When Jake Roberts turns to the camera, he is already mid-rant, scorn coloring his voice. An earring dangles from his left ear. His deep-brown mullet sits on his shoulders. His scowl pierces the screen.
In front of a blue backdrop dotted with the WWF logo, Roberts tells Hulk Hogan his sinister plans for when they meet for the world championship in Winnipeg.
The Snake is frightening, a mad hunter sharpening his Bowie knife for everyone to see. He is thoroughly convincing as a villain, a sadist, a man capable of not only dethroning Hogan but doing him great harm.
It is a masterful verbal performance from a man whose career brimmed with them.
Roberts is the rare wrestler who has a longer list of all-time great promos than matches. Rather than shout his threats to his opponents over the years, he would placidly tell them the terrible things set to come their way. He displayed a seething intensity coupled with a rich word-stock that outshined the usual straight-ahead trash talk we normally see in wrestling.
When fans think of his best, they often think of him bemoaning “the muck of avarice” ahead of facing Ted DiBiase at WrestleMania VI. Or else, we flashback to him in ecstasy as he recalls smacking Miss Elizabeth.
His speech leading up to a 1987 WWF World Heavyweight Championship clash with Hogan deserves to hang in the same gallery as those classics.
At this point, The Hulkster was still the promotion’s alpha. He was in the third year of a reign that would last until 1988. He was the face of the company, in the main event of the first two WrestleManias, his mug pasted on ice cream bars, action figures, cartoons.
On the house show circuit, Hogan collided with Kamala, the Ugandan Giant for much of the year. Roberts stepped in to take on the WWF champ, once in Rhode Island at the end of January and soon after in Winnipeg. In Roberts’ promo before that second title bout, he began by talking how powerful Hogan was before letting his disgust and disdain for the man take over.
“You ain’t nothin’ special to me, man,” Roberts spat. “You’re a piece of flesh. When I step into the ring, I look at that man across the ring from me and I say, ‘Well now, that’s my dinner. That’s my meal.”
This imagery of him devouring his foes, of his bloodthirst deftly played up his snake gimmick without hitting the audience over the head with it.
Roberts then laid out his desire to win the WWF Championship. To this point, the wins and glory he’d experience no longer satiated him. He talks of the world title like it’s a source of lifeblood, an object that will quench him, that will complete him.
And with just a few sentences, Roberts makes us believe that he has the power to seize the belt that Hogan has held for so long.
“Everybody in the world would like to have that, but few men can take it,” Roberts said. “I can take it. I’ve shown you that. I have a way to do it.”
His finishing move, the DDT, is the key to his plan. The Snake expertly talks it up, selling it as a Sword of Damocles hanging over Hogan’s head. Displaying his trademark black heart, Roberts reminds Hogan and the audience of a recent attack when he laid him out with the DDT.
“How big were your arms when you were left lying, huh?” Roberts said.
Knocking Hogan out and/or taking his WWF title wouldn’t be enough, though. He wanted to toy with the hero’s heart, to drum up fear, to leave a series of psychological scars.
“If you plant grass, you grow grass,” Roberts explained. “If you plant rice, you grow rice. I plant fear and fear will grow.”
This is where Roberts was able to stand out among the cavalcade of characters that have populated wrestling. There has been no shortage of baddies and bruisers, but Roberts was more than that. He was a dark force that would haunt you before and after the bell.
Despite heel after heel falling to Hogan during that stretch, Roberts made you believe he would be the one to end The Hulkster’s reign. His oration told us he was exceptional and that this match on a house show in the Winnipeg Arena was going to be a necessary experience for us all.
“Just when you thought it was safe to go out at night there’s the snake and the snake’s hungry and he’s going to take what he wants in Winnipeg,” the challenger said in a picture-perfect closeout.
Armed with ominous imagery and that smoky, disquieting voice, Roberts sold us on his latest quest for blood, as he did time and again. He invited us to be haunted, to fear for Hogan’s safety, to expect suffering on a grand scale.
Forgive yourself if you watch that grainy footage and grow unnerved.