's second WWF run would be serving as a stepping stone to an up-and-comer by the name of 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin.
This second run would be his last in a major promotion. Jake has spent the last few decades working with indy feds, and trying desperately to kick his drug habits.
Thankfully, Jake 'The Snake's story appears to have finally taken a happy turn. Roberts recently finished a term in 'Diamond' Dallas Page's "accountability house", and looks to have *finally* gotten clean. He's lost a bunch of weight, and is lobbying WWE for a spot in the 2014 Royal Rumble Match. Hopefully this time fans actually can "trust" that he's recovered.
I never knew Jake the Snake was the son of Grizzly Smith. I remember Griz well from my childhood in the 70s, usually feuding with the Assassins and teamed with Luke Brown.
msd85 (Global Editor)
Level 39 (91%) Points: 17879.2 Since: 07/Jul/10
Message Posted On Sep 1st, 2013, 10:35 am
That's a fair point Matt. Jake was one of my favorites growing up, and I want nothing more than for him to have finally turned his life around. At the same time, he's claimed to be cleaning himself up many times and has always relapsed. Thus my skepticism. Sorry if it kept came off like I was insulting Jake, as I really didn't mean it that way. I wish him nothing but the best.
Level 1 (95%) Since: 29/Feb/12
Message Posted On Sep 1st, 2013, 10:31 am
Good article, but you kinda slammed him at the end. If you've followed Jakes story (while it seems impossible to trust a drug addict) - I believe he has really turned a corner in his recovery. DDP has also recently helped the very troubled Scott Hall, and both are doing extremely well. It can always go bad, but we also need to believe he can change.