Over the course of a 7-year active career with the WWF – with a year in WCW in between that – arguably the greatest in-ring psychologist of all-time never held a single piece of gold in either company. With the benefit of being able to look back at his career as a whole, some would say the desire to capture wrestling belts wasn’t Jake Roberts’ modus operandi; he was less about glory and more about fear and destruction.
Over the course of one backstage promo with ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund, Jake could have you loving or hating him, either way you were in the palm of his hand. In lieu of championship reigns to talk about, in this piece I will instead try and portray what Jake meant to the world of wrestling in the 80’s & 90’s, but moreover what his lasting legacy is in today’s business.
Entering into the WWF in early 1986, he began a fantastic feud with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. Jake was the first wrestler I remember who had a real viciousness about him in and out of the ring. This was highlighted when, during an episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event, Roberts would use his patented – and in those days seemingly-deadly – DDT finisher on ‘The Dragon’ on the exposed concrete outside the ring. What made this move seem all the more real was Jake pointing out Steamboat’s wife in the front row just before executing the move. Unfortunately, the move went slightly wrong and Steamboat was left unconscious and suffering the effects of a concussion shortly after. The feud didn’t headline shows, but what it did show was that in Jake Roberts, the company had a guy who they could use to occupy the babyfaces while they were waiting for their shot at gold. His character was so strong that wins and losses did not effect his position on the card.
He did challenge occasionally for titles however, with the first such occasion was against perennial nemesis Randy Savage, who at the time held the Intercontinental strap. Although entering the match as the heel, Roberts found himself overwhelmingly cheered by the crowd, something I’m sure was to Vince’s dismay behind the curtain. The match itself would end in a double disqualification, meaning Jake’s first shot at gold came up just short.
Roberts’ official babyface turn when he was attacked – and legitimately injured – on an episode of his “chat show”, The Snake Pit. The culprit would be a certain Intercontinental champion Honky Tonk Man, who struck Jake with one of his famous guitar shots. Looking back at he tape, and according to Honky’s manager Jimmy Hart, it doesn’t look too much like it was the gimmicked guitar they would traditionally use. This led to a match at WrestleMania III, with Jake having Detroit native & renowned snake lover Alice Cooper in his corner. Roberts would lose the match, and would continue to lose Intercontinental title matches throughout the rest of 1987.
Perhaps his most famous feud with be with “Ravishing” Rick Rude. Like Jake previously had done to Steamboat, Rude decided to make things personal between him and Roberts; Rude had previously started a gimmick of selecting a woman from the crowd to kiss after each match. On an episode of WWF Superstars Of Wrestling, Rude chose Roberts’ real-life wife Cheryl, who refused the kiss. After Rude began insulting Jake, Cheryl slapped him, angering Rude before Roberts ran out for the save. This began a heated feud throughout the summer of 1988, which escalated after Rude began wearing a pair of tights emblazoned with a visage of Mrs. Roberts (an act that was not sanctioned by the WWF at the time and was Rude’s own brainchild) which an irate Roberts tore off.
Heading in to the 90’s Jake got involved in a feud with ”The Million Dollar Man’ Ted Dibiase over his Million Dollar Championship belt, which Ted had paid for himself. The feud would end yet again in defeat for Roberts, after he was counted out in their match at WrestleMania 6 ,thus handing the title back to DiBiase, per the pre-match agreement.
Moving into 1991, Roberts engaged in a feud with Earthquake, who “squashed” Jake’s snake Damien with a pair of Earthquake splashes during a match on Superstars of Wrestling. The feud was advanced when, several weeks later, Earthquake appeared on Prime Time Wrestling and served Quakeburgers to co-host Lord Alfred Hayes, later claiming that the meat was ground from Damien’s carcass. Roberts appeared on Brutus Beefcake’s interview segment The Barbershop, said “You could do two things: Roll over and die, or get yourself a bigger snake”, and then revealed that his new snake was a larger, reticulated python named Lucifer, the supposed big brother of Damien.
Roberts would turn heel late in the summer of 1991 and, after siding with The Undertaker in his feud with Ultimate Warrior, would embark on a story line that still remains clear as day in my head to this very day; of course I am talking about the angle with Macho Man Randy Savage.
One of the outstanding images in my head when I think of Roberts is after he had tied Savage in the ropes and allowed his cobra to sink its (de-venomised) teeth into Savage’s arm. That alone is a striking enough of an image, but with the cobra loose in the ring it raised up, in classic cobra pose (a young Randy Orton takes note), with Jake laying on the mat in front of it with the biggest evil grin on his face. There wasn’t a bigger heel in the whole company at this time, especially after he had sent Randy & Miss Elizabeth a live snake as a wedding present. He was a heel the likes of which had never been seen in WWF before. Quite simply, things seemed real when Jake was involved.
The angle with Savage would continue for about a year with the two clashing numerous times, with Macho Man often being the one getting the upper hand, including eliminating Roberts from the 1992 Royal Rumble. The feud would come to an end on an episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event when, after again being bested by Savage, Roberts was primed with a steel chair threatened to strike the next person who came through the curtain – be it Savage or Liz. Just as Roberts was about to swing the chair, he was stopped by The Undertaker, making his own official babyface turn. Roberts was distracted long enough for Savage to hit him with the chair instead.
The feud with ‘Taker would lead to Roberts last match in WWF for what would end up being four years. Struggling with his demons outside the ring, and with a backstage disagreement with Vince over an apparently-promised position on the writing team, Jake would inevitably lose to the Deadman at WrestleMania 8.
After a short and uneventful stint in WCW, and a tour of Japan with NJPW, Roberts would return to the WWF in 1996 as a bible-preaching born again Christian, a story that mirrored his real life.
King of the Ring 1996 would prove to be a pivotal moment in WWF history and Jake was central to this. We all remember, of course, the birth of Austin 3:16, stemming from the show-long almost-fairytale story of the show of Jake’s return and destiny to win the tournament. However, one man stood in his way, some young upstart by the name of Steve Austin, who would defeat Jake in the final of the tournament and then go on to have a pretty decent career for himself.
I don’t really want to go into detail of Jake’s final WWF feud – with Jerry Lawler – as it doesn’t paint anyone in a good light, least of all Vince McMahon and WWF creative, but lets just say The King got a good laugh out of using Jake’s personal troubles as fuel for story line purposes.
As I said at the beginning, Jake Roberts was never about winning championships. His position – in the late 80’s-early 90’s – was to warm up the babyfaces for Hulk Hogan, a slot on the card that was never going to translate into title reigns. However, despite being a little below the main event positions, Roberts ensured that he would almost always be the name on fans’ lips when they left the arena every night. So many of today’s superstars will admit that they were inspired by Roberts’ heel mannerisms and psychology.
In 2014, after years spent battling well-publicised demons, Jake Roberts brought his career full-circle when he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, inducted by the man who many credit with ensuring that The Snake is still with us today, Diamond Dallas Page.