Dark Side of the Ring – In the Shadow of Grizzly Smith

I doubt people will be queuing up to review this one, so I figured I’d take it.

For a bit of context, as a kid I didn’t know that Jake Roberts, Sam Houston and Rockin’ Robin were related, nor did I know that their father was Grizzly Smith, the fairly benign, friendly-looking old man who would come out and break up fights in WCW in the early nineties. I obviously became aware that the children were brothers and sisters at some point, either via the nascent internet or wrestling magazines, then in the late nineties I watched Beyond the Mat, where Jake was a featured wrestler in possibly the least flattering way possible and under the influence of crack cocaine he shared the details of his birth and some of the personal tragedies he’d experienced in his family life. That seems light in contrast with this episode.

Jake Roberts is used as the entry point for the episode, with clips of his awesome promos and antics, including hitting the DDT, before revealing his wrestler siblings, Sam and Robin, then also revealing his dad, Grizz, and non-wrestling siblings, Richard and the late Jolynn. He talks about how there was no closeness or strong love between him and his family growing up, which Robin and Baby Doll, who looks like she time-traveled from 1985, put down to engineering and manipulation by their father. Corny, in a minor role, talks about how wrestling has often been a family business because of the trust element in keeping the secrets. but the Smith family are an exception to that standard.

Corny goes on to say that Sam Houston, real name: Michael Smith, was the best wrestler of the lot. Sam seems under the influence of something given his way of speaking. Robin is then credited as a great female wrestler, which is put down to being trained by Nelson Royal, so her style looked stiff. Richard Nabors, the slightly younger full brother of Jake, talks about how wrestling was never something he wanted to do because he didn’t want to travel or have the lifestyle, whereas Jake, whether he admits it or not, did.

Jake’s unique style is discussed, with it all being mental and verbal in his case rather than athletic or physical. The Snake persona was very apt. Richard talks about how Jake’s nickname as a kid was… Buster. Jake then shares again how becoming a wrestler was an attempt to impress his father, who he shares the same real name with (Aurelian – “Now you know why I chose Jake!”). After having the shit beaten out of him nightly in the ring and almost crawling back to the dressing room, Grizzly told him he was ashamed of him and would never amount to anything, so he rededicated himself to being more of a star than his dad ever was (which he achieved) and “breaking it off in his ass”. Grizzly would tell other people later that he was proud of Jake, but never would tell Jake.

Grizzly’s origin story is told, where he was a massive guy who worked in the oil fields and would make more money on a Friday with a bet that nobody could make him double over with a punch to the gut. This drew the attention of wrestling promoters, where he was featured as a giant hillbilly. Archival clips show him working as stiff as possible. Sam saw him as Superman, whereas Richard was traumatized by the physical injuries he’d endure. An old interview with Grizzly reveals that his own father would pretty much beat him up at will. Jake describes how his dad carried this over by kayfabing his kids and thinking that the guys that followed him around the territories for programmes were trying to kill him.

In the seventies, Grizzly retired from wrestling and became a road agent and management. Corny met him in the mid-eighties for the first time and recalls facetious remarks about him in the locker room along the lines of “I wonder where Grizzly is! I bet he’s got some little girl on his lap, reading her bible verses!”. He didn’t know the context for it and found it strange, but didn’t really question it. Baby Doll refers to him as a good mentor for advice on how to become a star, so she shared a car with him a lot. She also ended up marrying Sam, whose propensity for drinking is mentioned later. What she didn’t enjoy about those road trips were the stops to pick up teenage girls, who would actually be waved off by their parents. She didn’t find out until after he died what that was all about.

Jake talks about the difference between Jake and Aurelian. Aurelian is a hurt child who he put away fifty years ago, whereas Jake is someone he now can respect (“Jake is OK as long as you having him handcuffed!”). Jake’s mom was thirteen when he was born as Grizzly raped the daughter of a woman he was seeing. Grizzly did have two more children with the same lady: Richard, who was passed out to Grizzly’s brother and his wife because they couldn’t have children, and Jolynn went to lots of places (“She spent TOO MUCH time with my dad, if you know what I mean.”). Jake was left with his grandmother until she died.

After that, Jake moved in with his dad and his new wife, the mother of Sam and Robin. Jake talks about how she basically sexually molested him too. He tried to tell his dad, but she cut him off and later beat him mercilessly with a coat hanger. Robin is asked about this, but says that she doesn’t know much about it and suggests if it was true to it might’ve been something Grizzly made her do for his own gratification. She talks about her own sexual abuse by her father, which began with a month of him acting very distant and angry with her, before bringing her in one day when her mother was out and telling her that he loved her, making her feel better, then began a process of abuse that lasted for six years. She felt immediately stripped of innocence, self-respect and self-esteem.

At fourteen, Robin told her mom about it and they left Grizzly. At fifteen, Robin saw her father and confronted him and told him she’d shoot him with his own gun if he ever did anything to her again. Shortly thereafter, she received a visit from Jolynn, who wanted to talk to her about something and asked questions about whether she felt safe, which suggested that they’d both shared the same sexual abuse experiences. Two weeks later, she disappeared.

Richard, Sam and Robin had been at a roller disco when they received a call from their dad telling them to get home. At home, Grizzly had left a note revealing that Jolynn had been kidnapped. Richard put his fist through the wall because he was so close to her and she’d finally, after a long time of hardship, was happy and had a young child and a home with her partner. Texas police chief Carl Gage, who looks straight out of a movie and a cross between Willie Nelson and Red Bastien, talks about how unusual the kidnapping was for their area.

The manager of the trailer park Jolynn lived at had seen her abducted by two men, leaving the baby behind. She was a big girl, so it would’ve taken two people at least because she would’ve fought back. Jolynn’s partner revealed that his ex-wife had been sending threatening letters to them recently, which immediately made her a suspect. The police found evidence in her car (Jake has previously revealed that it was Jolynn’s blood) and arrested her, but she wouldn’t admit to it or reveal where she was, claiming ignorance. The police searched EVERYWHERE, even having a psychic come to them and claimed she was receiving messages from Jolynn beyond the grave and that she might be in a well. They never found anything, so a murder charge was out, instead seeing her on trial for kidnapping.

During the trial, Grizzly insisted on being the only one to go to court, missing wrestling matches for the first time in his life. Jake was self-medicating to get through the days. The evidence was overwhelming, but without a body or a witness to a murder they couldn’t get her for that. She was sentenced to thirty-three years and served seven. Grizzly apparently took piano wire to court with the plan of garroting her if he got close enough, so they always had him surrounded by guards at all times. Chief Gage’s personal theory is that the kidnapper used the incinerator at the place she worked at to dispose of the body.

Robin talks about theories on why the kidnapping occurred, including it being an attempt to hurt or expose Grizzly. Richard wanted to go to Unsolved Mysteries with the case, but Grizz put him off. Robin wonders if it was because it would shed light on him. Richard somewhat backs this up, because he would like to say that he saw his dad bawling his eyes out over her death, but he never did.

In the aftermath of the death, Jake became a very hateful person and he used that as the Snake. He wanted people to look at Damien, not him, when he became a star. Robin enjoyed success as the ladies champion in the WWF. Sam was a very good worker, but too skinny. At one point they all worked together in the WWF, with Grizzly also there as an agent, but it didn’t bring them any closer together. Richard talks about how success destroyed Sam, because as mentioned before his drinking was colossal. Baby Doll thought she could change him, but she couldn’t.

After retirement, Robin received a visit from her father, who brought a young girl with him who was about nine. He asked Robin to make her a beverage, but she said she didn’t have the ingredients to make it with. He retired to bed, but Robin stayed up all night with the girl and worked out from subtle questioning that Grizzly had been molesting the girl. In the morning, he got up and told the girl they were ready to go, but Robin told him that HE was going and she was staying right there and being returned to her parents. With little resistance he left her behind.

Back to Sam, he held the record for most DUI sentences in the state of Texas, but had received little punishment beyond fines, community service and a day or two in jail. Grizzly used his extensive connections to get him off for a long time, but eventually his luck ran out. Corny brings up the question of if they CAUGHT you doing something more than twenty times, how many time have you gotten away with it? Baby Doll talks about how the Mothers Against Drunk Drivers investigated his record, so he was potentially looking at thirty years. He tried (obviously unsuccessfully) to hang himself in prison as a result.

Jake says for twenty years the number one thing in his life was coke. He talks about the bizarre sexual experiences he got into, mostly as an observer with women doing stuff in front of him. Heroes of Wrestling is cited as a low point, but there were stories for years about him fucking up, which he felt ashamed of.

Robin talks about her alcoholism, which stemmed from her childhood. She considered her childhood ruined, but kicked herself out of it by vowing to not let her father’s influence ruin her adult life.

Grizzly died in 2010 aged 77 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Richard, who had been given up for adoption by him as a child, was his sole carer. He tearfully recalls arriving just as he had died. Sam was in prison at the time too. Jake thought that his death would bring an end to some thoughts he had, but it didn’t. Grizzly never showed any regret or remorse for what he’d put all his children through. Sam doesn’t seem to fully appreciate what Robin went through because his idolization of his father was so strong, and Baby Doll talks about how everyone knew that so went out of their way to avoid tarnishing his legacy. Sam would’ve forgiven him and Grizz would’ve manipulated him into thinking it wasn’t his fault. Richard didn’t receive or expect an apology either, but he says he was the luckiest one out of the bunch anyway, so it wasn’t needed.

The Smith family have talked to one another following Grizzly’s death, but they’re still estranged. They talk optimistically about reuniting, but none of them seem to have an idea of how to and hope doing the show will help that. Robin encourages any victims of abuse to speak out, which is supported at the end of the show by Jake and information after the show.

The Bottom Line: Probably the heaviest episode of the entire series, with several moments that would take all the breath out of you. Different things can be said about the contributors. Richard and Robin offer the most valuable stuff. Jake talks up a storm as usual, but it could be written off as Jake being Jake. Sam just seems completely burned out and as the example of oblivious devotion to his evil father, who to him was the most important person in his life. Corny and Baby Doll could come up for criticism as people who had insight as outsiders who did nothing, but I think that speaks for the culture of the time as much as anything else, and are redeemed by speaking pretty candidly where the family can’t. Carl Gage is presented initially as eccentric because of his appearance as a local yokel Texas cop, but that’s shed within seconds when you realise his frustrations with not being able to get the murder charge applied that rightfully should’ve been.

Is it an essential episode to watch? Yes and no. Yes because it’s a high quality programme that deals with a very difficult subject in a mostly decent way, with wrestling taking a massive step back to discuss the family situation, but no because it is upsetting and I wouldn’t want people to be affected adversely by it. So, I leave it to your choice to as to watch it or not based on my reporting of it.