I’m damned glad I live in a world where Jake Roberts still matters.
Thanks to Cody Rhodes and the AEW gang, my childhood wrestling icons like Arn Anderson and Jake the Snake are still making an impact in professional wrestling.
After watching 1999’s Beyond the Mat I wouldn’t have bet Jake Roberts would see 50, the sad fate of too many pro wrestlers. Yet here we are in 2020, and it’s Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ 65th birthday.
And by all accounts and that DDP Yoga Infomercial, Jake has kept his demons at bay. Congratulations and Happy Birthday to my all-time favourite wrestler.
I’ve spent a lot of time on Jake, born Aurelian Smith Jr. In Gainesville, TX. I’ve written on his ill-fated 1992 run here at TWM, and I published a novella last year centred around a 1997 indie match between Jake and the One Man Gang in my hometown, Whitesboro, TX, where Aurelian Smith Sr. was born (about 15 miles east of Gainesville on Highway 82).
If you saw Beyond the Mat or have seen many shoot interviews with Jake you know Aurelian Sr. is famed wrestler Grizzly Smith, father of not only Jake but pro wrestlers Sam Houston and Rockin’ Robin as well. You also know he was a horrible father. An alcoholic that physically and mentally abused his children, Grizzly told Jake he’d never be a good pro wrestler. Jake set out to prove him wrong.
And he did. I can’t wait for his forthcoming 2020 book release.
While we mostly remember his largest stage in the late 80s and 90s with the WWF, Jake got over close to home well before, an hour south of Gainesville and Whitesboro in the Dallas, Texas promotion, World Class Championship Wrestling.
By the time he landed with his hometown promotion, arguably the most-watched territory at the time outside of the WWF thanks to an international Christian broadcasting network running WCCW on its channel, Jake had developed two iconic staples of his wrestling game: his Snake persona and the DDT.
I’m sure Bill Watts would say every great development in modern pro wrestling happened under his watch, but that’s the story Jake tells too. According to that account, Jake was in Watts’ Mid South Wrestling (later to be the first UWF) around 1983 or 1984. In the ring, he had Len Denton (aka the Grappler) in a front face lock, and accidentally fell backwards. As he did, he kept the hold and drove Denton’s head into the mat. The DDT was born. Any Hulkamania era fan knows that “D-D-T” was a consistent crowd chant on WWF TV and pay per views, maybe the first instance of fans chanting for a move.
As with the Honky Tonk Man or the Crow version of Sting, Jake’s gimmick came directly from pop culture. He was inspired by Ken “the Snake” Stabler, famed Oakland Raiders quarterback. Slithering into the ring and later carrying the giant snake in the military canvas bag was all Jake Roberts and his natural instincts for what makes a great wrestler.
Combined with the best mic work in the business (ever hear another wrestler use “avarice” in a promo correctly?), Jake the Snake was a hot heel when he made the jump from Paul Ellering’s Legion of Doom stable in Mid South to WCCW in 1984. He was immediately aligned with WCCW’s top heel Gino Hernandez to wage war against the hometown heroes (and sons of the owner of the promotion) the von Erichs, and fellow face Chris Adams.
It was in a match in September 1984 between Hernandez and Roberts and Adams and Kevin von Erich that Adams turned heel in WCCW’s most famous angle, and aligned himself with Roberts and Hernandez against his former friends, the von Erichs. To get a sense of how shocking and storyline changing this was to the WCCW audience in 1984, think Hogan going nWo when thinking of Adams’ heel turn.
Jake the Snake won the WCCW Television Title on his own and the 6-man Tag Championship with Adams and Hernandez. Jake Roberts got the pin on Kerry von Erich, WCCW’s biggest star, to win the 6-man titles for his team. One can’t help but wonder how awesome it must have been for Aurelian Jr. to wrestle in the big time in North Texas, right down the road from his childhood home where Aurelian Sr. abused and doubted his son, and win gold.
Jake the Snake split wins and losses in World Class on big shows, but as part of WCCW’s Star Wars Series (World Class’s pre-pay-per-view era main shows) through early 1985 he was in the ring with WCCW’s biggest stars: Adams, Hernandez, the von Erich brothers, Iceman Parsons, the Fabulous Freebirds and Billy Jack Haynes.
In between, on WCCW TV and at WCCW house shows, Roberts beat the likes of (another abusive father) Buck Zumhofe, Art Crews, Jules Strongbow (kayfabe brother of Chief Jay), George Weingeroff, Mike Gallagher, and Ricky Torres with no losses. Only Zumhofe managed a single time limit draw, losing every other time to the popular heel Roberts.
In WCCW Jake, naturally, saw the seedy side of things too. There he met and dated the valet, Missy Hyatt who would go on to host and manage for Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling in the early 90s, and since has told all about the slew of wrestlers she partied with and dated. On Hannibal, TV Jake tells of the loose cannon von Erichs, wild men with sad endings (except Kevin, of course), and confirms the shady gang and drug elements surrounding Gino Hernandez’s death. The Dallas wrestling scene no doubt fueled the fire of Jake’s addictions and demons.
Perhaps sensing, as all major talents did with WCCW, that he’d never get ahead of the von Erichs in a von Erich promotion, Jake the Snake went back to Mid South for the bulk of 1985, before making the jump to the WWF in early 1986. There, Jake would get over so much with fans that the WWF would have to cancel a planned rivalry against face champ Hulk Hogan, fearing Jake’s popularity with fans would rival Hogan’s.
In short order, he would be a bigger name in the wrestling business than his daddy could ever dream of.
You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.