Welcome to Wrestling Through The Ages. If you missed my Introduction from last week, here’s how this works: I revisit an event from wrestling’s past, put it in the context of its time including how I reacted to said event at that time and now give my take as an adult.
During the course of our three-year relationship, I have been explaining pro wrestling to my girlfriend. She has been a great sport and, in an attempt to better understand my wrestling obsession, has asked questions free of judgment. Over time, she has developed a respect for this strange hybrid of athletics and performance art and, at this point, I think its safe to say that she has become a casual fan by default. She posed the question that inspired today’s column:
“What was the thing that scared you the most in wrestling?”
The event: Jake “The Snake” Roberts DDT’d Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat on the concrete floor, SATURDAY NIGHT’S MAIN EVENT, May 3, 1986 I was 8 years old. Wrestling was still real to me (dammit!) Saturday Night’s Main Event was on past my bedtime so my dad would set the VCR so I could watch it the next day. Once my parents retired to bed, my brother and I would turn the TV on, sit right on top of it and watch the show with the volume turned way down so my parents wouldn’t wake up.
Jake “The Snake” Roberts was a relative newcomer to the WWF. Ricky Steamboat was the ultimate good guy. Jake had not lost on TV at that point and if there was anyone that could topple him, it was the devious loner with the green canvas bag stuffed with his 20-foot boa constrictor, Damian. I was excited for what was sure to be an exciting and physical athletic contest between two evenly matched opponents. The match had barely begun when Roberts snatched Steamboat, who was still in full karate gear, and forcefully DDT’d him directly onto the concrete floor. Jake deadlifted Steamboat’s unconscious body up and rolled him into the ring and placed Damian on Steamboat’s body, even going so far as to try to shove the snake into Ricky’s mouth. As this was happening, my dad got up and went into the kitchen to get a midnight snack. We had to quickly shut the TV off and quickly return to our beds. My brother and I stayed awake all night wondering if Ricky Steamboat had lived through the vicious attack.
How I see it now: Since my girlfriend suggested the topic for this week, I re-watched this episode of SNME with her. What’s remarkable about the incident is that to her mind’s eye, the DDT itself was the least troubling part of this incident. She was way more freaked out by the post-DDT Damian stuff. I explained that at the time that I’d first seen this, I thought wrestling was real. Even as a second grader, I knew boa constrictors weren’t poisonous. The DDT was a dangerous weapon but putting your snake on someone’s prone body was just Jake being a dick. Watching as an adult, I see how well set up this angle was. That DDT meant something, these days a DDT on the floor isn’t even guaranteed to get you a 2-count. I know we’ve jumped the shark in terms of a vicious wrestling move on the floor being enough to incite a hot feud but it does make a case that clear, logical storytelling needs to be the foundation of any great feud. It’s not rocket science: give two men a reason to hate each other so people will want to see them work out their differences by beating the hell out of each other in a wrestling ring.
Another thing that occurred to me in revisiting this episode is how adroitly Roberts and Steamboat executed their roles. Jake’s timing on the DDT and Ricky’s sell job were excellent. These characters were such natural foils for each other, which is a testament of the talents of both men. Roberts was perfect as the tortured, dark and sinister aggressor (which shouldn’t be surprising to anybody that saw his crack-fueled monologue in BEYOND THE MAT) and Ricky had hustle, loyalty and respect down well before Cena’s corporately manipulated version of the white meat babyface. I wondered to myself, “If Steamboat were a babyface today, would I despise his character in the same way I hate Cena (the character not the human being that grants all the Make-a-Wishes.) I decided I would still be a huge fan of Steamboat ’86 in 2015 because a) he was phenomenal in the ring and b)his character was vulnerable but still strong. Really glad I got to revisit this. If you get the chance, definitely check it out.
Also as a post script, Jake “The Snake”Roberts is the first wrestler I ever met. When I was a senior in high school, we had these nice Southern women who would clean our house. They were Born Again Christians and invited us to hear Jake speak at their church.(This was during his 1996-97 WWF comeback –the one that spawned the “Austin 3:16” promo at King of the Ring ’97.) By the age of 17, I was already a devout Atheist but the thought of meeting a real, in-the-flesh WWF superstar was enough to bring my Godless ass to Jesus. It was awesome. He told great stories about his decadent life on the road. The man cuts a great promo. I got to meet him afterwards and shook his hand. Of course, he fell off the wagon not to long after his appearance at the church but now he’s found the saving grace of DDP. I hope he continues to fight the good fight. Also, as much as I feared for the life of Ricky Steamboat on that Summer evening in 1986, what’s far more incredible to me as an adult is the fact that Jake is still alive.
If you have an incident from wrestling’s past that you’d like to see me address in this column, tweet me at @BuckleyBodyGuru
Tags: classic wrestling 1980s wrestlers, Jake the Snake Roberts, ricky steamboat, Saturday Night's Main Event, sports entertainment, World Wrestling Federation