“I don’t know that you can separate Jake Roberts the performer from Jake Roberts the person, because quite frankly I never knew which one I was talking to.” – Vince McMahon (Beyond the Mat)
In 2001, at the age of nine, I attended a local event held by a promotion called All Star Wrestling. Of all the performers involved, one man stood out from the rest.
That man was Jake Roberts.
The only famous wrestler I have ever seen perform live, Jake ‘the Snake’ was the main attraction of the show. He, I was informed, had been a huge star in the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) during the late 1980’s, perhaps the most financially lucrative period in their history.
I could see why. Being a young fan, I was more enamoured with the pageantry of wrestling than the skill on display inside the ring. A plethora of workers, all exciting, paved the way for the main event, and then out he walked.
Jake ‘the Snake’ Roberts is a captivating individual.
Some fans can claim to have seen the Undertaker, or John Cena, or maybe even to have seen Hulk Hogan. But while I’m not his biggest fan, and nor is he my favourite wrestler, I’m certainly proud to say Jake Roberts is the one reputable wrestler I’ve seen in the flesh.
He slithers into the ring, you know. At the event at which I was in attendance, he weaved his way through the chairs on which the audience were sat, that eternally present bag in hand, his terribly unnerving companion inside.
People flinched away in legitimate fear, not just from the snake that was out of sight, but from the snake that we could all see.
I have never, and will never, see a wrestler who embodies his character more.
That, I can say with utmost certainty; a lot may change in wrestling, but Jake ‘the Snake’ will never be any less than the greatest psychologist in the history of the business.
So on this, his 57th birthday, an analysis of his career is required.
He is a true great. Which makes his downfall all the more tragic.
“Now there’s a guy with ‘it’. There’s a guy that has that intangible, there’s a guy that truly comes through the camera and captivates your attention. One of the most ingenious performers the industry has ever seen.” – Paul Heyman (Beyond the Mat)
Jake Roberts’ debut in the business was as a referee for a match involving his father, a wrestler billed as Grizzly Smith. Soon after that, he became a full-time wrestler, and wrestled for Georgia Championship Wrestling, a promotion owned by the famous Brisco brothers, Jack and Jerry.
While there, he literally stumbled upon a new creation. A contribution to the wrestling business that will no doubt be his most enduring, and one of the most enduring contribution of any wrestler.
It is called the DDT.
A fantastic invention that has made its way into the inventory of almost every modern wrestler, it is a deadly looking move that snaps back the neck of an opponent and plants them face first into the mat. Not bad for a move that was first executed accidentally.
On 2nd May, 1986, on Saturday Night’s Main Event, Jake introduced himself to the World Wrestling Federation when he used the DDT to plant Ricky ‘the Dragon’ Steamboat face first into the concrete floor. Vince McMahon had bought out GCW, you see, and had called him with the offer of a job.
Jake was ready for the big time. The big time, one could argue, was never ready for him.
His feud with Steamboat was one of many fantastic angles that Jake Roberts found himself involved in during the late 80’s, a time when wrestling was experiencing perhaps the greatest boom period in its history.
A myriad of legendary names from that time, performers like Rick Rude and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, were all at their best when put into a programme with Jake ‘the Snake’. Their illustrious careers are highlighted by the times in which they faced him.
He had taken, at this point, to bringing his pet snake with him to the ring, and draping it over his vanquished opponents, often around their necks; a predator given his prey.
One of the most infamous moments in WWE history came when, on 21st October 1991, Roberts tied up Randy Savage in the ring ropes and released the snake from its bag, only for it to bite Savage on the arm, uncensored on cable television. It was legitimately terrifying, and is featured on OMG! The Top 50 Incidents in WWE History, a DVD released by the company last year.
It was his second appearance on the DVD; the first features his wedding present to Savage and Miss Elizabeth. A snake, of course.
Truly, their’s was one of the greatest rivalries feuds in the history of wrestling. Another shocking, boundary pushing twist occurred when Jake slapped Miss Elizabeth in the ring, after which he cut one of the most hypnotic, unnerving promos ever seen, which can be viewed below.
This feud, and his others, reflect the way in which Jake Roberts was able to compel any one in any sort of role as long as he was given the opportunity to sell the angle he was involved in.
Beyond the DDT, Jake was no great, innovative wrestling technician, nor was he an awe-inspiring super heavyweight or death-defying high flier. No, Jake Roberts was a storyteller.
There are heels like Raven and Brian Pillman, mesmerising and unhinged.
There are heels like Kane and Undertaker, who use their ethereal personalities to frighten and demoralise.
And there are heels like Nick Bockwinkel and Chris Jericho, verbose bamboozlers of men whose words demean, patronise and confuse.
Jake Roberts was a mixture of all that and more. He is one of the greatest heels in wrestling history.
And one of the most popular faces, for good measure. Once, when Hulk Hogan was a guest on his talk show, The Snake Pit, Jake gave the Hulkster his lethal DDT, flooring one of the greatest babyfaces in professional wrestling history.
The crowd should have booed; they should have hissed; they should have wept.
They went nuts.
They began chanting DDT with aplomb. As one can imagine, given the way Hogan was protected in those days, their potential feud was quickly aborted. Oh, what could have been. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure what magic these two could have created. Hulk Hogan, the icon of a generation, and Jake Roberts, one of the greatest minds in wrestling.
Jake and his snake, Damien, took the wrestling world by storm. Everything they did was unmissable. Take into account that Roberts never held a championship while with the WWF, and correlate that with how popular he is with wrestling fans. In many ways it doesn’t compute.
And yet, in others it does. Jake could have been a world champion, but he didn’t need to be. Just like ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper didn’t need to be. Their careers will be estimated in different terms; and great terms, at that. Terms based on ability, character, and innovation.
It is a measure of how influential Jake was that, despite having never won the Intercontinental championship, his just being a contender for it was a huge part of elevating it to its highest level of prestige, when it was tantamount to being equal with the WWF championship.
All this, and more, suggests he should be in the WWE Hall of Fame.
Not only should he be in the Hall of Fame, he should be a first ballot inductee.
Perhaps most of all, though, he should be working in the back, teaching the new generation of stars how to work the microphone and the crowd, or innovating new angles and storylines for fans to sink their teeth into.
But he isn’t. And probably never will be.
“A strange mixture of a hell of a guy and Satan, Jake is a guy I both genuinely like and am troubled by.” – Mick Foley (Have a Nice Day! A Tale of Blood and Sweat Socks)
There are many tales and accounts of Jake’s excessive lifestyle. It is that lifestyle that completely derailed the latter stages of his career, although he was still part of some memorable moments in the 90’s, perhaps most notably as the recipient of Steve Austin’s 3:16 promo.
He left the World Wrestling Federation after becoming an early footnote in the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak, angered over a dispute related to a position on the company’s writing team. Booking was a concept that had long consumed Jake, when it was suggested to him by the Brisco brothers back in GCW.
Describing it as the most “creative” process in wrestling, and “so fulfilling” (Pick Your Poison), the role clearly held a certain fascination for him. Subsequently, he negotiated a release from his contract after being denied the position, which had been vacated by Pat Patterson.
When he did leave, he would never quite reach the same heights ever again.
As he crusaded around North America for the next few years, during which he worked for World Championship Wrestling and the Mexican promotion Asistencia Asesoría y Administración, he eventually became a born-again Christian, preaching the word of God around the country.
Meanwhile, a return to WWF beckoned, and incorporated his new found religion into his character’s gimmick. Behind the scenes, incidents suggested he wasn’t as dedicated to his religion and sobriety as he had suggested. He was fired in February 1997 after a relapse.
To this day, it is the last time he ever wrestled for the company.
From there, the story of Jake Roberts’ career is a sad one; dismal, even. It mirrors the story of many jobbing wrestlers at the time; performers who worked hand-to-mouth in the hope of earning their way to the top. The difference, for Jake, was that he had been to the top and was on his way down.
After a stint in Extreme Championship Wrestling, Jake’s lowest point perhaps came at the independent show Heroes of Wrestling, when he completely butchered a scheduled segment promoting the main event. His actions throughout the rest of the show were shocking and sad to watch (the details can be read here).
More light was shed on Jake’s toxic lifestyle in Beyond the Mat, the extremely notorious documentary that related tales of wrestlers such as Mick Foley and Darren “Droz” Drozdov.
Of everything shown in the documentary, though, nothing was more disturbing than the footage involving Jake, who is shown smoking crack cocaine. His career is no compensation at this point, as he is reduced to wrestling in small venues across the country, relying on his past fame to make money.
They say that when you reach the top, there is a no longer fall down. For Jake Roberts, never has a truer word been spoken.
The depths of a man’s soul are hard to glimpse and decipher.
But perhaps what drives Jake Roberts to drink and drugs, at least in his own mind, is easy to determine.
“He let you in a little bit, but he never let you look behind the curtain. He gave you clues that would keep you interested, but he didn’t give you all the answers.” – Jim Ross (Pick Your Poison)
Born in Gainesville, Texas, Jake has a less than auspicious start to life.
He was conceived when his mother was 12-years old and believes himself to be the product of rape. Even more sensationally, his Father was supposedly in a relationship with his Grandmother at the time. The truth of this can’t be determined, but the fact that Jake believes it to be true is clear.
What is true is that his sister, when aged 18, married a 53-year old man, whose ex-wife later had her kidnapped and killed. This was six years after said sister got pregnant at the age of 12, like her Mother.
Jake’s reaction was to “punch the sh*t out of her” and develop a self-confessed hatred of women that left him unable to trust them “at all” (Pick Your Poison).
His is the story of a tumultuous childhood, indeed.
A lot of people have a lot of demons. A lot of people complain of such demons. But how many would trade theirs for Jake Roberts’?
In 2007, he thankfully underwent voluntary rehabilitation, expenses paid by the WWE. Jim Ross and others reported that it went well, and wrestling fans can only hope that Jake has persevered in his battles since then.
He retired recently, though the very nature of wrestling retirements makes it hard to determine how legitimate that is. It came in January 2011, in a new millennium that hasn’t been good to his career. A one off WWE appearance to confront Randy Orton in 2005, an inauspicious run with TNA, and a few years spent in Great Britain, which is of course the place where I watched him.
During that time, he lurched from one controversy to the next, one excess to another. In one instance, he appeared in court over the death of his pet snake, Damien, who he was accused of allowing to starve (read here).
His life has been an eventful one, no doubt. Few people can claim to have reached the same highs and same lows as Jake Roberts.
It is easy to condemn men like him for what they’ve chosen to make of their lives; he, and men like Scott Hall, or any number of others. It is one of the wrestling industries greatest tragedies that drugs afflicts so many of its most famous performers.
Perhaps, to some extent, they deserve to be condemned. They have wasted their lives and hurt those that love them in many ways. But don’t judge Jake Roberts for having wasted his talent in favour of substance abuse and a life of self-destructive excess.
Because, in the case of Jake Roberts, the need to do drugs comes from the same place as the talent; the place from which he derives that brilliant knack for innovation, and those unrivalled skills on the microphone, is the same dark place that drives him to destroy himself.
Take away that which compels him to take drugs and alcohol, and you take away that which compelled all the creations he ever fashioned in the wrestling business.
If you are one of the people that has found themselves captivated by Jake ‘the Snake’ Roberts, as I was in the Empire Theatre, Liverpool, in the year 2001, don’t condemn him, and don’t judge him.
No one, after all, judges him more than himself. In Beyond the Mat, he contemplates that the man he hates most in the world is “the person I’m looking at in the mirror”.
Let’s hope that he is still clean, and that he always remains so. And let’s hope, more than anything else, that he can find peace.
“That’s the bad thing about addiction: you get into something, you don’t realise what a monster it is.” – Jake ‘the Snake’ Roberts (Pick Your Poison)
Happy Birthday, Jake.