Jake 'The Snake' Roberts' tragic real-life story

He was born Aurelian Smith Jr., but wrestling fans know him by his more famous, far catchier ring name: Jake "The Snake" Roberts. ("Aurelian the Barbarian" is a solid backup plan.) Throughout the '80s and '90s, Roberts entertained millions of fans with his creepy antics, giant snake, and championship-caliber mullet. Though he never won a world title or headlined a WrestleMania, he's just as much an '80s WWF icon as Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage.

Unfortunately, Jake's life outside the ring has largely been filled with tragedy. Between a broken family life, multiple addictions, crippling depression, run-ins with the law, and continually hitting rock bottom in front of fans and young wrestlers who once idolized him, much of Snake's life has not been a happy one. Fortunately, he's on the rise again, thanks to old friends unwilling to give up on him no matter how much he gave up on himself, but that doesn't change how often the man's been through the ringer, essentially since birth.

He was born into tragedy and lived it almost immediately

Jake Roberts' life didn't take long to turn tumultuous. In fact, he's been dealing with adversity from day one, thanks to his father.

Jake's father was a wrestler named Grizzly Smith, who was a cold, uncaring monster in every sense of the word. He was also a pedophiliac criminal. As Jake recounted in his documentary The Resurrection of Jake Roberts, the only reason he was born at all was because his father raped a young woman. And by young, we mean she was 12 years old. Also, Smith apparently only went after her because the woman he had been dating — Jake's grandmother — had passed out, so Smith decided to go into another room and be with somebody else. That somebody else was criminally underage, and she wound up giving birth to Jake when she barely a teenager.

If that wasn't enough, Jake also had to deal with said grandmother dying of cancer, his beloved stepfather being electrocuted to death, and constant abuse from his stepmother. It's the kind of unhappy existence that at least makes you understand why Jake turned to drugs and alcohol, even if you would much rather he had never touched the stuff.

His sister was murdered by her husband's ex-wife

Roberts has several siblings, but one of them is no longer with us. The reason why haunts Jake to this day.

As Jake recalled in his documentary, he had a sister, whose name he didn't disclose. This sister was also a regular victim of Grizzly Smith. According to Jake, Smith had gotten her pregnant three times before turning 18, so it's no surprise she would try escaping that situation through any means necessary. Her solution was to run off with a 55-year-old man when she was just 18. That in itself is usually a very bad idea, but how it ended took it from "bad idea" to pure tragedy.

According to Jaker, a year after his sister left, she had a child with this older man. Then, his ex-wife showed up, kidnapped Jake's sister, and killed her. Unfortunately, the courts could never prove a murder took place since they never found the body, meaning the ex-wife only got ten years in prison on the kidnapping charge. Then, once released, she and her ex collected the money from Jake's sister's life insurance and ran off together.

All this, according to Jake, is why he played his untrustworthy character so well: It wasn't a character. As he explained, "I never wanted you to trust me."

He only got into wrestling due to his father's cruelty

Life as Grizzly Smith's kid wasn't easy, but the man only made it worse when it came to how he made his living: professional wrestling.

As Jake recounted in an interview with Slam Sports, he rarely saw his father more than a couple times a year, because the old man was always on the road wrestling. Plus, Smith never bothered telling his son how wrestling worked. As far as Jake was concerned, his father was always on the brink of getting killed in the ring because his opponent was out for blood. If Smith had told his son the truth about wrestling, that could've helped Roberts' psyche immensely. But Grizzly Smith would have had to give a damn about Jake, which he obviously didn't.

Then there was the first time Jake tried to wrestle. After graduating high school (his ever-supportive dad said, "Well, I hope you don't want anything from me"), Roberts attended one of Smith's matches and decided to challenge another wrestler. Jake, untrained and drunk, got battered and stretched worse than he'd ever been. After the ordeal, his father laid into him: "I'm ashamed of you, you're gutless, and you'll never amount to anything."

Such callousness motivated Jake to pursue wrestling full-time to show his dad how wrong he was. Clearly, he succeeded. He also hoped to, one day, finally hear his dad say he was proud of him. Sadly, it didn't happen.

Started drinking at age 11 and doing drugs in the '70s

Knowing what Jake's gone through, it's little surprise that the Snakeman eventually turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with life. But while most fans know he's been an addict since at least the '90s, the truth is he started much earlier, long before anyone knew who he was.

According to Jake, he started drinking at age 11, around 1966 or so. He began wrestling in 1975, and the drinking only escalated from there. What's more, once on the road full-time, he added drugs to his repertoire, regularly smoking pot and even doing speed on occasion. But alcohol was his biggest, and most damaging, vice by far. As he put it, "it no longer became a choice to [drink]. It was a necessity. I was in a bad mood and underproductive and wouldn't, couldn't get up off the couch unless I had something to drink."

Despite all that, he had an image to uphold since he was a face (good guy) for much of his WWF tenure. So it was he posed for a "Just say no to drugs" poster, even if he couldn't say no himself. As he told Salon, "I felt nasty doing that poster, but you do what you're told sometimes." Sadly, few if any higher-ups told him to get help until it was almost too late.

Hates snakes, likes his privacy

This will likely surprise you, but Jake "The Snake" Roberts — a guy famous for carrying humongous pythons to the ring, oftentimes on his shoulders — is no fan of snakes. In fact, he downright hates them, but used them to keep people from getting too close to the real him.

Roberts admitted to Sports Illustrated in 2015 that he "can't stand snakes." And yet, there he was hanging around with a 12-foot python called Damien night in and night out. Damien, to put it mildly, kicked his butt. As he told one website, "Carrying that 100-pound snake around was brutal on my body." Between weeks' worth of clothes, wrestling gear, and the giant snake, it's quite possible Jake's body was hurt more by traveling than getting thrown around the ring. It's little wonder he preferred working with Lucifer, the devenomized king cobra he wielded as a bad guy. Cobras may be scary, but they only weigh 15 pounds.

Jake dealt with this fear (and pain) every night because he saw his snake as a wall to keep people from learning too much about the man behind the slithery creature. As he told SI, "The snake was something to hide behind. … Everyone was scared of the snake, and that's exactly what I wanted. I didn't want anyone to get close to me. I wanted everyone to be afraid of me." After all, if people get close they may sense weakness and vulnerability, two parts of Jake's personality he wasn't ready to confront.

His WCW contract became a financial screwjob

Not everything bad in Jake's life is due to a broken family or alcoholism. In some cases, shady people in his profession made his life harder by making his wallet thinner.

According to the documentary Jake Roberts: Pick Your Poison, after Jake left WWF in 1992, he and WCW had agreed to a mega-deal worth up to $3 million a year. That's not bad at all, except he never saw that money. Shortly after agreeing to the contract, WCW hired a man named Bill Watts to run the place. Watts voided Jake's contract, forcing him to sign for a mere $200,000 per year. While that's certainly enough to feed most families, it's a slap in the face when you were just promised 15 times that amount.

During a panel at Tidewater Comicon, Jake revealed why Watts did it. Apparently, Watts had a deal with WCW where he made a percentage of the money he saved the company, so he was cutting down contracts left and right, including Jake's. For that, and presumably for other reasons, Roberts ended his panel talk by calling Watts a "sorry piece of sh*t" without "a good bone in his body." It's little wonder Jake left WCW before ringing in 1993. Still, it might've been a blessing in disguise: If he was drinking that much on a mediocre salary, he probably wouldn't have survived with more money to buy booze.

Hit rock bottom in front of fans in 1999

Up until the late '90s, fans might have been aware that Jake Roberts had some personal issues, but many had no clue how bad they truly were. That all changed thanks to events like Heroes of Wrestling, a pay-per-view that exposed the Snake as the near-hopeless mess he truly was at the time.

Roberts was set to wrestle Jim Neidhart, but a pre-match interview showed he was in no condition to wrestle, or do anything really. He was drunk out of his mind, slurred an incoherent speech about how he cheats at blackjack, and could barely stand up. He was no better in the ring, forcing fans to rub his bare chest, pretending his snake was a pants-snake, and stumbling around the ring while barely acknowledging anything Neidhart was trying to do.

Things got so awkward and bad, the promoter had to send two other wrestlers out to make it a tag team match, simply so Roberts didn't embarrass himself any further. It didn't really work, as Snake attempted to end the show by stuffing Damien down another man's trousers, head-first. The camera crew faded to black immediately, proving they had more sense than whoever allowed Roberts to even attempt wrestling while in his wretched state.

Hit true rock bottom in 2008

You might think hitting rock bottom in front of everybody would be the wake-up call Roberts needed to turn his life around, but you'd be wrong. As it turns out, he needed that to happen again before even beginning to change.

In 2008, Roberts was booked against indie wrestler JT Lightning at Firestorm Pro Wrestling, but as TMZ reported, he was done long before hitting the ring. He was apparently passed out in the locker room, with mere moments to go before he was set to wrestle. Over 20 bottles of airplane vodka were littered all around him. After being woken up and angrily demanding an 8-ball, Roberts stumbled into the arena and began mumbling at both the fans and Lightning. Fans likely weren't sure what to be more aghast at: Robert's drunken actions, or how he looked heavier, flabbier, and overall worse than ever.

The actual match lasted maybe a minute. After Snake stumbled to the mat, an exasperated Lightning forcefully held him down for an unscripted three-count. He then called the former superstar a "piece of sh*t" who ripped off all the fans who paid to see him. Roberts responded by flashing the crowd, punching a wall, breaking his hand, and running out into the streets crying. The Snake had truly hit bottom, and even then it would take four more years before he found what would save his life.

He couldn't stop getting into legal trouble

When your life is mostly drugs and alcohol seasoned with a little wrestling, you're probably running afoul of the law every now and again. In Jake's case, however, he and the law had a long-running feud that wasn't nearly as fun as his WWF rivalries.

In May 1989, Roberts found himself arrested at a WWF show and charged with aggravated battery – according to the Orlando Sentinel, he punched out a man in a Florida bar the previous December. He was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to ten years' probation. Luckily for him, an appellate court concluded Roberts' lawyer sucked at his job and nullified the verdict.

That wasn't enough for Roberts, sadly. In 2004, he got nabbed on animal cruelty charges. Allegedly, the python playing Damien at the time (there were several) didn't eat for months, as Roberts had kept him in a tank and left him there. By the time RSPCA inspectors discovered Damien, it was too late and the snake died shortly after. Sadly, this is what can happen when someone who hates snakes is in charge of one.

The following year, Roberts was arrested on charges of possessing drug paraphernalia, namely a crack pipe. Cops also got him on an outstanding 1999 warrant for unpaid child support. Thankfully, Roberts has kept his nose clean since then, at least in the eyes of the law. Nobody knows what else he's gotten away with except the Snake himself.

Finally saved by DDP Yoga

After all he's been through, it's shocking that Jake Roberts isn't dead. In fact, he's thriving, because 60 years of misery was apparently his limit.

By 2012, Roberts was a total mess. He weighed well over 300 pounds and could barely walk. At that point his savior arrived: Diamond Dallas Page, an ex-wrestler whom Roberts had trained back in the day. Not wanting to see his trainer and friend waste away any longer, Page pitched his DDP Yoga program, hoping to get Roberts back in shape and discipline him enough to stay sober. Jake, perhaps finally sick of his old life, gave the program a shot — between that and actually eating real food for once, he dropped 40 pounds in just a few months and dedicated himself entirely to the program. As he told Newsday, "We're changing the oil, we're changing the headlights, we're changing the damn tires, everything. And it's going to be a long journey. But I'm excited."

It's paid off immensely, as WWE fans saw for themselves in early 2014. Roberts appeared unannounced on WWE Raw and looked to be in phenomenal shape. He had dropped enough weight that he looked largely like he did in the '80s (minus the mullet, sadly), and appeared lucid as could be. Several years later, he's still in great shape, and is growing back the mullet to boot. It's a sign that, at long last, he's ready to live the good life he's always deserved.

He's beaten both cancer and double pneumonia

As further proof that Roberts is finally healthy, both physically and mentally, he dealt with a pair of setbacks in 2014 that could've either killed him or made him fall off the wagon, but he beat them both and is still around and in prime form today.

Early that year, Roberts told TMZ he had a cancerous tumor behind his knee that would require surgery. But he seemed as optimistic as ever: "If the devil can't defeat me, cancer doesn't stand a chance in Hell!" After surgery and recovery, he was just fine.

Later that year, he became less fine, coming down with double pneumonia because he's a big guy and one pneumonia simply wasn't enough. It was severe enough that he lost consciousness in the hospital several times, but he wasn't interested in dying or giving up. In fact, according to Dallas Page, he cared more about missing appearances or letting down fans.

The Snake's still here, so clearly he beat it. All signs point to Jake's tragic life story being over, and a happier one being told from here on out. Hopefully that story will involve at least a few more DDTs and snakes slithering around the ring before it's done.