Wrestling Memories of Pro-Wrestling

A love for pro-wrestling of the 1990s underscored by sorrow at the real damage done

The professional wrestlers of early-1990s WWF were the most incredible characters in existence, watching them on TV each week when I was a kid. For all the ridiculous costumes, makeup, gimmicks and general silliness during this period in pro wrestling (which to the chagrin of more serious fans reduced the emphasis on athletic ability), I loved the massive line up of distinctive and ridiculous characters the WWF brought in at that time -- and seeing them team up and feud in bizarre and intriguing clashes of style. For a young kid it wasn’t cheesy, it was just really, really cool. No other form of fiction could have matched the excitement of the WWF to me.

Recently I watched documentary Beyond The Mat and box-office release The Wrestler in quick succession, both of which are centrally concerned with pro wrestling and the real-life issues the men behind the characters face. Both films opened my eyes to another side of the business, and made me realise a number of things. First of all, that in reflection Jake “The Snake” Roberts may have been the most impressive wrestler of that early 90s period.

The character of Jake Roberts had an important difference to the other wrestling "heels" in that he wasn’t 1) An enormous mean-looking dude who would scream every word, or 2) A mute in a costume bestowed with supernatural powers. This distinguished him from 95% of pro wrestling bad guys of his time (and don’t get me wrong, many among these two characters were awesome too). Instead, he had a fifteen foot reticulated burmese python in a bag. He would remind the audience, however, that in fact he was the snake to be feared -- and not his python Damien. “Trust me,” he would say. And he had a point.

No doubt the snake generated interest in the character -- it would jump out of wedding cakes, sink its teeth into Randy Savage’s arm while he was tied up in the ropes, and evoke extreme reactions of fear from the likes of Andre The Giant and Rowdy Roddy Piper that were great to watch (and also often not faked). Damien was probably the best gimmick in pro wrestling history. However it was the unique style Jake Roberts brought to the characterisation that elevated him beyond the gimmick.

Roberts had something of an eloquence on the microphone, and his promos and interviews were terrific minute-and-a-half glimpses of darkness that seemed entirely believable. He rarely raised his voice, instead speaking in a near-hiss, which had the effect of drawing your attention thus engaging you with what he was saying. More than just being scary, menacing, or creepy, Jake’s presence of character made him as enigmatic as he was off-putting. He stands out as a truly great pro wrestling character performer.

Jake the Snake Roberts and Damien
Clips of Jake the Snake Roberts and his snake Damien. DDTs Ricky the Dragon Steamboat
Jake the Snake Roberts and Damien
Clips of Jake the Snake Roberts and his snake Damien. DDTs Ricky the Dragon Steamboat
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- YouTube
Enjoy the videos and music you love, upload original content, and share it all with friends, family, and the world on YouTube.

When I watched Beyond The Mat then, which takes the wrestler behind Jake “The Snake” Roberts (Aurelian Smith, Jn.) as one of its main subjects, I was genuinely shocked to find that the story of the man’s life sounded like it was written as the back story for Jake The Snake.

He was born as the result of his father raping and impregnating the thirteen year-old daughter of the woman he was dating. His father, he explains, was then sleeping with his grandmother around the time of his birth. His sister was kidnapped and murdered by the ex-wife of her husband, and her body never recovered (her killer was convicted but refused to give up the body’s location). And his step-dad, who he was close with, died from an accidental electrocution.

“It always seems like, in all my life, there’s one gruesome, horrible thing happening after another,” he explains after recounting this morbid series of events, with an understandably grim and bone-dry demeanour.

A quote from Vince McMahon then attempts to draw character and performer further together:

I don’t know that you can separate Jake Roberts the performer and Jake Roberts the person, because quite frankly I never knew which > one I was talking to, and I don’t know that they’re not the same.

I don't take this quote at face value -- to equate the performer with his wrestling spiel is borderline ridiculous, especially in this case and having seen some heartfelt interviews with "Jake Roberts the person" in the same documentary. However, McMahon's take on Jake The Snake does illustrate one of the concerns I found rising more and more as I learnt about the realities of the business. That is, the tendency of pro wrestling to go to all extremes in blurring the lines between reality and storyline for the sake of entertainment. That is, the storyline of the pro wrestling fiction, and the real events, character qualities and defects of the wrestlers performing those fictions.

As I watched further, Jake’s life story reached his time with the WWF. Jake, who was previously anti-drugs, fell into the grips of addiction following an injury sustained when The Honky Tonk Man broke his neck hitting him with a guitar during a segment in the late 80s. The guitar was supposed to be a prop, but the one used somehow ended up being real and Roberts took the full force of the blow. An addiction to painkillers, first prescribed following this injury, led into a cycle of using drugs to ease the pain of injuries, to sleep, and to perform. This developed into further drug addictions, and he is apparently under the influence of crack cocaine during one interview in Beyond The Mat.

Following the peak of his career as a WWF superstar in the early 1990s, and a few lukewarm comebacks later in that decade, the 2000s saw Jake The Snake out of the pro wrestling limelight and touring small independent shows -- out of shape, past his prime and in the midst of battling his “demons.” At times he would appear in pre-fight interviews intoxicated, delivering an inebriated, out-of-shape shade of the character he performed so magnificently in his prime.

Jake The Snake Roberts Wasted! part 1 - Drunken Interview
jake the snake roberts drunk, and maybe high, conducts interview with an, undoubtedly, strong stomached host before his big match with Jim “The Anvil” Neidha…

This reached a low point at a show called Heroes of Wrestling in late 2008, when Roberts delivered an incoherent monologue to the audience pre-fight before proving unable to wrestle once the match started, failing to respond to his opponents blows before falling flat on his face. After the match was quickly ended, Jake’s opponent lambasted him over the microphone as a drug addict. Jake pulled down his pants, flashing his genitals to the audience, and eventually stumbled back to the locker room before facing another verbal onslaught from his opponent later on.

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Jake “The Snake” Roberts Drunk Aftershow Cleveland 09.12.08
Jake the Snake is drunk or “drugged” on the sidewalk in Lakewood, OH after he lost his match inside the theater he walks unsteadily complaining about the thr…

A confused Jake Roberts was interviewed on radio shortly afterwards about the incident, where the depths to which he had fallen were made evident.

I don't remember anything up until the next morning, whenever, I called Shannon and did not know where I was at, what I was doing
there, what I was supposed to do... anything. And I'm still very foggy, I can't think, I can't put things together, I can't
remember anything ... Right now I'm just scared to death. I'm not a crier and I've been crying a lot, I'm scared. I'm not usually
scared of anything. And I can't think and I'm a pretty sharp thinker normally, a quick thinker, and I'm having trouble just
remembering how to get up and fix something to eat.

In one documentary viewing my eyes were opened to how the life behind some of the characters I was thrilled and entertained by as a kid could take such a destructive down-spiral. And I was angry. And perhaps a little guilty. I can’t pinpoint the exact cause of these feelings, but that the WWF played a part in some of the most vibrant memories of my childhood, and these were not memories to be toyed with by suddenly showing ugly realities underneath them I wasn't aware of. More than this selfish reaction however was the uneasy feeling that these performers had really suffered, not just physically but also psychologically, along the path of delivering this entertainment to kids like I was.

Following the release of The Wrestler in cinemas, a film that features Mickey Rourke playing a physically broken wrestler touring the independent wrestling circuit at an advanced age, finding himself increasingly alone in the world and facing serious psychological issues after stepping out the limelight of the big show, I was reminded of the real life story of Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Some parts of Rourke’s character performance are virtually identical to the Jake Roberts (or rather, Aurelian) we see in Beyond The Mat. In fact the story of The Wrestler even centres around a failed attempt of Rourke’s character to reunite with his estranged daughter; Beyond The Mat has an near-identical failed reunion with Jake’s estranged daughter.

The film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, does admit that some inspiration for the film’s character came from Jake The Snake, although he is more comfortable putting it in a wider context:

Seeing some of Jake The Snake's story was definitely in our heads, but a lot of these guys have very, very similar stories. They've all worked really, really hard back in the late 80s and early 90s, 350 days a year on the road, and basically when their careers ended their bodies are destroyed and their family lives are all gone.

Some of these destructive effects can be attributed to personal failings of the wrestlers involved. However it also seems clear to me that the nature of the industry itself fuels the destruction of many of the wrestlers who helped it achieve its popularity – effects that seem to have become pronounced starting with the wrestlers from the period of my treasured childhood era of the late 80s/early 90s, when everything was pushed to the extreme and the popularity of the sport skyrocketed as a result.

James Lanternman writes movie reviews, essays, and moonlit thoughts. You can reach him at [email protected].

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