Pro wrestling is a niche art form, but there are a handful of performers who transcend the squared circle and worm their way into the popular consciousness.
Jake “The Snake” Roberts is one of those performers.
When you say “Jake the Snake,” people know exactly who you’re talking about. That name triggers a flood of images and sounds.
His penetrating eyes and disturbingly calm voice, both of which burrow their way into his opponents’ souls, picking them apart from the inside.
His pet python Damien slithering onto the bodies of his fallen foes.
Another snake – a cobra – gnawing on “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s bicep as a capacity crowd howls with horror.
The sickening thud of his opponents’ foreheads bouncing off of the canvas – or in Ricky Steamboat’s case, the concrete – as they’re knocked out by his devastating DDT.
Jake “The Snake” Roberts is a bonafide wrestling legend, but for years, the man behind that legend was slowly being torn apart by the twin demons of drug and alcohol abuse. By his own admission, he was well on his way to becoming yet another pro wrestler who succumbed to the dark side of the business.
But with the help of a good friend, former pro wrestler and current lifestyle guru Diamond Dallas Page, he found the strength to pull himself out of his spiral of self-destruction, get clean, and learn to enjoy life with a clear mind and a full heart.
On August 1, Jake will be bringing his Unspoken Word Tour to 1811 Comics in Williamsville. He’ll share his favorite stories from his time in the ring, and some sobering tales from his road to sobriety.
I had the privilege of interviewing him before the show.
How many of these spoken word shows have you done so far?
Jake – Probably about 12. 15.
How have they been going?
JR – Great! I have a blast. It’s a great opportunity to connect with the fans again and share memories. We do a little Q and A thing and I take some time to get my message across about drugs and alcohol, too, so it’s a win-win situation for me.
Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. I did some research and I found out that you originally wanted to be an architect. Is that true?
JR – Yeah. It was my dream.
So what made you decide to pursue wrestling?
JR – Anger. Anger at my father. I was searching for something and I wasn’t getting it from him. I honestly expected him to give me what I wanted, which was simply him saying he was proud of me. He never was around. He didn’t raise me. So why should I expect that?
I went to visit him. He was still wrestling, and I just decided that if I was gonna get my father to love me, I had to do what he did and be better at it than him.
Anger made me give up my dream and chase his. But then once I got started, I quickly fell in love with it. I still have the passion to this day. The passion for this thing we call wrestling. It’s the greatest form of art there is. You go out there and you can create. It’s a wonderful feeling.
What did you find that you loved about it once you formed your own love for it?
JR – The ability to take people’s emotions and mold them and play with them any way you want to. To take them on a ride. To make them forget about their problems. The joy that you see in their eyes, or the anger that you see in their eyes. You can take them either way. Just the ability to go out there and control large amounts of people with your actions and leave them breathless at the end.
I think that’s what the fans love about it to. Being taken on that ride.
JR – Absolutely. Taking a ride, man. Taking a ride.
Something that people might not know is that you actually don’t like snakes.
JR – Yeah. I don’t like snakes at all. Never have. I just came up with the idea of this character named Jake the Snake and forgot that I was afraid of snakes.
So whose idea was the snake?
JR – It was mine, years ago. I was following Kenny Stabler, this pro football player nicknamed “The Snake,” and I just thought how cool it would be if a guy had a snake and carried it to the ring and all sorts of silly stuff. Years later, boom, there I am, doing it.
Did you get fonder of them as the years went on?
JR – No. Absolutely not. I still hate those damn things. They don’t bark. They don’t carry anything. They just bite the crap out of you, so what’s to enjoy? They’re one of God’s creatures, so you gotta enjoy that part of it, but I can do that from a distance, now, can’t I?
You’re pretty famous as one of the best talkers in the wrestling business. Was that something that came naturally, or was that something you had to work on?
JR – I had to work on it for years. I actually started out as a very shy kid. I had a lot of issues growing up. I was very ashamed of my self. Ashamed about where I’d been and who I was. About my past. Putting on a show wasn’t easy, but wrestling was the perfect place for that. You get to choose who you want to be and be that guy.
So why did you feel that shame about who you were?
JR – Just the stuff I went through as a young kid. Being sexually molested and stuff. Just real hard times in the beginning. But that’s another story.
Who were some of your favorite guys to work with?
I really had a good time out there with whoever I was out there with because, again, you’re out there in that ring and you’re getting the opportunity to take fans on that ride. That’s what everybody wanted to do. I had the ability to get them there. It was well known by all of the talent. If you get in the ring with Jake, you’re gonna have a damn good match.
I thank God for the ability and the gifts that were given to me, and with the hard work that I put into it over the years, it worked out real well.
Now I’m just trying to transition into this Unspoken Word thing and keep giving. I really enjoy performing for people, and they really seem to enjoy the stories that I tell. I kinda take them backstage where they can see what was actually going on back there.
I’ll talk about some in-ring experiences, I’ll talk about some nightclub incidents. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of nothing.
I think people find that stuff really interesting, because even now that the illusion is gone, wrestling is still such a cloistered business. It’s fascinating to hear guys like you talk about it.
JR – That’s what this is all about. It’s just going out and enjoying yourself for an hour and a half or so.
The shows are usually a little over an hour. I do a little Q and A thing with the people where they can ask their questions and hopefully I can give them answers if I remember it. We just have a good time. I sign the autographs and take the pictures and everybody can go home happy.
Do you have a favorite moment of your wrestling career?
JR – No. I have way too many. Probably my next match will be my favorite moment.
I’m not sure yet. I’ve got a few matches left in me.
I see that you still work a fair number of indie dates.
JR – Yep. I sure do. I still enjoy it. When I quit enjoying it, I’ll stop.
That’s a good way to look at it.
JR – Yeah. If you still enjoy it, keep going. Hopefully now that my health is doing quite well, I’ll be able to do it for a while longer, you know?
You invented the DDT. That’s one of the most famous moves in pro wrestling. How do you feel about how it’s gone from a devastating finisher to just another regular move?
JR – I think it’s funny, man. I think guys are really foolish for doing it because every time they do it and the guy gets up, people at home are just going, “You know, if Jake did it, you didn’t get your butt up, so I guess he must be better.”
You’re partially responsible for helping “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s career really take off. At King of the Ring 1996, he won his match with you, then cut one of the most famous promos in wrestling history: the Austin 3:16 promo. How did you feel about that?
JR – I was part of it, man! I was helping Steve a lot at the time, trying to get his character down. At the time, he didn’t know really which way to go. He just came from being The Ringmaster and having Ted DiBiase do all his talking and I was trying to get him out there doing his own thing. I was working quite hard for Steve. In the beginning, I was writing television for him, so I knew what was going on and how it was gonna go down. To be a part of it was great.
They really missed a great t-shirt idea I gave to them.
Austin’s 10 commandments:
- Thou shall not kill, unless thou are pissed.
- Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife, unless she’s really hot.
[Unfortunately, Jake’s phone dropped the call after the 2nd commandment, so I missed the rest of them. I called him back and he picked conversation back up with the sentence below.]
Being part of any idea is great, because it’s a team effort. For Steve to have the success that he had, that’s just a pat on my back because I helped him get there.
What do you think got you started down the wrong path when it came to drugs and alcohol?
JR – I think it started when I was born. Alcoholism is part of my family. I was so desperate to prove my father wrong that I started taking shortcuts, whether that meant taking a pill or doing steroids. Whatever it was, I did it, and I jumped right in.
The neck injury from Honky Tonk Man when he hit me with the guitar really put me on the road to get into pills. And once you get into pills, then you’re mixing them with alcohol and that just leads to disaster. It just couldn’t be any worse. Then I found cocaine, and cocaine became my new toy.
It was always something. I did not like who I was as a man and as a human being. I always wanted to feel different than what I knew was the truth. So from one day to the next there was gonna be something there to make me feel different than what I really was. That’s just going about life the wrong way, you know? Not dealing with issues.
That’s one thing that I’ve learned. Every day is not going to be great, but you’ve still gotta deal with it no matter what it is. Don’t think you can just skip it, because you can’t. Sooner or later, you’ve got to deal with the problem.
Over the last three and a half years, I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve learned a lot about myself. The good news is, I’m not as bad as I think I am. There’s some good sides to me. There always have been. I’m learning to deal with things as they come at me and not be ashamed. Learning to forgive myself was a really big thing. I couldn’t forgive myself for the things that I’ve done. We all have to forgive ourselves. Who are we not to forgive if God does?
It’s life experience. I wish I’d learned it a whole lot sooner, but I didn’t. I got so far down the road that I didn’t want to turn back. I wanted to give up. I was trying to die. And I’m so grateful that I had one friend who enticed me and called me in to try it one more time.
[The “one friend” he referred to is Diamond Dallas Page, who helped him kick drugs and alcohol and get back in shape.]
I’ll tell you something. I’ve been to rehabs, I’ve been to jails, and I’ve never met anyone who said, “When I was young, my dream was to grow up to be a drunk or an addict.” Nobody dreams of that. It’s a thing that happens when you go through life. So my best advice is, if you don’t want to become an addict or an alcoholic, don’t pick it up that first time.
I certainly don’t miss alcohol. I’m enjoying life more than I ever have. I’ve got wonderful children who I’ve gotten to know. I was a lousy father, but I’m a damn good grandfather. I’m very grateful that my children could forgive me for my shortcomings and the time that I was away from them, whether it be from wrestling or from drugs and alcohol.
It could be drugs and alcohol, it could be food, it could be sex, it could be a lot of damn things. We all have that out there in front of us, and it is a choice. I just made some bad choices.
There are a lot of wrestlers who have addiction issues. What do you think it is about the wrestling lifestyle that leads to that?
JR – It’s about being in the spotlight, and being ran so damn hard, and you’re so tired, and you’re not taking care of your body. You’re not taking care of yourself, and you make some bad choices. It happens.
But again, it’s still my choice to do a drug or not to do a drug, or to drink or not to drink. That’s something we all have to face.
Jake “The Snake” Roberts – Unspoken Word Tour comes to 1811 Comics on August 1 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $18 for pre-sale, $20 at the door. VIP tickets and merchandise are also available. Visit the Facebook event page for more details.