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One of the most uplifting stories in wrestling over the last few years concerns Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Scott Hall. Both were considered down-and-out due to personal problems before Diamond Dallas Page stepped in, allowing Jake and later Scott to move into his house as he helped them towards recovery. Both men made a remarkable transformation, for which they were rewarded with a Hall of Fame induction. They have remained on the right path since then, their troubles seemingly, and thankfully, behind them.
In the mid-2000s, however, all this was still to come. And whilst Scott Hall remained an occasional fixture in such promotions as TNA, Jake’s reputation had taken a nosedive due to his issues with drugs and alcohol. Therefore, it seemed curious that WWE would release a DVD documenting his checkered history, and the title “Jake Roberts – Pick Your Poison” only emphasized that.
However, WWE was in the early stages of releasing DVDs on many of its past performers, with the famous Bret Hart DVD out around the same time. Jake Roberts, despite his problems, remained one of the more fondly-remembered stars from the WWF’s 1980s boom period, so it’s pretty understandable why WWE would decide to give us an extended look at “The Snake”.
The main feature of the two-disc set is a documentary; it begins by covering some unpleasant aspects of Jake’s family history. I won’t go into detail because it wouldn’t seem right to do so. I will simply state that from Jake’s account here, his father (a wrestler himself, named Grizzly Smith) was a nasty piece of work, to say the very least, and some of the stories told here are pretty shocking. Jake doesn’t hide the fact that he was responsible for some cruel acts of his own relating to his sister during his teenage years, though he claims it was to protect each other from further pain. It’s clear from hearing this that Jake’s issues began long before he entered wrestling. Nevertheless, Grizzly’s involvement in wrestling (which impacted upon the family) played a role in Jake entering the business himself, though this hardly improved the father-son relationship, with Grizzly informing Jake that he would never amount to anything!
On a lighter note, we then move onto Jake’s early days within wrestling, most notably in the Mid-South and Mid-Atlantic territories. The likes of Ted DiBiase and Jim Ross note how Jake had outstanding psychology and superb understanding of the nuances of a match from the start; how every move meant something, which built in some way towards the finish. Jake’s signature moves such as the knee-lift, the short-arm clothesline and, of course, the DDT are discussed, whilst his masterful promo skills would be developed in Georgia Championship Wrestling. Again, every word meant something, and his facial expressions, whilst never over-the-top, added to the message he was preaching. A simple smirk or a raise of the eyebrow (long before The Rock used it) would further emphasize his point, making him a man to be feared and a performer to be admired.
That being said, it’s only when Jake Roberts joined the WWF that his career truly took off. The addition of a pet snake (initially Damien) is discussed, from its origins to its impact upon Jake’s gimmick (including the post-match draping of the creature upon a fallen opponent). A rivalry with Ricky Steamboat (Snake vs. Dragon, get it?) inadvertently led to Roberts concussing Steamboat with a DDT on the concrete floor, which nevertheless made their feud a major part of WWF television in mid-1986.
With the Snake Pit talking segment further allowing Roberts to demonstrate his verbal skills, Jake was quickly gaining popularity among fans, which led to his babyface turn. The Honky Tonk Man smashed him with a guitar on the Snake Pit, turning Jake face and leading to their match at WrestleMania III. The only problem was, Honky used a non-gimmicked guitar to whack Jake with, which caused a neck injury and, according to Roberts, led to the initiation of his problems. The subject of drink and drug abuse begins with this chapter of the documentary.
On-screen, though, Roberts’ character was flying. Though he never won a singles title in the WWF, Jake’s character alone made him a massive success, and his feud with Rick Rude throughout most of 1988 is covered heavily. It was pretty edgy by the standards of the time (Rude was aghast that Jake’s wife Cheryl would reject his post-match advances, leading Rude to wear tights with her face emblazoned on them, and with Jake stripping Rude down to his skivvies on at least one occasion). But it was the perfect mix of good guy vs. bad guy during a character-heavy era where wrestling was so much simpler, and yet so much more popular (there’s a lesson there). Jake’s feuds with Andre the Giant, Ted DiBiase, Rick Martel and Earthquake are also quickly covered.
However, it’s Jake’s tenure as a heel from August 1991 to April 1992 which is perhaps most memorable. After some segments involving the Ultimate Warrior which are pretty chilling to watch even today, Jake became a truly evil, diabolical heel, whose lack of remorse was second only to his willingness to unleash a now-venomous python (Lucifer) whenever possible. The most memorable example came when he literally sank the snake’s fangs into Randy Savage’s arm during an incredible angle on Superstars in November 1991. A shocking incident even today, it established Roberts (who maintained his slow, calm promo delivery, but with a maniacal edge) as one of the most evil WWF characters ever, and fans were delighted to see Savage gain revenge on Jake in future matches. Roberts’ WWF tenure ended after his defeat to The Undertaker at WrestleMania VIII (with Jake refusing to wrestle at that show unless he was granted a contract release, a stance which he regrets today).
Jake’s WCW stint is only briefly covered in the documentary; much of the talk around this period concerns his ever-growing personal problems. Again, I won’t go into these discussions because they’re common knowledge. I will say that Vince McMahon, interviewed for his feature, clearly believed that Jake was a reformed character by 1996 because he brought him back for the Royal Rumble. Jake, now a born-again Christian (with a new snake, Revelations), is most noted during this time for triggering the Austin 3:16 promo at King of the Ring, which eventually provided the basis for Steve Austin to go on and become a mega-star.
Jake, though, was struggling, evidenced by his weird feud with Jerry Lawler. Lawler mocked Jake on-air for his alcohol issues, then beat him at SummerSlam and poured whisky down his throat. By the way, Jake was a face, and Lawler was a heel, and this was in the very early stages of the WWF’s transition from New Generation to Attitude Era. Very bizarre. Lawler claims that he believed all involved were cool with the subject matter, though it became clear that this wasn’t the case.
We move onto Roberts briefly appearing in ECW, and the escalation of his issues. His “role” in Beyond The Mat is discussed, with some (including Bruce Prichard) suggesting that the movie portrayed Roberts in an unnecessarily bad light. I’ll let you be the judge of that, assuming that you’ve seen the film. Nevertheless, Jake’s problems continued in the years that followed.
We’re then shown his surprise RAW appearance in 2005. The doc concludes by discussing how Jake’s legacy is somewhat hindered by his personal problems, but that he will still always be remembered as an expert in wrestling psychology and a master of knowing what to do and when to do it. Jake himself closes the feature by implying that his problems were behind him and he was excited about the future. This wouldn’t prove to be the case, and it was only the intervention of DDP in 2012/2013 which truly turned things around for Roberts. At the time, though, fans wanted to believe it was true, and so the DVD sort of ends on a positive note for Roberts.
There are a fair few segments and angles included as bonus footage, along with additional comments omitted from the main feature. One angle which you simply have to see if you haven’t already (and even if you have) is the literal snake attack on Randy Savage. It’s one of the most dramatic angles in WWF/WWE history and, nearly 26 years later, it is still a must-see moment.
The bonus matches aren’t in chronological order on the actual DVD, but for the purpose of this review, I’ll structure them in that manner:
NWA Mid-Atlantic – September 9, 1981
Jake Roberts & Ricky Steamboat vs. Jim Nelson & Mick Miller
Future foes form a pretty effective tag team here. It’s an enjoyable but basic doubles bout to represent this chapter of Jake’s career. I can’t see this being a match you’d go back and watch again, though.
GCW – December 3, 1983
Television Championship Match
Jake Roberts (C) vs. Ronnie Garvin
Few would describe Jake as being a flashy, high-spot competitor; it was mainly about the psychology for Roberts. That is emphasized in this encounter, which tells a logical story, but is slow and one that I imagine would only be fully appreciated by those watching GCW at the time.
WWF – March 16, 1986
Jake Roberts vs. Lanny Poffo
This is little more than an extended squash match. Lanny does get some offence in, but between Roberts’ dominance, the methodical pace and Jake taking the time to circle the ringside area, “The Snake” is the real focus of the bout, so the result is not a surprise at all.
WWF The Big Event 1986 – August 28, 1986
Snake Pit Match
Jake Roberts vs. Ricky Steamboat
This match from The Big Event is somewhat overshadowed by the Hulk Hogan-Paul Orndorff main event which drew the massive crowd, but it’s still a fun encounter, and a nice way to cap off Jake’s final major feud before his very successful babyface run.
WWF WrestleMania III – March 29, 1987
Jake Roberts vs. Honky Tonk Man
Perhaps most memorable for the presence of Alice Cooper at ringside, this match stemmed from the aforementioned Snake Pit angle involving both men. It’s okay, but not a highlight of the timeless WM III card, and the finish does little to help Jake, even if Honky uses foul means (did Honky ever win a match clean in the WWF?).
WWF – October 24, 1988
DDT vs. Rude Awakening Match
Jake Roberts vs. Rick Rude
This is effectively a Finisher match. The old MSG cards televised for the New York area often delivered hidden gems as part of long-lasting rivalries, and this is no exception. This is plenty of fun, and fans are as much behind Roberts as they are against the detestable Ravishing One.
WWF Superstars – April 27, 1991
Jake Roberts vs. Earthquake
This is more angle than match, since it exists to set up the post-match scene where Quake shockingly squashes Jake’s friend Damien. The strangest thing about this angle is that it didn’t really have a suitable conclusion; the next meaningful moments involving Jake instigated his heel turn on Warrior.
WCW Halloween Havoc 1992 – October 25, 1992
Coal Miner’s Glove Match
Jake Roberts vs. Sting
By this time, Jake had garnered something of a reputation for phoning it in, and this match is an example of one which doesn’t meet expectations. Incidentally, the closing scene (Jake supposedly being bit by a cobra) apparently went awry in that the cobra really did chew at Roberts’ face. Between this and the underwhelming stipulation (imagine RAW Roulette conjuring up the least exciting outcome for a PPV main event), I guess this match was snake-bitten from the start (sorry).
SMW – May 7, 1994
SMW Heavyweight Championship Match
Dirty White Boy (C) vs. Jake Roberts
Jake’s time in SMW is a forgotten chapter of his career, and yet he delivered some topnotch work. Evidence of this comes from this match against Dirty White Boy, which ends up being one of the best bouts on the DVD, complete with Jake’s usual first-class psychology.
WWF King of the Ring 1996 – June 23, 1996
King of the Ring Tournament Final Match
Jake Roberts vs. Steve Austin
You know the story here: Jake comes in injured from his previous match with Vader, Austin (nursing a stitched-up lip himself) takes advantage, and he quickly wins with the Stone Cold Stunner. Oh, and Austin delivers a post-match promo which you may have seen once or twice.
WWF SummerSlam 1996 – August 18, 1996
Jake Roberts vs. Jerry Lawler
I would have preferred the Austin bout bringing an end to the DVD on a somewhat high note (in terms of historical significance, at least), because the Lawler match is pretty sad to watch, knowing that Jake was so uncomfortable with the subject matter of the feud. If Jake triumphed here, it’d be a different story. With the heel coming out on top, the whole scenario seems like one that was destined to fail.
ECW November to Remember 1998 – November 1, 1998
Jake Roberts & Tommy Dreamer vs. Justin Credible & Jack Victory
Mind you, at least it doesn’t close out the set. That honor goes to this doubles clash from ECW. It’s a typically wild, violent and bloody ECW tag match where it’s all about creating carnage, something which wouldn’t normally be associated with Roberts. Still, the babyfaces win, so at least the two-disc set ends with Jake having his hand raised.
To be honest, watching this DVD in hindsight is tough. Not only because of the subjects covered, but because Jake was far from completing his road to recovery in 2005. It would be many years before Roberts truly overcame his demons (covered in much greater detail in “The Resurrection of Jake The Snake”, already considered to be one of the best wrestling docs ever).
Still, this documentary definitely has its moments when recapping Jake’s in-ring highlights, and whilst the match selection could have been better, the bonus bouts do emphasize how much of a master in wrestling psychology that Jake was. Couple that with the bonus angles and promos, and you have a more than adequate DVD set, which longtime fans of Jake are sure to appreciate.
You just need to also see “The Resurrection” to truly learn about this remarkable comeback.