Monday, 11 April 2011

Never Meet Your Heroes: Encounters with Jake Roberts

A few days ago news broke of Scott Hall’s rather shambolic performance at the Top Rope Promotions 30th anniversary show. While the great and the good have commented about this it brought back memories of another wrestling great who has gone off the rails too many times to mention. That man is Jake “The Snake” Roberts.

When I first got into the American wrestling scene back in 1989 Jake was one of those guys who just grabbed my attention. He may not have been the most powerful or the most skilled but he was certainly the most charismatic.

I got the opportunity to speak and work with Jake during my time with the World Association of Wrestling. Jake had relocated here to Britain in 2001 and had been doing the rounds on the wrestling circuit. I’d read quite a few reviews about his apparent poor performances. I remember one said that he’d actually fallen asleep leaning against the corner post during a tag team match.

So it was with some trepidation that I watched his first match for WAW that December in Lowestoft. Jake was teaming with local here “The Tattooed Warrior” (this nickname © Julian Radbourne) Steve Quintain against the U.K. Pitbulls.

Jake walked past me as I sat at the ringside table, and despite what I’d read about him a shiver went down my spine. As he went about his business in the ring I sat there in awe of a man who’d been my teenage hero.

Jake had entered into a working agreement with Ricky and Saraya Knight, WAW’s owners. In the months to come they basically promoted the hell out of the guy, getting him a ton of airtime on local and national radio, as well as an appearance on comedy sports panel show “They Think It’s All Over” in the “Feel the Sportsman” round. (Hmmm, I wonder who came up with that idea?)

The next time I saw Jake in action was in the following February. As well as putting in great performances in WAW rings he also took on the position of guest trainer at WAW’s training school that month. Like me the trainees were in awe of the man, hanging on his every word as he spoke to them about the traditions of the wrestling business.

But as the old saying goes all good things come to an end. After just a few months Ricky and Jake had a massive falling out. Ricky told me it was because he’d seen Jake smoking crack cocaine backstage at another show they were both working on. He also said that Jake wanted to take money out of WAW, despite the fact that he’d never actually invested in the company, as well as criticising his tramp-like appearance in the ring.

I next saw Jake backstage at the Global Wrestling Force “Aftermath” show. This was one of the most infamous shows in British wrestling history for a variety of reasons. Backstage Jake was his usual self, spending most of the time hanging out with Trent Acid and Johnny Kashmere, drinking cheap sherry one of them had brought from the local supermarket.

Seeing the man getting plastered backstage at a show came as no surprise, and as he made more appearances for WAW it was something I saw with great regularity. There was one infamous incident when he stood by the curtain, waiting to go out for his match, with a pint glass full of neat vodka in his hand. Needless to say that the pint was taken away from him before he made his entrance.

Even though Jake was putting in capable performances in the ring there were also the usual stories about his behaviour, some of which I witnessed myself travelling around the country, stories of how he’d gotten into fights with other wrestlers after he tried to chat up their girlfriends, and how promoters were satisfying his habits by buying him drugs and alcohol.

Jake’s last appearance in a British wrestling ring came in October 2004, at WAW’s annual October Outrage show in Canvey Island, one again teaming with Steve Quintain against the U.K. Pitbulls. This was by far Jake’s worst performance in a British ring. Clearly the worse for wear throughout as he cut a drunken, rambling promo about the recently deceased Ray “Big Boss Man” Traylor, before challenging Zak Zodiac, Ricky and Saraya’s 13 year old son, to a fight.

But by then Jake was having his fair share of legal problems as well. Jake’s pet python had died, and the RSPCA prosecuted him for animal cruelty. Jake was found guilty, but never served any jail time, having returned to the U.S.

Jake “The Snake” Roberts was one of my first American wrestling heroes, and I really had high hopes for the guy during my time in the British wrestling business. But then again perhaps I shouldn’t have been so na├»ve. I’d seen Beyond the Mat. I’d read all the stories. I knew of the man’s reputation.

Jake is now apparently off the booze and drugs, thanks to a little help from his old WWE employers and their Wellness Policy. He may go down as the greatest ring psychologist in professional wrestling history, but he’ll also be remembered as a drunk, a drug addict and a liar.

And that’s the sad thing for me. I feel completely betrayed by the man, because for a short period of time Jake “The Snake” Roberts was my hero.