Wrestling Cleans Up its Act
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Ask former Hall of Fame professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts what his drug of choice was, and he'll snort a chuckle and respond: “more.” Roberts (whose real name is Aurelian Smith) looks back on those times when he was a superstar, working for World Wrestling Entertainment, and doesn’t know why he didn’t die when so many of his co-workers did, most of whom didn’t have half the problem he did.
“Jake was all about the buzz,” said his longtime friend and fellow wrestler “Diamond” Dallas Page, who was still somewhat new to professional wrestling when he first watched Roberts chew up a half-dozen Percocets in a bar. Roberts told Page he had taken at least 10 pills that day. Page knew that wasn’t all his friend was using, but he also knew the code of wrestling was to mind your own business and keep your mouth shut.
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This isn’t just a wrestling problem. It’s a superstar problem. It’s a housewife problem. It’s everybody’s problem.
“I was just starting and it was my first year, I needed all my faculties,” said Page, who began in pro wrestling at the very late age of 36. “If I was going to take a pain pill, I needed it to work. (Now-deceased pro wrestler) Curt Hennig once said to me, ‘You’ll create more relationships in the bar than you will in the locker room. This is where you bond with your brothers.’”
The early days
Professional wrestling grew out of late 19th century and early 20th century carnivals, exploding into the mainstream when TV became popular in the 1950s, because it was inexpensive to produce and drew big audiences. There was a wrestling company for every major television market, featuring local heroes and villains.
The sports entertainment genre saw a resurgence in the late 1970s and early '80s when Vince McMahon bought out most of these local territories and expanded what would be known today as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) through cable television, which was becoming less of a novelty and more of a staple in American homes.
Suddenly, men who had started out as local celebrities were being seen by millions of people on TV, T-shirts and action figures. It also meant a grueling schedule, both mentally and physically.
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“You’re suddenly making $15,000 or $20,000 a week, so you’re just worried about getting to the next town after your match,” said Roberts. “If you don’t show up two or three nights in a row, you might not have a job and there are plenty of guys wanting your job, so you did what it took.”
During the peak of the “Hulkamania era” in the mid '80s, it was not uncommon for wrestlers—who were (and still are) designated as independent contractors—to wrestle 8 to 10 times per week, often getting only one or two days off per month.
Jim Ross began as a referee and color commentator for regional Mid Atlantic Wrestling in 1974 before moving onto World Championship Wrestling in the '80s and finally the WWE, from which he is now retired after 21 years. He is considered by many to be the greatest ever in his profession. He said while beer had always been a part of the backstage culture, things changed in the '80s as wrestling joined mainstream American culture.
“Everybody had a good run during that time. All of a sudden, guys were making more money than they’d ever dreamed, but they were not prepared to handle their success,” said Ross. "Guys are on the road, making money and between matches looked for recreation. Nobody was looking over their shoulder. It was a peer group looking for a good time. They were television stars, looked good and all of this played into the increase of drug use."
Roberts said drugs were not hard to come by.
“There were plenty of fans. The first time I smoked crack cocaine was when a doctor showed me how to cook it up,” he said.
For Roberts, a second-generation wrestler, the drug use wasn’t enough and his addictions spilled into sex.
“Once you get your name up there in lights, you can pretty much have whatever you want. I had to have it nightly to prove to myself I was a man. Toward the end it was to a point where girls would come up to me and I’d say, ‘Unless you have a friend with you, get away from me,’” he said.
Roberts traces his sexual addiction back to his childhood, when he was molested by his stepmother while his father was on the road wrestling.
“Eventually (the sex addiction) became about humiliation. I didn’t trust women,” said Roberts. “I didn’t like women because I’d been molested and I know somewhere in my head I was getting back at them.”
Non-recreational drug use
While illicit street drugs like cocaine did take a toll on wrestling, everybody who was interviewed for this story said it was other uses that drove most wrestlers to drugs, mainly for pain management and performance or image enhancement.
Terry “Magnum TA” Allen was one of the top stars of World Championship Wrestling. He was being groomed as WCW's top star when a car accident (not related to drugs or alcohol) in late 1986 cut his career short. He stayed in the business as a talent director for several years following his in-ring retirement.
“The thing I watched creep in from the sidelines was the mixture of performance enhancing drugs like steroids and then abusing prescription pain meds,” said Allen. “They started mixing opiates and alcohol and then tossing in performance enhancing drugs and it was that cocktail. The cocktail has a lot to do with the huge number of deaths we saw for a while of guys who were 40 and younger.”
While more than 20 famous wrestlers’ deaths can be directly attributed to drug abuse between 1985 and 2015—with a huge number of suicides or cases of heart disease connected with drug abuse—the true number is likely closer to 100.
These days, professional wrestling features smaller athletes, but in the '80s and '90s, size was king. A wrestler's size directly affected how promoters marketed them. Ross said there was an unspoken truth that bigger was better.
“When you’re working and your basic attire is a pair of boots and tights, your body is more often than not a part of your presentation and your calling card. Unfortunately, sometimes you get guys who were ignorant and didn’t cycle off the stuff and did it all the time. They’d say, ‘I don’t really need to cycle. I’ll be alright,’” said Ross. “How do you come to that conclusion? You’re on the road all the time, you’re having a hard time maintaining your marriage, you’re an absentee father and aren’t paying your taxes on time, but all of a sudden, you’d become a chemist or pharmacist? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Many wrestlers didn’t use drugs for recreational or image enhancement, said Ross, but the physical toll that wrestling took on their bodies drove them to abuse pain medication.
“Some people have a hard time believing because the endings of a pro wrestling match are predetermined, they think nothing in the match is authentic. There isn’t some force beyond gravity preventing you from hitting the mat. If you’re really skilled, you can lessen the impact a skosh, but it’s going to hurt and it’s probably going to hurt like hell tomorrow. And to do it several nights in a row, it’s obvious that you’re going to do some damage to your anatomy.”
Moving from town to town on a daily basis, it was easy for wrestlers to find local doctors who were fans, who would bend the rules on prescription drugs. Roberts, who said he was a regular “doctor shopper,” said there were stops on their touring schedule where the doctors came to them.
“There was a doctor at one place who would literally bring four or five suitcases full of drugs to the building and set up shop in a side room. Then, we’d go in there one at a time and he would give you whatever you wanted and as many as you wanted,” said Roberts. “If there were 20 guys on the show, 18 would stop by this doctor’s room.”
Ross said along with the celebrity aspect, doctors understood how physically and mentally demanding life on the road could be for these wrestlers, and were trying to help guys who needed to work to feed their families. The problem came when wrestlers would find a different doctor to help every day.
“A wrestler says they have back spasms, so they’d get Somas. Wrestlers were taking Somas like they were breath mints,” said Ross. “You had guys who would use the excuse they have a fear of flying, so a doctor would give them a prescription for Xanax. So they’re taking Somas and Xanax and other pain pills, but on top of that, because you’re in different times zones and different hotels all the time and you’re jazzed after a show, you’ve got the problem that you can’t sleep, so all of a sudden, you become a user of Ambien.”
Behind the microphone
Ross was familiar to millions of wrestling fans as the color commentator on the weekly Monday Night Raw television show and monthly pay-per-view specials. Aside from calling the action on those late-evening broadcasts, he also worked during the day in a corporate position as the executive vice president of talent relations with WWE.
While he never engaged in recreational, pain managing or image enhancing substance abuse, Ross found himself dependent on Ambien for around 10 years. He publicly talked about it for the first time with The Fix.
“It wasn’t that I wanted to go out and party. I just wanted to go to bed. It was my job managing over 100 men and women who you saw on TV every week and a lot of them had problems. I was one of the guys they came to, not mention the fact that I was the lead broadcaster in the biggest company of its kind in the world,” said Ross. “I had to be on my game at night and I had to be on my game during the day. I thought the doctors were giving me something to solve that problem.”
Ross said that following many of the live broadcasts, he was so wound up he would have several drinks to assist the Ambien.
“It became almost a ritual having a few cocktails after the show. I might not drink at home all week, but you go on the road to do a live show millions of people are watching and then it’s over. You have to do something—or at least you think you do—to come back down to get to normal so it was alcohol,” he said. “I’d tell myself I was taking the Ambien because I was in different time zones or I was flying internationally and I’d mix it with alcohol to help me sleep, but it was stupid.”
Ross said that he shared the trait of having a massive ego with many of the wrestlers he supervised, but it became clear there was a problem when his body started turning on him.
“Toward the end, I started having massive memory problems and blackouts. I’d wonder if I went to the bank that day, or I’d wake up on a flight and have no idea where I was headed. I felt like I had a concussion, but it was the medication. I was becoming somebody I didn’t like or didn’t want to be and I had a dream job where I couldn’t afford to be that way,” he said.
Once he left the WWE, Ross was diagnosed with sleep apnea. He was given a CPAP machine and quit taking Ambien. His addiction was one of the biggest factors prompting Ross to re-evaluate how he took care of himself. Today, he’s dropped weight, quit smoking and carefully monitors his diet and medicinal intake.
Ross is returning to the broadcast booth as a regular commentator for the first time since 2009, calling the action for the English-language version of New Japan Pro Wrestling, airing on cable.
“I’m probably at a better place mentally and physically at 63 than I was in my 40s and 50s. I couldn’t get into REM sleep for decades and my lifestyle wasn’t helping. I am so thankful I was able to pinpoint my issues. I am much more civil, level-headed and a better human being because I’ve educated myself on everything I put in my body.”
Talent Wellness Program
While promoters may still look the other way in the few small wrestling companies that exist, WWE has become very serious about the health of its talent, implementing a comprehensive talent wellness program over the last 10 years that includes testing its employees for banned substances and carefully monitoring their legal prescription medication intake.
Though critics say the WWE started the program only after many wrestlers were dying as a PR move once the company became publicly traded, it’s received rave reviews from all corners of the industry.
WWE has also lessened wrestler schedules, with the busiest stars wrestling about four times per week—less than half of what they did in the '80s.
“The guys today don’t have that workload,” said Roberts, who said he doesn’t think he would have been able to follow the strict wellness policy during his heyday. “I probably would have gotten fired. We were running seven days a week, three to four months at a time. Our bodies were so beat up and we were so messed up. Thank God it’s a different world for them now.”
Under the program, if a wrestler fails a drug test, they are suspended for 30 days. A second infraction is 60 and a third is termination.
Now-defunct World Championship Wrestling, the last national company to seriously challenge WWE in terms of TV ratings and revenue, instituted a similar drug testing program that at the time did not go over well with many of the wrestlers, according to Allen, who had kept in touch with many of his friends after his retirement.
“The guys looked at it like: ‘Really? You’ve built us, you’ve marketed us, you’ve sold us based on a certain look and you want us to perform this crazy schedule and all of a sudden you’re going to micromanage what we have to do?’ A lot of these guys felt like they weren’t in the Olympics, they were more like Hollywood actors and who knows what some of them have to do to get big for their roles,” said Allen. “They don’t test there.”
Part of the WWE talent wellness program also extends to former employees. WWE sends out annual letters to its current and former performers extending the offer of inpatient rehabilitation assistance—707 letters were sent in November 2014. According to WWE’s website, roughly 10 percent of its current and former talent pool have taken them up on the offer, including Roberts several times.
“They have spent a small fortune doing that, and they didn’t have to,” said Ross, who had to deal with wrestlers while the program was being put in place. “The very strict rules on prescription drugs had to be put in place because some in the medical profession were still bending the rules. I applaud the WWE for what they’re doing.”
A representative for WWE declined to comment for this story, citing the personal nature of the talent wellness policy. However, wrestler Chris Jericho addressed it on his podcast recently, saying: "The testing is real. Everything is very, very strict because WWE wanted to stop guys from basically dying at a young age and wanted to take control of it."
Fellow wrestler Mike “The Miz” Mizanin talked about testing on the “Allegedly with Theo Von & Matthew Cole Weiss” podcast in early January.
“We are tested more than an NFL player, Major League Baseball player or in the NBA. We’re not allowed to have Sudafed. If you have Sudafed, you’re out for 30 days, so it’s legit. The stuff you maybe got away with back in the day, you don’t get away with now,” said Mizanin. “Kudos to the WWE because they took an interest in our health and it’s great.”
“Diamond” Dallas Page found himself in 1999 at 42 years old with a blown-out back, including an L4-L5 vertebrae that was on its last legs. He’d had a great run as one of the industry’s top stars, but his doctors told him it was time to retire.
His wife at the time suggested that he try yoga to strengthen his core and improve flexibility. He was hesitant at first, but within a few weeks he was introducing physical therapy rehabilitation techniques to his yoga workouts.
“I don’t think of it as a pose...it’s a position. I started to add a little bit of calisthenics in there like push-ups, squats and crunches, but I did it as a slow burn movement. I was just developing a workout that I could do for myself, trying to heal my body, and it worked,” he said.
Page returned to wrestling for several more years. Upon retiring, Page fine-tuned his workouts, tossing in a lot of his positive motivational charisma, and DDPYoga was born. It has turned into perhaps the most influential alternative to traditional pain prescription medication with current wrestlers such as Jericho, Mick Foley, Santino Marella and referee Charles Robinson singing its praises.
More importantly, it has helped wrestlers such as Scott “Razor Ramon” Hall, Dustin “Goldust” Runnels and Jake “The Snake” Roberts kick their addictions in a way that nothing else could. Roberts, now long retired and out of the public spotlight, was an alcoholic and daily crack smoker, and weighed over 300 pounds when he moved in with Page and began the program. A documentary crew spent over a year following his progress, which can be seen in the award-winning film The Resurrection of Jake The Snake, which is available on iTunes.
Roberts had been to a myriad of WWE-funded rehab centers, but the combination of activity, healthy diet and positive affirmation offered in DDPYoga was the thing that finally clicked with him.
“His yoga system is him. He lives it, he breathes it, he is it 24/7. Without ‘Diamond’ Dallas Page, I’m dead right now. I never would have gotten clean,” said Roberts. “I had to change my way of thinking. I was such a self-hater. My thinking was always shame-based. I was my worst enemy and I always put myself down. It took time, and I had a few slip-ups, but I’ve been off alcohol for 19 months and never went back to crack.”
Page said Roberts is like a new person he’s just meeting for the first time.
“I didn’t know this Jake Roberts. I’m sure he’s burned out a lot of his brain cells, but you can talk to him and have conversations again. It’s a lot of fun to be around him. It’s pretty amazing that he has done this incredible transformation.”
(For more information on Page’s system, visit DDPYoga.com.)
Not wrestling’s fault
“We always knew that the lifestyle would accelerate aging. It’s really sad because I’ve lost a big percentage of my friends and co-workers from back in the day, but we knew what was going on,” said Allen. Citing other entertainment mediums, most of the people who were contacted for this article fervently defended wrestling. Roberts, not surprisingly, was a little more direct.
"It wasn’t wrestling that did it. Wrestling didn’t stick the crack pipe in my mouth. I did it because I liked it. Blaming wrestling or blaming my injuries that I got wrestling is the easy way out. You do it because you like it, at least that’s how I feel," said Roberts.
“This isn’t just a wrestling problem,” said Page. “It’s a superstar problem. It’s a housewife problem. It’s everybody’s problem.”