Slithering into the spotlight next, we have Jake Roberts. With his long, lean physique and intimidating presence, very early on in his career, he’d earned himself a nickname, ‘The Snake’. Upon 1985 and his arrival in the WWF, it seemed only right for Roberts to further embrace the moniker and actually come to the ring with a snake, Damien. It certainly made for one of the more iconic images of the period.
The intimidation and menace of this enigma came to the fore immediately, with devious Roberts dominating opposition before unleashing Damien on their fallen prey. Watching Damien wrap himself around these men – who would then apparently convulse and foam at the mouth – makes for unsettling viewing, particularly harrowing in the context of eighties WWF, and is probably part of the reason I still won’t go near a snake. But it worked; Damien gave Jake an edge that literally nobody else had, and his notoriety skyrocketed for his slithery companion.
He wasn’t just intense in the ring, either. Jake Roberts was one of the most skilled talkers wrestling has ever seen. Locked onto camera with an ice-cold stare, he wouldn’t have to raise his voice or spout catchphrases, instead just speaking in a chilling quiet tone. To capitalise on his charisma, he was even given his own talk show-style segment, The Snake Pit, which was used for him to develop his own plots as well as storylines of other superstars.
Jake Roberts proved so engaging that he became a good guy after a couple of years, and it says much of just how popular he was in that he didn’t really change his character that much at all. He was still devious, still all about mind games, and still employing the assistance of Damien as an illegal equaliser. Most notable of his rivalries in this period was probably “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase and André the Giant, who, it turned out, was absolutely terrified of snakes and, in another tasteful plot line, suffered a heart attack when Damien got too close. In their clashes throughout 1988 and 89, it was certainly different to see André exhibiting vulnerabilities in such a way; Jake was perhaps the only person beside Hulk Hogan who you felt could get past The Giant.
Though it seemed he could do no wrong, he did go a step too far when, in 1991, he sent the ‘newly-engaged’ Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth a box full of cobras, and later had Savage bitten by another serpent when tied up in the ring ropes. He formed a delightfully dark partnership with The Undertaker, but even the gruesome ‘Taker showed heart and refused to go after Elizabeth, as Roberts had ordered. When The Snake lost to Undertaker at WrestleMania VIII in 1992, he vanished from the company, apparently to take care of personal problems.
Behind the monumental in-ring success, dependence on drugs and alcohol had dogged much of Roberts’ career. There was a return to WWF four years later, which gave fans promise, but it was clear he wasn’t in a great place, mentally or physically, and this ultimately lead to a brisk dismissal. With the reputation of being unreliable, no big promotion would sign him up, so Roberts travelled the world, picking up work wherever he could. But perseverance won the day, and a few years ago enlisted the help of fellow wrestler and friend, Diamond Dallas Page. With DDP’s assistance, Jake was able to not only get back in shape but also kick the habits, and I understand now lives a healthy life. He has since been inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame and made several appearances on their programming.
Having been out of the loop for so long, it’s great to read this about Jake. All too often, we who grew up watching these performers have to deal with terribly sad realities – it’s nice to be uplifted once in a while. Furthermore, it’s great that WWE are now rewarding him with greater recognition, exposing his excellence to young fans of today, because he really was a massive part of what many call a golden era. One of those so superbly entertaining that they didn’t ever need a championship for artificial elevation. Just Jake and Damien will do.