Friday 1 February 2013

Jake "The Snake" Roberts: Master Story Teller By Rock Rims

Sport, entertainment, performance, soap opera, spectacle, theater. These are all ways that Pro Wrestling has been described or can be described, and when it’s performed at its highest level, it’s a combination of all these things. In fact, at that level, it even ventures into the realm of Greek Theater or a moral play, with characters, emotions, and situations that we can all identify with to one extent or another.

And just as in theater, where there are performers who can draw us into the experience, causing us to leave the world we had inhabited only moments before, so there are performers in Pro Wrestling who’s masterful use of Psychology can be likened to leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that we can easily and willing follow, in expectation of a journey that we won’t soon forget.

And Jake “The Snake” Roberts was such a master. He possessed a personal magnetism and presence and combined these with an inherent and developed understanding of the human psyche, knowing just what to say and do to get the desired reaction from the fans. Jake had that unique gift to gain the fans riveted attention, leaving them hanging onto every word, wondering what he was going to both say and do next. Now, that’s psychology, that’s genius.

In Pro Wrestling, there have always been those who were great on the mic, but were shit in the ring. The ones who whetted your appetite, making you want to see them either whoop ass on their opponent or have their opponent do that to them. Yet, their performance in the ring was sometimes anti-climatic, unless their opponent was a great worker who could carry the match. And when their opponent was less than a stellar performer, you sometimes wished things had ended with the promo. And then there were those who were great in the ring, but were shit on the mic. These were the guys who thrilled us with their ringwork, but made us want to reach through the TV screen or from our seat in the audience and knock the microphone out of their hand when they had it. “Will somebody just give this guy a chair shot already???!!!”

Jake was one of those rare breeds who had great psychology in both aspects of the game. While he wasn’t a technical marvel in the ring with an expansive move-set like a Benoit or Guerrero, what moves he did use, were crisp and precise. More importantly, they were used at the right time, yielding the desired effects, physically on his opponents, and emotionally on the viewers. He gave meaning to what he did and when he did it.

Jake first began his wrestling career in the late 70’s, showing signs of his great potential even early on, as he wrestled in and won titles in various North American territories throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s. These included Mid-South, Mid-Atlantic, World Class Wrestling in Texas, Stampede Wrestling in Canada, and Georgia Championship Wrestling. Jake refined his physical and verbal skills in the wrestling game and soon, the World Wrestling Federation would come calling, and eventually, to our great benefit, Jake would answer. While there are various pros and cons to the expansionism that the WWF undertook in the 80’s, one of the pros had to be that it gave a tremendous worker like Jake Roberts a larger platform and stage on which to perform. This would allow many more fans who might not have access to the regional television programming that Jake previously appeared on, an opportunity to witness his genius.

Jake wasted no time in becoming a major player in the WWF, utilizing the skills and talents that he already possessed, and adding a new element: A Giant Snake named Damien. With his ominous, dark, and menacing persona, it was no wonder that Jake’s snakes had names like “Damien” and “Lucifer”, for with his ability to tap into his dark side, possibly even his personal demons, he often seemed like the Devil Incarnate.

Jake’s promos and actions in and around the ring could stir a variety of emotions in the fans, causing some to feel anger, maybe even indignation, yet strangely enough, causing others to cheer. Perhaps the promos threatened and maybe even scared us because they reminded us of a darkness or potential darkness that exists in all of us, and reminded us of a place that our thoughts may have journeyed to at one time or another. For we all possess the potential for both good and bad. It’s just a matter of degrees as to which each one inhabits our lives, actions, and thoughts. And perhaps that may have also been a part of Jake’s appeal, the fact that so many could identify with one thing or another that he said or did. Regardless of what particular emotions, thoughts, and feelings he stirred in us, the almost Universal thought was: We wanted to watch him.

And watch him we did, as he engaged in memorable feuds with the likes of the Honky Tonk Man, the great Ricky Steamboat, Andre the Giant, the “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, and “Ravishing” Rick Rude. And while the majority of matches involving John “Earthquake” Tenta were far from classics, what was classic was the angle involving “Earthquake”, Jake, and Jake’s snake “Damien.” During a confrontation on WWF television between Jake and Earthquake, Jake found himself wrapped up and trapped in the ring ropes, watching helplessly as the 500 lb. Earthquake “squashed” Damien as he lied inside the canvas sack that Jake carried him in. Jake did such an incredible job of reacting to the heinous act, displaying the kind of anguish, agony, and heartbreak that one would expect to see when someone loses a cherished pet or loved one. And the camera would then pan the crowd, and these people, some of whom even knew at that point that what they sometimes saw in wrestling wasn’t “reality”, were obviously wondering if what they had in fact just witnessed wasn’t real. Many had looks of shock and disbelief on their faces, while others also had eyes that were beginning to tear up. They could identify with Jakes’ anguish, loss, his disillusionment that people and life could be so cruel. Jake didn’t just talk and act out a wrestling program; he talked and acted out life.

Jake’s career would continue with the WWF until late 1992, and afterwards, he would have stints, some memorable, some not so much, in WCW, ECW, Smokey Mountain Wrestling, and again in the WWF. One of the stints that was certainly memorable, yet I don’t feel garnered nearly as much recognition as it deserved, was his time in Mexico’s AAA promotion.

While recently viewing a DVD compilation “A Snake Slithers into Mexico: Jake Roberts in AAA”, I had a chance to revisit Jake’s great run in Mexico. What made that run all the more memorable and impressive was the fact that, in not one single match of the half dozen that are part of that compilation, do we hear Jake on the microphone or cutting a promo. Not once! Here is one of the greatest “stickmen” in the history of Pro Wrestling, not able to speak Spanish, yet drawing incredible heat and attention from the Mexican fans, without using one of his greatest tools in his bag: The mic.

And Jake didn’t have to resort to cheap heat tactics either, like tossing tortillas to the crowd or spitting on the Mexican flag. He did it sheerly by his incredible prescence and work in the ring. His first appearance in the promotion occurred when he showed up in a ringside seat at a “career vs. career” match between Cien Caras and the man once described as the “Hulk Hogan of Mexico”, Konnan. A packed house of 48,000 turned up to witness this important match at the inaugural “Triplemania” event on April 30, 1993. And while much of the attention was obviously directed toward the ring where Cien Caras and Konnan were battling it out, much was also being directed toward Jake. In fact, such was the magnetism of Jake, that when a second camera would sometimes catch a shot of Jake at ringside, people viewing the match on television would pay more attention to his body language and facial expressions than they would to what was going on in the ring.

Instigator and agitator that he was, Jake would end up interfering in the match, causing Konnan to lose the 3rd and final fall of the match, thus forcing him to “retire”. This would set the stage for an eventual feud between Jake and Konnan, when Konnan would return to the rings in AAA just a short time later. Even without the use of promos, over the next 13 months, Jake would have the fans of AAA screaming for his blood. Lucha Libre is the only style of wrestling where the “heels” (“rudos” in Mexico) and “faces” (“technicos” in Mexico) are actually designated. Jake however, needed no such designation. With his actions and facial expressions alone, everyone knew his role.

Whether it was his joining the heel faction known as “Los Gringos Locos”, his physical attacks on “mini” wrestler “Mascarita Sagrada” (who’s about 4 ft. in height), or his physical manhandling of female valets accompanying him to the ring, Jake knew how to light the fuse under an already emotional Mexican crowd. And even when the fans where constantly throwing debris into the ring at him, Jake would just stand back, with that devious smile of his spreading across his face. He had them (us) right where he wanted us. And we didn’t mind a bit.

In most Pro Wrestling organizations, the cage match is the culmination of a feud, the “blow off” match. And while Jake and Konnan certainly had theirs in front of a rabid crowd in Los Angeles, they would take things one step further. For in Mexico, the ultimate confrontation is a “Lucha Apuestas” match, where the opponents place their hair or masks on the line. And on May 27, 1994, thousands packed an arena in Tijuana, Mexico to see the ultimate confrontation between Jake and Konnan. And while Konnan won the match and the right to see Jake’s hair removed, Jake was a winner too, as were all those who have witnessed that match. For again, Jake was able to put us where he wanted us, and we were more than willing to be there.

Jake once said on a WWF television show “If a man has enough power, he can speak softly…And everyone will listen.” Jake Roberts both recognized that kind of power and possessed it. And he made us all want to listen. If you haven’t had the opportunity to both listen and watch Jake Roberts, I wholeheartedly suggest that you do so. And if your only experience with viewing and listening to Jake Roberts consists of his WWF/E work, then I highly recommend you look into his work in Mid-Atlantic, Florida, WCCW, Mid-South, and AAA. For that will give you a more complete look at his incredible and compelling body of work. And I can’t say enough about what a compelling bio that the WWE produced in “Jake Roberts: Pick your Poison”. While I feel that they kind of dropped the ball when it comes to the limited match selection on the DVD set, the bio/documentary part is perhaps the best and most moving that I’ve ever seen.

Everyone has a story to tell, and the ringwork and mic work are only a small fraction of Jake Robert’s story. Like all of us, he has had to face personal challenges, some of which were very unfortunate and even horrific. We are all to a great extent, products of our environment, but more so I feel, products of how we have responded to those experiences and situations. While Jake’s ring wars are over, his greatest battles continue in his personal life, as is the case for many of us. As human beings, we possess an incredible capacity to achieve, and to overcome adversity and triumph over our short comings and personal demons. And if anything, throughout his highs and lows, Jake Roberts has proven to be human. I look forward to hearing that the rest of Jake’s story is a triumphant one, for I know he has the power, and I know that we’d want to listen.

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